By Lesley M. M. Blume
At first glance, Rodarte’s designs might not summon images of Los Angeles, where the fashion scene has long been synonymous with yoga pants and denim cutoffs. But Rodarte’s rapid, almost astonishing ascent seems like a tale that only Hollywood could have conjured. In 2005, California natives Laura and Kate Mulleavy famously turned up in New York City with a lavishly creative 10-piece collection, earning them a Women’s Wear Daily cover and support from the heaviest hitters in the industry, Bergdorf Goodman among them.
Since then, Rodarte has been worn by superstars like Michelle Obama, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. The Mulleavy sisters have also collaborated with members of the creative intelligentsia (Benjamin Millepied, Frank Gehry and Gustavo Dudamel among them) on films, ballets and operas, and they are directing their first feature film, starring Kirsten Dunst. Yet despite their status as serious American fashion auteurs, they’ve long resisted the almost gravitational pull to New York City, the industry’s center, and remain fiercely loyal to the City of Angels.
Still, anyone who deems the Mulleavys quintessential California girls is missing the point. To be quintessential, you must be symbolic of a larger trend or group, and there is, in fact, little about Laura and Kate or Rodarte that resembles anyone or anything else, in L.A. or elsewhere. They are sublimely idiosyncratic. Yet, they say, California and its infinite variety of landscapes and experiences are integral to Rodarte’s uniqueness.
“California is just so ingrained in us,” Laura says. “In an hour, you can be in the desert, or on the beach, or in the mountains. It’s always been the thing we go back to. Nine times out of ten, in our collections, there’s an influence that came from being here.”
Lately, she and Kate are not the only creatives drawing inspiration from California. L.A. has become furiously trendy: New Yorkers are decamping here in droves, and designers from around the world are setting up shop in and around the hills. Tom Ford has shown here. Hedi Slimane lives here. The Rodarte designers were forerunners in this phenomenon, but they say that they do not feel infringed upon. “For a while, there was a stigma associated with Los Angeles,” Kate says. “It’s great that people like L.A. now. In the ’70s, there was a huge moment for L.A. and its fashion culture. I think that’s happening now too.”
Not surprisingly, however, the Mulleavys have a highly specific take on their city. There is nothing trendy about their world. While the hipster hoards flock to Venice Beach and Silver Lake, Laura and Kate live in Pasadena, a suburb in the Valley and one of a handful of grand old-L.A. neighborhoods. In the hills above stands the Mount Wilson Observatory (mtwilson.edu), a source of endless inspiration to both designers. “This is where [astronomer Edwin] Hubble discovered the universe is infinite,” Laura explains. “It’s incredible to know that happened there.” There are smaller-scale wonders close by as well: In the mornings, the ladies often walk over to The Huntington Botanical Gardens (huntington.org), where magnificent palm, camellia and succulent gardens are testaments to California’s almost impossibly diverse flora.
And while the Mulleavys are prone to brunching at cool new restaurants, their dinner tastes have remained decidedly classic. “I’m happy to have bacon-wrapped dates or nouveau things like that, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty simple,” Laura says. “I like a steak and a cocktail.”
For such fare, her go-to is The Tower Bar (sunsettowerhotel.com) in the Sunset Tower Hotel, a 1931 Deco landmark that survived a threatened demolition and went on to become one of the most teeming hot spots in town. “That’s our standard,” says Kate. “[The maître d’] Dimitri makes going there the most fun ever.” Also at the top of their list: Musso & Frank Grill (mussoandfrank.com) in Hollywood, where one can practically feel the Old Hollywood history. Laura and Kate especially love sitting in Marilyn Monroe’s booth—the third on the left side of the main room. “They make the best martini in the city,” says Laura, who sometimes uses the restaurant as a de facto office.
They also have an appreciation for kookier historic dining destinations, such as Atwater Village’s Tam O’Shanter (lawrysonline.com), a 90-year-old faux Scottish pub in a Tudor-style building, and The Old Place (oldplacecornell.com), a onetime general store whose aesthetic is perhaps best described as “pioneer chic.”
For more glamorous fare, they head to Chateau Marmont (chateaumarmont.com), which never seems to lose its status as the citadel of celebrity dining. “It’s the best people watching in town,” says Kate. In L.A., the ladies explain, there’s less of a culture of street-style statement dressing. If you want to see fashion here, you go to Chateau. “It’s the fanciest situation in the city,” Laura says, “and it’s always so interesting to see what people wear when they do dress up here.”
The Mulleavys visit more blatantly urban pockets of L.A. as well, including Downtown L.A., arguably the site of the city’s most rapid gentrification in recent years. New hotels, restaurants and bars seem to appear daily; Brooklynites and Lower East Siders would feel right at home dwelling in its towering skyline. Yet it’s managed to retain its quainter aspects, such as Caravan Book Store, a beloved antiquarian bookstore where rare editions are rung up on a 1930s cash register and wrapped in brown paper. “It is a beautiful gem in the middle of Downtown,” Kate says. Nearby stands the Natural History Museum (nhm.org), where the Mulleavys adore the Gem and Mineral Hall. Its yellow-light-bathed halls contain 150,000 specimens, ranging from rubies and emeralds to meteorites.
It’s probably not surprising that the gems hold such allure for a duo renowned for clever accessories. The Mulleavys recently upped the ante by showing their dreamy Fall Collection—dominated by ruffled and embellished lace dresses—with statement floral accessories created in collaboration with Joseph Free, their go-to florist.
L.A.’s art scene is also booming. Always popular: exhibits at The J. Paul Getty Museum (getty.edu/museum) and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (lacma.org). But LACMA’s next-door neighbor proves just as fascinating to the Mulleavys: the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum (tarpits.org/la-brea-tar-pits). As advertised, the main attraction is a group of tar pits containing fossils of L.A.’s ancient inhabitants. “It’s so crazy to think that millions of years ago, it was such a different landscape,” Laura says. The place fills them with the same sense of awe as the observatory near their home. And just think: New Yorkers used to snicker that L.A.’s only cultural advantage was that you could make a right-hand turn at a red light. How things have changed.
Lesley M. M. Blume is a journalist, author and biographer. She divides her time between New York and Los Angeles. Her latest book is Everyone Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises.
Photo Credit: Gal Harpaz