Rodarte’s Exhibition Arrives at the National Museum of Women Artists of D.C.

Vivienne Nosti

The Mulleavy sisters make a splash at the National Museum of Women Artists of D.C. with their latest Rodarte exhibition, showcasing an array of pieces influenced by their love of literature, art and cinema.

An exhibition of Rodarte, the luxury brand created by the Mulleavy sisters, has stormed the National Museum of Women Artists in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of Women Artists was founded in the sixties by Wilhelmina and Wallace F. Cole Holladay from their personal art collection. The Holladays’ began to address the problem of women’s inclusion in the arts by collecting works created exclusively by women over the next 20 years. In 1980, most of Wilhelmina’s energy and resources were devoted to the creation of a museum that exhibited female artists, and the Holladay Collection became the nucleus of the permanent collection of the institution.

exhibicion de Rodarte
Rodarte, Spring / Summer catwalk 2009; Courtesy Rodarte; Photo © Dan & Corina Lecca

The Museum of Women Artists, also known as NMWA for short, was established in 1981 as a private non-profit museum. In its early years, the museum was run by teachers at the Holladay residence, where special exhibitions were presented. In 1983, the Museum acquired a 78,810-square-foot historic building in Washington, D.C., near the White House. The building, which had previously functioned as a Masonic temple, was restored following the highest standards of design and architecture for museums. Its inaugural exhibition, American Women Artists, 1830-1930, opened in 1987. The exhibition was curated by the now deceased Dr. Eleanor Tufts, one of the most important feminists and art historians in the country, and was a great success. On November 10, 2018, NMWA opened its doors to host its first fashion show in its 30-year history with an exhibition of Rodarte, the luxury brand founded by Kate and Laura Mulleavy.

exhibicion de Rodarte
Kate Mulleavy (left) and Laura Mulleavy de Rodarte; © Clara Balzary

Rodarte’s exhibition, which has been impeccably curated by Jill D ‘Alessandro, curator of Textile Art and Costumes at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts and a Fulbright Scholar, was organized after holding talks with the Mulleavy sisters for more than one year. The space was designed by architect Rafael de Cárdenas, from the New York architectural firm Architecture at Large. The architect’s vision for the exhibition of Rodarte is brilliantly manifested in the invisible frames that give the clothes the appearance of floating, which immerses the viewer both in space and in the sensitivity of the visionary designers.

A Brief History of Rodarte

Despite Kate and Laura looking very different from one another: Kate with brown hair; Laura, often- blonde. They are often confused for being one instead of two independent designers. Both attended the University of California at Berkeley. Kate studied Art History of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while Laura specialized in Literature. In all other aspects, the sisters seem to merge their passions into their collections with influences of literature, art and cinema that they have cultivated over the years. As an example, the sisters studied and watched a variety of horror films to complete a graduate exercise. Her mother, who was obsessed with Hollywood movies, often gave her daughters a week off from school so they could watch a long marathon of Hitchcock movies. The girls father a mycologist, instilled in them a love for nature, which would go on to leave a lasting impression. In fact, Kate and Laura grew up near Redwood, California, where their grandfather, a retired military officer, took them to explore the woods for hours when they were small. Nature is a theme that appears in many of their first collections and has been a great source of inspiration that is manifested in textures and intricate patterns present in their work and reminiscent of the bark of Redwood trees of their childhood.

Pieces from Rodarte collection
An array of pieces from Rodarte’s collection

Rodarte, which is a name of Spanish descent, was taken from their mother’s maiden name (Rodart). Their story began in 2006, when the two young women, who never received a formal education in fashion design, put together their joint savings of $ 16,000 to create 16 unique dresses that later led to the Women’s Wear Daily offices. The fashion editors of the publication got such a good impression with these designs that they featured them on the cover of the magazine. This in turn allowed them to meet with Anna Wintour, the acclaimed editor-in-cheif of Vogue, who according to them, has given them the best advice they have received to date, by telling them to continue keeping their work extremely personal. The rest as they say is history. Rodarte has been on the cover of Vogue countless times, and all kinds of celebrities – from Maggie Cheung and Michelle Obama to Hollywood royalty like Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore – have worked with the Mulleavy sisters. Kirstin Dunst was the first celebrity to wear their designs during the red carpet of “Spider Man 2,” 12 years ago. The photos of Dunst wearing a Rodarte dress, instantly catapulted the sisters to stardom in the world of fashion and haute couture. Now, wearing or having a Rodarte dress has become a definitive status symbol.

