Darker, Weirder, Damper Places: Rodarte at NMWA

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Wanting More from the Rodarte Fashion Exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts by Dr. Jordan Amirkhani

For the first time in its thirty years of programming, the National Museum of Women in the Arts presented a fashion exhibition celebrating the luxury American fashion house Rodarte, founded by the self-taught sister-designer duo Kate and Laura Mulleavy in 2005.

Showcasing over ninety garments from over thirteen years of collections, Rodarte, curated for the institution by Curator-in-Charge of Costume and Textile Arts at the De Young Museum Jill D’Alessandro, offers a wide view of the duo’s cool-girl California aesthetic, deconstructed handiwork, and ebullient engagement with high art and popular culture. As museums continue to reach out to the world of fashion to present large-scale, glitzy exhibitions of more commercial, corporate, and male-led fashion houses, this exhibition places Rodarte as a counter-narrative, citing artisanal craftsmanship and fragility as their modus operandi and reminding us that while the world of fashion may be geared towards women, very few women hold leadership positions within the industry.

Rodarte, Spring/Summer 2018 runway; Courtesy of Rodarte;
Photo © Greg Kessler/Kessler Studio

While Rodarte’s work does indeed help us to ask the question of what fashion can be when it is led by, and not just made for, women, there are larger questions at stake, namely: What exactly is Rodarte’s “vision”? What does their “muse” represent? And why are we engaging this vision in a museum of visual art?

When I tried to answer these questions for myself, I found that my desire to attribute significance and power to this presentation was overshadowed by the exhibition’s lack of contextualization of the clothing and the makers’ position within a history of fashion. Yes, it’s fashion daaarling, but it’s fashion in an art museum—besides the gorgeous materiality of the clothes, the allure of the women we are meant to transpose into the clothes, and the aspirational fantasies that surround such garments, what are viewers left with other than a powerful testament to Rodarte’s unique aesthetic style? Can aesthetics be enough to carry an exhibition in this day and age? My answer is: it can, but it’s not satisfying enough for me.

Can aesthetics be enough to carry an exhibition in this day and age? My answer is: it can, but it’s not satisfying enough for me.

Like most successful fashion houses, Rodarte’s aesthetic code (or brand) is strong and has found a way to develop a recognizable stylistic narrative while maintaining a set of core proposals within their garments. Organized into eight different galleries according to themes significant to the creators (“Light,” “Northern California Roadmap,” and “The Garden,” etc.) the Mulleavy’s propensity for channeling the beauty and horror of childhood memories, geographical environments, and personal experience manifests across the trajectory of NMWA’s presentation—a curatorial approach that renders visible to the viewer the constellation of moods and visual discourses woven into the duo’s distinct style, both material and conceptual.

Agyness Deyn wearing Rodarte Spring/Summer 2009; Photo © Sølve Sundsbø Limited

Rodarte, Black Swan costume, 2010; Photo © Autumn de Wilde

Marrying the wild properties of the natural world with the imaginative language of Hollywood cinema and visual art, Rodarte is an aesthetic that locates femininity in darker, weirder, damper places; Rafael de Cárdenas’s theatrical construction of a low-lit, glassy, gray environment for the clothing transformed the space into a crystalline cavern worthy of the Mulleavy’s psychic excavations into the interiority of their own private visual world.

Edgy, cool, mysterious, and delicate clothing for edgy, cool, mysterious, and delicate muses (such as Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman, and Rooney Mara – all actresses who work in the gray area between corporate mainstream Hollywood cinema and American independent film culture, some of whom are represented in this exhibition), Rodarte mobilizes a distinct persona within the dreamwork of their garments and fashions a world where women are celebrated for their intellectual strangeness as opposed to their bodily performances of glamour alone. If there is any success in this exhibition, it is NMWA’s strong position that Rodarte is a brand that can and does speak to 21st-century women—but who exactly is this living woman that inspired Rodarte’s designs? Outside of Portman and Dunst, I am not entirely sure.

Undoubtedly, this presentation emphasizes the “edgy tension” at work in Rodarte’s garments, which are always meticulously crafted and beautifully draped, but assert their flaws (busted seams, clashing colors, and architecturally asymmetrical shapes) and at times interrupt the body as opposed to integrating with it. In this way, Rodarte’s clothing speaks against the notion of “finish” and “perfection” in a garment and makes evident Rodarte’s powerful ability in their early work to intervene and deconstruct the technical conditions of a couture dress and thus, the idealized female body that looms over fashion’s entire world.

The dramatic opening room of the exhibition, titled “Early Innovations,” explores not just the beginnings of their design house, but the techniques and strategies of experimentation that drew them immediate acclaim. Three Grecian gowns in an Olafur Eliasson palette of purple, black, and orange from their Spring/Summer 2009 collection make an announcement of their investments in draping and the bias cut, while garments composed of a mélange of materials such as leather and chain-link crocheted into various states of unravel and decomposition from their Fall/Winter 2009 collections challenge the very idea of “knitwear” and made reference to Gordon Matta-Clark’s dissected buildings and destabilizing apertures. By fracturing and rupturing the unified “whole” of the garment (the series of dissolving silk chemises worn by actress Kirsten Dunst for the Mulleavy sister’s 2017 film Woodshock provide the best example of this), garments become a field not for seams and structure but a landscape for holes and rips to exist, suggesting a symbolic rupturing of fashion’s demands for bodily perfection and female domestication and a celebratory fetishization of the violent forces that shape the worlds of nature, commerce, fashion, cinema, and art alike.

