Should top US fashion prize go to Rodarte - more passion project than viable business?

Even by the standards of an industry full of ghost garments and catwalk creations that won’t see the light of day, Rodarte, run by sister designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, is an ephemeral presence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:44am

Does the fashion brand Rodarte – winner of industry awards, darling of museum curators, stylistic lodestar of eccentric actresses – actually exist?

It’s an existential question as much as a practical one. The label is sold online, after all, at Shopbop and Moda Operandi. Buyers for high-end boutiques sit front-row at Rodarte catwalk shows with admiring smiles. And celebrities love its idiosyncratic, dark, bohemian aesthetic. Brie Larson wore a Rodarte hand-painted dress to the Tokyo premiere of Room. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was dressed in Rodarte during April’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner weekend. Taylor Swift wore Rodarte on the cover of Vogue.

But fashion brands can sometimes be akin to a shadow, to smoke or fog. You see something, but what? Is it a real business – one that turns a profit from what it promotes, that can grow beyond a notion and have an actual impact?

This is a fine time to ask these questions because the designers of Rodarte, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, have been nominated as womenswear designers of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prize they previously won in 2009. The winners will be announced on June 6 in New York. But what exactly is the industry honouring?

Joyce Boutique soiree for Rodarte puts everyone in the mood

Rodarte is the work of two wildly imaginative designers who dream up impractical clothes. They have a forceful point of view, but there is slight evidence of their commercial growth. Their garments are aspirational and admirable, but for all the plaudits – museum exhibits, a cache of awards, an honorary doctorate for the designers – they have not yet proved particularly influential.

To the extent it exists, Rodarte is a grudging fashion business. The emperor isn’t exactly naked, but he is very scantily attired.

In the glossy universe of fashion, acclaimed companies can bob along for a decade deep in the red. Magazines are filled with ghost garments whose prices are listed as “on demand”. Starlets are dubbed fashion icons based on the free clothes their stylists pick out for them.

And in many cases, critics (yes, me, too) wax rhapsodically about catwalk productions that often turn out to be just an interesting notion. “We’re looking at clothes that will more or less never get produced,” says Cameron Silver, a Los Angeles fashion expert.

In this world, Rodarte thrives.

But Rodarte is not readily accessible. It is possible for an ordinary but well-heeled consumer to walk into a store or log into a website and make a Rodarte purchase – but doing so will be easier if that shopper is no larger than an American size 4.

Rodarte tends to be sold by special order or through trunk shows. US retailer Nordstrom sells it only in its Seattle store. Neiman Marcus sells it solely in Beverly Hills. And instead of delivering four or more collections a year, as other brands do, Rodarte delivers two.

The designers have talked of building a business of global proportions but have held fast to independence and, according to a spokesman, shunned investors. It remains a private, independent company – with no CEO.

The Mulleavy sisters declined to be interviewed for this story.

“I admire their creativity and commitment to their vision,” says Robert Burke, a retail consultant who met the designers when the brand was in its infancy. “But to be relevant and sustainable and large enough to make an impact on the industry, there has to be some business structure.” Rodarte does not have a scalable business plan, Burke says – which is akin to saying that it doesn’t really have a plan at all.

“They value the creative expression more so than the business,” he says.

The Mulleavys, who founded the company in 2005 while living in their parents’ Pasadena, California, home, emerged seemingly fully formed, out of nowhere. Neither attended design school. At the University of California at Berkeley, Kate majored in art history and Laura in English.

When they brought their debut collection to New York, it was their first trip to the city, and their work ended up on the February 3, 2005, cover of Women’s Wear Daily under the headline, “Starlet Chic”.

Rodarte clothes are often beautiful and occasionally jarring. But they are always fascinating and most definitely labour-intensive. The designers are fond of hand-beading, hand-painting, distressing and even burning their garments.

The quintessential Rodarte dress is a collage of eclectic materials assembled in an impressionistic manner to tell a story that only the designers fully comprehend.

Is the company profitable? The designers’ longtime spokesman, Brian Phillips, says that it is. But US$10,000 jackets, US$15,000 dresses and US$2,000 blouses – the garments that have made Rodarte’s reputation – typically do not form the foundation of a business.

Their most widely available and successful products are the “Radarte” T-shirts and hoodies that sell for about US$150. The designers have also done one-off projects for mass-market fashion retailers Target and H&M.

Other designers have had limited sales, but made up for it in influence. Thom Browne’s shrunken men’s suits have made aesthetic ripples throughout fashion that far outpace his financial growth. And despite the confounding aesthetics of Comme des Garcons, countless designers cite its influence.

Rodarte, though, has existed within its own universe.

Like many high-profile designers of their generation, the Mulleavys cycled through contests aimed at supporting up-and-comers. “I know they had their sights set on being, someday, big like Chanel,” says Susan Foslien, whose Susan of San Francisco boutique became one of the brand’s earliest retail supporters. But prices aside, “there are very few people who can wear those clothes”.

Not even the Mulleavys. “I don’t want to wear my own clothes,” Laura Mulleavy said during a 2010 talk at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. “I like simple clothes, but I don’t like to make simple clothes.”

A fairy-tale beginning took the Rodarte designers from obscurity to centre stage virtually overnight. Now, they shun expansion in favour of control.

But should the industry offer the top CFDA honour to a label that aims to be more of a personal creative outlet than a scalable business? Rodarte is nominated this year alongside Joseph Altuzarra, Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler and the Row (helmed by another sister duo, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen) – which are all decidedly more attentive to sales.

Is the best womenswear designer the visionary who works in isolation or the one who alters the business landscape and touches even those consumers who never walk down a red carpet?

“You have to answer to the point of the industry,” Silver says. “That it’s a business.”

The Washington Post