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The Rodarte Sisters’ Dramatic Return to New York

Category: Fashion & Style,Lifestyle

It was an oppressively sultry Wednesday afternoon, and New York City felt like a sauna. “We’ve had extremely hot days on the West Coast this summer, too, but I forgot how different it is here with the humidity,” said Laura Mulleavy, one half of the fashion label Rodarte. Earlier that week, she and her business partner and sister, Kate, had flown in from Los Angeles, where their label is based, to begin preparations for their first New York runway show in two years.

After an extended hiatus from New York Fashion Week, one that involved presenting their spring 2018 collection in Paris, as well as debuting their first feature-length film, “Woodshock” — which the sisters wrote, directed and costume-designed as a pair — the Mulleavys were back on the schedule. All this, and the recent announcement of a solo exhibition devoted to their work at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, had made Rodarte one of the most anticipated shows this season.

Inside the brand’s temporary studio and office space, on a gallery-filled street in West Chelsea, the mood was buoyant as the designers prepared for their first round of hair and makeup tests ahead of the show. On hand were the sisters’ best friends and the brand’s stylists, Shirley Kurata and Ashley Furnival, also freshly arrived from Los Angeles, along with the makeup artist James Kaliardos, and later on, the hairstylist Odile Gilbert. “We’ve done shows together pretty much since the beginning, so actually New York is kind of fun,” said Kate. “We’re like a big family at this point.”

This season, the Mulleavys would present their spring 2019 collection in the New York City Marble Cemetery in the East Village — a setting as tricky as it was magnificent. With no area to serve as backstage, models would have to prepare at the Orthodox cathedral across the street before crossing over to take their walks. “I would say the harder the show is, the better,” Laura said.

Since launching Rodarte in 2005, the Mulleavys have stood apart from the fashion world with their singular, richly imaginative vision, and their reluctance to follow typical industry convention. Neither sister has formal training in fashion, and the pair, who were raised in California, maintain their small, independently owned label in Los Angeles. Championed since its early years by top fashion editors, Rodarte has received numerous fashion awards and accolades, and the brand’s work has appeared in various museum settings, most recently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heavenly Bodies” fashion exhibition. This fall’s upcoming show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the museum’s first exhibition devoted to a single fashion label, offers a chance for a wider audience to see Rodarte’s couture-caliber pieces up close.

Over time, the Mulleavys have steadily inched away from the industry standard of linking each collection to a defined theme. “We don’t want to say, ‘This is what the show is about,’ ” Laura said over a morning coffee at her hotel. “We used to, but that feels younger to me.” With the show fast approaching, she was getting ready for a day of styling and fitting models into the shows 46 looks: an exuberant collection of colorful gowns and separates embellished with tiers of ruffles, embroidery and floral detailing.

Sunday evening arrived, along with rain showers. The temperature had dropped considerably from earlier in the week, too. Guests arrived in coats and huddled under a sea of clear umbrellas as the lights went up and the first model strode through the gates. A slow drizzle persisted, only heightening the enchantment of the scene. Under the gloomy sky, it was an extraordinary, bewitching sight — not what the two designers originally had in mind, but perhaps better. In the studio earlier that week, Laura had shared a lesson gleaned from her experience directing a film: “You have to be aware of the greatness of the moment and go with the flow.” This was, undoubtedly, one of those moments.

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