A new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts explores the fashion-industry darling Rodarte and the sibling designers behind the brand. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Fashion critic

Despite all the advances in photography and video, nothing compares to seeing the beautifully crafted dresses from the Rodarte fashion label in real life and mere inches away from your inquiring eyes at a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The gowns that fashion fans might have viewed in runway photography, or that celebrity-watchers might have swooned over in red-carpet videos, look far more glorious in person when the hand-embroidery comes into focus, the magic of a nearly invisible infrastructure is revealed, and the remarkable amount of fabric required to drape, twist and wrap an evening gown around even the teeny-tiniest body becomes clear. And even if a visitor has no particular interest in catwalks or the wardrobes of actresses, it’s hard to argue against the pleasure of seeing imaginatively conceived garments rendered with obsessive care.

“Rodarte” is the first fashion exhibition mounted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, but the decision to bring fashion into its galleries should not be read as surprising or risky. For all the ways that fashion can alienate shoppers, it can be welcoming to museumgoers who find a universal kinship with what, ultimately, are frocks. Indeed, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” the recent exhibition at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ranks as the most popular show in the museum’s history, with more than 1.6 million visitors, surpassing the former top draw, “Treasures of Tutankhamun.”

A pleated gown on view in the “Rodarte” exhibition. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The plainly titled “Rodarte” is an exploration of one brand. The work is not juxtaposed with other cultural touchstones. No existential questions are posed. It’s simply a survey of a women’s fashion label launched in 2005, whose impact on the broader fashion landscape is arguably minimal at best.

Is the visual pleasure of these clothes enough to justify an exhibition featuring almost 100 direct-from-the-runway looks? Perhaps. It’s hard to underestimate the value of beauty for beauty’s sake at a time when our culture is oozing ugliness.

But do you learn anything beyond the fact that many Rodarte collections have been inspired by gardens and that one collection included fabric that had been burned? Does any piece of the exhibition linger in your mind or reveal some larger truth? Does it pack an emotional punch, if not an intellectual one? If the work of Rodarte is not so much rooted in the realm of fashion but in fine art, is there a dialogue with a community of artists or an attempt to deliver an expansive message? Not really. Aesthetics are the primary consideration. Rodarte is a brand that looks inward. Its preoccupations are personal to its founders.

Rodarte is the passion project of sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, self-taught designers who founded their brand while working out of their parents’ Pasadena, Calif., home. From the first small collection they presented to editors, the sisters have focused on handwrought, labor-intensive techniques. Their trajectory in the fashion industry has been akin to a rocket launch. Within days after arriving in New York during Fashion Week, the Mulleavys were hailed for the inventive, fanciful, complex nature of their clothes. In 2010, they were the subject of a “quicktake” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Last year, the designers wrote and directed “Woodshock,” their first feature-length film. They are exuberantly creative and, as a result, award-winning.

The dominant characteristic of the Rodarte brand is intimacy. The collections are inspired by events and places that have particular meaning in the sisters’ lives: the California landscape, the wood paneling and blue porcelain in their family home, the horror movies that fascinated them. They excavate those memories and use them as building blocks to collections. Often ideas flow in a stream-of-consciousness style. A collection that included references to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was inspired not by the artist, but rather by a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory, not far from the Mulleavy home. The designers’ minds hopscotched their way to Van Gogh from astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Whatever the inspiration, the story of the collections always seem to come back to the sisters. That’s much of what makes their work so captivating. It is so personal that it exists on its own terms, not tied to the ebb and flow of fashion trends. The designers have not fallen under the spell of streetwear, denim or athleisure — and for that, they should be applauded. The Mulleavys’ world exists inside a snow globe, where it is beautiful, fragile and isolated.

The new exhibition is organized thematically, based on inspiration. So it’s possible to explore at length the designers’ willingness to wreak havoc on their materials by burning, fraying, beating and unraveling them. The garden room is filled with dresses adorned with handmade silk flowers, realistic sprays of faux baby’s breath and embroidery that mimics the honeycomb of bumblebees.

Costumes worn by the dancers in the film “Black Swan.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Handmade flowers on dresses inspired by gardens. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Despite the breadth of this show, though, not every collection is represented. There are no garments, for instance, from their spring 2014 collection, which was inspired by Los Angeles and its hard-edge youth culture. It was not a critically praised collection (I was blunt in my dislike for it), yet in a survey of a designer’s work, it’s important to see collections that were not well received in order to better understand what ultimately makes the work soar. Here there are no collection sketches, no rough drafts, no preliminary studies — only the final, perfected end result.

One also wishes that more of the sisters’ fall 2014 collection were on display. The headlines from that season focused on a group of gowns emblazoned with characters from Star Wars. But it also included ephemeral trousers that floated around the body like a cloud and metallic coats with a sci-fi edge. The Star Wars gowns were more gimmick than grand artistry and were not especially adept at illustrating the designers’ complicated relationship with film as both a medium and an inspiration. The Mulleavys, for example, for fall 2011, explored the transformative properties of light in dresses informed by the Terrence Malick film “Days of Heaven.” Their costumes for Natalie Portman in 2010’s “Black Swan,” with their molded bodices and feathers that do not flutter, are a compelling expression of both the grace and pain that propel ballet.

Fashion is, by its nature, a distillation of the times in which it’s created. It’s the culture — or some small part of it — in silk and satin. Placed into the context of a museum, fashion takes on other obligations. It should tell a deeper, more nuanced story of who we are. It should speak to our collective humanity. Fashion can do that. It has done that.

“Rodarte” is a beautiful exhibition. But sometimes, beauty is not enough.

If you go

National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW.
202-783-5000. nmwa.org.

Dates: Through Feb. 10.

Admission: $10, with discounts.