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The Rodarte Designers Discuss Learning the Couture Art of Tutu-Making to Create Black Swan’s Ballet Costumes

Laura and Kate Mulleavy.

Last night, amid congratulations from Alec Baldwin and Angela Lansbury at Cipriani 42nd Street, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte became the first fashion designers to be honored with a National Art Award from Americans for the Arts. Kate, who always gives their speeches, said she was reeling, given they only started making clothes after having graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in art history and English, respectively, and moving home to live with their parents. “Laura and I moved, didn’t work, and watched horror films for a year and our parents didn’t say anything to us. I wonder if they had any thoughts of, ‘God, the kids I have are just going nowhere,’” said Kate. Now they’re not only winning awards and putting on some of the most highly anticipated shows at New York Fashion Week, but they also just designed costumes for loyal Rodarte customer Natalie Portman’s new ballet movie, Black Swan.

Portman had introduced the Rodarte sisters to Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, and from there, Laura said, it was “a meeting of the minds.” Rodarte did all of the costumes for the performance of Swan Lake in the movie, as well as “different things throughout,” Laura told us. “It’s actually a very amazing, kind of big moment for us. I think our aesthetic naturally fits into the film and I think it was an interesting thing to have someone say, ‘Help us say this thing.’ It didn’t feel difficult at all. It was very natural. It was one of the most exciting things for us to do because the end project was breathtaking.”

Neither Kate nor Laura has ever danced ballet. And only Laura had ever seen a ballet costume up close. “I did go to one ballet at the Kennedy Center, the Bolshoi Ballet. My friends and I took the train out,” said Laura. “The hardest part about doing a project like that is really conceptualizing it,” Kate added. “Laura and I really wanted to work within a vernacular that was really rooted within a classic aesthetic of what people think Swan Lake is, and at the same time do something that was specific and unique to the world of that film, something that seemed like it was the Swan Lake of Black Swan.”

If Kate thought the most difficult thing about the project was the concept, Laura said it was the mere act of building a tutu, something the Rodarte girls and most designers have never done. “Building a tutu is one of the lost couture arts,” said Laura. “Everyone will know it’s like getting your hand on the prize, like a coveted piece of couture that no one ever gets to see. It’s very interesting, the dance world. You can’t go rent a tutu. You have to own it. And every ballet theater has an archive and everything is stored and kept perfect. They’re worn over time and they’re ruined and they have slits and eyes in different spots, so they’re never actually perfect, but from afar, when you’re in the audience, it looks like one of the most beautiful things in the world. So our job then was to create tutus that were beautiful, but then they had to function completely.” How they did that, she couldn’t say. “That’s a trade secret!” said Laura. “A tutu is thirteen layers of tulle sticking straight out and then it’s over the body, so you can imagine. It’s crazy!”

And they're not done designing ballet outfits: The sisters just designed costumes for a world premiere of a new work by Black Swan choreographer (and Portman’s boyfriend) Benjamin Millepied at the Dutch National Ballet. Then they’ve got the Black Swan premiere, the holidays, and their next collection, which Laura said they're not thinking about yet, but “It’s getting to the point where it’s in the back of mind that I have to.” Are they thinking about a potential Oscar for costume design? Will they be eligible? “I have no idea,” said Laura, smiling at the thought. “That would be pretty cool.”

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

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