By all accounts, fashion world darlings Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the designers behind avant-garde clothing line Rodarte, function more as a quirky and lovable two-headed monster than as separate entities. The Pasadena-based sisters finish each other's sentences, share credit and an email address, trade meaningful looks for affirmation and nod in recognition of esoteric childhood references, practically exchanging telepathic messages. But the Mulleavys are hardly alone in wedding steadfast sisterhood and successful creative partnership. There's an emerging crop of L.A. designers for whom sisterly love is the basis of successful collaboration and, ultimately, good fashion. These sisters share creative DNA, relying on each other almost unconditionally and sharing an unspoken language — the language, it seems, of style.
FOR THE RECORD:
Fashion: An article in the Image section elsewhere in this edition about the fashion line Elkin identified one of the musicians who had an influence on Brit and Kara Smith, designers of the fashion line, as El Khatib. The full name is Hanni El Khatib. The error was discovered after the section went to press.
FOR THE RECORD:
Sibling design teams: In the Aug. 12 Image section, an article about sisters in the fashion business said that designer Hali Thornhill had worked for a Canadian jewelry firm called Burke's. The correct spelling is Birks. —
Identical taste is not the secret to an amicable working relationship for sister design teams. What's the fun in raiding a sister's closet if she has the same wardrobe?
Take Brit and Kara Smith, who created edgy-meets-ethereal ready-to-wear line Elkin, which is characterized by girly Peter Pan collars but also has roots in Parisian lingerie. Though their parents divorced early on, they credit their father's infectious "can do" attitude and their "colorful" mother's creative and kooky enthusiasm, which moved them to play elaborate games of dress up as children.
"We were in costumes every day, playing different characters," says elder sister Kara. "We would read books [and] visualize what characters might have been wearing. We didn't realize at the time that we were thinking about fashion and wardrobe." Both sisters went on to work in the fashion world, Kara designing for several L.A. labels and Brit working for jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer.
Their imaginative and supportive households informed the creation of Elkin, which they launched in 2011 after a tongue-in-cheek "near death" experience together on an airplane. "We're very dramatic," Kara says with a laugh, describing a scene in which they sobbed and scribbled down promises that they swore to keep if they lived. They honored that pledge, launching Elkin shortly thereafter. Their line quickly took off, named among L.A. "designers to watch" by WWD last fall and worn by three cast members from the HBO hit "Girls" in a spread in New York Magazine in June.
Each season, the line draws inspiration from a different literary genre — Gothic Romance and the American West in past collections — and a self-curated music playlist (including tunes from some of their indie band buddies), which eventually is printed on their hangtags.
Z Berg, lead singer of JJAMZ and the Like, fell in love with the line from the very beginning and has become a kind of muse for the Elkin girls. "I don't think I've ever worn an Elkin piece without someone losing their mind over it, which isn't surprising since the girls who create the line are cool, intelligent ... beautiful creatures themselves," Berg says. "And they design clothes they'd want to wear."
This fall'ssci-ficoncept spawned a desert-hued collection of tweedy cropped pants made from a "galactic brocade" fabric, "Espar" leather jacket and a couple of signature super short frocks and skirts, including their personal favorite silk "Noon" dress with leather collar and cap sleeves. "We read a lot of Jules Verne and also Neuromancer; listened to Dum Dum Girls and El Khatib and it became cyber punk mixed with fantasy and sci-fi to create this cool otherworldly thing," Brit says.
Always outside the box, the sisters are working on some still hush-hush collaborations with actresses, artists, musicians and even a publishing house. They muse together over wine in each other's living rooms about future Elkin Homme and Elkin Home concepts and upcoming inspirations such as French children's books and an under-the-sea Moby Dick idea.
No matter what, Elkin reflects both women's aesthetics as seen in Kara's personal wardrobe of high-end designer pieces paired with eclectic jewelry and Brit's vintage collection and pricier bijoux jewelry from her former boss Meyer. "We raid each other's closets. We live two blocks from each other," says Kara.
