Woodshock: The Rodarte Sisters Talk About Their Childhood
As I watch the hallucinogenic image of Kirsten Dunst wandering in woods where the mighty trees rise to infinity or end as cut-down trunks, I think of my conversation with the Rodarte sisters in California. It served as a prequel to the Woodshock movie.
“Our parents lived in Humboldt County – they both went to undergrad there and they lived in, literally, a cabin in the Redwoods with no running water,” said Laura Mulleavy who, with her sister Kate, is behind fashion house Rodarte and the horror movie which has just had its New York premiere.
The disturbing story of Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), who works in the Humboldt woodland area as a supplier of medically approved cannabis, sees her spiralling into violence and madness, after helping her terminally ill mother smoke a spliff designed to end her life.
But the subplot of the movie – the destruction by timber suppliers of the magnificent ancient trees, the tallest in the world – seems more in tune with the Mulleavy family’s story.
“Our dad went to Berkeley to get his doctorate and his mushroom stuff and then they ended up in Santa Cruz,” the sisters explained. “Our parents were very classic California, especially from the 1970s period.”
“It’s interesting, when I got older, I realised both of them were very artistic,” Laura continued. “Dad is obsessed with things you almost can’t see with the human eye. It’s so funny for my Dad to talk about what we do because he has such a detailed eye. Mom has an eye like that too, but different just because she was an artist, so she was always making panes or mosaics or all kinds of things. She did these amazing wall hangings and she would make all the dye from turmeric. We were always watching her do these things and that was juxtaposed with being in an area which had so much visual stimulation: characters that lived there and such beautiful landscapes. There was a lot of old growth Redwoods, by the ocean. And it was kind of magical because with dad we were always around botanists. We basically grew up in other people’s greenhouses.”
“That’s probably why we have these memories of it – because it’s such a magic time, that version of childhood,” she continued. “It stays with you.”
The Mulleavy sisters, now 37 and 35, lived until their teenage years in Santa Cruz. After absorbing the back story and viewing the movie, I understand more about the fashion development I have seen through the Rodate shows for over a decade.
As well as a strong sense of nature, there had always been a suggestion of horror movies in the dark side of the clothes – literally, in the case of splatters of red ‘blood’ on delicate hosiery – and always with the feeling that there was an underlying and often unsettling ongoing story behind any expression of pretty, innocent clothing.
Surprisingly, the costumes for Kirsten Dunst, designed by the sisters with Christie Wittenborn, did not seem to carry the kind of mystery or irony of the fashion designs – unless you count throwing a white cashmere sweater smothered with bleach into a washing machine. Kirsten appears to sleep, eat and live in pastel coloured tops.
Kate pulled out a photograph of the sisters in childhood dressed for Hallowe’en, the clothes made by their mother and with cat Merlin at their sides. “We were convinced that he was really the wizard from The Sword In The Stone,” the designer said. “Everything we make comes from something like that.”
Although the movie is filmed entirely in and around the forest, which becomes increasingly suffocating, the Mulleavy sisters explained the influence of another place on their fashion collections. The Santa Cruz boardwalk has featured strongly, as well as ever-present images of mermaids and the watery wonders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
From Santa Cruz came tie-dye gowns as a riff on the motif they grew up with; long shorts that hung low on the hip, worn with trench coats; and sweatshirts, which they wore “every day of our lives on the beach”.
“I saw the aquarium and, my god! It was so pretty,” said Kate. “I told Laura that it was even prettier than the most beautiful Chanel couture. It’s like nature that grows on these things. So we said, why don’t we tell the story of The Little Mermaid but we’ll set it more in Monterey? And we made things that were all about fish net. We put real sand in the clothes in that collection which was really fun when we sold it in stores! It was more of a nod to the nature where we grew up. Sometimes your personal impressions of things from your earliest point of existence, even unconsciously, affect you.”
I thought back to the most recent Rodarte show dedicated to flowers in Paris in July. And also, in relation to the Woodshock movie, the wood prints in the spring/summer 2011 show inspired by California interiors from their childhood.
The other movie in which the Mulleavy duo found a role was Black Swan in 2011, a psychodrama of a fight between two rival ballerinas. It featured a deranged Natalie Portman and costumes suggesting ragged birds. But costume designer Amy Westcott claimed that the fashion designers’ role had been overblown.
Woodshock grew from the desire for the sisters to control their own movie and it was their choice alone to focus on Northern California, with Humboldt County seven hours’ drive north of Santa Cruz.
“We knew that we wanted to do something about Redwoods because what comes into your mind is what affects you from childhood,” said Kate. “Being around those trees had such a huge effect on us. To film there is so spectacular. When you see Kirsten laying on that tree trunk, it is a real trunk, not something we just went and made. These trees are the largest living organisms on the planet. If you look up, they’re taller than the Empire State Building. It’s just unbelievable. But it was a real challenge to figure out how to capture the essence.”
The movie was written over two years between 2012 and 2014 and filmed in the summer of 2015 – with a fashion show in New York right after and then the constant editing of the film. It was not so enthusiastically greeted by the critics when presented at the Venice Film Festival in September. The reviews from the New York debut are just now coming in.
The sisters seem undeterred by criticism, as they always have been by reviews to their shows. “I love fashion so much and I think people stand up for it because it’s true,” says Laura. “Fashion that’s transcendent has so much thought and ingenuity and I think it is bad to take that away from designers to make it so systemised.”
“Look at the music industry now and the truth is that we cannot pretend it didn’t change,” she continued. “It is a huge conundrum what’s happened to the artist in the music world and I sometimes look at fashion in a similar context.”
The Rodarte brand is niche – or to put it more bluntly, minuscule, with just two shows a year. And the duo is not convinced that even with a larger team that they could raise their output, with Laura saying, only half-jokingly, “I don’t think I could come up with four good ideas in a year.”
“Yes, you could!” said Kate. “I don’t think that that’s the issue. It’s more that you can’t work to a system. I’m just trying to support creativity and I think for people to have expectations that you’re going to put out that many shows a year and each is going to be brilliant – that’s not possible.”
So, what is the future for Rodarte? To extend their fashion brand? To move full-time into movies? Or to try and balance the two – which Tom Ford seems to have managed so successfully.
Let’s hope, for fashion’s sake, that the duo never think of leaving the fashion world. But the movie itch has started again. I asked if they planned another movie.
“Well, we’ve already started writing it,” they chorused. “You have to because once you’re done, you’re just like – it’s definitely an addictive process. It’s so many great feelings.”