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How The Sisters Behind Cult Clothing Brand Rodarte Mastered Fashion And Film

With the release of Woodshock, designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy are expanding their empire.

How The Sisters Behind Cult Clothing Brand Rodarte Mastered Fashion And Film
Double agents: Fashion outsiders turned darlings Laura and Kate Mulleavy are once again pushing into unknown territory with their first feature film. [Photo: Ryan Aylsworth; Hair: Sami Knight at Starworks Artists; Makeup: Rachel Goodwin at Starworks Artists]

There’s no such thing as a typical look from Rodarte, the independent fashion label founded 11 years ago by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy and beloved by critics and celebrities for its dark, romantic sensibility. Each garment is a unique mix of hand-altered fabrics, materials, and embellishments, offering a glimpse of the Mulleavys’ seemingly limitless imagination. This month, they’re bringing that same ingenuity to the big screen in Woodshock, a fantastical thriller written and directed by the Mulleavys and starring Kirsten Dunst. Here’s how they are expanding their brand into new mediums.

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Lean Into Your Inexperience

The Mulleavys were recent college graduates with no ties to the fashion industry when they started Rodarte in 2006. Instead of being a liability, the Mulleavys’ outsider status has helped them preserve their unconventional aesthetic, which is the key to their success. One of their early collections, inspired by Death Valley, featured fabrics that were painstakingly shredded, torn, and burned around the edges. In their naïveté, the Mulleavys underestimated how difficult it would be to replicate the look for production. But they made it work, and the collection was ultimately a hit with buyers and stood out in stores. Today, although they’re more attuned to production demands, the Mulleavys continue to prioritize inspiration. “That lack of knowledge leads to something you’ll never have again,” says Kate. “It’s like a strange magic.”

Set Your Own Expectations

When they started writing Woodshock in 2011, the Mulleavys kept the project a secret out of fear that speculation about the film would hinder their storytelling process. “In any industry, there are a lot of rules and guidelines telling you how to do things,” Kate says. “And at the end of the day, we knew we couldn’t subscribe to any of those rules.” It was only after they had established their own vision for the film that they began talking about the project with others. They’ve taken a similarly insular approach to the fashion industry: Despite pressure to move closer to hubs such as New York or Paris, the Mulleavys continue to operate Rodarte out of their hometown of Pasadena, California. “The only way to survive in a creative industry is to have a personal and unique voice,” says Laura. “Realizing that early was important, because it meant that when we had doubts, we knew to follow our instincts.”

Celluloid dreams: The Mulleavy sisters’ debut film, Woodshock, stars Kirsten Dunst and is set in California.

Protect Your Autonomy

Unlike many fashion labels that launched around the same time, Rodarte has remained independent. That’s by design, say the sisters, who retain creative control, free from the commercial expectations of either a parent company or outside investors. Though the Mulleavys have made concessions to marketing their brand to a wider audience (they sell a line of T-shirts called Radarte and a ready-to-wear collection with Coach), they’ve also been able to make more counterintuitive moves. While most major American brands are trying to increase their production schedules to keep up with fast fashion, in January the Mulleavys pulled back the number of shows they do per year, announcing that the brand would not participate in New York Fashion Week in favor of the more artistically inclined Paris shows. The move freed the sisters up to work on other projects while still maintaining the same level of involvement in Rodarte. “If we’re going to do a show each season, we want it to be done on our terms,” says Kate.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion label Rodarte, bring an unmistakable style to their first feature film. [Photo: Ryan Aylsworth; Hair: Sami Knight at Starworks Artists; Makeup: Rachel Goodwin at Starworks Artists]

Look For Like-Minded Collaborators

Building partnerships with other creatives has helped the Mulleavys translate their ideas to the public. Woodshock is distributed by A24, the New York–based company behind indie hits such as Room, Ex Machina, and Moonlight. When the Mulleavys first met with A24 executives, the sisters came away impressed with how the company supports groundbreaking filmmakers with innovative marketing, and its success in taking unconventional stories mainstream. The power of the A24 brand is enough to make certain viewers take a chance on a new movie, Kate notes. “That’s what we strive for at Rodarte,” she says. “Even if we decided to shift and try something different or really out there, hopefully the time we’ve spent building a brand and identity will convince people to go on that journey with us.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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