When looking for inspiration for their new horror movie, Woodshock, Kate and Laura Mulleavy looked no further than their childhood in rural California.
“Our parents lived in Humboldt County – they both went to undergrad [school] there and they lived in, literally, a cabin in the Redwoods with no running water,” says Laura Mulleavy who, along with her sister Kate, is the brains behind fashion house Rodarte and the new horror movie which has just had its New York premiere.
The subplot of the film – the destruction by logging companies of the magnificent and ancient Redwood trees, the tallest in the world – is in keeping with the Mulleavy family’s time living so close to nature.
“Our dad went to Berkeley to get his doctorate and then they ended up in Santa Cruz,” the sisters explained. “Our parents were very classic California, especially from the 1970s period.”
“It’s interesting, when I got older, I realised both of them were very artistic,” Laura says. “Dad is obsessed with things you almost can’t see with the human eye. It’s so funny for my dad to talk about what we do because he has such a detailed eye. Mom has an eye like that too, but different just because she was an artist, so she was always making panes or mosaics or all kinds of things. She did these amazing wall hangings and she would make all the dye from turmeric. We were always watching her do these things and that was juxtaposed with being in an area which had so much visual stimulation: characters that lived there and such beautiful landscapes. There was a lot of old growth Redwoods, by the ocean. And it was kind of magical because with dad we were always around botanists. We basically grew up in other people’s greenhouses.”
“That’s probably why we have these memories of it – because it’s such a magic time, that version of childhood,” she continued. “It stays with you.”
The Mulleavy sisters, aged 37 and 35, lived in Santa Cruz until they were teenagers. After listening to tales of their childhood and watching their movie, it’s clear to see the development of their Rodarte fashion line over the last decade.
As well as a strong sense of nature, there had always been a nod to horror films and a darker side to their clothes – literally, in the case of splatters of red ‘blood’ on delicate hosiery – and an underlying and often unsettling story behind any expression of pretty, innocent clothing.
Surprisingly, the costumes Kirsten Dunst wears in Woodshock, designed by the sisters and Christie Wittenborn, don’t seem to carry the kind of mystery or irony of their fashion designs – unless you count throwing a white cashmere sweater smothered with bleach into a washing machine.
Kirsten appears to sleep, eat and live in pastel colored tops.
Kate shows a childhood photograph of the sisters dressed for Halloween wearing clothes made by their mother, with their pet cat Merlin at their side.
“We were convinced that he was really the wizard from The Sword In The Stone,” the designer says. “Everything we make comes from something like that.”
Woodshock is filmed entirely in and around the famous Redwood forests of California, which become increasingly suffocating as the film progresses. The Mulleavy sisters have also been influenced by other Californian landmarks, such as the famous Santa Cruz boardwalk the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
From the hippy haven that is the Santa Cruz seafront came tie-dye gowns as a riff on the styles they grew up with; long shorts that hung low on the hip, worn with trench coats; and sweatshirts, which they wore “every day of our lives on the beach”.
“I saw the aquarium and, my god! It was so pretty,” said Kate. “I told Laura that it was even prettier than the most beautiful Chanel couture. It’s like nature that grows on these things. So we said, why don’t we tell the story of The Little Mermaid but we’ll set it more in Monterey? And we made things that were all about fish net. We put real sand in the clothes in that collection which was really fun when we sold it in stores! It was more of a nod to the nature where we grew up. Sometimes your personal impressions of things from your earliest point of existence, even unconsciously, affect you.”
The Mulleavy sisters were also involved in Black Swan. The 2011 psychodrama that features a deranged Natalie Portman and costumes suggesting ragged birds. Although costume designer Amy Westcott has claimed that the designers’ role in the movie was overblown.
Woodshock grew from the sisters’ desire to create and control their own movie, and it was their choice to focus on Northern California. Their home in Humboldt County is around seven hours’ drive north of Santa Cruz.
“We knew that we wanted to do something about Redwoods because what comes into your mind is what affects you from childhood,” said Kate. “Being around those trees had such a huge effect on us. To film there is so spectacular. When you see Kirsten laying on that tree trunk, it is a real trunk, not something we just went and made. These trees are the largest living organisms on the planet. If you look up, they’re taller than the Empire State Building. It’s just unbelievable. But it was a real challenge to figure out how to capture the essence.”
The movie was written between 2012 and 2014 and shot in the summer of 2015. Not long after filming wrapped up, the sisters were putting on a fashion show in New York, with the editing process only beginning after the runway show ended. Woodshock was presented at the Venice Film Festival in September to less than enthusiastic reviews. Reviews from the New York debut are only just starting to come in.
The sisters are undeterred by such criticism, as they always have been of reviews of their fashion shows. “I love fashion so much and I think people stand up for it because it’s true,” says Laura. “Fashion that’s transcendent has so much thought and ingenuity and I think it is bad to take that away from designers to make it so systemised.
“Look at the music industry now and the truth is that we cannot pretend it didn’t change,” she continued. “It is a huge conundrum what’s happened to the artist in the music world and I sometimes look at fashion in a similar context.”
The Rodarte brand is niche – or to put it more bluntly, minuscule, putting on just two shows a year. The duo are not convinced that they could raise their output even with a larger team, with Laura saying, only half-jokingly: “I don’t think I could come up with four good ideas in a year.”
“Yes, you could!” says Kate. “I don’t think that that’s the issue. It’s more that you can’t work to a system. I’m just trying to support creativity and I think for people to have expectations that you’re going to put out that many shows a year and each is going to be brilliant – that’s not possible.”
So, what is the future for Kate and Laura and for Rodarte? Are they planning to extend their fashion brand? To return to movies full-time? Or to try and balance the two – which Tom Ford seems to have managed so successfully.
Let’s hope the duo never think of leaving the fashion world, although they admit the movie itch has started again and they are making plans for a new film.
“Well, we’ve already started writing it,” they answer. “You have to because once you’re done, you’re just like – it’s definitely an addictive process. It’s so many great feelings.”