The dynamic between the pair dates to childhood, with Kara as the prototypical protective older sister. "When Brit got her first hickey, I told our mother that I hit her with a vacuum cleaner," Kara says. They dissolve into laughter, a frequent occurrence with the duo, as Brit adds, "Kara is the rebellious and courageous one, never afraid to stand up for herself. I was the onlooker and she was the fighter. I think we're still like that." At first, Kara expected to take a more dominant role in running the company too, but she quickly realized that their work relationship would be different: "Brit and I are both like the big sisters of the company," she explains. "We nurture it equally and have equal parts in the creative elements, which has been great for our growth as sisters."
Of course, it's not always easy: "The hardest part is that, when you're so close, there is no filter," says Kara. "We had an amazing sibling relationship, but then we ventured into something so foreign to us: a work relationship. You know each other's buttons, which can be dangerous. We are so passionate and we're like one mind, so if we fight, we feel it personally."
But the work helps bolster family relationships too. "The benefits far surpass having it be hard occasionally," Brit says. "Being able to create whatever you want and do it with someone you're so close to that they just get it immediately ... the whole process is amazing as sisters."
Priced from $130 to $900, the collection is carried by select retailers including Madison, Satine and TenOver Six in Los Angeles. More information at Elkincollection.com.
The Malakpour sisters behind shoe line Newbark — known for its ballet-flat alternatives —have a divergent, but complementary style, despite having been raised as virtual twins.
"I like simplicity; she is more experimental," explains Marjan, senior by roughly a year and a half. "I'm older, but she's more responsible."
Maryam adds, "I show up with a top hat suddenly and have to wear it every day, but the basis for both of us is classic."
They launched the line in 2009 with a 500-pair order from Net-a-Porter, which was so successful the Web retailer reordered within one week.
For Aja Passero, senior vice president at Bergdorf Goodman, it was love at first sight.
"I saw the Newbark collection their first season and was immediately attracted to the overall coolness of Maryam and Marjan, and their rock 'n' roll sensibility," Passero says. "I love the designers' aesthetic for their effortlessly chic, L.A. style, and I knew the collection would be something that would translate and resonate with our customer.... There is definitely now a cult following for the brand."
The perfect embodiment of the partnership is their Sophia Black Stardust flat-toe shoe, a riff on the ballet flat in sleek black and silver but with a sparkle embedded. Lately they have expanded into bag, boot and upcoming inaugural full men's and cruise collections.
The women were raised in Iran with a fighter pilot father and a doting homemaker mother, who emphasized family togetherness.
"The early 1970s there was nothing like how people perceive Iran and the Middle East now," Maryam says. "We grew up exposed to glamorous women including [former queen] Farah Pahlavi, who had incredible style. Iranian women would never step out without looking completely together. I have vivid memories of what they wore and of scrapbook[ing] cutouts from magazines. But sometimes I do still wonder how the hell I became the stylist for the Rolling Stones."
Maryam studied fashion design but left school to become a buyer, immersed in the fashion worlds of Milan, London and Paris by the time she was 19. Eventually, she landed as a prominent stylist in L.A.
Meanwhile, Marjan owned a flower shop in San Francisco, but when Maryam's styling business became overwhelming, she begged her older sibling to come south and help. Once she arrived, Marjan never left. She too became a stylist and, in 2008, they launched Newbark. She explains, "We felt there was something missing out there — a flat that was cool, edgy and rock 'n' roll."
They now live next door to each other, their own "compound" in Laurel Canyon, replete with its music industry lineage.
Maryam marvels at how far she and her sister have come as they experiment currently with a new slipper silhouette with a small heel, woven linen in place of canvas and pinstripe lining: "We started with this Argentinean man making this stuff in a bedroom and now we have three factories that we're working with in Los Angeles."
Initially, the sisters shared all responsibilities. These days, Marjan primarily runs the business, while Maryam is the creative director. In a pinch, though, they easily stand in for each other.
