“It was raining buckets but WOW was it worth it,” wrote Eva Chen, fashion director at Instagram. At Rodarte’s first New York Fashion Week show in two years, designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy unveiled an explosive kind of softness. In a cemetery on East 2nd Street in the pouring rain, guests were shown a stream of tulle and frothy lace. Odille Gilbert’s flowers were woven into the hair of each model, and every piece was punctuated by the label’s signature ruffles. In their return to the live performance of fashion, Rodarte seemed to be preoccupied with ideas of transience: the fresh flowers, the graveyard setting, and the girlishness that informed the collection. Indeed, the pieces were noticeably more delicate than those of SS17, the label’s last collection shown at NYFW, which was dominated by leather, metal studs and safety pins exposing the rude mechanics of clothes production.
However, Rodarte’s ethereal softness for SS19 is not to be confused with fragility. Fantasy and romance were at the centre of the designers’ vision, but the performance of these themes acted to assert the power of childish femininity. Ruffles were created from tough leather, and tulle dresses were made in audacious fuchsia as well as pastel colours. Traditional expectations of fabric and colour were gently subverted in order to ensure that there was little vulnerability to the house’s celebration of girlhood. Ballooning sleeves and skirts also meant that the Mulleavy sisters’ designs also took up huge amounts of physical space, making it difficult for Rodarte’s women to be overlooked.
Every element of the show was self-consciously theatrical. Even away from live performance, the house has always drawn attention to the fact that it is putting on a show. Rodarte’s AW18 collection was revealed through a series of photographic portraits by Autumn de Wilde, who used a visibly artificial painted backdrop in each picture. In drawing attention to the mechanics of what Leandra Medine has called “the fanfare and mystery and fantasy of getting dressed,” the brand lends a further irony to this girlish kind of dressing. Now that Rodarte has returned to live Fashion Week shows, we should look forward to them using setting to create knowingly artificial performances, with overtly cinematic and atmospheric settings, within which clichés can be subverted.
Critics of the show focused on how the Mulleavy sisters had placed escapism and idealism centrally within the identity of Rodarte, and couture as a whole. Leah Chernikoff at Elle felt reminded that “fashion is about selling a fantasy, just as much as it is about selling clothes.” However, in an age of irony, Rodarte’s fantasy cannot be totally transparent. The way in which these hyper-feminine silhouettes towered on the runway suggests that Rodarte’s fantasy is in fact one of female power. The house’s pieces for SS19 seem to allude to fairy stories in their ethereal quality, narratives within which delicacy often renders women vulnerable. However, the pieces also seem to show how this delicacy can be channelled into strength.
Rodarte is not the only house centring this subversive brand of femininity in its identity. Obvious parallels exist with London-based Molly Goddard, who has almost become synonymous with frenetic tailoring and excitable colour palettes. Although Goddard’s most recent collection was admittedly slightly more muted, ruffles still took centre stage. Her signature huge tulle dresses perform a daring kind of ultra-femininity, and have been worn by Adwoa Aboah, Edie Campbell and Rihanna. Molly Goddard’s celebration of girlhood is so glaring it almost feels aggressive, but joyfully so. The parallels between the work of Goddard, Rodarte, and other designers across the industry, implies a shift towards a more nuanced presentation of femininity within fashion: one that celebrates classically female textures and fabrics without sacrificing toughness.
This boundary between female fragility and muscularity is also blurred by the ways in which we style the garments of Rodarte or Goddard to bring out their implicit irony. Perhaps this is best expressed in Rihanna’s outfit at the Women’s March last January. She wore a pastel pink tulle dress by Molly Goddard. For anyone doubting the way in which such a garment could present a challenge to a misogynistic status quo, look to the slogan on the sweatshirt Rihanna had paired with the dress. “This Pussy Grabs Back.” The feminine dressing that has been considered to render women the most fragile can, in fact, be a powerful tool.