Icons: Rodarte Catches Up with Kim Gordon

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An icon of empowerment and artistic integrity for generations of music makers, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon influences the world well beyond rock. Just ask Rodarte designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy, whose fragile, handcrafted fashion masterpieces take inspiration from the formidable bassist/singer/artist. Here, the Mulleavy sisters talk inspiration and idol crushes with one of their personal heroes.

BLACKBOOK: Kim, I saw you taking in the Rodarte Spring 2009 fashion show in New York, decked out in one of their extraordinary garments. How did you all meet?

KIM GORDON: Laura and Kate had wanted to make something for me and I was completely blown away, totally flattered. At first, I was so intimidated by the beauty of their dresses. I just thought, Oh my god, I could never wear that! They looked so delicate and fragile, but then when I actually put it on, I was like, Okay, I could rock this. They made me a beautiful dress from last season and I took it to Paris and played in this tiny gallery space. I really felt like the dress was part of the show; like it was another instrument or something.

LAURA MULLEAVY: The blue and black one?

KG: Yeah, and the walls were painted this kind of sickly, deep red. And the dress was like nothing else in the gallery. It felt really great to wear something so fragile on stage. I’ve always really liked that contrast, you know, wearing something that people wouldn’t normally associate with rock. I thought, Well, if it gets ripped, it might even be cooler.

LM: I was having a birthday dinner with a friend who had just seen Marc Jacobs, and Marc had said, “I saw Kim playing in this dress in Paris.” I remember thinking, This is the coolest moment of all time. Kate Mulleavy: It still seems unreal to me. Kim is such an amazing artist. Laura and I were so honored.

Can you remember hearing Sonic Youth for the first time?

LM: Kate’s story is so much better than mine. We had just moved to Alabama, and Kate had been shopping at this record store where she heard a Sonic Youth song playing. She always tells me it was the first time she felt like she had discovered something that wasn’t given to her. Our parents showed us a lot of different music that was really cool, but this is what she loved. Kate was the biggest Sonic Youth fan and I was her dorky younger sister who was like, I want it too because it’s so amazing! [Laughs.]

KM: I was in a small record shop where the guys from the band Man or Astroman? worked in Alabama, when Daydream Nation started playing. I remember everything about that moment, the guy behind the counter with a weird ginger beard, the faint smell of honeysuckle, the clearest blue sky… because it was the first time that I had really heard music that made sense to me.

Do music and the art scene influence fashion?

KM: I think music, film and art influence Laura and me more than anything else. We grew up near Santa Cruz and I can remember being so intrigued by skaters and psychedelic ’80s hippies who listened to Peter Gabriel. My environment was a huge inspiration.

LM: There are people like Kim who always make me think about clothing in a different way. There are so many iconic moments in music that have inspired so many designers. I feel like it’s one of the key places people draw inspiration from. And it’s not a superficial thing; it’s the whole idea of a sound and a moment, and they kind of all come together. Look at Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs. They love music so much that it comes across in their work.

Having just seen your show at Fashion Week, with actors and musicians crowding the front rows and just the air of anticipation before it started, made me wonder if there is any connection between staging a fashion show and a concert.

LM: For Kate and me, everything we do usually has a story behind it. So when we’re creating the clothing, every detail has meaning. With our most recent collection, we’ve been thinking so much about earth, art and space; like, what would be left behind if all of a sudden everything went away? We’ve been obsessed with the idea of skeletons, and our presentation was really about live art and dance, and different installations of light.

KG: I thought it was really moving. It felt like I had been to something equivalent to a concert or performance.

LM: Oh, thank you! I think that music is the most important part of the show.

KG: Marc Jacobs is kind of modest in that way, too. After his last show, he said, “You gotta do something ’cause it’s just tops and bottoms after all.” [Laughs.] But, c’mon Laura, it’s not enough to just have great music.

Are you a big fashion hound, Kim?

KG: Oh, god no! I mean, please! I’m a visual person and I am interested in clothes, and I do a fair amount of shopping and investigative work. But I would never go into Oscar de la Renta or whatever. I’m not really interested in mainstream fashion.

Is Kim a fashion influence for you?

KM: She definitely is. She is a groundbreaking visual and musical artist and I think this just manifests itself in her sensibility.

LM: Well … I think she’s more of an influence on my personality. I mean, I just like to wear jeans and T-shirts. But as a designer, I’m definitely influenced by watching Kim perform and hearing her music.

I love, Kim, what you were saying about the fluidity and fragility of the Rodarte clothes. I think of you as such a pillar of strength and fierceness.

KG: People have that idea of me. I don’t know why. That’s why I like wearing clothes like that, because it definitely screws around with people’s expectations. But I’m thoroughly embarrassed by this whole conversation, now. Actually, I didn’t really mean to say I’m not interested in mainstream fashion. That’s not even true. [Laughs.] I just think “fashion hound” is kind of … ew. It makes me think of pictures of J. Lo and Posh.

