ways of seeing

Rodarte on Their True California Inspirations

Photo: Todd Cole for Wilder Quarterly

Sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the design duo behind Rodarte, have always found unlikely inspirations for their dramatic, art-influenced and heavily referential designs. A connection to the mystical, natural side of the West Coast, mixed with the grittiness of downtown L.A., helps them reshape the definition of the California Cool Girl into an ethereal vixen equally fit for the red carpet or taking ‘shrooms in the Mojave dessert. This month, in an interview with Wilder Quarterly, the two reveal how California’s diverse landscapes — from stark, arid Death Valley to lush, hippie Big Sur — have inspired some of their collections. Photographer Todd Cole then shot some of the sisters’ favorite and most inspiring locales. Click on to see the images and read an exclusive excerpt of the interview.

What is it about the culture of California that appeals to you?

Kate Mulleavy: People still, to this day, come out West because they want to be an actor, make it big, or realize some far-out idea. People are coming out here to become something. We worship the imaginative landscape here. This mythology does exist in other places because people go to New York to make it as well. But the difference is the social structure here is more confusing because everything is made up. L.A. is a created landscape, so there isn’t the same hierarchy.

Photo: Todd Cole for Wilder Quarterly

KM:  Our spring 2010 collection is based off of Death Valley and inspired by the California condor. For our collection, we were interested in the idea of a scorched landscape where there is an incredible amount of life and biodiversity. We created our own creation myth of someone spontaneously combusting to be reborn as a phoenix. It was really based off of this notion of the California condor and survival, but also heavily inspired by a trip to Death Valley. When you’re in Death Valley you feel — it doesn’t matter what your political or religious beliefs are — you feel something deeply primitive and connective. You feel something about history in the earth and how things survive and evolve.

Photo: Todd Cole/Courtesy of Wilder Quarterly

KM: The beaches in Northern California are pretty much where we spent our childhood.

Laura Mulleavy: I like the culture that develops [around the beach] and I also like the naturalness of it. One of my favorite things as a kid was to look in tide pools. I loved that. The smell of the ocean mixing with eucalyptus is still something that conjures my entire childhood.

KM: When we go to Big Sur it feels like going home. Our connection to it is so strong because we grew up about an hour and a half from it. I think of the writers that lived there and the mythology of it. Even if we’re not that person, I think somehow, deep inside we all wish we could access something [like that] about ourselves. There’s something in all of us that — whether it’s a fantasy or strange desire to go out in the middle of the unknown and live and be free — to exist deep inside. It’s a place where the mythology of the place is as strong as the actual physicality of it.

LM: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has exhibits that show what grows deep inside the ocean. It’s just amazing because it is like looking at the most beautiful floating world of creatures and entities that you have ever seen — there’s a fragility to everything. And the colors are an incredible mix of subtle pastels and vibrant neons. I don’t think you’d ever make anything that beautiful. Big Sur has a fragility to it as well. You just feel like you want this to exist forever but you know that things evolve and change.

KM: The Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the beach is number one for me. It is a huge part of who we are. One of my favorite films, The Lost Boys was filmed there. It exactly captures what Santa Cruz is like growing up there. The interaction of skate, surf, poets, hardcore kids, hippies, new-agers: there isn’t another place like it. I think my true obsession with fashion comes from growing up there because I have such visceral memories of the way people dressed.