Fashion critic

Models walk the runway at the Rodarte fall 2016 show in February at New York Fashion Week — one of the few places you can reliably find the fashion line. (JP Yim/Getty Images)

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 runway 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?


A model walks the runway at the Rodarte show in February. (Catwalking/Getty Images)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, right, in Rodarte, with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) at a Washington party in April. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

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 June 6 in New York. But what exactly is the industry honoring?

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 runway 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.


The Rodarte fall 2015 collection. (Diane Bondareff/AP)

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 a size 4.

Rodarte tends to be sold by special order or through trunk shows. 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 with 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 companies with whom Rodarte came of age have surpassed it by most measures of maturity — without their inventiveness suffering. Jason Wu now has a lower-cost secondary line, and Proenza Schouler has branched out with a lucrative line of handbags and shoes, a free-standing store and a comprehensive e-commerce platform.

The Mulleavys, meanwhile, have thrown themselves into a variety of side projects — designing the costumes for “Black Swan,” directing their own film — that have nothing to do with building the core business. “Fashion is one way to express ourselves,” Kate Mulleavy said in a videotaped Vogue interview, an “interesting amalgamation of all the things we’re interested in.”


Rodarte contributed costumes to the film “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman. (Niko Tavernise/AP)

The Mulleavys, who founded the company in 2005 while living in their parents’ Pasadena 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 Feb. 3, 2005, cover of Women’s Wear Daily under the headline, “Starlet Chic.” The Rodarte creation story casts the designers as outsiders and idiot savants who made an entire industry swoon to their imagination.

“I thought the clothes were beautifully made,” recalls Silver, founder of Decades, the Los Angeles vintage haute couture boutique. The sisters sent him handmade paper dolls “dressed” in their collection, along with a request to meet with him. “There were these feather treatments on coats. They evoked what L.A. originally exported in the 1940s and 1950s. . . . They weren’t doing sweatpants or retro knockoffs. They were fresh clothes.”

He was impressed enough to introduce them to friends in the fashion industry, including Susan Foslien, whose Susan of San Francisco boutique became one of the brand’s earliest retail supporters, though she has since dropped it.

“They didn’t have access to great manufacturing,” Foslien recalls. “A lot of it happened on their kitchen table.”

Rodarte clothes are often beautiful and occasionally jarring. But they are always fascinating and most definitely labor-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. If they were on “Project Runway,” they’d win every unconventional-materials challenge.


The Rodarte fall 2013 collection. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Some of their most accessible work was in their fall 2014 show, which the Los Angeles Times described as “the strongest collection of their career.” The pièce de résistance was a group of silk charmeuse gowns featuring artwork from “Star Wars” — images of R2-D2, Luke Skywalker and Yoda.

But these dresses were never intended for sale — just magazine fashion shoots, museum collections and, perhaps, a walk down the red carpet.

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

Indeed, during a 2010 talk at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, Laura Mulleavy noted that after pricing a complex leather jacket “fairly” — at least in the parallel universe of high-end frocks — it became impossible to recoup the cost of materials and labor. More than a decade after launching their company with their mother’s maiden name, they are still not much beyond “garments you make personally,” as Laura noted in a recent interview on Vogue.com.

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

Laura and Kate Mulleavy are not the first designers to have buzz and acclaim far beyond their financial footprint. Isaac Mizrahi’s fame exploded with his starring role in the documentary “Unzipped,” though the very business it chronicled was not profitable. Reed Krakoff left a successful career as the creative director of Coach to launch a high-end brand under his own name — but dissolved the endeavor after he could find no way forward financially.


Rodarte garments on display at Cooper Hewitt, an exhibit that examined themes of decay and ruin. (Carmel Wilson)

“What appealed to me was their obsession with a few particular things,” the museum director said of Rodarte. (Carmel Wilson)

Still, Rodarte is different. As one New York-based stylist noted, it did not come out of the American sportswear template. The clothes function as artistic currency, meant to inspire and transport viewers to an alternative reality.

“How does one measure success?” muses Bergdorf Goodman executive Linda Fargo. “Is it the volume of your business, or your depth and degree of creative reach and satisfaction?”

Yet, Rodarte’s imprint has been contained. 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. “What appealed to me was their obsession with a few particular things” such as redwoods, California condors or Japanese horror films, says Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt. The museum’s 2010 Rodarte exhibition plunged visitors into the designers’ “brains and the way they think and work,” Baumann says. “We’re all about process, and that’s what was unveiled.”


A dress from one of the first Rodarte runway shows in New York, fall 2006. (Maria Valentino/For The Washington Post)

Like many high-profile designers of their generation, the Mulleavys cycled through contests aimed at supporting up-and-comers. As runners-up in the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund, they were assigned James McArthur, then an executive with Gucci Group, as a mentor.

“We spent some really good time together in Paris and by phone, making sure they were laying the right foundations for their business,” McArthur says. The sisters were “very hungry to learn, super attentive and. . . absolutely keen to develop their business in a way that would offer strong growth prospects while protecting, importantly, their independence and clarity of vision. That’s not always an easy balance to strike.”

“I know they had their sights set on being, someday, big like Chanel,” Foslien says. 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 her Cooper Hewitt talk. “I like simple clothes, but I don’t like to make simple clothes.”


Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. (Autumn de Wilde)

Meanwhile, with their two idiosyncratic collections a year, the sisters seem to have achieved creative satisfaction at a time when many other designers are lamenting the hamster wheel of their professional lives, pressured to churn out four or five collections annually. “Fast fashion has leapt over into luxury; [the industry is] trying to create fast-luxury,” says Foslien. “No one is going to be able to work at that horrible pace.”

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

But should the industry offer the top CFDA honor 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.”