Skip to main content

Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy on Why Anna Wintour Told Them Not to Move to New York

The sisters attended a TimesTalk to promote their upcoming movie "Woodshock," starring Kirsten Dunst.
Laura and Kate Mulleavy. Photo: Griffon Lipson/

Laura and Kate Mulleavy. Photo: Griffon Lipson/

After making their directorial debut at Venice Film Festival, Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy attended a TimesTalk in New York City on Wednesday night to promote the upcoming release of "Woodshock," co-written and directed by the sisterly duo. Starring Kirsten Dunst and hitting American theaters on Sept. 22, "Woodshock" is best described by TimesTalk moderator and longtime New York Times contributor Linda Yablonsky as "Midsummer Night's Dream meets psycho killer." "That's so good," says Laura, which was met with somewhat nervous laughter from the audience.

The film is set in a redwood forest, which stems from the Mulleavy sisters' childhood memories of roaming through their hometown’s woods. "It's a story of looking inward — a story of transformation — the deeper [Kirsten's character Theresa] looks into herself, the deeper she is lost in the woods," explains Kate. "It's kind of a parallel path. The woods represent her mental state."

The fact that these sisters took a professional tip from Tom Ford to venture into filmmaking isn't too surprising. After all, they did spend an entire year studying and watching horror films before they launched Rodarte. "It was the most beautiful creative expression I've had," says Laura once making "Woodshock" had wrapped.

"It's really great product placement for your clothes," jokes Yablonsky. Though, she wasn't far off with her response. Alongside "Woodshock" costume designer Christie Wittenborn, Kate and Laura did create a few costumes for Dunst's role, which were already developed while they wrote the script.

Read on for the highlights of the Mulleavy sisters and Yablonsky's conversation, which you can watch in full over on the TimesTalks Youtube page.

On Their Big Break and Staying Independent

The Mulleavy sisters' first experience with New York Fashion Week was a mix of tears, snow and luck. They arrived in New York in the middle of a blizzard, which caused their flight from Los Angeles to land in Boston. From there, they took a train to New York with only a giant box of clothes — their precious debut collection in tow.

Upon arriving in New York, they didn't show at fashion week. Instead, says Kate, they barely left their friend's apartment in the East Village, but towards the end of their stay, a stroke of luck (and a phone call) brought her and Laura to the Women's Wear Daily offices. They met the entire team, was interviewed and two days later, the designer duo were on the cover of the trade publication. "It was really fast," remembers Laura about their big break.

Since then, they've managed to maintain their brand as completely independent without the help of a major conglomerate financing them through their collections — and the plan is to keep it that way for now. "We've run this company since it started, and it's only existing because we're smart about it," says Laura. "We're very careful. We realize that what we wanted to do with it is to keep it insular just so we can protect it, and say, 'This is our voice.' We're kind of like the guardians of some type of expression and that's important to us."

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Kate and Laura Mulleavy with Linda Yablonsky. Photo: Griffon Lipson/

Kate and Laura Mulleavy with Linda Yablonsky. Photo: Griffon Lipson/

On Meeting 'Vogue' and Anna Wintour's Best Advice

It was Vogue's West Coast Director Lisa Love who arranged a meeting between the Mulleavys, Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and Andre Leon Talley in Los Angeles. When they showed the six-piece collection, Laura says she'll never forget Talley's reaction. After learning that the dresses were inspired by mushrooms (their father is a mycologist), Talley couldn't hold in his laughter. "He laughed so hard," says Laura. "We felt like the craziest people that maybe have ever walked in those offices before."

But the meeting ended up being a success. Wintour and the rest of the Vogue team have been championing Rodarte ever since. Plus, it was Wintour who advised the Mulleavy sisters to stay in Los Angeles, which has helped them stand out among a crowded industry of New York-based designers. "[Anna] said, 'No, I can tell what you do is personal. Keep it that way,'" recalls Kate. "In a weird way, it's the most heartfelt advice and one of the things that's so brilliant about Anna. She cares if you understand your creativity and your vision. She'll care about that. I think if you're wavering in it, then it's not going to be in the realm for her. She wants you to follow your own voice, whatever that's going to be."

On Balancing Filmmaking and Fashion Design

So how exactly did Laura and Kate make full-length feature film and not one, but two seasonal collections at the same time? A lot of hard work, of course, and barely any free time. After pre-production and shooting "Woodshock" for one month in Humboldt County, Calif., they then went back to LA for another month to finish their collection, followed by a trip to New York to showcase it and do sales. After that, it was back to the West Coast to edit the film, but midway through that, they took a month-and-a-half break to design, produce and show their next collection. Whoa.

Though the "fractured state" (as described by Kate) was difficult to maneuver, it only invigorated them creatively. "It almost felt like an amazing thing to stop and take a break and come back," she says. Adds Laura, "It made us better designers because I know it pushed us creatively and emotionally."

On Switching Cities and Showing In Paris

It was the shutdown of their go-to show venue (since 2008) last December that prompted the Mulleavys to think about switching from New York Fashion Week to Paris. And after some encouragement from their show producer Alexandre de Betak, the duo decided to drop out of the traditional fashion calendar format and debut their collections during Couture Fashion Week in January and July. "This is a great opportunity to go farther with our design and to do something more than we feel like we can do in New York," says Laura. "I do know it gave us a kind of like kick-start to say, 'It's okay. Go further with this.' And to make it even more elaborate than we've been doing. It felt really fulfilling."

Laura also added that the French city's fashion sensibility matches how it treats Rodarte, but they will always have a love for New York. "It's important for you to try new things for yourself and to not just be part of a habit," she says. "Fashion design is so complicated and so hard, I would say that to anyone. So if you can make it exciting for yourself, it's worth making changes."

On Not Having a Traditional Background In Fashion and Film

It seems to be more and more commonplace for creatives to find success without having a traditional education in a particular field. Laura and Kate, who studied English and art history, respectively, are proof of that. For Laura, her college degree has helped her find meaning in language and formulate narratives, both in design and filmmaking. "It's almost like you're timid about it; no formal education makes you feel less than someone else," says Kate. "For us and our process, studying other things formed our perspective. I don't think I would have been as analytical and open to learning as I am." Though, she does insist it all boils down to figuring out what's best for yourself. "Everyone is different," she says. "I know plenty of artists and creative people who have gotten a very formal education. You have to find your own path."

Want more Fashionista? Sign up for our daily newsletter and get us directly in your inbox.