A Conversation With… Kate and Laura Mulleavy

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Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte

Finishing each other sentences and mirroring each other’s mannerisms, dynamic designer duo Kate and Laura Mulleavy joke they’re really one person. All joking aside, after just a few minutes of talking with the down-to-earth creators of the celebrity favorite Rodarte fashion line, we realize we’ve found genuine ‘Soul Sisters.’

How did you get started in fashion? You both went to college at U.C. Berkeley, with different majors, outside of fashion, and actually dropped out of your first fashion class.

KATE: Laura and I both wanted to go to college together so we went to Berkeley. I was majoring in art history and Laura was an English major. We had a lot of varied interests, but midway through school we both decided we wanted to go into fashion which wasn’t totally out of the ordinary because I started sketching fashion drawings when I was really young; they were some of the first drawings I ever did. So we both signed up for a costume design class together which we both ended up dropping three weeks later. I mean it was crazy. I think that we were very much about doing our own thing and one of the reasons we didn’t finish the class was because we were very specific and wanted to do the things we wanted to do. But it helped us realize we wanted to become designers and we went into fashion design so we could make our own decisions about things and create our own worlds.

After we finished school, we both moved back to L.A., to live with our parents in Pasadena. Laura got a job waitressing and we literally took a year off and watched a lot of horror films. We were interested in horror films as a genre and that kind of filmmaking which speaks a lot to fact that when we’re really curious about things we really want to understand it and look at it on multiple levels. I think in a way it’s really indicative of how we work in general. We get really passionate about things and that’s probably a very important characteristic when you’re trying to create a world or a design.

So we took our time to decide what we wanted to do for our first line and our first collection was really small, just ten pieces, and we had no knowledge of the fashion world or how clothes were sold or went into stores. We had no idea how fashion shows worked, we had zero knowledge about it except what we knew about fashion from the perspective of someone who was a fan of it.

And you two always knew you wanted to work together?

LAURA: Absolutely, we’re kind of the same person. We ended up going to college together and we have the same interests. If you talk to one of us alone we are usually are going to tell you the exact same thing. It’s funny, they always split us up at dinner parties and one time we sat next to the guys from Rag and Bone and they worked together as a partnership as well, and when Kate and I found each other at the end of the night we realized we talked about the exact same subject matter with them. I thought this is so weird but then that’s kind of how we are. If we’re interested in something, it usually becomes an obsession for six months and we will talk about it incessantly to each other and to everyone else.

Where you always this close growing up?

KATE: Yeah, we were really close.

LAURA: We got in so much trouble. We were always getting in trouble. We grew up in a place where it was all horse ranches and apple orchards; it was really beautiful and then nearby there would be a beach. You could walk to the school bus. It was perfect and we just didn’t ever stop thinking about things or making things up. We were very creative. We made up a lot of stuff. For a while, when we were little, we thought a leprechaun lived in our attic. We were pretty imaginative and I think that translates into what we do now.

KATE: I think, too, part of it was where we grew up. It was this really magical kind of place in the northern part of California. It’s really hard to even evoke that landscape and how overwhelmingly beautiful it is. We grew up surrounded by giant redwood trees. Our Dad was a botanist and studied mushrooms. I look back now, because at the time I didn’t think about it so much because it seemed so normal, but now I see we were so lucky because not only did we have this amazing landscape but we were around interesting people. What was cool was that we lived in a place that was more secluded and quiet, but also at the same time we were in Santa Cruz so we were basically around a lot of different types of people and we were lucky because we had our imagination and we got to live in our own heads, so everything became about what we made it, instead of just what was available to us. As sisters, we were so close, we were always together. We are not far apart in age, we’re only about a year and eight months apart. I’m the oldest. A lot of people think we’re twins. We feel bad when we have to tell people we’re not.

How do you work together when you’re designing?

LAURA: We have a routine. We live in L.A., so we drive a lot in Los Angeles; I think our routine is really talking. We’re very, very talkative, I think we spend a lot of hours talking. If we’re in the office we’re only talking logistics but if we’re driving we’re talking about an idea, thinking about colors and all that. We go back and forth between New York City and L.A., and spend as much time as we can hanging out with our friends, but we don’t really see a lot of people involved in our industry.

You just did a collection based on Australia, have you been to the country?

LAURA: We keep getting asked that and the answer is no! I don’t get the idea of going somewhere and then doing a collection off of it. So everyone is like ‘how did you get that idea?’ and I explain – it just happens. You’re always waiting for that moment to know it’s the right idea for your next collection. When you spend six months working on a collection you have to feel connected to it and be able to talk it out in your head and all the different angles because if you can’t edit an idea and feel like you’re creating a story then you can’t do anything.

So what is the story you’re trying to tell with this collection?

KATE: I feel like one of the cool things that happened while working on this collection was that we had this model in our show named MJ who we really loved. She was from Australia, and when we were backstage she came up to us and said ‘ I can’t believe how much you captured not only the colors but the layers of where I’m from.’ Her mom was actually with her, also from Australia, and she told us the same thing and they were both really affected by it. Australia is such a mythical place for so many people so that’s part of the fun and challenge of trying to do the collection is to capture that. With our collection from Australia and the Outback, we’re combining rugged aspects with things that are femoral and delicate and I think the combo of the two is the balance we need to hopefully get the story across.

