The Sisters Behind Rodarte and Artist Catherine Opie Talk Politics, Periods, and California

With Woodshock their first feature film, premiering in September, Laura and Kate Mulleavy of the American fashion house have a candid conversation with their close friend.

Deep into Woodshock, the new feature film written and directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) toys with a delicate crystal vase. The camera’s filter sheds a soft, gauzy glow and the crop is close, cutting between Dunst’s spacey expression and the glass. From the moment she handles the vase—first with caution, marveling at the way it catches the sunlight, then carelessly, spinning it in her hand—you know it’s bound to shatter.

The psychological drama, premiering at the Venice Film Festival on September 4, is driven by these pretty, moody moments cut with unsettling undertones. And in this way, Woodshock is exactly what you’d expect to see from the minds behind American fashion house Rodarte. Atmospheric and sensory, abstract and strange, the film is just another incarnation of the sisters’ signature aesthetic: a trademark blend of elegance and eeriness.

Though best known for their “small-batch,” critically acclaimed clothing collections, the Mulleavys frequently swerve in and out of their high-fashion lane. During their 12-year-long career, they’ve designed costumes for an opera at the L.A. Philharmonic, penned a foreword to a book about boredom, and created textiles for Knoll, among other projects.

On the occasion of their first firm, we spoke with the sisters and their close friend, the American photographer Catherine Opie, via phone from their respective Los Angeles studios. Though not one of them can remember exactly how they met—at a dinner some years ago, maybe for the Gagosian gallery, where Karl Lagerfeld may or may not have also been in attendance—both sides were instantly smitten. “I remember it being pretty much like everyone else was gone in the room,” Opie says, which may also explain the contextual amnesia. Collaborations soon followed: The sisters tapped Opie, along with photographer Alec Soth, to shoot their 2011 monograph. A year later, Kate and Laura sat for Opie’s “Portraits and Landscapes” series.

The three still bond over their deep affection for California and their love of horror films, both of which have long played a role in the Mulleavy sisters’ work. Here, they discuss Woodshock, politics, periods, and more.

What’s the story you’re hoping to tell with Woodshock?

Laura Mulleavy: We wanted to evoke what it feels like to stand in an old-growth redwood forest. There’s something to be said about the fact that various artists throughout time have talked about how difficult it is to capture these trees, and what they make you feel. We wanted to create a narrative that could bring you into this world—this all-encompassing atmosphere—that’s majestic in a way, but also very disturbing. Even though there’s such grand beauty to the trees, they can make you feel so alone and isolated. That’s where the story of Theresa came from. We really wanted to show that complexity, and our deep, deep love for them, because we grew up in Northern California on the edge of an old-growth forest. Each part of this film was made as a layer to communicate an idea. It’s a metaphor: The deepest places in the forest are the deep recesses of the mind.

Kate Mulleavy: It was really important for us to approach our journey with Theresa in an emotional way. It’s like a stream of consciousness with this character.

Catherine, how do you think the film fits into Kate and Laura’s body of work?

Catherine Opie: This is an incredibly personal piece. I think that a general audience is going to be really surprised by its psychological intensity. I found it to be incredibly insightful into both of them as sisters, which you don’t necessarily read into with the clothing that they make. It’s shot beautifully. The lighting, the repetition, and also the characters surprise you. One of the things that I think is really interesting about the film is the aspect of the sublime in relationship to beauty and destruction. Those are the things I hung onto. And the earth—what we are doing to the earth.

Speaking of the earth, you three have a connection to California in common. Is that part of your shared sensibility as artists?

Catherine: I would say it’s about a love of California and acknowledging ideas of landscape. We have a shared sense of history about this state, and there’s a certain nostalgia in place within that. But I remember a lot of our conversation [when we first met] was also about horror films—our interest in that as a genre. It wasn’t so much about us riffing about art as it was about sharing similar sensibilities about life and creativity.

Still from Woodshock.

But your creative processes are quite different. Catherine, yours is solitary; Kate and Laura, you do absolutely everything together.

