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Why After Dressing 12 Women at the Oscars, Rodarte Designers Still Feel Overlooked — ‘What Does It Take?’

For independent designers with zero outside investment, Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy had a remarkable red carpet awards season.

They dressed dozens of stars, starting with Lily Gladstone at the Palm Springs Film Festival just after the holidays, then Da’Vine Joy Randolph at the Golden Globes, Florence Pugh at the Governor’s Awards, Natasha Leon at the AFI Awards, Charlotte Lawrence at the Grammys, and 12 people on Oscars night, a personal record, including Best Producer winner Emma Thomas, Martin Scorsese’s actor-director daughter Francesca Scorsese, Marlee Matlin and more.

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And unlike most every other brand in the competitive, monied game, they did not pay-for-play and write checks to do so.

Designing custom dresses for every creative profession, size and age, including Best Documentary Short grannies Nai Nai, 86, and Wai Po, 96, the L.A. sisters, who are filmmakers themselves, proved their range and appeal in fashion’s Hollywood epicenter, where they are more authentically connected than almost any other designer.

So why, as they’re closing in on 20 years in the business, do they still feel overlooked?

“If you want to see designers like us working for big houses, you have to advocate for it. With a certain level of media exposure or talent, people think you have opportunities,” Kate Mulleavy said over lunch in Pasadena on Tuesday, reflecting on how luxury brand talent recruiters and investors have not come calling.

“We had one conversation — in 20 years — for the things we’ve achieved,” Laura Mulleavy added. “I don’t have a big ego, but I am shocked. It was one conversation and we weren’t the right fit. But what else could I have done? I have dressed best actresses, made amazing costumes, we’re in museums around the world, we have done solo shows, we have worked with artists, all these things out of an independent company. People know our clothes, they know what Rodarte is.”

Laura Mulleavy and Kate Mulleavy at the 2023 Academy Museum Gala held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on December 3, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Laura Mulleavy and Kate Mulleavy at the 2023 Academy Museum Gala at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

Among their generational peers, including Proenza Schouler and Tory Burch, who both recently celebrated 20-year anniversaries, the designers have succeeded on their own terms in Los Angeles, from which several male designers have been plucked for plum luxury brand director jobs, the late Virgil Abloh and Jeremy Scott among them.

The Mulleavys said they believe they are experiencing first-hand issues of sexism and omission that have become part of the fashion conversation since the Costume Institute’s recent “Women Dressing Women” exhibition, in which Rodarte is featured, and Sarah Burton’s replacement by Sean McGirr at Alexander McQueen, highlighting how few women are heading European luxury brands.

They are coming off months of intense red carpet work, during which they created some breathtaking eveningwear with just an eight-person team in their 5,000-square-foot East Los Angeles studio, and produced their fall 2024 collection and look book portrait series.

“I do feel tired,” Laura Mulleavy said, explaining that each of the 12 Oscars looks required four to five fittings. “For the grandmas, we did a meeting when they were in town at their hotel, then realized it would be better at our studio,” she said of working with their longtime collaborator, stylist and costume designer Shirley Kurata, on creating the joyful printed pantsuits for the ladies. “The poppy print one of them chose because our mom, who is an artist, made it. How sweet is that?”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: (L-R) Sean Wang, Chang Li Hua, Sam Davis and Yi Yan Fuei attend the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Sean Wang, Chang Li Hua, Sam Davis and Yi Yan Fuei at the 96th Annual Academy Awards.

Dressing Thomas, who won Best Producer for “Oppenheimer,” was meaningful in another way. “I felt inspired by her as a woman who has achieved so much in an industry where that isn’t easy. She’s opened so many doors and has done something at such a high level, so we felt the weight of that, and hopefully she can look back 10 years from now and still love the dress,” Kate Mulleavy said of the black crisscrossing bodice gown with netted sleeves, styled by Cristina Ehrlich.

“They have the eye and intelligence to create unique, timeless and super-feminine dresses that speak so poetically to these big red carpet moments,” Ehrlich said of looking to Rodarte for her client, adding that their experience as women entrenched in the film industry was also key.

Catherine O’Hara wore a slinky black sequin column from the designers’ pre-spring collection. “We’re the biggest ‘Beetlejuice’ fans of all time,” Laura Mulleavy added of the star, underscoring the obvious: the Mulleavys, who have long mined cinema for inspiration and made their own feature length film “Woodshock” in 2017, are movie nerds.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: Catherine O'Hara attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Catherine O’Hara in Rodarte at the 96th Annual Academy Awards.

Dressing “The Holdovers” actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph for the Golden Globes was another bit of Hollywood kismet for the designers, who are repped by WME, and count Kirsten Dunst, the Haim sisters, Maggie Rogers and many more actors and musicians as friends and collaborators on their talent-based look books, which they alternate with the runway to show their collections.