You’ve also launched your first shoe line. What was your inspiration for it?

LAURA: Before we do any work on a show, we think about our shoes. We’re really controlling and probably really annoying to work with – probably anyone would tell you that, because we always had very strong ideas for designs in shoes. Anyone in the industry will tell you, the hardest part of fashion is shoe design and construction, so it took us a long time to be able to do that on our own. Now that we’ve launched, we’re doing it slowly and will add more each season and in between seasons.

And one of your new shoes has actual layers of colored sand in the heels?

LAURA: Yes! It’s really exciting because we’ve had this idea for a long time, to do sand shoes, heels made out of layers of sand, but there was never the right moment, but it made sense for this show.

Where did you get the idea for a sand heel?

LAURA: The shoes were basically based off of two things. The first, pocket knives. So we did this really amazing thing where all the soles and heels are all made out of wood and then there are plates of metal that are drilled into them, like a handle of a pocket knife. And the second, is the basis of the sand layer.

KATE: We had the idea for the sand heel over two years ago and I remember talking to Laura and asking if she remembered when we were little having glass jars you poured different layers of colored sand into and I told her I thought we should translate that idea into a heel. Weirdly enough it was one of those things we just sat on. It didn’t go with what we were working on at the time, but when we went to do this Australian collection it was immediately an idea we wanted to explore and I felt like a really important conceptual idea for the show.

"We were very creative. We made up a lot of stuff. For a while, when we were little, we thought a leprechaun lived in our attic. We were pretty imaginative and I think that translates into what we do now."

We saw film great George Lucas front row at your recent show causing quite a buzz and having people speculating if you’ll be collaborating with him on one of his upcoming films?

LAURA: That’s what everyone wants to know! We’re just huge Star Wars fans.

KATE: We are major fans! One of the things that’s really special is to have someone come to our show that we really admire creatively and George Lucas is one of those people. I think he has changed the landscape of cinema and also popular culture and opened so many doors in terms of technology. We were so honored to have him at our show, it was pretty cool.

So what is your process, do you each have specific strengths or specialties?

LAURA: We actually switch. That is our strength. So, if Kate is more organized one day then I’ll be organized another day. So it’s equal. The only thing we separate is that Kate will do all the sketches. My sketches look like scribbles and hers are really beautiful and I’ll drive when she’s doing them (laughs).

So what does Fashion Week in NYC mean to you? This is where the Fairy Tale started.

LAURA: Growing up, I was always mesmerized with this idea of designers and fashion shows just from things I’d see in books or on TV. So for me, when I thought of fashion I thought of New York and New York Fashion Week. Being an American designer that has a huge iconic presence in your mind. What’s so crazy to me is that for our first show in 2005, we came to New York with just ten pieces. My friends came and we all just kind of made up doing a show. One of my friends was like, ‘I’ll help you get models’, another friend would do something else. Now I know these were all major jobs that people have and we were just playing at it, trying to figure it all out.

KATE: I think we were naive. We didn’t grow up coming to New York, we had never even been there. The first time we came to New York was in 2005, when we brought our ten pieces to show at Fashion Week. We must have had a version of New York in our heads like the fantasy you see in movies where people come here from the middle of nowhere and they try and make it. I think somehow that probably helped us because if we had really thought about New York Fashion Week and all the designers and layers of things going on, we probably wouldn’t have been the same, but we just came here and thought we’re going to try.

And now you have loyal celebrity fans like Natalie Portman. How much has that helped your brand?

KATE: We got lucky. The first celebrity we dressed was Cate Blanchett. We never went into this thinking that we want to only dress celebrities; for us it was about making clothes and someone wearing them and transforming in their own life. Whether you’re a celebrity or not a celebrity, or an actress or doctor, we’re just interested in interesting people wearing our clothes. Yes, it’s great when someone wears our stuff and publicly wears it because it brings a different kind of life to what you’re doing. But for me it’s more about making things that transform when different people wear them.

What do you do in your time off, for fun?

LAURA: We like to hang out with our friends and drive and take little road trips, whether it’s a two-day trip or a week-long trip. One of our favorite places to go is New Orleans. It’s like social driving with your friends, where you can talk or listen to music. It’s a test to see who your true friends really are. Can you be entertained for eight hours of driving? We’re lucky; we’re always entertained by our friends driving with us.

What’s the one thing people don’t know about you that you want them to know?

KATE: We’re really family oriented; we’re really close to our family. The most fun time in my life is spending time with the people I care about. The creative part of my life is so linked into that and that would be a nice thing for people to understand. So, for me, that’s part of the reason maybe for living in Los Angeles and being around my family and those kinds of things, because it’s really important to how I work. I need that.

LAURA: (Laughing) What Kate said… Can I just say that? We’re the same.

Photos: Courtesy of TRUNK ARCHIVE

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