A few years ago, Kate and Laura Mulleavy got some good advice. “We had designed ten pieces of clothing and we didn’t really know what to do with them,” says Kate, 29. “And someone told us, ‘Maybe you guys should go to New York.’” And so they did. After a blizzard-abridged plane ride from Los Angeles and a train ride from Boston, they were in Manhattan for the first time in their lives. Within two days, Women’s Wear Daily had called them in for a chat that would lead to their Rodarte collection being featured on the coveted cover of WWD. Today, having won critical acclaim, industry support, and the 2008 Swarovski Award for Womenswear for their otherworldly designs, the Mulleavys are among fashion’s brightest young stars. After a whirlwind fashion week, Kate (at left in the above photo, with sister Laura, 28, and model Liya Kebede) took time to answer our seven questions.
1. What was the inspiration for your spring 2009 collection?
Our spring collection was really inspired by Robert Smithson and earth or site-specific art. In a strange way, Laura and I were really interested in the idea of looking at works by Smithson and exploring the idea of remnants, so we kind of played with the idea of fossils, of skeletal shapes and silhouettes. And that’s really what we based the collection off of. In a lot ways, it was a mixture between science fiction and site-specific art. I think that the link in our mind was what’s left—this idea of remnants—and we kind of explored that in the show, which moved toward lightness and playing with color, borrowing from different science fiction palettes and this idea of outer space toward the end of the show.
2. You and Laura are both self-taught. How did you gain your design skills?
In all honesty, it’s just a lot of trial and error. We look at what we were doing at the beginning and see how it’s evolved slowly. We work a lot with tulle and draping, and that’s just kind of evolved from collection to collection. We are not afraid of trying new things. We always worked from the very beginning with a small team of people, and we learned a lot from them. I think that we jumped right into the idea of designing, but at the same time, there’s so much to learn every season that the learning process will span our career. We’re always learning. So I think that we weren’t intimidated by that, but we were also really open to knowing that there’s so much that you do have to learn and absorb, so just to take it one step at a time.
3. How does your design process work? How do you work together to go from your inspiration to the finished looks?
Basically, the way we work is that we have an inspiration at the beginning of the collection—for spring, Laura and I were fascinated by and thinking about artists that we really admire and have loved for a long time—someone like Smithson—and just exploring how that art was created after the Apollo missions, and that was the first time that anyone had seen the earth from outside of itself. So there was a very specific kind of moment that we were interested in exploring in the collection and then that brought in different film inspirations, whether it be a film like Donnie Darko or Star Wars. There’s a lot of different film inspirations, and then just different artists. So we tend to work in a very abstract way, and the collection unfolds that way usually. We don’t just center on any kind of literal translation of our ideas. It’s more of a feeling or a moment that we like to capture.
4. Much of your inspiration comes from the worlds of art and film and from other cultures. Are there other fashion designers that have been inspirational or that you admire?
Vivienne Westwood is someone that I greatly admire, because I think she changed the modern eye. Everything readjusted after what she did, so now it’s an aesthetic that people are familiar with. She really came in and did something that was completely groundbreaking and then popular culture had to readjust to it, which is really fascinating. Not many designers can say that they’ve done that.
And then Karl Lagerfeld, he makes one of the most beautiful couture collections. So I would say those two.
5. What was the last book that you read?
In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch
6. What was the last film that you saw?
I think the last film I saw in a theater was WALL-E.
7. And finally, what would you say has been your proudest design moment?
My proudest design moment was probably seeing a dress that we had made in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.