The Spirit of the Mulleavys
Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2017 Collection Is Not Just "For the Bees"

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A swarm of bees in one’s home, not unlike the tiny fruit flies which plague the Stanford dorms, wouldn’t at first appear to be inspiration ripe for an entire fashion collection. But Rodarte, the fashion house helmed by the creative visionaries (and sisters) Laura and Kate Mulleavy, dwells in the richness of the unexpected.

Their Spring/Summer 2017 collection is no departure from this philosophy. The sisters, who have received such accolades as the CFDA Womenswear Designers of the Year, found inspiration from bees that appeared in their Pasadena home over a particularly hot California summer. What perhaps began as the outlines of a translucent wing on their dining table or the gentle fuzz on a still buzzing abdomen transformed into a collection marked by Rodarte’s typical fascination with material, texture, and a commitment to craft. Each design is an opulent and varied collage; honeycomb lace is layered over delicately dotted tulle, and sequined embellishments fleck the garments like particles of pollen. All at once, the clothes contain the structure and sharpness of honeycomb and the dreamy ethereality of a fairytale.

Yet to pin the SS17 pieces as simply “for the bees” is to grossly underestimate the narrative ability of the Mulleavy sisters, who have created some of the most intimate and cerebral collections in contemporary American fashion to date. We’re speaking of women whose inspirations have ranged from “fungal shelves” to “hands wrapped in plastic in a morgue” (precisely what one should look for in fall footwear). And such references can’t even begin to encompass the sisters’ self-professed obsession with film, which has manifested itself in everything from their collection printed with Star Wars characters to their self-penned movie, Woodshock, about a woman who falls into paranoia after a drug trip (set to release in 2017).

While their SS17 show may have begun simply as an aesthetic meditation on bees, it is no wonder that the Mulleavys turned to Victor Erice’s 1973 Spanish cinematic masterpiece, The Spirit of the Beehive, as a more nuanced source of inspiration. The film weaves together a tale of post-war Spain in the 1940s, following the two young daughters of a beekeeper as they grapple with the isolation and lingering reminders of violence in their day-to-day life. The girls, Ana and Isabel, grasp at fragments of the outside world through film, fixating on the story of Frankenstein after it is shown in a traveling movie-show in their rural town.The resulting narrative concerns the yearning for escape and the dangers of creation, ultimately revealing the currents of darkness that flow beneath one’s youth.

One is reminded of the Mulleavys’ rural northern Californian childhood as Ana and Isabel are shown wandering across desolate Castilian plains. The Mulleavys themselves often cited the isolation they felt growing up amidst vast expanses of grassy hills and redwoods as inspiration for developing their rich inner lives, taking inspiration both from their natural surroundings as well as their varied collection of classic films. In an interview with Vogue Magazine, Kate Mulleavy recalled “sitting in front of the TV with [her] nose practically on the screen” as she and Laura devoured old movies. Perhaps she recognized a bit of herself in the iconic scene in which Ana watches the tragic story of Frankenstein unfold through film, questions and inspirations blooming up behind her captivated, wide-eyed gaze. 

A child’s secret inner world, an invention so necessary for a young person in order to withstand isolation, motivates the Mulleavys in the same way it dictates the flow of Beehive. Each of their collections suggests an encompassing world of its own, and each resulting garment is, to quote the film, as “endlessly varied and repetitive” as the labors of a hive of bees.  

This is because Rodarte does not simply make clothes. They translate ideas and stories into objects that rest on the body, like the painted organs that young Ana pins to a cartoonish anatomical cutout in her rural classroom, as her own sort of symbolic act of incarnation. As if bringing the wearer’s “spirit” to life, Rodarte’s garments piece together delicate assemblages of lace and embroidery and tulle against their wearer’s body in a way that cannot help but to feel intensely intimate and fiercely personal.

Yet, underlying each notion of imagination in Beehive is a foreboding sense of darkness, which strikes a parallel with the implications of Rodarte’s creative process. Critical and financial anxiety hangs over each successive Rodarte collection; their complicated personal visions rarely translate to a conventionally “wearable” design. As a result, one of America’s most-awarded fashion houses is also one of its least successful, in terms of profit. Refusing to bend to the will of consumers or the fashion industry’s pressure to expand and create at an increasingly rapid pace, the sisters stubbornly prefer to digest their ideas slowly and to express them in sparse yet compelling moments. The risks that they take in order to create, and the very nature of their designs, are perhaps their fatal flaw; becoming Frankensteinian creations that have ultimately doomed their makers.

Still, in the face of failure and possible collapse, the Mulleavys continue to imagine. In the face of violence and confinement, Ana and Isabel searched for spirits. In the face of censorship and the faltering influence of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Victor Erice created one of the most subversive and beautiful Spanish films ever released.

The act of creation is an inherently risky process, but one that must be embraced nonetheless. We need artists and dreamers like the Mulleavys to brave the perils of creativity and expose us to the moving products of their inner worlds, so we may in turn access our own inner selves and the world around us with more clarity.

As for the Mulleavys’ imaginations themselves, all we can do is wonder at the inspiration that allowed Rodarte’s SS17 garments to become animated with such buzzing vitality. Despite the nearly incomprehensible complexity of their visions, we can determine one thing with certainty: the multifaceted inner-world of the Mulleavys is present in every aspect of their creations. It marks the vital difference between a typical fashion collection and a vibrant, intimate narrative, as particularized as a single bee and the spirit of the beehive.

Images courtesy of here.

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