>> "We were losers," Rodarte's Kate Mulleavy proclaimed to the audience who came to hear her and sister Laura get peppered with questions at FIT in New York Tuesday night. Kate was speaking of the time before she and Laura were designers, and instead were college graduates, sitting at home watching six films a day. Laura eventually picked up a waitressing gig, but as for Kate, she did, in her own words, "nothing." Later, Kate added of their current state: "Technically, we shouldn't even be up here. In a weird way, it's like we had a stream of circumstances where I look at now and think, 'This is so crazy that this happened to us.' But we're probably the least likely people that it should have happened to."
Would they ever design separately? »
But watching all those films actually engendered a skill Kate would use when designing Rodarte's trademark knitwear. "[At University of California, Berkeley] I was going to see films about four times a week, it was for really kind of a crazy class. Finally I was like, I've got to do something, I just can't sit through these films anymore, even though I enjoyed watching them. So I took a knitting class, and this is so perfect: the first thing I ever made was a sweater for some girl's pet lizard."
Laura and Kate's working relationship has often been described as symbiotic; they affirmed as much when asked if being hired to design as individuals rather than as a pair was a possibility: "We won't make these collections if we don't do it together, it's entertwined. We don't sit down and go, 'Oh, you do stack of sketches about jackets, and I'll do dresses.' It [only] works when we sit together."
It also doesn't sound like they'll be severing their relationship with shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood any time soon. According to Kate: "I think working with Nicholas, it's a really good combination for us because we're both younger designers working together; it feels innovative. [The most recent shoe] was an idea I'd had over a year ago, I wanted to do a heel that looks like melted candle wax. I think eventually, we have to move into doing [shoes] on our own, but I feel like, for now, it's just such a great relationship."
In fact, they highly value their collaborations. Of their recent experience designing for Target, Kate noted: "I think it was really important for us to do in a lot of ways. One, [our label is] completely independent, so the reality of what we do is we work 24 hours a day, we're doing our own sales. Every aspect of our business, it's completely Laura and I. We have people we're working with, but part of that is knowing, how do you grow a business if you don't have outside investments. Really important collaborations are very, very vital to a company that's independent. The other side of it was, knowing that it would be a chance to go out of the scope of what we do and see what we're capable of doing."
Though they love designing, they have their frustrations. Kate said of their first runway show: "We would ask for these models who were the most famous models in the world and couldn't understand why we couldn't get them." Laura piped up: "[We were like], 'What do you mean we can't get Gemma Ward to walk in our show?'" And their high attention to detail can be tedious — Kate says of their fabric treatments, which include burning, dying, sanding, and slashing swathes by hand: "That's the thing about us, we always say every season, we'll never do that again, but that's never the way it works."