Kate and Laura Mulleavy are a pair of 21st-century alchemists, only they work with textiles instead of base metals (though they’ve been known to work with those, too). The founders of Rodarte are also gifted artists, whose primary medium has them bridging the gap between fine art and fashion. They have work in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with solo shows at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, they’ve brought their sister-act to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has just unveiled its newest addition to the early Italian Renaissance wing of the museum: Rodarte’s Fra Angelico Collection, a series of nine flowing gowns that look like they could exist as part of a 15th-century fresco, just as easily as they could be worn on a red carpet.
Kate and Laura graduated from UC Berkeley — Kate, with a degree in Art History, and Laura with a degree in English Lit. (Their dad earned his doctorate in Botany at UC Berkeley, too.) While neither Kate nor Laura has the fashion-school background that supposedly makes for a “successful” name-brand atelier, it didn’t keep them from launching Rodarte in 2005, named after their mother’s side of the family. “I think our biggest insecurity or worry was that we hasn’t gone to fashion school,” says Kate. “We were kind of maneuvering through the dark to figure out how to do it.” But as their collections developed over the seasons, the two realized that their absence of technical training liberated them, thus becoming an asset.
“A collection, for us, is about this process of creation,” says Kate. And in order to create their most recent collection, the sisters went to Florence, where they were inspired by the frescoes of an Italian monk at the abbey of San Marco. Rodarte’s series of ethereal gowns are definitely reminiscent of the elongated and statuesque figures in the paintings by Fra Angelico, the collection’s eponymous artist. “They have this deep, beautiful, vibrant color,” says Laura, “but they’re chalky-looking, so we wanted to play with fabrics that had that quality.” The subdued hue of each gown allows for the shape and form of the body to come through without the garment overpowering it.
The sisters also wanted to use delicate fabrics to create volume — a complicated task inspired by another Italian artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. “He almost defies gravity,” says Kate, “We’re working with such soft materials, and trying to create volume with a soft fabric has always been very interesting to me.” Rodarte hand-pleated many of the dresses, while also fabricating a type of corset for the garments to help support the exterior illusion of volume and weightlessness.
“If we distilled it to the essence of what it is,” says Kate, “it’s about somehow trying to communicate something. I think the magic part of that is not really knowing what it is. And so, everything that you do, you’re trying to get closer to that. I don’t know if you ever really end up finding that or not, but it’s that process that’s exciting.”
Click through below for additional photos of the Rodarte designs currently on view at LACMA.
Cantaloupe pleated silk, draped silk georgette, and taffeta gown with gold ray belt (detail), 2011, Fra Angelico Collection, promised gift of Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy) (Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)