Their story is like a "once upon a time," but envision Cinderella in a lace gown that's been painted on by Caravaggio and then run through a paper shredder. There are actually two Cinderellas, Kate (with bangs) and Laura Mulleavy, sisters who don't yet have 60 birthdays between them. They famously still live with their parents in Pasadena, and in half a dozen years, the exquisite, subversive couture of their Rodarte label, created and produced in their downtown L.A. studios, has taxed the style cliches of critics and fashion lovers alike (see the fashions at latimes.com/rodarte). This year, they've been invited to Florence for the women's branch of the influential Pitti Uomo trade show in June. A forthcoming book, "Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth," displays some of the California images that have inspired them. And almost anything, from a lapidary dessert display in a downtown bakery to the menacing light of a Tornado Alley wheat field, can fire the imaginations of the young ladies from Pasadena.
Your label, Rodarte -- Ro-DAR-tay -- is based on your mother's maiden name. How did you choose it?
Kate: When we were trying to think of names, my dad [had gone] to the Salvation Army store. So he comes home with an old directory from Pasadena from the 1930s. It would say so-and-so, occupation and other things. We found our grandpa; the family had come from Mexico and had changed the name, they dropped the "e" so it became Ro-dart, but in the directory it had the full name. We thought: This is a sign. This is perfect.
Your work is in the permanent costume collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and is on exhibit at MOCA's Pacific Design Center space now. You love going to museums; what's it like to be hanging in them?
Kate: The dynamic of that museum -- it was really amazing to be asked to do something. For each piece we ended up having to cut away part of the [mannequin] because we wanted it to look like the clothes were suspended. Instead of just hanging garments on mannequins, we did something that challenged the idea of form and gravity. What's amazing about the mission of MOCA is to get people to think about art in a different context, [like] the challenge of looking at fashion and design and [their] relationship to art. When you're confronted with pieces as objects, when they're removed from the human form, it really makes you look at them in a completely different way.
Laura: It was fun for me because it was nice to be able to look back and say, "Oh, I see how we build things." You study things from season to season, and how [one] leads to another. Walking into the exhibit space, you feel like you have a blank slate; it's like a cleansed palate. When we do a show, it's like you're controlling the environment.
You work a lot with light and shadow.
Laura: Maybe it's because we spent time in the redwood forests. You do have a different relationship to light and shadow because you're under a canopy of trees taller than any other living things in the world. My favorite time of day is when the sun goes down, everything looks kind of blue, but you have one spot where the sun comes in. I've definitely spent time thinking about [such images].
Kate: Also, our idea of neon light or manufactured light really sums up Los Angeles. It explains the last show we did, all about [filmmaker] Terrence Malick versus "The Wizard of Oz." We did a collection off the idea of a prairie landscape, and we built dresses like wheat fields at different points of the day, like a study of almost serene calmness, but the weird anxiety is knowing that at any moment that could shift, you could have something like a tornado, and that's where we referenced "The Wizard of Oz," talking about these two kinds of light, natural versus artificial.
Sounds like you both could as easily have picked up paintbrushes as fabric.
Laura: I feel like this is what we were meant to do. I don't think our ideas ever really stop with fashion design, but if you asked us to draw something, what we would draw would be a dress. It's like second nature. I always say we're storytellers. Sometimes the stories are very abstract, and sometimes I don't think the meaning is really clear for either of us. The medium that works for us is fashion.
Your work is cerebral and tactile, and you don't just use fabric -- you sandpaper it and scorch it and shred it.
Kate: [As a child] I was obsessed with wallpaper, [with] carpeting. My mom's a weaver; she did these huge wall hangings. [In] our home, one of the walls was all broken rock. Everything I remember about my childhood has to do with the way things look and what they were made out of.
There's already this legend about you: scraping together money for your first collection, going to New York like Willy Loman with a full suitcase, and three days later you land the cover of Women's Wear Daily.
Laura: It's actually true, and that's what's so embarrassing about it. The first time we went to New York was to show our first pieces. I felt naive, because I knew nothing about this industry I wanted to get into. Kate sold her record collection. I'd gotten a job as a waitress. We put everything into something that was a complete black hole, and we didn't know what would happen.
If you had known the odds, would you still have gone?