Can you talk about some of your own personal fashion icons?

KM: My personal fashion icons are artists like Yayoi Kusama, or Photo by Autumn de Wilde

LM: I think if you asked us what we’re inspired by, we would point to one scene in Fanny and Alexander, a film by Ingmar Bergman, in which the two children have a pillow fight by candlelight, and there’s this navy little puppet box nearby. Kate and I wanted to create something that felt like that pillow fight scene.

“Rodarte” is Kate and Laura’s mother’s maiden name. Would any of you care to speak about your mom’s style?

KG: My mom was a seamstress. She grew up in the Depression. She was very poor, so she bought all my clothes at thrift stores or she made them. And just the idea of actually going into a store and spending money on clothes … She had no idea how much clothes cost. She made a lot of funky caftans and these things called “habbas” that she sold out of the house. They were these really simple things made out of these beautiful, wood-cut fabrics on silk and velvet.

How about you, Kate and Laura?

LM: Our parents lived in Northern California and I love these photos of her in either jeans and knee-high combat boots and plaid shirts, or little gray sweatshirts. She kind of reminded me of Yoko Ono.

So Kim, this is our Icons issue.

KG: I thought every issue was an Icons issue. [Laughs.]

This is a very special one. One of Sonic Youth’s most famous lyrics is “Kill your idols.” Where did that come from?

KG: It had to do with the fact that [music critic] Robert Christgau hated us. He always gave us bad reviews. And we felt like, We’ll never be as good as, you know, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, all those people who came before. I don’t know, but it was meant humorously.

Whom did you idolize growing up?

KG: Musically, you mean? I listened to a lot of jazz. My dad was into jazz and blues musicians like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I had an older brother who turned me onto a lot of records. So I listened to Bob Dylan and then, as a teenager, Joni Mitchell, the Yardbirds, Tim Buckley. I liked their music, but it wasn’t like I wanted to be them.

Did you ever imagine that you would get to the point where you’d be an icon for others?

KG: Oh god, no! I think I wanted to be Michelangelo or something. I was into art. Or maybe I wanted to be Andy Warhol. I used to make up stories — I would line up my Dad’s records and I would make a story out of the record covers. I would kind of act them out in my head and I would make up dances. I was always dancing around the house.

Do you still dance around the house?

KG: [Laughs.] No, sadly. I used to be really into dance. I liked Martha Graham. I’m sure there were actresses I liked, too, like Hayley Mills. She was probably my first sort of crush idol.

Laura and Kate, who was your crush idol?

LM: David Bowie. He was my first big crush. I don’t think that’s changed, though.

KM: For me, it was Jack Kerouac.

Kim, you and Sonic Youth have been through various levels of bullshit and hype throughout your career. You’ve gone from indie labels to major labels, and are now back again on an indie with Sonic Youth’s forthcoming Matador Records release. All the while you’ve managed to keep your artistic integrity while merging with the mainstream. Any pointers for Rodarte?

KG: It’s kind of different for us because we never had a hit. We were never actually faced with that sort of huge leap into fame. Looking at Laura and Kate, it must be incredibly overwhelming because they still make everything, but now they are dealing with the operandi of the fashion world. Being on the cover of Vogue is pretty major, as is winning awards. Our career has been a really slow, steady progression — it’s not going up some peak and down the other side. I think that you just really need to make sure that whatever you’re doing is what you want to be doing. I don’t think Kate and Laura started out thinking, We’re going to make clothes because we want to be on the cover of Vogue.

Can you recount some of your most favorite and least favorite looks throughout your careers?

KG: Oh, jeez. Early on, I was such a hodgepodge dresser because I was so poor. My mother always … well, I don’t want to blame my mother. I didn’t always like buying clothes in thrift stores. When I lived in Hong Kong as a 12- or 13-year-old kid, there was one cool store that sold hip-hugger bell-bottoms, and I think I had a pair of red corduroy bell-bottoms that I saved up for with my allowance for, like, three months to buy. After that, I think everything was downhill for me. [Laughs.]

LM: I love blue-and-white striped shirts. My mom always liked them growing up, so they must have rubbed off on me.

KG: Blake Lively was wearing one on Gossip Girl the first season and she had a little scarf tied around her neck and it made it look like, I don’t know, somehow much better than if I were to …

Kim Gordon — Gossip Girl fan. Who knew?

KG: It’s good eye candy. I like what they do with the uniforms.

LM: Yeah, they’re good with the uniform, huh? I had to wear a uniform in high school. I wasn’t very inventive with mine. I left my skirt knee-length and I had these awful penny loafers.

KG: You didn’t roll it?

LM: I wasn’t a rebel. Kate probably did, but then again, she was always getting into trouble.

KG: What about you, Kate?

KM: I just made it really short; we just did that to piss off the teachers — and I wore a Melvins T-shirt with a bleeding nun, which didn’t go over so well at a Catholic school.

Kim Gordon photo by Johnny Giunta.