Catching Up with Rodarte at Pitti Immagine

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Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Pieces from the Rodarte collection for Pitti Immagine, staged in an empty Florentine storefront.

"Florence is the center of the world!" That's not a phrase you hear all that often, at least not since the 16th century, but Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte are never commonplace.

For the art-obsessed twosome who craft clothes closer to couture than Calvin Klein, the rich history of Florence's artistic achievements places it slap-bang in the center of their creative universe. Add an Italian heritage they had never been able to explore before (their maternal grandmother was Italian, and an opera singer to boot) and being asked to create a one-off collection for Pitti Immagine #80 was something of a dream come true. They certainly approached the project full-throttle, taking inspiration from Fra Angelico's frescoed monk's cells at the Convent of San Marco and Bernini's "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa".

Those are somewhat highfalutin' references for a dozen or so dresses, but the Rodarte siblings pulled it off with aplomb. Their static show took place in a disused store—the only dressing was bare concrete, dusty plywood walls, and rather treacherous building-site paraphernalia.

"[Pitti] takes you all around the city and shows you lots of different places. Most people want a palazzo or a garden…we asked for an abandoned storefront," Laura Mulleavy recalled. "But when I saw this place I knew it was just right." Split into individual rooms, illuminated with neon light installations and with dresses suspended from the ceiling, the effect was overwhelming.

"We get to share something very personal here, in a very intimate space. These are special pieces," says Kate Mulleavy—in the understatement of the century. Part museum exhibition, part religious ceremonial, the 10 dresses—crusted with crystal, glittering with hand-forged gold and brilliantly colored in shades of cantaloupe, azure and verdigris—resembled Blessed Virgins ensconced in hillside shrines. Don't get too attached though: The gowns are destined not for store racks but for museum cases, bequeathed in their entirety to LACMA.

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Photos: Autumn de Wilde

Pieces from the Rodarte collection for Pitti Immagine

What you can buy, however, is Rodarte's first monograph, created with high-art photographers Catherine Opie and Alec Soth.

"It's pretty much our entire childhood in that book," Kate said before Laura interjected. "We worked hand-in-hand with Cathy, and with Alec it was like pen-pals." Thus the mix of imagery in the book is explained—Catherine Opie's portrait-sitters wearing Rodarte clothes, and hence the imagery being a portrait of both sitter and clothes; and Soth mapping out California through comparatively abstract photography, documenting the state via a list of destinations provided by the Mulleavys.

Those California images sync with the inspirations behind the clothes—juxtaposing a clump of tumbleweed with a Rodarte mohair gown; or a pair of necking punks, with a rambling-rose covered wall, with an Opie image capturing a pre-op transexual in floral bodysuit and studded shoes from the "Japanese Horror" collection. Opie documents the clothing; Soth, the ideas behind it. But rather than one of those questionable art-meets-fashion monographs, this books strikes you as four artists mutually collaborating toward a single goal.

"I don't think we could design and not know where it's coming from," say Kate. For anyone previously left in the dark, this monograph maps out exactly where the Rodarte sisters have come from. The exciting thing now is where they're heading to for next season.