Both the city and the schedule are worlds where the duo are relatively unknown; for this season, at least, they have not been recognized as official couturiers. Even at a time when the traditional schedule had become increasingly fluid, and fellow Americans such as Proenza Schouler and Thom Browne had also chosen to show in the French capital, the move across the Atlantic raised some eyebrows.
The sisters, who say they have been to Paris “at least 15 times” in their lives, do not speak French. Their circle of family and friends is famously West Coast-centric. And beyond ATLF and Gisele, Rodarte is not stocked in any French fashion stores. Now the Mulleavys — and a team of nine who came over from their Los Angeles headquarters in the weeks before the show — were going to have to prove it was the right decision. Commercially, and creatively.
“I like being part of a new situation,” Laura Mulleavy said by way of explanation, as she paced the colonnades of the courtyard chosen for the show venue. “It makes you feel less attached to the way that you were doing something before. And that in turn makes you feel free to do what you really want to do.” She called the move “a resetting,” a giant change for the company that they were “taking one step at a time.”
“I think we had started to feel like we were part of a system that doesn’t represent creativity anymore,” she added. “It had all started to feel like habit, where you know the system, the stresses and pressures that come with it, and the process just dictates itself.
“This was a chance to make it feel new again, like it was in the beginning, while still working with all the same people we now love. We also get more time in terms of production for our retail partners. It feels like win-win.”
Kate Mulleavy chimed in: “Ultimately a process should fuel creativity, not hamper it. And that’s another reason why we have come to Paris. France treats fashion as art; it just isn’t like that in America. Just spending time in this city, being part of it, is a reminder that enjoying new experiences fuels your best ideas and designs. Your imagination can totally come alive.”
So what sort of new experiences had the two — who are rarely apart, live together in California and frequently finish each other’s sentences — had since arriving in Paris?
Sipping black coffee in a cafe and clutching matching handbags near their temporary studio in the 10th Arrondissement, Laura, slight, brunette and wearing lots of charcoal eye shadow, listed a few: “Seeing a cute little cat by the Louvre Pyramid. And a pack of dogs that looked like wolves.” Her favorite museum is the Rodin.
“The Clown Cafe is the best for dinner,” said Kate, who is blond and the confessed “panicker” in the run-up to a show. “But my complete obsession is the wild strawberry ice cream at Berthillon on the Île St.-Louis. It is out of this world. And the tarts here, oh my God. Paper-thin pastry, heaped with jewel-colored berries. It’s like culinary couture.”
She had been in the city for three days longer than her younger sister had, though the two were now staying together in a nearby hotel. The truth was, both said at the same time, words cascading over those of the other, that this was a work trip.
“We have worked so hard on every single piece of this collection,” Laura Mulleavy said. “Really, there hasn’t been time for much else.”
Perhaps as a result of all the sensory overload and displacement, the collection itself mutated in the days before the show in a whole new direction.
“We started from one place, but we’ve just veered so dramatically from it now,” Kate Mulleavy said. “I guess the only thing we really know is that it is pure Rodarte. Rather than about any specific influence, it is a real celebration of us and our design DNA.”
Walking back to the studio, the two agreed that their recent foray into movie direction, a feature film called “Woodshock” due out in September, had given them the confidence to take Rodarte onto the couture calendar and show amid local French powerhouses like Chanel and Dior, with their vast local ateliers, multimillion-dollar marketing budgets and billions in annual sales.
“I am not nervous at all,” Laura said. “Truly. We have always had a couture mentality. But we have also always been upfront about who we are and what we offer, which is a voice that is very different from a lot of other brands in the industry.”
“We are not a $5 zillion company — we never will be — but we are personal, and that is attractive to people who love beautiful clothing,” she said. “Frankly, I couldn’t care less about seeing one hundred people walking down the street wearing my designs. I care about growth, obviously, but I also care about integrity. And the minute that stops working, then I couldn’t be a designer anymore.”
Still, they had not ignored the risk that they could potentially be seen as arrivistes in their new home. Before the show, discussing the usual designer appearance at the end of the runway after the show (and the possibility of more rain), Kate said, “I think we will just sneak into the garden as the models all stand there with their umbrellas. We can be there and back in a flash. That’s best for us.”
Alexandre de Betak, however, the ubiquitous fashion show producer (he works with Dior and Michael Kors, among others), who had apparently been trying to lure the Mulleavys to show in Paris for years, the better to invigorate their audience, would have none of it.
“Girls, come on, if you don’t make it to the middle of the courtyard and stand in front of everyone, you might as well have just stayed home,” he said firmly. “The world will want to see you. Now you have to let them.”