Rodarte Lands in Washington

by Catherine Trifiletti

Art, cinematography, nature and light inspire a curated exhibit of the designer’s work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Ashley Davis, Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy and Winton Holladay at the opening reception for the Rodarte exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. (Photo by Bruce Allen)

When the National Museum of Women in the Arts asked principal patron and couture addict Christine Suppes for advice on putting together its first fashion exhibition more than two years ago, she talked organizers out of using a non-American designer. Suppes focused instead on celebrating Kate and Laura Mulleavy, two young sisters from California she has known ever since they conceived the fashion brand Rodarte 13 years ago.

Christine Suppes. (Photo by Bruce Allen)

At last night’s Washington Life-sponsored opening reception for the luxury fashion brand’s retrospective, Suppes, clad in a sparkling jumpsuit from the label’s most recent collection, pointed out that these two strongly individual and spirited young women best represent the values of the museum.

The exhibition, a first for the NMWA, provides a visual deep-dive into the designers’ careers, encompassing 94 garments from their oeuvre. It is broken up into themes that guide the spectator through a broad range of motifs that inform the Mulleavys’ work, from film to natural landscapes. Curator Jill D’Alessandro (curator of Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) hopes that visitors will experience the galleries in the thematic order she produced, starting from the Mulleavys’ early designs, which feature dresses with chaotic draping, fringe and intricacies that imitate thoughtful wearable art. D’Alessandro worked closely with the pair to choose looks that represent their philosophy. “They specifically wanted to share the individual pieces that resonated with them personally—those collections that offered insight into their creative processes and worldview,” D’Alessandro explains.

Exhibit curator Jill D’Alessandro.

The Mulleavy’s story is atypical of the big-named designers who have been the faces of fashion over the last several decades. The sisters grew up in Northern California and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where their respective tracks were art history and English literature. The daughters of a botanist and artist, they both developed a unique lens into the world of design, feeding their interest in fashion by reading books, watching movies and—most importantly—following their imaginations.

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(Photo by Bruce Allen)

After graduation, the sisters put together their first collection of ten hand-crafted pieces. They came up with the name of their brand by adding an “e” to their mother’s maiden name, pronounced Rodar-tay. Their inaugural trip to New York in 2005 resulted in a Women’s Wear Daily cover feature that launched their careers. Now their high-fashion pieces are favorites of Kirsten Dunst, Cate Blanchett and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few of the countless celebrities and notable figures who have donned their wares.

The seemingly unleashed quality of their work undoubtedly originates from the sisters’ lack of traditional training. The pieces, some more ready-to-wear than others, express individuality and a freedom from traditional design tropes.

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In the “Magical Beautiful Horror” gallery, they disrupt classical feminine silhouettes with a dark Gothic edge using cobweb-knits and tangles of fabric. Their costumes worn by Natalie Portman in the Academy Award-winning film “Black Swan” are also on display. There are more literal interpretations in the “Light” section of the exhibit where iconic characters and scenes from “Star Wars” are screen-printed onto long silk gowns.

The retrospective culminates with “The Garden” from Rodarte’s Spring 2018 Resort runway show in Paris. Flowers get top billing here with the oft-underrated baby’s breath getting it’s due. The selection of garments reflects the ethereal ethos of Rodarte to a tee. Pieces are inspired by nature and elevated by dream-like design and detailed craftsmanship. D’Alessandro expects that visitors will appreciate “the incredible details and workmanship that goes into each creation.” Meticulous embroidery positioned against flowing silhouettes offers insight into the sisters’ mind-set.

In press material for the exhibit, Kate Mulleavy summed it up perfectly: “We are attracted to imperfection and to beauty and chaos.”

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; Nov. 10 through Feb. 10, $10.

View exclusive photos from the November 8 reception HERE.

(Photo by Bruce Allen)

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