Catherine: They’re as close to being twins who aren’t twins, in my mind! [Laughs]

Kate: It’s true! I think someone at our post office thinks we’re twins. I haven’t corrected him ever. In terms of Laura and me working together, we’re so intertwined. A lot of people told us they wondered what it would be like to have two of us on set. Essentially, they said it was like we’re one person. And when we work together, we really are. We like to work in isolation. We usually don’t like talking about what we’re doing with other people.

Laura: Fashion design is a very isolating field to work in, so everyone probably finds ways of having people in their lives to help balance that. Everyone has their own way of achieving their aloneness to get what they need.

Catherine: I’ve been teaching now for more than 20 years, and it [involves] an enormous amount of energy and people and ideas, so when it comes time to be in my studio, I do like it to be solitary. It will be interesting when I retire from teaching if all of a sudden my art changes to being more collaborative.

Laura: Can we talk about how lucky your students are to have you as a teacher, Cathy? That’s the biggest gift. When you have an amazing professor and they open your eyes to a whole world you didn’t know existed—it’s the most profound thing that will happen in your life.

When it comes to film and fashion, you two are completely self-taught.

Kate: I found, for me, that when I actually attempted to take a class in fashion—which at that point, I had an inkling of knowing that that was what I really wanted to do—I quit within a week and a half. I actually made the decision in my mind, in an unconscious way, that I needed to just discover this on my own. It’s almost like I avoided all the people who would put up the barriers.

Catherine: I’ve had very formal training—I got my bachelors and my masters, and I went to two of the top art schools in the country to do that. Formal training for me was not only about making better work, but also so that I could become a teacher to support myself. And of course I’ve been really successful—it’s worked out really well for me. [Laughs] To my parents’ surprise. My dad made me get my real estate license when I was 18 because he thought, This art thing isn’t really going to work out for you. But one of the things that people do ask me is, Can you teach someone to be a good artist? And no, you can’t teach someone to be a good artist. I think talent, or whatever word you want to attach to it, can’t be taught.

Photo: Mathew Scott

Kate and Laura, film has long been an inspiration for your fashion. Does it go both ways?

Kate: I think of fashion as a broader part of storytelling. We communicate a lot of things about ourselves with fashion—it’s a very expressive medium. In the current view of it, we forget almost how radical it can be.

Laura: Having to talk to the public about a collection makes us need to have more of an inspiration than we actually do. We don’t have literal references. Kate and I don’t need images to inspire us—we don’t do mood boards, we don’t take in certain things that guide our hands. But there are things that we know through studying art history, English literature, watching film that are just this catalog in our brains.

Blood is a recurring theme in both of your work. How do you explain your fascination?

Laura: It’s the essential thing you’re taught as a human that you’re made of. You realize your roots are based in this idea of blood. The symbolic meaning of it is so poignant: the idea of violence, the idea of life, femalehood. When I think about blood in Woodshock, it was definitely a point of rage. And then the representation of it as this amazing color. As visual people, there’s something so attractive about it. But its so—what’s the word where you’re so connected to something that’s strong and powerful and you just immediately react to it? That’s what it feels like to me.

Kate: I’m very fearful of blood in real life. I’m the one that will pass out at the doctor’s office when they take blood. I literally have to psych myself up: It’s like I’m an athlete preparing for a game. And yet I’ve always been so attracted to it, especially in the cinematic form, to the point that with horror films, I would watch them just to know about the specific colors of blood.

Catherine: I’ve never been scared of it; I’ve been intrigued by it. I’ve found that men are far more afraid of blood than women are, actually. And that’s because we have to deal with it usually from 13 on, until we go through menopause. Part of our monthly existence is dealing with this blood that comes out of our body, you know? [Laughs]

Laura: Some type of power comes from knowing that comes out of you once a month.

(FROM LEFT) "Self-Portrait/Cutting" (1993). © Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Look 123, Rodarte Fall/Winter 2008

Bodies are another subject you share in your work, but they’re very different bodies.

Laura: At Rodarte we don’t design for a person. We don’t think about people when we’re making clothing. We just think of an idea, and that is very freeing. I treat the body as a canvas for fabric, texture, and color.

