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How a New Rodarte Exhibition in D.C. Was Born in Silicon Valley

Palo Alto’s Christine Suppes is the force behind the new Rodarte show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 


Baby's breath and naivete mixed with a sense of menace highlighted Rodarte's spring/summer 2018 collection on the runways of Paris, the first time the California house presented work in France.

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Looks from Rodarte’s spring/summer 2018 collection in Paris.

Photo: Craig Kessler/Kessler Studio

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Christine Suppes in a Rodarte spring/summer 2007 dress from her own collection (from the 2015 book Electric Fashion).

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When a retrospective of Rodarte—the California luxury fashion house headed by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy—opens this month at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it will be the first-ever fashion exhibition by the Washington, D.C., institution, which champions women through the arts.

There’s another champion involved too: Silicon Valley haute couture collector Christine Suppes, the exhibition’s lead sponsor.

Rodarte came to Suppes’ attention in 2005 through Cameron Silver, founder of Decades vintage in Los Angeles.

Silver had a feeling that Suppes, who collected haute couture and covered Paris haute couture shows in her e-magazine from 1998 to 2007, would respond to the sisters' unique vision with the same enthusiasm he did. “For me," Suppes says, "their clothes represent California; nature; the landscape that I grew up in; fantasy; art; and references to films, to music, to location.”

The Mulleavys, raised in Aptos and educated at UC Berkeley, are self-taught and have created costumes for the Oscar-winning film Black Swan; wrote and directed the film Woodshock, starring Kirsten Dunst; and won the CFDA’s womenswear designer of the year in 2009, among other things.

Guest curator Jill D’Alessandro of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco says the show is notable for “the Mulleavys’ pioneering approach to fashion design, which incorporates the use of narrative to convey complex thoughts that are informed by a wide range of subjects such as film, literature, art history and nature—particularly the California landscape.”

Rodarte’s spring 2012 collection with sunflowers and stars was influenced by a trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, while the spring 2017 collection referenced a classic Spanish film, The Spirit of the Beehive, with yellow, white and black-hued layers of ruffled lace and honeycomblike tulle.

The Mulleavys say the show is “an incredible moment for us” and is about “opening up a dialogue that supports female-led design houses.”

Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA director, sought a cutting-edge show. Suppes, author of the 2015 Electric Fashion ($35, Skira) with photographer Frederic Aranda, and who recently donated her multimillion-dollar clothing collection to FAMSF, knows Sterling has one.

“The French have a saying—there’s a certain je ne sais quoi. You know it when you see it,” Suppes says. “A Rodarte dress is just so far ahead of the game.” Nov. 10-Feb. 10, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.


Originally published in the October/November issue of Silicon Valley

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