State­ment Pieces

The mu­seum’s first fash­ion ex­hibit is de­voted to Kate and Laura Mul­leavy’s work.

WWD Digital Daily - - Front Page - BY JES­SICA IREDALE

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts show­cases Ro­darte.

The Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has never done a fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion. For its first, it chose to fo­cus on two liv­ing Amer­i­can de­sign­ers who have owned and op­er­ated their la­bel in­de­pen­dently from its in­cep­tion. The ex­hi­bi­tion, ti­tled sim­ply “Ro­darte,” opens Nov. 10 and runs through Feb. 10, 2019, show­cas­ing nearly 100 pieces from 18 col­lec­tions by Kate and Laura Mul­leavy, the sis­ters who started their Cal­i­for­nia-based la­bel 13 years ago.

This is not the first time a mu­seum has come call­ing to fea­ture the Mul­leavys’ work — the Cooper He­witt staged a show on Ro­darte in 2010, as did the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Los An­ge­les the fol­low­ing year — but the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts’ show is Ro­darte’s big­gest yet. Guest cu­ra­tor Jill D’Alessan­dro, who over­sees cos­tume and tex­tile arts at the Fine Arts Mu­se­ums of San Fran­cisco, worked with the Mul­leavys to break down their col­lec­tions into re­cur­ring themes: Early In­no­va­tions, Mag­i­cal Beau­ti­ful Hor­ror, Wood­shock, Black Swan, Tex­ture, North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Roadmap, Light and The Gar­den. The pieces are dis­played in full, orig­i­nal run­way looks with hair by Odile Gil­bert and an in­stal­la­tion by Rafael de Car­de­nas/ Ar­chi­tec­ture at Large.

In many ways, a mu­seum feels like the ideal place to view the Mul­leavys’ work. The dis­plays al­low for up-close view­ing of the in­tense hand­work that went into the clothes and con­tex­tu­al­izes them in a way that the run­way hasn’t, which crys­tal­lizes in the flo­ral-themed Gar­den gallery in which three dresses from their first and se­cond run­way shows, fall 2006 and spring 2007, are shown with 13 other looks all from spring 2017 and 2018. The con­nec­tion is clear. Then there’s the fact that none of the pieces on view were de­signed as ca­sual ev­ery­day wear, a point that seemed to es­cape at least one at­tendee at a press pre­view on Wed­nes­day. “I’m not fa­mil­iar with Ro­darte, and I don’t think it’s for me,” she said, be­fore ask­ing an­other guest, “What about you? Do you have a closet full of Ro­darte?”

D’Alessan­dro said the NMWA chose Ro­darte for its first foray into fash­ion be­cause it con­sid­ers the Mul­leavys cut­tingedge, and their col­lec­tions have touched on themes suitable for an artsy au­di­ence. “When they’re in­tro­duc­ing fash­ion, they were re­ally in­ter­ested in de­sign­ers that deal with the same sub­ject mat­ter their au­di­ence is used to see­ing in art,” D’Alessan­dro said. To that end, there are five dresses from the spring 2012 col­lec­tion in­spired by Vin­cent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and sun­flower paint­ings, as well as the Hub­ble tele­scope.

The Mul­leavys have been asked if they con­sider their fash­ion art be­fore and it makes them bris­tle just a lit­tle. “This is a ques­tion that peo­ple have asked us for a re­ally long time and I don’t think we ever come to a land­ing on it,” said Laura. “I can only de­fine what I am ful­filled by in fash­ion. Fash­ion for me is self-ex­pres­sion and about cre­at­ing nar­ra­tive. I think it’s a very artis­tic process. I think the peo­ple that make in­cred­i­ble fash­ion are artists. I don’t con­fuse the idea of say­ing ‘fash­ion is art’ as the same thing as you think you’re a painter and you’re mak­ing fine art, and you go to an auc­tion and it’s go­ing to be in­cluded with Van Goghs and Pi­cas­sos.”

Ask­ing if fash­ion is art seems to im­ply that it isn’t. “Why is de­sign, par­tic­u­larly fash­ion de­sign, talked about as the lesser of the de­sign worlds,” said Laura. “That’s be­cause it’s fem­i­nized and put into the fe­male space, even though there aren’t that many women who have risen to the top of our in­dus­try and are idol­ized. It’s such a con­fus­ing di­a­logue be­cause I don’t think peo­ple ques­tion prod­uct de­sign and in­te­rior de­sign as much. I think it’s in­ter­est­ing that it comes up in fash­ion.”

Whether fash­ion is or isn’t art, in this case, it’s be­ing pre­sented as an ex­hi­bi­tion, so what did the de­sign­ers want to con­vey and what do they want view­ers to take away?

“It’s very im­por­tant where it is, which is at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts,” said Laura. “Women in the arts is a very im­por­tant sub­ject. It’s a marginal­ized space…it’s the same in fash­ion so hope­fully that can trans­late and we can have that dis­cus­sion within our in­dus­try. And it’s ex­cit­ing for peo­ple to see the work up close.”

It’s im­pos­si­ble to pick up the de­tails whizzing by on the run­way or two di­men­sion­ally in a pho­to­graph. The Mag­i­cal Beau­ti­ful Hor­ror gallery is made up en­tirely of pieces from the fall 2008 col­lec­tion, wispy dresses in swirled hand-dyed tulle and webby knits that are re­mark­ably con­structed. Kate pointed out that if you look closely, the prints from the Van Gogh­in­spired pieces mix dig­i­tal images of outer space with Van Gogh paint­ings. The lay­out also traces the evo­lu­tion and through lines in their work. After Natalie Port­man wore a dress from the fall 2008 col­lec­tion, she rec­om­mended the Mul­leavys to Dar­ren Aronof­sky, who di­rected “Black Swan,” for which Ro­darte did the bal­let cos­tumes. It was around the same time they were de­sign­ing the beau­ti­fully tat­tered black dresses from the spring 2010 Cal­i­for­nia Con­dor col­lec­tion. “It’s in­ter­est­ing to see what our in­ter­ests al­ready were and how we fun­neled that into projects,” said Kate. There are ex­cep­tions. The fall 2014 dresses bear­ing prints from “Star Wars” are filed un­der Light along with the Van Goghs, but they still feel out of left field.

The ex­hi­bi­tion doesn’t in­clude the Mul­leavys’ very first de­signs or their lat­est col­lec­tion, spring 2019, but it cov­ers just about ev­ery­thing in be­tween. It’s es­sen­tially their full body of work, though they don’t feel they’ve been around long enough to call it a ret­ro­spec­tive. Not all of the col­lec­tions gar­nered crit­i­cal praise and the brand has never scaled com­mer­cially, but look­ing at it all to­gether, there is an iden­tity. “As hu­man be­ings, we just want peo­ple to like us and un­for­tu­nately that’s not al­ways the case when you’re mak­ing things,” said Kate. “The other side to that is that no mat­ter what the re­sponse is, you have to fig­ure out what drives you…I’m the most in­ter­ested in de­sign when I’m fol­low­ing who I am.”

The Ro­darte ex­hibit at the Na­tional Mu­seum ofWomen in the Arts.

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