After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Kate and Laura Mulleavy moved back home to Pasadena, Calif., and fashioned an internship for themselves watching horror movies: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Night of the Living Dead," etc.
"I think we were a parent's worst nightmare," said Laura, 32, who studied English literature.
As always, their parents supported their unorthodoxy, which would become a cornerstone of the fashion brand they launched in 2005, called Rodarte (ro-DAR-tay), their mother's maiden name.
"In our minds it made sense," said Kate, 34, who studied art history. "We had this idea we wanted to make clothes. We loved horror films. And whenever we're interested in something we just go into this tunnel and kind of have a crazy affair with it. Laura says the reason a horror film is so amazing is it has to get everything right. If you do one thing wrong, you lose the viewer and the momentum. Fashion has a similar intensity. And, even though (the horror genre) is a big part of the film community, it's kind of outsidery. Laura and I are kind of like that. We march to the beat of our own drum."
Rodarte's darkly romantic originality — red-stained dresses inspired by Japanese slasher films, claw belt buckles and shredded fabrics as part of a California condor storyline — is one reason the co-designers earned the Legend of Fashion award from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago this month.
It is one in a string of honors that few designers achieve in a lifetime, let alone by age 35. In 2009 they were named Womenswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, fashion's equivalent of an Oscar. Their work resides in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Their costumes for "Black Swan" won a Critics Choice nomination. They have collaborated with Gap and Target.
They often credit their ascent to the counsel of Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and the support of Ikram Goldman, owner of a world-renowned store in Chicago who received the Legend of Fashion award two years ago.
"To see such feminine and elegantly worked and reworked garments, you can't help but fall in love with Rodarte," Goldman said.
Artist Nick Cave said Rodarte proves young designers can advance fashion without the backing of a global megabrand.
"It's about innovation — having a point of view that's not necessarily repeated in the industry," Cave said.
Here is an edited version of a conversation with the Mulleavys.
Q: You had no experience in fashion. How did you launch Rodarte?
KM: We wrote to Cameron Silver, who has this vintage store called Decades in Los Angeles. He looked at our collection, 10 pieces. He said, "You should go to New York." We'd never been to New York.
LM: We went to a friend's apartment in the West Village. We shoved our clothes in the closet and just sat there, scared.
KM: It probably is what an actress feels like on a bus to Hollywood. New York is the fashion capital of America. We didn't know what we were doing. I handmade these paper dolls and sent them to magazines. We got this call from Women's Wear Daily. A few days later — Fashion Week was about to start — they put us on the cover.
A few weeks later, Vogue Editor Anna Wintour was coming to LA, and she wanted to see us. She looked at our clothes. I asked her, "Do you have any advice?" She said, "The only advice I'll give you is you guys need to keep what you're doing personal." That has been a guiding force for us.
Q: You work out of Los Angeles and grew up in Northern California, which inspired your fall collection?
KM: The landscape of where we grew up, outside of Santa Cruz, is a huge part of what we do. It was such a great mixture of new agers, hippies, skaters, punks, straight edge, surfers. I became interested in why people wore clothes to become a part of a group and also to separate themselves — that push and pull.
Q: How do you reconcile drama and artistry with selling clothes?
LM: People want to believe that people who are creative are oblivious to the commercial aspects, but there is no separation. We run our own business; we're fully aware of every choice we make and what it means. That's how we've had a successful business. Half of the day you aren't designing, you're working on the business.
Q: Fashion is tough. What would you tell students considering this as a career?
KM: The fashion industry wants people who have vision and talent to succeed. It is a tough industry, but if you love it and if you have the talent, it's definitely worth going for it.