Art, cinema, nature and “Star Wars” fuse together in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ first major fashion exhibition, an exploration of 13 years of ethereal styles from celebrated American fashion house Rodarte.
More than 90 complete looks are on display from sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, whose high-concept couture has shaken up the D.C. museum scene since the show opened late last year. And there’s no question it’s a must-visit before it closes on Feb. 10.
“It’s not so much a retrospective — they’re too young for that! It’s a survey of the first 13 years of their career,” NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor told The Washington Diplomat. “In fact, their ages are part of the reason why NMWA felt Rodarte was a great fit for us because we aim to champion women of all ages. Often, women don’t receive recognition for their achievements until later in life, but we think it’s important to celebrate and support them at all stages of their career.”
The thematic exhibition is inventive, fun and endlessly Instagrammable. The details and textures are the stars here, from the deep colors on gorgeous, wispy gossamer sheaths to fierce, hand-stitched metallic leather dresses.
There’s surprising depth to the show as well. Close looks at the dreamy spring 2012 collection of Van Gogh dresses reveal images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope within the digitally printed silks of sunflowers and “The Starry Night.” And the “Star Wars” gowns from the 2014 collection are showstoppers, perfectly designed pieces that satisfy as both sci-fi nostalgia and Instagram-bait.
There have been a few missteps from the sisters, like 2009’s gauzy fur fiasco that’s saved only by the finale dresses of glorious dyed silk tulle, and the 2015 “mermaid collection” whose net dresses are more reminiscent of “Deadliest Catch” than “The Little Mermaid.” But most of the collections are stunning. In the most effective pieces on display, delicate materials collide with strongly expressed themes and ideas, taking inspiration from the sisters’ childhood growing up in California, their love of Hollywood classics like “Star Wars” and Terrence Malick’s ethereal film “Days of Heaven,” and their interest in nature.
The room focused on gardens is particularly breathtaking, offering a gorgeous display of floral-inspired dresses, with fabulous headpieces and an exquisite color palette. The simple styling of the room, with flowers on the mounts, makes each piece pop. It’s an unforgettable showcase of fashion as art.
“Nature inspires our choice of colors and the way that we build garments — with a layering of fabrics that reference growth patterns of flowers, and our use of textural materials reminiscent of the details found in nature,” Laura Mulleavy says in the exhibition text.
For every romantic floral confection made of gauze and tulle, the sisters are also unafraid to experiment with harsher, industrial-inspired structures and rough textures, like nets or inelegantly draped wool tassels. And whatever the dress, the shoes — usually spiky, strong Louboutins or Nicholas Kirkwoods designed for Rodarte — are worth a peek, too.
Rodarte is the first fashion exhibition organized by NMWA, and the museum had been looking to do a show that highlighted young, contemporary women designers, according to Treanor.
“Although the fashion world is heavily geared toward women, it is not an industry that includes an equitable number of women in important roles such as leading major fashion houses. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind Rodarte, occupy a very unique position as they are not only the creative force behind the brand, but are also 100 percent in control of their business,” she said.
D.C. isn’t typically associated with high fashion, however unfair that perception may be. But there’s no doubt this show helps prove that there is an appetite for haute couture in the city — and sets the standard for future fashion exhibitions.
“Just because there is not usually an opportunity to see contemporary fashion displayed in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mean there isn’t an interest it. That’s the assumption we were working off of in organizing this exhibition and it turns out we were right,” Treanor said. “Washington has a very international and cultured population, which is one reason why there are so many wonderful museums here. We wanted to offer them something they couldn’t see anywhere else. Even though Rodarte is firmly an American label with deep roots in California, they have shown at Paris fashion week and been recognized internationally.”
through Feb. 10
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave., NW
For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.