Yesterday, I had the pleasure of walking through the Cooper-Hewitt's just-opened Rodarte exhibit. It just about floored me to see that much hand-dyed silk tulle and felt-encrusted knitwear.
Curator Gregory Krum, who showed me around, says he first met the sisters in 2006 or 2007, and "it immediately became clear that they were doing something special, something very different." The exhibit Laura and Kate Mulleavy, set designer Matt Mazzucca, and Krum, who co-curated with Susan Brown, have created is short and sweet, incorporating just 17 runway looks and a dozen or so pairs of the Mulleavys' extraordinary Nicholas Kirkwood and Christian Louboutin shoes.
"This is not a retrospective," Krum stated, carefully. Rather, it's a way to drill down on one theme in the sisters' work — destruction, which they themselves suggested as a unifying concept. It's an interesting choice of word, because perhaps the defining fashion innovation of the last 30 years was deconstruction, which at its best works to excitedly sweep away the accumulated fussiness and the deeply formal nature of fashion design, and replace it with something less rote. But at its worst, deconstruction can be kind of inward-looking — a lot of post-modern self-referential statements about how clothing is made with seams and thread. Destruction is different: while you can see in the Mulleavys' work elements of deconstruction (a visible seam hints at the garment as an object that was made, by a person), there's also collage, and evidence of a deep sensitivity to color. Sometimes their creations seem to have more in common with the world of visual art than the world of fashion. "You could use the language of sculpture when it comes to their work," says Krum. "It's very additive." The fact that they did not go to fashion school — Kate studied art history, Laura English literature; both attended Berkley — also articulates itself in their creations. Would a person who spent three years getting taught how to mark the center front and drape on a mannequin at Parsons necessarily think to build a dress like the Mulleavys? It's hard to say, because nobody has.
It's crucial to see the clothes close up, and that's where the exhibit really feels special. These garments are made from fabrics that have undergone treatments for which "distressed" is too weak a word: after careful hand-dying, the designers have slashed them with scissors, processed them with chemicals, torn them with their hands, and burned them with blowtorches. These aren't dresses as statements so much as dresses as questions.
"A lot of American designers are still working under the dream of modernism," says Krum. "Beauty is the goal. It's all about the nicest-looking dress, the most elegant coat." There's a process to this kind of design, and its intentions are purely aesthetic. The Mulleavy sisters "end up making beautiful things, but I don't think beauty is their goal."
Krum points to a black leather ensemble — a mixed-media ensemble, actually, with yarn and straps and puckered macramé and lace, which is standing in a set made to look like a burned-out room. "This looks like it's years of research. Not even in terms of workmanship, but conceptually. You have to think about how long many designers would take to to the place where they could design something like this — and they advance like this every six months."
Yet they don't fall into the trap of making "conceptual" clothes, where "it's all about the process, and the end result be damned."
Krum pointed to the sisters' childhood, with their botanist father and artist mother, as another key to their work. "They grew up with a knowledge of the microscopic — of the tiniest structures that underpin life on earth," he said, standing in front of a group of intricately marble-dyed dresses from Fall 2009. "And I wonder if that's why their work tends to focus on these tremendously complex, tiny elements."