The Mulleavy sisters have kept the wise advice of Anna Wintour and have diversified at their own pace and in ways that allow them to develop artistically. With barely 13 years of professional experience, they have already done everything, starting with the design of costumes for the film “The Black Swan,” by Darren Aronofsky, where they dressed the dual character Odille / Odette played by Natalie Portman. They also designed for Portman a beautiful plum colored evening dress that the actress wore during the 83rd Oscar awards, where she accepted the Best Actress statuette. Shortly after that, the designers of Rodarte received a special mention for the costume design of the film at the Critics’ Choice Award.

Costume from the Black Swan on display at NMWA
Costume from the Black Swan on display at NMWA

The designers have also created costumes for two productions by dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied of the New York City Ballet, and have also designed costumes for the Don Giovanni of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in collaboration with the legendary architect Frank Gehry, who made the stage design. After that the Mulleavy sisters decided to follow the lead of designer Tom Ford, who made his first foray into film with the film “A Single Man,” and began to write their own film called “Woodshock,” in 2011. This film began shooting in the summer of 2015 and was backed by producer A24, which produced the Oscar-winning film, “Moonlight.” The actress Kirsten Dunst was chosen as the protagonist and also participated as an executive producer. The rest of the star-filled cast consisted of Joe Cole, from the Peaky Blinders series, and Pilou Asback, who acted as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. The film, whose excerpts can be seen in the NMWA retrospective, deals with the nature, pain, assisted suicide and mental health of a young woman who lives in the forest of Redwood, not far from where Kate and Laura grew up. The film is a nebulous dream with clear influences from Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers, without neglecting its demanding and perfectionist aesthetic. The sisters were also inspired by their collaboration with Aronofsky, whose films, of a dreamlike nature, explore the psychological journeys of the characters in states of mental disintegration and internal conflict.

The Rodarte Exhibition at the NMWA: A Watershed of Haute Couture

The most recent success of the Mulleavy sisters is the Rodarte exhibition at the NMWA, a retrospective that covers the first 13 years of their career, which is to remain open to the public until February 2019. The exhibition purposes establishing haute couture as a piece of art. Art that is organized thematically by the curator D’Alessandro with titles like “Magical Horror” and “In the Garden,” by presenting all of their work, from their majestic dresses in purple tones with black and yellow accents from the Ombre collection, to their complex elastic drapes of vibrant colors. It also highlights their 2011 collection with digitized prints that allude to films like “North by Northwest,” by Hitchcock, with its Northwest wheat fields, printed on textiles in shades of light blue and faint yellow. In 2012, the sisters were inspired by the pictorial details of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” and, after a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory, decided to create a collection that would mix images of space with the paintings of the famous Dutch painter, in search of the perfect combination between science and art. The dresses of Star Wars also come alive in a very funny and exciting way in this exhibition, while “The Horror Collection” recalls one of the bloody cult films of Italian director Dario Argento. In other collections you can see complex floral designs that include even the smallest of details such as embedded Swarovski crystals. In another room, there are the tutus from the Black Swan on the side of the wardrobe from the Woodshock movie.

Exhibicion de Rodarte
Rodarte, Spring / Summer 2018 catwalk; Courtesy of Rodarte; © Greg Kessler / Kessler Studio

The exhibition of Rodarte shows that the textile work of the Mulleavy sisters is not only haute couture, but is a format that allows them to reflect on the environment, cinema and literature, while considering a myriad of existential questions. The magic of the Mulleavy sisters is transforming fashion into an intellectual quest that is creatively original and stimulating, as well as mysterious and intriguing. Visiting the Rodarte exhibition at NWAM will give you much more to reflect on than just fashion. In fact, it could change the way you think about luxury fashion, so take the opportunity to see this beautiful sample of one of the leading luxury brands, led by Laura and Kate, two human beings that are in a constant state of flux and exploration. I promise that it will change your perception of design. ■

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