stylish sister acts

Hali, left, and Olivia Thornhill are sisters-in-law. (Joe Thornhill / August 12, 2012)

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.

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.

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