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Rodarte

The fashion press loves a quirky backstory, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy had a doozy of one when they hit New York in the spring of 2005. Among other charming evidence of outsiderdom, the sisters were reported to operate out of a cottage behind their mother's house in Pasadena, California. These self-taught creatures, the dispatches breathlessly implied, were naïfs who had simply taken their dress-the-dolly games to a radical extreme. (Never mind that both went to Berkeley, Kate studying art history, Laura English literature.)

Rodarte's "soft abstractions," as the designers described their intent for Fall 2006—otherworldly gowns that were all petals, tendrils, and undulations—appeared in the pages of Vogue and W within months. Almost neurotically obsessive craftsmanship was quickly identified as the label's hallmark; "wearable" wasn't exactly a Rodarte catchphrase. The early looks included cobwebs of lace; a skirt like a stiff, gold lamp shade; and floating watercolor frocks that reminded viewers of Leda and the Swan. But by the spring of 2007, the industry, which, after all, must have something to sell, was beginning to wonder aloud whether the Mulleavys could produce truly wearable ready-to-wear.

A collaboration with the Gap was the first proof that they aimed, indeed, to branch out—and to cement their status as more than a flash in the pan. Recent runway shows, moreover, have unveiled a darker soul lurking beneath the chiffon and moiré silk: We've seen bloodred "slasher" dresses, NC-17-rated see-through blouses, a clove-scented spice of goth and Kabuki. (Kind of like catching a pair of sweet girls cutting up their Barbies behind closed doors.)

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