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Rodarte: Kate & Laura Mulleavy

The Mulleavy sisters (Kate, left, and Laura), photographed inside their downtown Los Angeles studio, draw on their Aptos childhood to bring otherworldly imaginings to life with technical precision.

From the very first lookbook that Kate and Laura Mulleavy mailed to magazine editors and other style insiders in anticipation of their New York debut in early 2005, it was clear that Rodarte was something special. Instead of the typical mini-catalog full of glossy photos, the Mulleavys produced a series of exquisite handmade paper dresses, replicas of their intricately constructed, painstakingly detailed collection. “Kate spent days on these paper dolls,” recalls Laura, 27, on the terrace of the sisters’ downtown Los Angeles design studio. “We thought no one ever saw them.”

At the time, the Mulleavys were the ultimate fashion outsiders—living with their parents after college, watching an endless string of horror movies, and creating the kind of clothes rarely seen outside the ateliers of Paris haute couture. Encouraged by Cameron Silver, founder and owner of the L.A. vintage boutique Decades (“I can’t believe he told us to go to New York with just 10 pieces in a trunk,” Laura laughs), they decided to risk everything on a trip to Manhattan—only to see their plans nearly derailed by a blizzard. But thanks in part to those paper dresses, the fashion world was dying to meet them.

In an almost unprecedented move, the trade bible Women’s Wear Daily featured a design by the virtually unknown sisters on its cover. Cue the fairytale-ending music and the rapturous reviews.

“Rodarte has elevated how avant-garde American fashion is perceived,” says one of those early admirers, Teen Vogue’s Aya T. Kanai. “They present an American take on the European aesthetic of fashion as a work of art.”

In just three years, the sisters’ handiwork—influenced by everything from kabuki theater and the painter Thomas Gainsborough to childhood expeditions through Muir Woods—has been picked up by Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman and has won numerous A-list fans (Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley, Kirsten Dunst), a string of awards, and one of the highest honors any designer could wish for: the Costume Institute’s acquisition of a Rodarte dress for its permanent collection.

The most improbable part of the Mulleavys’ remarkable rise is their lack of formal training in fashion. Their mother, Victoria, an artist who designs a line of jewelry (available at Barneys) for the Rodarte label, encouraged her daughters’ passion for sketching and taught them how to sew. Fittingly, her maiden name also provided the label’s moniker. Says Laura, “She’s amazing.”

The sisters were born in Oakland and spent much of their childhood in rural Aptos. Their father, a botanist with a PhD from Berkeley, “basically studied mushrooms,” Laura recalls. “He was part of a community that was obsessed with things on a microscopic level. I grew up with these fascinating people, going to crazy greenhouses and rare-mushroom hunts in the Muir Woods.”

For fashion inspiration, there was Santa Cruz street culture, reminiscent of The Lost Boys, the ’80s vampire film based on life in the towns where they grew up. “You had punks, skater kids, hippies, yuppie style,” says 29-year-old Kate, who remembers being captivated by the towering mohawk of a punk she once glimpsed in Capitola.

These early experiences stuck with them even after the family relocated to the far more conventional Pasadena in 1996. Not surprisingly, both girls gravitated to Berkeley for college: “I knew I wanted to be a designer,” Kate says, “but at the same time, I was interested in literature, art, and so many other things.” She studied art history, Laura majored in English literature, and the closest they came to a fashion curriculum was a botched costume-design class in the theater department (which they promptly dropped when they were told to design a scullery maid’s outfit). Their musical taste was also decidedly indie: Sonic Youth, Nirvana, the Smiths, the Meat Puppets, Guided by Voices, and Elliott Smith.

A grim source of inspiration (Japanese horror flicks) yielded a rapturous fall mix: slick separates, webby knits, and to-die-for gowns that drew unanimous acclaim and displayed the sisters' unrivaled talent.

“Laura and I didn’t talk about wanting to be designers too much until toward the end of school,” Kate says. After graduation, they moved back home to Pasadena and started sewing. The sisters’ unorthodox design ethic is similar to their unconventional foray into fashion: Ideas come first, construction follows. “We always knew we had a more complicated viewpoint in terms of what we want to communicate with design,” Laura says. “But I always think that if you have the idea, you just need to figure out how to do it.” Kate adds, “We didn’t tell our friends in the beginning. We planned everything quietly. Our parents helped us the most.”

Another longtime patron is Christine Suppes, editor-in-chief of the influential Palo Alto–based online magazine Fashionlines.com. She met the sisters in 2005 at their first San Francisco trunk show, thrown by boutique owner Susan Foslien soon after their New York breakthrough, and encouraged them to trust their instincts. Says Laura, “She’s like a muse. She’s just the kind of person you dream of mak­ing clothes for."

Earlier this year, after six highly praised seasons at New York’s Fashion Week, the Mulleavys traded their pins for pens when Vogue’s editors suggested that they try a three-month health regimen, then ran the sisters’ journal entries about it in the magazine. The blogs were abuzz, but the sisters were grateful to Vogue for helping them regain control of their lives and health after five years of frenzied overwork. “We had fun!” Laura says.

The sisters are now more focused than ever—though they still work long hours—and Rodarte’s momentum shows no sign of slowing. After they added more daywear to the mix in spring 2008, the Mulleavys created a signature red (a notoriously capricious pigment) for their fall collection, and figured out how to hand-dye, drape, pleat, and layer tulle to create two showstopping floor-length dresses. The idea, Kate says, was a design that looked blood-soaked. “I don’t think people really do that with silk tulle.” She adds, “Sometimes I just laugh at what we invent.”

Such feats of fancy have led to rumors of a future move across the Atlantic, but the sisters—who still live in Pasadena—answer soberly, if somewhat coyly: “All possibilities are open for us. But it makes us think of something Karl Lagerfeld once said that we thought was just amazing. He said, ‘When it’s not possible, it’s usually the best.’”