Rodarte Makes a ‘Quick’ Move From Runway to Museum

In the big tents in Bryant Park this past week, some of the biggest fashion designers in the world were getting their New York minute, so to speak, including Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion label Rodarte.

But the Mulleavys are the focus of another (slightly longer) show in New York right now— a new exhibit called ‘Quicktake: Rodarte’ at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The Quicktake exhibit format lends itself to up-to-the-moment design (like another current “Quicktake” on Tata Motor’s Nano car), explains exhibit curator Greg Krum. “It’s a way for us to address very, very contemporary work or emerging designers in a very timely way,” said Krum.

The Sisters Mulleavys started the Rodarte line in 2005 with almost no professional training. Consistently darlings of the fashion world, they have since delivered several intricate, avant-garde, couture-level collections. In 2009, Rodarte won the Womenswear Designer of the Year award, and was a finalist for Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards for fashion. They got their fortuitous break from Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and stoic gatekeeper for the fashion industry, who has been a longtime champion for the two designers. She once praised the sisters’ work for being personal and instructed them to keep it that way.

At Rodarte, their version of personal is fairly eclectic, with influences ranging from Japanese horror films, desert landscapes and wildlife biology. Their most recent collection premiered Tuesday, 2/16 at New York fashion week, and was inspired by a small town on the Mexican-American border where the sisters imagined workers going to work in a sleepy, dreamlike trance. That effect, described by the sisters as “haunted, hazy, melancholy” echoes in much of their work, which has often focused on a less-than-utopian vision of the future.

“Quicktake: Rodarte” is in no way intended to be a comprehensive retrospective, but instead revolves around the theme of destruction in past collections. Even for those familiar with Rodarte’s designs (fashion blog surfers, the lucky few who actually attend runway shows), the exhibit provides an intimate setting to see the work up close and for as long as one likes (not just in the blink of an eye when a model saunters down the catwalk). That access and proximity reveals the many layers (literal and metaphorical) of their work and their world view.

“They see things positively, but it’s a messy, deconstructed sort of thing that they’re after,” said curator Krum. “No fabric for them is left untouched,” he says, describing the processes of manipulation the sisters have employed: sanding, ripping, and burning the clothes before they even construct their designs. “If no technique exists to get the garment to where they want it to be, they’ll just make it up.”

“We want to make people think,” Kate Mulleavy told Amanda Fortini in the Jan. 18 issue of the New Yorker, “and, once you decide to do that, you will have people that won’t like what you’re doing.”

But so far, Rodarte hasn’t had enough detractors to stop them from success on the runway — or in the museum. They even recently designed the outfits for a New York Times Magazine fashion spread featuring a cadre of Olympic athletes.