Fashionable freedom

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sister team behind the label Rodarte, are the reigning queens of the fashion scene, with a white-hot runway reputation, industry accolades and red-carpet fans.

NEW YORK — Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sister team behind the label Rodarte, are the reigning queens of the fashion scene, with a white-hot runway reputation, industry accolades and red-carpet fans.

You wouldn’t know it to talk to them, though.

The sisters are about as low-key as you can get. They live and work in Pasadena, Calif., far from the politics and personalities of the industry. And that, says Laura, gives them a freedom they likely wouldn’t have if they were based here in one of the world’s fashion capitals.

“There is less pressure to be involved in industry things, and it’s easier for us to keep our train of thought,” she says. “We kind of like being isolated.”

On this day, they’re hanging out in jeans, sweatshirts, New Balance sneakers, no makeup. It’s a few days after presenting their well-reviewed, highly conceptual fall collection based on late-night shift workers on the Mexican-American border. Never mind that the prestigious Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum was throwing a party in their honour later that evening to celebrate an exhibit featuring their work.

The inspiration for the fall collection came during a road trip through Texas, listening to ’50s music on the satellite radio while driving late at night.

There was a haunted, dreamlike quality to the experience that spoke to both of them. At any moment they were expecting to see the broken-down truck by the side of the road, the light coming from the diner in an otherwise desolate town and the young women who largely man the factories just over the border.

They tried to mimic that ethereal darkness on their catwalk.

“The girls were ghost creatures removed from themselves,” explains Kate. “The collection was a product of admiring ruin and then renewal.”

You might guess that the Mulleavys spend a lot of time in their two local art museums: The Huntington, which, to them, represents both the dreams and despair brought on by the local railway culture; and the Norton Simon Museum. Many of their fall looks were crafted sitting at a table in the Norton Simon’s cafe.

“Being in California, we have a connection to where we grew up, and it’s so diverse — from Death Valley to the Redwood Forest,” says Kate. “Every one of our collections has California in it, and that makes us unique.”

Rodarte’s handiwork and complexity is impressive, especially for being such a young design house, says Gregory Krum, Cooper-Hewitt curator. Their mantra is that destruction is not an ugly thing and that produces very sophisticated, artistic clothes, he says.

“They respond to texture and chaos — chaos in a sense of all the crazy things that happen that you and I could never recreate, but they do and make it work,” he adds.

Kate, 29, and Laura, 31, cite some atypical influencers, including Japanese horror films and the plight of the California condor.

They seek out things that are imperfect, explains Laura, because “perfect” just isn’t interesting enough; it doesn’t seem real.

You want to talk “real”? Kate and Laura don’t have the handlers that many other top-tier designers rely on for day-to-day tasks. They answer the door for retailers and reporters. They get their own lunch. Laura slips out from an interview to check on their plane reservations back home.

They spend their free time watching movies with friends.

Neither would wear many of the fashion-forward styles that are Rodarte’s bread and butter.

“Maybe I’d wear the knit cardigan,” Kate says while looking at the racks of feminine lace-draped dresses in wallpaper prints from the new season. “I think it’s all beautiful, but it’s not all stuff I’d wear because that would be too limiting.”

Laura might be a little more adventurous, but not much more so.

They almost always agree on everything — save Laura’s distaste for seafood — although their approach might be different. Laura has a clear vision of something and can form a plan to make it happen: “I am very decisive and can get it done.”

Kate, meanwhile, is the more talkative one who fleshes out the ideas and sees the big picture.

“We never thought about working together — or about not working together. It just happened. It was meant to be. When we left Berkeley, we knew whatever we did, we’d do together,” she says.