Catherine: One of the things that’s important to me is the diversity—that beauty and aesthetics are not necessarily cookie-cutter. And also in relationship to my own body, of being a “large woman,” whatever that fucking means. [Laughs] The composition of my own body in the world and how I’m viewed has been something that I’ve had to navigate. Just getting in a plane seat is sometimes like, Ugh…. [Laughs]

Laura: What I think is interesting about the body is that it’s a way of controlling people: training young women to believe that their sole value is beauty rather than their mind.

Does creating very expensive clothing complicate that for you?

Kate: Rodarte is so small. When you make things that require so much labor, so much time, so much meticulous craftsmanship—the artistry of it, that’s what makes it expensive. And when something is expensive it limits the possibility of who can have it, so you get into all these bigger questions. But what I think is interesting about fashion is that it can be a medium for revolution and change. It can also be a medium for status quo and not change. And it’s in the individual and how you choose to express yourself. A piece can translate so many different ways depending on who’s wearing it when it goes out in the world.

Catherine: They recently gave me a silk jacket. They femmed me up a little bit, mhmm! They’re like making my inner girl come out—and it’s really weird [Laughs].

Photo: Mathew Scott

How does your work fit into a larger sociopolitical context?

Catherine: Representation in itself is political. When I was making the early portraits, even the cutting of the two stick figure girls on the back, those are very political photographs to me, not only for myself, but also in a time period where an enormous amount of friends were dying of AIDS, and when S&M culture was looked at as evil and perverted—they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my entire life! Really, the politics behind my work are always in relationship to ideas of humanity: That it is better to live a long life and create discourses around the idea that we aren’t that different.

Laura: That question of representation, in 2017, is the biggest one. There’s a set of rules made a while ago that have limited people’s access to being storytellers—who gets to be in the fine-art world, who gets to be in the canon—all those things need to be questioned in terms of whose voices are important. That’s something the internet has helped with, and that’s exciting. With Woodshock, we wanted to tell a story that seemed like it was a part of us. It was very personal—it was what we could bring to the table.

You’re recognized as an American artist and fashion house, respectively. What does that mean for you in today’s landscape?

Catherine: It’s a complicated landscape. I was born here, it’s where I’ve grown up, I haven’t ever lived in another country. But as I’ve always said, I’m not a singular identity. I certainly am an American, but how that defines me now, especially in the kind of political situation we all find ourselves in, with eyes wide open and mouths agape—I’m not really that proud to be an American right now. It’s a little embarrassing to go to Europe with a U.S. passport.

Laura: Our biggest inspiration for anything we’ve done has come from growing up in California. I find that it’s a huge part of who I am. But my mother’s side is first-generation and my dad is about fifth-generation Californian. The thing that I love about being an American is the acceptance of all ideas and people.

(FROM LEFT) Look 6, Rodarte Spring/Summer 2018. "Self-Portrait/Pervert" (1994). © Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Catherine, you’re known for one discipline. Laura and Kate, you’re constantly trying on new forms of self-expression. What does that do for your definitions of what it means to be an artist?

Catherine: I actually just made a film, too, of a lot of stills. And I also have a secret practice: I make ceramic [tree] stumps. I’m a closet stump-maker. I’m coming out. [Laughs] I started making one of them for the hell of it when a student didn’t show up to a meeting. I [then] lit them on fire [to be photographed for the “Portraits and Landscapes” series in 2012], but I’m allowing the stumps to be stumps now.

I hope that even if photography is my main medium I can be open to all kinds of things. I have this idea that I will retire one day and that I’ll be a plein air painter named Sunshine Daisy. [Laughs] So, I’m open!

Laura: We’re not practicing artists, but I think that we choose artistic ways of expressing ourselves in different mediums when we have the opportunity to do so. And that’s because I care about the legacy of what we do and have to say.

Kate: There’s definitely a mythology of the “artistic” person, and I think that that mythology can be noninclusive. I think it is more about breaking those barriers. And breaking barriers means trying things and going in new directions and not necessarily just taking the path that might be laid out for you.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.

"Stump fire #1" (2012) and "Kate & Laura" (2012). © Catherine Opie, Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
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