Kate: You know the people who know when to stop in a casino: "I've made the money I want to make and now I'm walking away"? Laura and I don't gamble that much, but when we have, even if it's only $20, we never walk away. So I think we probably still would have gone.
We had this idea; we didn't know what was going to happen, and I think that probably intensified that. In all truth, I realize now how unusual it was: [to] make 10 pieces of clothes, the first thing you've ever done; to go to a place you've never been, one of the major places in the fashion world; and within a few days to have a Women's Wear Daily cover and to meet with Anna Wintour a month after that -- that kind of stuff never happens.
Do people try to persuade you to leave L.A. permanently for New York?
Kate: I feel very attracted to [New York] as a designer, but I love being here. This is our creative space. California and Los Angeles are so interrelated to our creative process. Some people might not need to be close to the things that inspire them, but it's important to us.
Laura: We're also very free [in thinking]. I think it has something to do with living in L.A. I tell people who come here, "I want you to drive out to Joshua Tree or even Death Valley, because you'll experience this weird freedom of living here, that you are in this alien, bizarre, prehistoric landscape that feels like the edge of the universe."
How do you two work together?
Kate: We really work as one person. We talk at the table. By the time we're sketching, we know what we're doing. Laura can scribble out ideas; my dream is to keep all of her first sketches and do a book one day. I'm the one who does all the final drawing. That's the only thing that does separate the process. To me, we have the same mind, because we've both seen the same things, we've been with each other. It's hard to explain, but in that process, we really work as one person. We have a way of talking, and I completely understand all of her gestures and what she's thinking and vice versa.
You're both true movie junkies. Do film costumes influence you?
Laura: I would be the first to say I watch movies to stare at costumes, but when it comes down to being influenced by things, we're more into landscapes, personal memories, art, music -- not the costumes in film but the whole feeling of [film].
Kate: We love film in general, but when we use a film as a reference point, it's a way of talking about things that have nothing to do with [the film itself]. Film is a way of communicating the ideas we're having. Art and literature are really big [influences]. We are collectors of information! We tend to create a visual world that involves all of these different aspects.
You have said, and I agree with you, that Tippi Hedren in "The Birds" looks much more interesting with her hair messed up and her dressmaker suit all awry.
Laura: We have that Barbie doll, the one with the birds on her!
Kate: That was a film moment when I knew for sure what kind of designers we were. For a lot of people [it's] an iconic style. The only thing Laura and I care about was when the birds [attack] and her sweater's torn and her hair's falling apart -- the ruin, that's what was interesting to me. I love looking at the film and seeing the dichotomy [Hitchcock] set up.
You did some of the costumes in "Black Swan," which won an Oscar for your fan, actress Natalie Portman.
Kate: It was a perfect story for us as designers; prior to that, we'd done a 2008 collection based on a [South Korean horror film].
Laura: We had done these white dresses that looked blood-spattered. Natalie had worn a dress from that [collection], and she said, "I think you'd be right to design some of the costumes for this film."
Kate: One of my favorite pieces was the practice tutu. It has to mimic what you wear onstage, so you have to make it totally ruined from the get-go. They're so beautiful that way. "Swan Lake" is actually a story of doubles and voyeurism and breaking out of identity, things that were very interesting to us, so it was a project that made sense for us. Even something like the metal crown, we knew [Portman] was going to be spinning around, so we had these metal things jutting out of both sides of her head ?
Laura: ? it was as if her skull had cracked. There's brambles, there's claws, there's very weird things on it.
Portman, Cate Blanchett and Michelle Obama, among others, wear your designs. Do you?
Kate: It's like when someone says they can't listen to the sound of their own voice.
Coco Chanel always did.
Kate: Everyone's different. I feel like I want to do so many different looks, I never can see [dressing myself]. It's selfish, in a way. I don't like to design that way. I find it very limiting. We're making it because we believe in it and we want to make it. But it's never about what we would wear personally.
We tend to make pieces people collect. Hopefully what we do is make something that stands the test of time. The best designers can do things that keep that essence of couture; it preserves something culturally but also moves out. I think about denim jeans; I don't think there's ever going to be a more brilliant piece of clothing. And I love couture. A brilliant concept, a good idea in design is as important as anything else.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.