In three short years, Kate and Laura Mulleavy have gone from scrapping together enough money and resources to produce a collection of dresses to being the designers who the fashion world’s coolest members love to namedrop.
Sonia Rykiel lists the sister act as young talents she admires, Karl Lagerfeld has purchased their clothes, and top magazine editors including Carine Roitfeld and Anna Wintour line up for their runway shows. You can’t get a more ringing validation than that. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of their story is the paradoxical.
They create insanely beautiful, fantastical dresses — from their hometown, Pasadena, where they still with the ‘rents.
“I’m lucky that I live with my parents. Many people have to cut back in this economy. But we’ve scaled back as far as we can go already,” Mulleavy says.
And they actually prefer to wear trousers. “I hope we can get away from the expectation that a woman designer has to design for herself,” she adds.
Mulleavy takes a break from her New York Fashion Week preparations to talk:
Q. What are your earliest memories of fashion?
A. I think I have a few. One is that my grandmother was an opera singer. I remember being in the house and seeing these costumes. The colors were amazing. And Kate would draw these elaborate costumes. It seemed foreign to me but it was so beautiful I was drawn to it. And the other is sitting down and watching old Cary Grant Catherine Deneuve movies with my mother.
Q. Your work usually has an element of fantasy to it. Where does that come from?
A. Well Kate and I were partners in crime when we were little; we were living in a fantasy world. We grew up in a magical setting in northern California surrounded by mustard fields, apple orchards and horse ranches. Everywhere you looked, you could have an imaginary world. We loved The Secret Garden and dressing up.
Q. Your cultural references are always so rarefied, do you have any junk pop culture guilty pleasures?
A. Everything! I love that show Top Chef, although it’s not exactly a guilty pleasure since it’s such a good show. And last season, our collection was about Star Wars too, which could be a guilty pleasure for a lot of people.
Q. You are a favorite of fashion’s major players, yet you don’t seem “of” fashion. How did you manage that?
A. I think it all came about by circumstance, we always wanted to be designers but we chose a different path. We went to UC Berkley. We didn’t study design. We thought do you want to go to graduate school or move back home? The most logical thing was to move home and try to make it work. And we didn’t see the need to move. The distance comes from that.
Q. What is the inspiration for your upcoming fall collection?
We have this superstition where we don’t like to talk about what we’re doing too much before it shows. That way we can be secluded with our ideas and thoughts. But I can tell you that last season was about the idea of a world of remnants — what would be left behind if you told a story about the future. In our world that meant talking about Robert Smithson and Spiral Jetty and literal things like Donnie Darko.
Q. Are there any real life women who you find particularly inspiring?
A. I’ve always loved women like Yoko Ono and Patti Smith and Kim Gordon or Eva Hesse, who defined the last 50 years of art. I love women that have a strong opinion or voice.
– An ensemble from the Rodarte spring/summer 2009 collection. Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers who started the label, are known for their fantastical dresses.