"There are definitely benefits [to being sisters]. We can even pretend we're the same person," Maryam says, laughing suddenly with her sister about this inside joke. "It's easy to say, 'Here is my counterpart.'"
"You always hear horrible partner stories," she says. "But, as sisters, we have complete confidence and trust. It's like being one person."
Priced from $395 to $1,700, the line is carried at stores around the world including Bergdorf Goodman, Maxfield, Just One Eye and on Net-a-Porter. More information at Newbark.com.
Among these sister pairs, it's the Thornhill sisters-by-marriage behind brand new jewelry line Liv Haley — already a big hit with celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, Gabrielle Union and Lea Michele — who claim the most related aesthetic.
In-laws are often vilified, but since Hali married Olivia's brother, the two have shared more than the Thornhill name. "We have very similar taste; people even think we look alike," Olivia says. "And our jewelry is a true representation of ourselves: Classic fresh design without a lot of bells and whistles and driven first by color. I could never do Liv Haley without my sister-in-law."
The two women make a formidable pair: Olivia is a former award-winning wardrobe stylist and Hali is a gemologist who at
one time ran the diamond department for Canada's answer to Tiffany & Co., a fine jewelry company called Burke's, and then left to make custom engagement rings and other pieces. "Even as a kid, I collected gemstones," says Hali, who now collects jewelry books from bijoux design houses like Cartier and more esoteric European brands.
During a Thanksgiving with the family, the women decided to make a go of creating their own line, partially based on Olivia's unsuccessful quest for the perfect "refined, not Arizona" turquoise ring, and presented their first full collection in October 2011. They're both Canadian and Hali lives in Vancouver, but they based the company near Olivia's Santa Monica home, grateful for proximity to the jewelry manufacturing haven of downtown Los Angeles.
The distance initially was challenging, but Olivia and Hali send inspirations such as vintage photographs or buttons back and forth. Together, they troll gem shows for unusual stones that they render both high-end and wearable in settings such as silver or 14-karat gold with diamonds. "We're using fine semi-precious stones that are super high-quality and hard to find," Olivia says as Hali nods. "We use a lot of pink and white opal for summer or even winter white. We're really drawn to chalcedony, turquoise, orange aventurine and Australian green chrysoprase, which can be a milky or apple green. There's only one working mine for it."
Most recently, they've incorporated dark blue and gold-flecked lapis, chocolate brown agate, corrugated quartz with gold strands throughout and peach, chocolate and grey moonstone. They've expanded their large-bezel pave collection too.
Yunnie Morena, co-owner of Fred Segal Couture, was impressed and picked up the collection. "I was attracted to Liv Haley because of its clean, modern lines, which give the pieces longevity," Morena says. "Most people are looking for wardrobe staples that they can keep forever. These are super timeless and classic. The earrings with bright colorful stones are selling especially well for fine jewelry because color is so big right now and this is a way to get that pop, but know that you're still not buying some one-hit wonder. You'll wear them forever."
Celebrities have flocked to the jewelry, with Elizabeth Banks photographed wearing it on the cover of Redbook magazine's June issue, Ellen Kemper sporting it on"The Ellen DeGeneres Show,"the cast of "Gossip Girls" decked out on the show's season finale and star stylist Rachel Zoe pulling it for her clients.
As the two Thornhill women collaborate, their relationship continues to grow.
They feel they have the best of both worlds as a family business, which garners them invaluable support and enthusiasm. "I talk to Hali more than any other person on this Earth," says Olivia. "But I think because we're sisters-in-law as opposed to sisters, there's a boundary there. Trust me, we have had some blowouts, but we won't be completely obnoxious like you might with a blood relative."
Hali adds, "We can't let things bottle up or it's going to rock the entire family, so it pushes us to communicate."
Prices range from $85 to $4,500, and the collection is available at Fred Segal and at http://www.livhaley.com.