Rodarte and Simone Rocha on Remaining an Independent, Women-Run Business in the Fashion Industry


Simone Rocha and sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte helm fiercely independent brands, but they do have much in common despite their insular perspectives. Rodarte and Simone Rocha’s designs seem to exist in a wholly specific, fantastical world that’s at once overtly feminine while retaining a certain strength—one that’s filled with ruffles, pearls, and even baby’s breath.

At today’s Forces of Fashion conference, the Mulleavy sisters and Rocha spoke with Vogue’s Lynn Yaeger on a number of topics pertaining to being independent women designers in the fashion industry, including everything from the ways in which other art forms intermingle with their designs to influence of the current political climate on their work. Read the highlights below.

On reconciling femininity with strength
Yaeger asked the Mulleavys and Rocha about being living contradictions, about creating fairy-tale garments in a critical moment in women’s history—Yaeger specifically used the words “ruffly, fluttery, tough women” to describe the three of them and their designs.

Laura Mulleavy: “Because we’re women, the universal question we always get asked is, ‘Do you design for yourself?’ And my answer has always been, ‘No, I’ve actually never designed for myself.’ It’s a creative process—we have an idea about the collection or a story and we go with that. The idea of femininity is something we always couldn’t define. What we do is what we create, and then it goes out in the world and it becomes different things for different people.”

Simone Rocha: “I’m interested in tactile things, textiles. What I really like doing is grounding it in today. So I always make sure it’s always grounded with a practical shoe. All the fabrics are hand-embroidered in my studio, and then I work with the mill to put it together, and then I think of how I can give it body and strength, so I add some tailoring to it to harden it up. For me, I love contrast—that is how I interpret femininity—so it’s femininity and strength, together.”

On their particular design processes
Laura Mulleavy used their Spring 2012 collection as a prime example of their process: “We live in Pasadena and there’s the Mount Wilson Observatory. Kate and I took a trip there we went up to the Hubble Telescope, where Hubble worked and discovered the universe is infinite, like in our backyard practically. Then we went to the Norton Simon and they have a series of Van Gogh portraits in there, and we looked at the one of his mother, which is neon green, and we just said, ‘God, the Van Gogh painting just looks so much like outer space.’ That’s when we decided to do our collection, the idea of Starry Night and using the Hubble Telescope imagery. It was just a conversation of being open to what was in our yards and in our lives.”

Simone Rocha: “I grew up in Ireland, but I grew up in a family where my parents were fashion designers. I learned how to knit, sew, pattern, and quilt with them. When I went to school, I didn’t know if I wanted to do fashion because I thought it would be a bit cliché, but I realized the discipline for me to actually be able to create emotion was through the physicality of making clothes, not in fine arts.”

Rocha also referenced her use of pearls, which has become a signature: “It came from when I was in the West of Ireland. I was really taken aback by this idea of being outside in the nature and the freedom, and I wanted to look at textiles in that way. I was in the water, and thought it would be amazing to be able to do a lacquered lace and thought, ‘What’s the stone of the sea? The pearl, so maybe I can embed that in the garments.’ It’s kind of this physicality of being in a place and seeing how I can realize it.”

On remaining independent brands
Kate Mulleavy: “At a certain point, independence starts to give you an interesting freedom. At the same time, there are certain jobs or opportunities where you are like, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that,’ it’s the natural inclination. I go back and forth in my mind. You could never say you wouldn’t want to do something because I think every opportunity, if it’s the right one, you can use it to further your artistic language. But at the same time I do really value it, because it’s so unusual. When we started it was almost less unusual, and now I realize it’s more and more unusual, and it’s so important.”

Simone Rocha: “I think independence is a luxury, which is wild because people think that luxury is a huge conglomeration. I agree, never say never, but at the same time, to be able to have that freedom and to be able to create a functional business, I think is the real luxury.”

On politics
Kate Mulleavy: “Right now, it's such a difficult time because so many of the things that we both value and stand for are not being represented. I think that's why the creative community—specifically fashion, art—it’s our job to be a voice and to have dialogue with people. In terms of our collections and our actual work, I've always felt they were rebellious. Listen, we’re two women who’ve done this on our own. I’ve always felt that it was something that people tended over the years to not talk about, and I actually think this is one of the coolest things about what we’re doing, because we’re following our own path.”

Simone Rocha: “For me, something like Brexit is such a highlight because I’m Irish and I am an immigrant in London. To suddenly feel like you are not a part of the community and not wanted is disgusting, actually. And especially with how the world is so small now, because of social media and the Internet, everyone is aware of everything. The way that that's reflected in my clothes, that season I ended up doing a casting of all different types of women—all different ages and sizes. I just wanted to show this idea of inclusivity and unity and to just to be like, it is about communication.”

Go Behind the Scenes at the 2018 Forces of Fashion Conference

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