Taken from the October 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused
Young label Rodarte inspired our “Franken-Fashion!” issue with their mis-matched textures and morbid shades. Here, Laura Mulleavy, the younger of the Rodarte sisters, talks horror chic photography Viviane Sassen interview & styling Katie Shillingford
Cult 80s horror-comedy The Lost Boys, featured teen actor Corey Haim battling a bloodthirsty gang of teenage vampires (led by a bleach-blond, mullet-sporting Keifer Sutherland) in the fictional melting pot town of Santa Carla. In reality, this Californian seaside resort is Santa Cruz, the place where the fashion designer sisters of Rodarte spent their childhoods, with that same boardwalk and fairground for a backdrop. “It’s like a parody of how we grew up,” laughs Laura Mulleavy. “Kate and I laugh about it now, because The Lost Boys was exactly like it is! The Hari-Krishnas, the free punks, the faith punks… then the real punks and gutter punks. The hippies and the yuppies… I remember seeing my first Mohawk when I was little. We were at this movie theatre and I said to my mom, ‘What is that?!’ I must have been about five and I kept asking her about it the whole time. I’m surprised the guy didn’t get mad. It was bright green! I was in awe. But that was totally normal – an everyday thing.”
Kate and Laura chose not to become punks of any shape or form, nor were they inclined to get caught up in the local skater and surfer scenes… or the local vampire gangs, for that matter. Instead, they collected pages from magazines, wallpapering their bedroom with glossy fashion shoots. “Kate always jokes that if you were a girl growing up in Santa Cruz, your brother had a ramp in the backyard. But we didn’t have a brother, and we didn’t have a ramp, so we were totally NOT cool!” Their parents were “super easy going”, as you might expect from products of 50s/60s California. “They were the type of people that were like, ‘Let’s go live in a cabin and not have electricity for a year!’”
Later, the family moved to Pasadena, LA, in time for highschool – then, after studying at UC Berkeley together (Kate studied History of Art and Laura studied English), the sisters moved back home. “In our last year, we thought, ‘Let’s move home and start a company.’ It wasn’t like this big grand plan, although we always knew that we wanted to be designers, ever since we were little.” They taught themselves how, working from home. “My grandmother is an opera singer so we were always around incredible costumes, and Mom just had great California style. She taught us to sew when we were little. I think the first real outfit I made was overalls, and then later on it became more about modifying and customising.”
After a period spent studying horror films, they came up with the idea for a fashion label, and soon after were being applauded by the New York fashion pack. “We were lucky,” says Mulleavy. “We took ten pieces to New York, and ended up on the cover of Womenswear Daily, then we met Anna Wintour. It seems like a fantastical version of what could happen. We had never made anything before!”
Their collection this season is reminiscent of a house in disrepair – layers are peeled back, then patchworked together. The inspiration? “There’s a freeway we take every day called the 110 from Pasadena to downtown LA,” explains Mulleavy. “One day, we saw this huge pile of insulation in the middle and for some reason we started thinking about it obsessively. We kept thinking about a house that had fallen down and been put back together.”
The obsession led the sisters to the work of artist Gordon Matta Clark, whose “building cuts” are site-specific projects where homes are sliced in half, exposing their various layers. “We wanted to create a collection that was textural, and would bring to mind everything from gravel, cement and insulation, to marble, copper piping... anything that goes into a house! We wanted the collection to be a landscape created by construction materials, but we couldn’t help thinking of Dr Frankenstein creating a monster, too!”
Maybe we’re creating for the one character in the horror movie that survives!
The horror genre is an on-going fascination of the Mulleavy sisters. “We’ve always loved it, but we’ve only now realised that it’s starting to come out in our work. When we first graduated from college and moved home, we wanted to save some money, so we watched horror films for like, a year!” They have become experts and Mulleavy’s current favourites include Halloween, Black Sunday and Who Can Kill A Child (which she recently treated her friends to at the weekly horror night she hosts).
The Mulleavy sisters were attracted to the genre by one of the most important gothic novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). “Frankenstein came from a place that wasn’t really the same,” says Mulleavy. “But it has that legacy. Green was an important colour for us because we kept thinking of that pale green-grey skin… The stitching on most of the leather was hand-done to look like sutures.” Even the strapped leather boots bear a resemblance to body bags – “The idea of wrapping something in black plastic is interesting. The bondage, strait-jacket feel came because we wanted it to seem almost claustrophobic, but in the end it looked more like armour.”
Colour is an important part of the design process for the sisters, and this season “Franken-Green” and chartreuse were key. “We often have a particular colour in mind, so we have to dye,” explains Mulleavy. “But we also thought, ‘Why don’t we see if we can marble fabrics?’ So we have done that to our leather and our silk, and everything was hand-painted. We wanted to use chartreuse because of the mohair sweater Kurt Cobain wore on MTV Unplugged. I couldn’t stop thinking of Frankenstein, too – the monster and Kurt Cobain being the same person, totally destroyed by something beyond their control.”
Rodarte hasn’t always been about shabby chic, textured textiles and gothic knitwear. The sisters started out by playing around with cut and silhouette. It wasn’t until spring 2008 and a collection inspired by Japanese anime that they really found their horror-soaked aesthetic. “That fall 2008 collection was all about Japanese horror films – those ones with the girls coming out of the ground with hair dangling in their face,” laughs Mulleavy. “I don’t know if that would translate into everyday life, but I don’t think that’s necessary! I think the people that respond to our clothes have a love of art, film, or music… Maybe we’re creating for the one character in the horror movie that survives!”
As well as budding horror movie heroines, Rodarte’s success is also undoubtedly down to their celebrity following. They have an enviable list of Hollywood starlets wearing their clothes that includes Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley, to name a few. “I feel like the girls that are interested in our clothing have something exciting about them,” explains Mulleavy. “They’re interested in things outside of fashion and film, and I think that translates. If you take a risk on our clothing, then you’re definitely someone we would want to know in real life.”
Rodarte are still a small company, but they are thriving. Perhaps they’re not so different to that infamous bloodsucking vampire gang from Santa Carla, but instead of blood they feed off of experimentation – from the excitement of learning new techniques, charting new fashion territories or just finding a new colour to dye a piece of mohair. Through these tattered, deconstructed, intelligent and very personal creations, Rodarte have given new life to the old – creating clothes that tell a story.
Photography: Viviane Sassen
Styling: Katie Shillingford
Hair: Raphael Salley at Streeters
Make-up: Hirami Veda at Julian Watson Agency
Model: Iekeliene Strange at Select
Photographic assistant: Hugo Timmermans
Styling assistant: Nell Kalonji
Make-up assistant: Nobuko Maekawa
Special thanks: Stephen Ledger Lomas