But while Rodarte’s ideal woman stands apart from fashion’s many dehumanizing tendencies to transform women in all their radical uniqueness into an army of mannequins for clothes to hang on, the image and items created by the brand are not completely free from the sexist and heteronormative values and narratives that undergird the history of fashion and the visual arts.

In many ways, Rodarte’s aesthetic complies with various gender-based proscriptions and types deemed culturally suitable for the maintenance of strict sexual and social codes. Similar to the great male painters and sculptors of the past who threw up their Venuses, nymphs, femme fatales, and nudes as impossible embodiments of various modes of female perfection (often based on heteronormative sexual desirability and deference to men), fashion designers have worked in tandem with the Western visual tradition to sell back to women these impossible fantasies of themselves through garments posited to ensure that women feel their independence, remain beautiful, protect their mystery, and yet remain sexually available for men.

The Rodarte muse, mythical, magical, awkward, and desirable, is merely a modern iteration of these time-honored tropes of female beauty—titillating and charming with just the right amount of seriousness, unknowability (and of course, money), she is a modern fashionista with a graduate degree, a debutante with a love of punk rock, a daytime television watcher with a thing for Derrida. While Rodarte may indeed be the brand for the cool, smart ingenue in Hollywood, this in no way makes it a brand for “all women.”

While Rodarte’s unique aesthetic vision and unique attention to the material conditions of garment construction and design proposes a rich exhibition of forms and shapes, it isn’t enough to justify a mid-career survey presentation of a fashion brand in a visual art museum – especially for a fashion brand that hasn’t yet made it as a household name. Despite its thirteen years in existence, Rodarte is still considered to be an emerging brand, with critics on the fence about the duo’s ability to succeed in an industry where function is still a demand (their collections have often been described as “idiosyncratic,” “ugly,” and “totally unwearable”). The logic of staging a Rodarte exhibition at this moment seems to suggest that if you aren’t creating wearable, commercially-viable fashion after thirteen years in the game, then you must be an artist.

Photo by the author

Their conflation with the trajectory of a visual artist’s career is asserted in the exhibition’s emphasis on the Mulleavy’s undergraduate education in the arts and humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, as opposed to technical training in fashion design in the wall text and accompanying literature. However, their educational background is not unique (engagement with the history of art is a must for any designer, and there are many self-taught designers who did not attend fashion school: Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Michael Kors to name a few). And while it is true that there are many overt references to the history of visual art in their collections, only a few of those references are presented in this exhibition.

The most obvious art historical nod comes in the room entitled “Light” where reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic-turned-kitsch paintings Starry Night(1889) and Sunflowers (1888) appear on short 50’s cocktail dresses from their Spring/Summer 2012 collection. But overt references to Western art history does not a visual artist make. Why not present their series of dresses from their Spring/Summer 2012 collection made in homage to Fra Angelico and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s murals and sculptures? And while there are indeed few women at the helm of their own fashion brand, making Rodarte a suitable choice for a museum dedicated to the presentation of art made by women, what makes this duo more suitable for a career retrospective than Muiccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo, or Vivienne Westwood?

Like many modes of cultural production formerly considered “low-brow,” fashion has entered the mainstream, been embraced by institutions across the world, and is a subject that engages contemporary semioticians, social historians, gender theorists, and political analysts alike. No longer do we question whether fashion deserves to be in a museum or whether or not fashion is art, but rather what are the consequences for fashion to be exhibited and interpreted in institutions historically dedicated to visual art?

No longer do we question whether fashion deserves to be in a museum or whether or not fashion is art, but rather, what are the consequences for fashion to be exhibited and interpreted in institutions historically dedicated to visual art?

In this case, is NMWA’s Rodarte exhibition just another mid-career study of emerging visual artists? What happens to the particular histories, intentions, and values present within these two aesthetic traditions? What is lost when we conflate them? Is a dress just like a painting or a sculpture? Of course not. While NMWA could have made a case for Rodarte garments in the museum, they didn’t – and this is where the exhibition fails: without any contextualization of these makers or their work within the narrative of the presentation, how are viewers supposed to understand the justifications for fashion to be seen and interpreted as visual art objects?

Yes, these garments are beautiful and gorgeously made, but why are we looking at them? What are they revealing to us about our current moment, the history of women’s experiences, and a women-centered history of art? I’m still unsure, if not completely skeptical.

Photo by the author

Rodarte at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is on view through February 10, 2019

“The celebrated American luxury fashion house Rodarte, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, is featured this fall in the first fashion exhibition organized by NMWA. Rodarte showcases the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and profound impact on the fashion industry.”

Images courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the author

Top Image Kate Mulleavy (left) and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte; Photo by Clara Balzary

Additional images by Jordan Amirkhani, courtesy of NMWA, Rodarte, with photos by Dan & Corina Lecca, Autumn de Wilde,  Sølve Sundsbø Limited, Greg Kessler/Kessler Studio

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