Style and Substance: Rodarte at the New York Public Library

Alexa Rose Steinberg

"We're part of a community of outsiders," Laura Mulleavy tells me, sitting next to Kate Mulleavy, her sister and Rodarte fashion line co-designer. This was just after the New York Public Library event for their new book, Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth, which includes portraits by Catherine of people wearing Rodarte clothes and California landscapes by Alec.

While one could argue that if discussing your book at the NYPL, and a few days prior showing your collection at New York Fashion Week to a crowd that included Taylor Swift and Beyonce Knowles makes you an outsider, the rest of us might as well not exist--there's definitely some truth to what she's saying.

"We live in Los Angeles," she explains. "We're separate from a lot of the fashion world. And so we have affinity for others who aren't really part of the mainstream. Catherine Opie was working with the queer community at the time she started taking her pictures. Alec lives in Minnesota. He's a photographer working outside of the art scene also."

Earlier, during their talk at the library, Kate explained that being fashion designers in L.A. allows the sisters to "create ourselves. We don't really know what others are doing, or what else is going on, and so that allows us to figure out our own aesthetic."

So the Van Gogh prints from their latest show aren't just generic prints that appealed to the sisters--their interest stemmed from looking at the earless master's portrait of his mother at the Norton Simon Museum down the road from them in Pasadena. Close by their studio is the mountain observatory where Hubble discovered the universe was infinite and astronomists observe sunspots. Images of these very sunspots decorate the centers of the Van Gogh sunflowers in their latest collection.

Even choosing to create an art book with Catherine and Alec puts them on a different plane than typical designers whose fashion books showcase the clothes alone. They made the book for selfish reasons, Kate admits, but only in that it allows them "to have a visual representation of what we are trying to do as artists. We are trying to create in the dark, feeling our way through things." The sisters gave Alec a map of places to go in California for his part of the project, to see if he could find the heart of the state that has had such a strong influence on their work; Catherine was charged with photographing clothing from Rodarte's 2008-2010 lines on real people. "I wanted to show the texture of the work and its details," Opie says, to display "the clothing as a still life."

Catherine and Alec didn't see one another's work during the process, but the Mulleavy sisters were amazed by how complementary their photographs were. "My favorite juxtaposition," Kate says, "is the picture of the woman's hands holding the condor egg by Alec next to the woman in the fetal position by Catherine. There's such power in those two images and they're so united to each other and to us."

Earlier, Kate and Laura had discussed (talking as one, as is their wont) how enthralled they were by the condor. "It's this prehistoric animal, like one of the characters in The Dark Crystal. It's ugly and it's beautiful all at once. For a while, there were only six left in all of America. And that became part of our show." Everyone else was concerned about the Bald Eagle when they were growing up, but they preferred the uglier bird, the one no one else was paying attention to. "Their faces are very mangled and scarred-looking," Laura said. "It's like their history is mapped out on their body, as though they are wearing it."

Photos by Maria Liu and courtesy of Black Frame's Tumblr.

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