“We saw the movie and told our friend who works at Focus Features, ‘what do we have to do to make a dress for Da’Vine?’ You know that’s not going anywhere, but a week later, her stylists Wayman [Bannerman] and Micah [McDonald] asked if we had time to do something for her for the Golden Globes,” said Laura. “They thought of us randomly. It was so fun and she was completely wonderful, a beautiful human and excited about the process. And she won! You can make gowns for these carpets all the time and not make gowns for people who win, so it was even a different amount of exposure.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 07: Da'Vine Joy Randolph, winner of the Supporting Actress award for "The Holdovers", pose in the press room during the 81st Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton on January 07, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, winner of the Supporting Actress award for “The Holdovers,” wearing Rodarte at the 81st Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton on Jan. 7.

Red carpet fashion has become so defined by pay-for-play for everything from gowns to jewelry, watches to eyeglasses, it can look like one big shill fest.

“You don’t compete with that,” Kate Mulleavy said when asked how they break through when they are not offering anything more than their free design services — if there is no studio budget to pay for a red carpet look, that is. “What I feel proud of is the integrity of what we do earns these moments.”

“We’re in Los Angeles…how film meets fashion has always been something we’ve cared about since our first presentation when we put Criterion DVDs in the gift bags, it’s always been part of what we do,” added Laura Mulleavy, highlighting the brand’s long legacy of Hollywood synergy, as luxury giants LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Kering now spend millions to cultivate their own.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 09: Florence Pugh attends the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' 14th Annual Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom on January 09, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Florence Pugh in Rodarte at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ 14th Annual Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom on Jan. 9.

They can be somewhat opaque when asked to speak about their business, and never share numbers. But their strategy has evolved. During the pandemic they started producing four collections a year instead of two, pivoted mostly to eveningwear, and ramped up direct-to-consumer sales on their website, which is their biggest store. They also sell at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Moda Operandi, Net-a-porter, Mytheresa, Shopbop and Amazon Luxury.

They’ve carried over popular styles, including their cape maxidresses and bias-cut slipdresses, and added accent pieces like capes with silk flower details. Ready-to-wear and eveningwear range from  $966 to $4,000; demi-couture from $4,000 to $10,000, and made-to-order couture from $10,000 to $40,000.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 12: Natasha Lyonne attends the AFI Awards Luncheon at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 12, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
Natasha Lyonne in Rodarte at the AFI Awards Luncheon at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on Jan. 12.

They’ve added more bridal, and will launch a capsule collection of 15 styles next month on Net-a-porter.

“We realized with our web store, when our clothes became less bespoke, we could do more in that space. We saw what people wanted from us and designed for specific deliveries, not just spring and fall,” Laura Mulleavy said of the evolution.

Their last runway show was in September 2023, and they don’t know if they’ll be back in New York again this coming September. They have finished writing a new script and are eager to start shooting their second film.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: Thomasin McKenzie attends the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 10, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Thomasin McKenzie in Rodarte at the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 10.

“Doing things on our own terms is something we own. I don’t need to do a show every season if I’m going to make a movie and I don’t need to do a show every season unless I feel creatively inclined. I think the reason we’re still in business is we’ve been smart about these decisions,” Kate Mulleavy said.

“Holding people to the standards of a billion-dollar company, that’s not sustainable,” said Laura Mulleavy. “I’ve been willing to break the rules since we started. I wasn’t going to move to New York and we worked through that after five years. We are designers who weren’t wearing our clothes constantly, and we worked through that after maybe 12 years. I didn’t do as much press later on…but I feel like the work speaks for itself.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 10: (L-R) Francesca Scorsese and Martin Scorsese attend the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 10, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Francesca Scorsese, wearing Rodarte, and Martin Scorsese at the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

The designers believe the industry needs systemic change if women-led businesses like theirs are going to thrive.

“You have to build the myth and use the same language to build female designers. The question can’t be, ‘Do you wear your own clothes? Are your clothes wearable?’ We’re talking about fashion. Then you realize this is gendered. We’re artists, making collections that make you dream, and wearability is subjective,” said Kate Mulleavy.

PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 04: Lily Gladstone attends the 2024 Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 04, 2024 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Lily Gladstone wearing Rodarte at the 2024 Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards at Palm Springs Convention Center on Jan. 4.

The Mulleavys would welcome the right partner to help them grow into new categories, including perhaps perfume — or the chance to design for another house.

“It’s a hard road. The opportunities have to be there,” said Kate Mulleavy. “If the opportunity is not there, how can we possibly showcase what we’re capable of? The design positions and the positions in our industry of leadership need to be reflective of the amazing diversity that exists that makes fashion exist.”

“You want a partner that understands what makes us unique,” said Laura Mulleavy. “We’ve proven we can handle a challenge.”

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