THE HALLUCINATION that haunts an America in ruins is as mythic as ever: From these singed, frayed, distressed fragments, something emerges again, if not in life then as a sort of glamorous undeath, at least for a season. For the fashion-design team Rodarte, devastation always precedes construction. Informed by the postinferno landscapes of Southern California and the dilapidated, foreclosed properties along the 110 freeway connecting LA to Pasadena, by echoes of the Dust Bowl and the horror films they won’t stop watching, Kate and Laura Mulleavy are drawn to the ruins of the present, or to the present as ruin. This past winter at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, on the former Carnegie mansion’s second-floor landing and in what is still referred to as the Billiard Room, seventeen gray mannequins displayed samples from Rodarte’s previous four fashion seasons, during which the Mulleavy sisters emerged as the most acclaimed female designers of their generation.
An abbreviated yet potent survey of their recent work, the show consisted of garments pulled from the designers’ own archive and presented on crude sets devised (by Matthew Mazzucca) to look like half-demolished rooms.
Known for their DIY approach to design (neither sister received formal training in the craft or business of fashion), Rodarte attack materials at the molecular level, devising ways of transforming and combining them into strange, unorthodox complexes—“vinyl birdskin,' “wool cobweb,' “metallic mohair,' and so on—before submitting the results to an intensely labored reconstructive surgery–cum-couture.
The research-and-development phase of their process may involve fraying a material with pinking shears, hand-dyeing it, or burning fabric with acid or a cigarette lighter before elaborating the labyrinths of knit loops, Frankensteinian assemblages, and multilayered architectures that fit on bodies. Sometimes criticized for an indifference to structure or for a certain inarticulateness that accompanies their wizardry with materials, Rodarte, we could argue, relocate design in the fingertips, the eyeballs, and that part of the brain most exposed to and shaken by the world—away from the more academic, silhouette-oriented values that rule the traditional houses of Europe.
And it is not just in terms of what the late film critic Manny Farber called “termite art' (“it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity') that we can identify Rodarte’s aesthetic as American, but in all the improvisatory ways it de- and recodes a culture that is already impure and blended with crisis. If the typically European strategy is to construct avant-garde gestures around the inversion of established, legible codes (aristocratic or bourgeois), an American vernacular is corrupt in advance, the border between high and low long since dissolved. Here, it is less about turning the queen on her head than a matter of tracking mutations in the desert, where celebrity and nothingness have always shared a strangely productive cohabitation. Rodarte are perhaps closer in spirit to Roger Corman or Wes Craven than to the top men of haute couture.
Based on a narrative of a woman burned alive in the desert who returns as a California condor, Rodarte’s spring 2010 collection involved serpentine braiding and weaving of hand-tooled leather strips, macramé and crochet with black yarn and feathers, bandagelike swaths of dyed cheesecloth, and belts fastened with bird-claw clasps. The dresses had a charred, post-traumatic look, assembled as if from tatters, their coal and tar-pit blacks punctuated by glints of silver and Swarovski crystals. A new fabric designed by Rodarte for Knoll also looked both scorched and glimmering, and samples of this material were mashed—along with several pairs of black leather and “acid-treated zombie vein' heels—into the dark rubble of the installation. These erotically charged garments and their models were engulfed in clouds of toxic-yellow smoke at their New York runway show last September, emerging for brief glimpses as if from a nuclear test site.
Fog and cement grays dominated the fall/winter 2009 collection, creating a blanked-out atmosphere at times sliced through by harsh glints of emerald-green lamé. A marbled leather jacket evoked shifting slabs of stone, cinched tight and low, its narrow arms bound by a series of python-trimmed straps. Some dresses featured turbulent architectures of knit wool, whose varying densities and degrees of fuzz produced thundercloud-like volumes that were echoed by the installation’s burst drywall.
Others, more tuniclike, combined crisscrossed sections of silver metallic laminated silk, hand-marbled leather and silk tulle, printed chiffon and lamé. A single pair of Rodarte’s famously fetishized wrap-on, thigh-high boots (designed by Nicholas Kirkwood for the label) was semiburied in Sheetrock dust in the back of the installation. Lighter and more ethereal, the fall 2008 and spring 2009 seasons included dresses layered with embroidered lace, silk tulle, and soft webs of looped mohair, as well as metallic mohair tights, in hues ranging between rusty pinks and corroded, coppery oranges. The airy, soft-spun shimmer and metallic frizz of these hand-knit confections were grounded by hand-cut leather leggings whose angular brise-soleil patterns suggest urban security gates. Fastened to the floor with copper wire and screws, a pair of platform shoes (again, Kirkwood for Rodarte) made of “mirror leather,' metal, and electrical wire glinted with a mosaic of golden mirror shards.
Rodarte absorbed the seismic energies of recent natural and economic disasters, working these into dazzling, one-of-a-kind luxury products, but, strangely, with no body in mind. Fashion designers—usually men—tend to begin with an ideal or particular woman whom they aim to dress and beautify. But the Mulleavy sisters—like David Cronenberg’s twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, whose diabolical medical instruments conform to the body of no known patient—have not yet determined whom or what they are dressing. These are garments produced in advance of their wearers.
An open question: Where, and to whom, does a dress belong? Dressing no one, Rodarte address their designs to an abstract condition. The Mulleavys’ alchemical experiments and gothic ornamentations surround a scorched void, a potential or perhaps impossible woman, a body provisionally occupied by stand-ins such as Kim Gordon, Kirsten Dunst, and Michelle Obama. In the mahogany-paneled Cooper-Hewitt, Rodarte’s constructions challenged viewers to locate themselves in relation to the burned-out yet obsessively labored glamour the Mulleavys are proposing.
This winter, a line of Rodarte products designed for Target quickly came and went, torn from the racks by fans who can’t afford the Rodarte-label garments so prized by Anna Wintour and other arbiters of fashion value. Collaborations between top designers and mass-market distributors are like ghosts of the former’s concentrated runway visions, conceived under extreme constraints. Factory-made, using the cheapest materials and the most cost-efficient production methods, these are aimed at an actually locatable nobody: the average American shopper. Most impressive in Rodarte’s crossover effort was that, rather than attempting to translate their detail-oriented craftsmanship and alchemical experimentation into mass products, they simply made good-looking, accessible clothes for kids and managed to keep their idiosyncratic brand legible within a supermarket context.
Moving between Target and the Cooper-Hewitt, between DIY techniques and commercial collaboration, between rag-picking forays in the desert and the runways of the metropolis, the Rodarte label is itself like one of those border towns built around a constant renegotiation of exclusion and inclusion, of the local and the alien.
The conditions seem right for the success of an approach like that of the Mulleavy sisters, whose personal, intuitive aesthetic, had it been operative in the 1990s, would most likely have remained cornered in some culty style ghetto. Yet we can’t be sure that the usual trajectory of an up-and-coming fashion label will apply to Rodarte—that their brand will expand or they will end up designing for one of the established European houses, for example. Capturing the energy and undecidability of this moment, the Cooper-Hewitt, which has also named Rodarte finalists in its 2009 National Design Award competition, afforded viewers an opportunity to encounter the Mulleavys’ singular vision up close and in a sort of freeze-frame.
Not art, fashion prefers to haunt art. More mobile and exposed, in certain ways fashion remains the more effective means of processing the chaos of the present, probably because, as a sociocultural mediator, it is itself already highly mediated and because, while sticking close to the body, it is ever so responsive to how quickly the ground shifts under its acid-treated zombie-vein heels.
John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.
View of “Quicktake: Rodarte,' 2010, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York. Photo: Carmel Wilson.