Rodarte Sisters Burn Fabric For Fun, And Other Facts From This Week's New Yorker

Amanda Fortini's profile of Kate and Laura Mulleavy — the Pasadena sisters behind Rodarte — examines the duo's relationship with middlebrow fashion bible Vogue. You know, the magazine that made them subsist on 1,300 calories a day for four months.

Fortini's piece contains lots of information about the Mulleavys — Laura waitressed to fund their label while Kate sold her first pressing of the Velvet Underground's debut album, Kate carries a canvas tote with Proust's picture on it, their father is "a botanist who identified a new species of fungus" who now serves as their business advisor — without necessarily managing to convey who they are. Despite amazing access, Fortini somehow fails to pierce the mystique that the sisters project. (Fortini refers to it, using Anna Wintour's words, as their "naïve façade," but if it is in fact a construct then it is perhaps more truly something like obscurantism, rather than naïveté.) It's strange to spend 5,000 words with a profile subject and still feel unacquainted with them; it's not that the piece is bad, it's just strangely flat, given it concerns two women who like to talk about infinite space.

The sisters are dreamy, Gothic, and shy. (Fortini describes Kate speaking through her hands, her voice shaky, at a business meeting.) Their parents once lived in an unheated cabin in a California redwood forest; they burn fabrics, for fun:

Laure pulled a sample of sea-foam-green polyester from the from a little heap near her feet.
"I hate that," Kate said sourly.
"Me too."
"Like, why do they even make it?"
"Should we burn it?" Laura wanted to know. "Who has the lighter?" She got up and walked a few feet to the bathroom with the sea-foam-green bit in her hand. The chemical smell of burning polyester wafted through the studio. "Stinky," she said. Back in her chair, she rooted around on the floor until she found a scrap of silver lamé.
"I hate that," Kate said.
"It's awful. Let's burn it." She held it away from her body and and torched it with the lighter. The edges of the fabric began to flicker and curl. As the flame seared through the material, it left a scorched lunar landscape in its wake.
"Cool," said Kate.

The clothes these women make are defiantly weird, with a vividly expressed arts-and-crafts aesthetic I happen to love, and $25,000 is a standard price for a dress. So how did two fashion outsiders obsessed with Japanese horror movies (one collection had garments that were supposed to look like they were bleeding, or "covering a seeping wound"; It took a month to perfect a technique for spattering the red dye) end up being BFFs with Vogue? Fortini reports that the sisters have been mentioned in that magazine's pages dozens of times in less than five years; tacked up in their downtown Los Angeles studio is a note from Anna Wintour, thanking the Mulleavys for sending a bouquet. Wintour is a regular feature at Rodarte shows, and her influence has undoubtedly helped the Mulleavy sisters earn some of the prestigious fashion awards (the 2009 year's women's wear CFDA award among them) that seem to be a main source of their income.

The first time Wintour met the sisters, at a private viewing of their first collection in early 2005, Laura says, "She told us, 'What you're doing is very personal. You should keep it that way.' Which I think is the best advice we've ever received from anybody." Any designer, especially one lucky enough to be in Wintour's good graces, would be wise to choose her words carefully when talking about the editor, but does it strike anyone else that "keep it personal" is kind of weak, as advice goes?

And there are other "downsides" to being BFFs with Vogue. For the April, 2008, "Shape" issue, Wintour asked the women to consent to a four-month weight-loss regimen. The result was an article that used excerpts from their diet diaries to chronicle how they had "lost weight without losing themselves." The 50 lbs they shed between them they have now mostly gained back. Asking them to publicly lose weight seemed like a bit of a frenemy move.

In fact, the sisters' weight brings up another issue they are eager to discuss: the idea that, as Kate puts it, "if you're a woman designer, you must be designing clothes for yourself." Certainly, many observers are quick to pinpoint the "hypocrisy" of women fashion designers who are themselves overweight, but who do not produce clothing in larger sizes; it is generally true that no such criticism extends to male fashion designers for daring to create clothing they cannot wear. In the sisters' case, they don't tend to dress to represent their line at all: they have a kind of typical-fashion-insider anti-style, which involves a lot of practical black and grey and t-shirts. When asked if she ever wears the six-inch Nicholas Kirkwood heels she puts on the catwalk — shoes that have downed even models who walk for a living — Kate laughs. "Are you kidding?" (Someone alert Maria Cornejo.)

Kate makes a good point. Why should the sisters' bodies be part of the discussion of their work? Maybe it ought to be enough that they expand fashion's vocabulary, and make the kind of enticing clothing previously only half-dreamed of by excessive readers of Edward Gorey.

Twisted Sisters [New Yorker]