Kate and Laura Mulleavy have been making waves in the fashion world since their first collection in 2005. The sisters, who have had no formal fashion design training, have catapulted into the spotlight, thanks to their signature dreamily distressed dresses and collections with influences that range from Japanese horror films to stone. A testament to their immense talent and sculptural abilities, the pair landed an exhibit at The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, running from February 11th to March 14th. The setting for their designs – two parts reminiscent of a home being demolished, one part burned, abandoned building – was a collaboration between the Mulleavys, the Black Frame agency, exhibition designer Matt Mazzuca, and graphic designer Patrick Li.
I visited the exhibit and was so awed by being in the same room as garments that I had only seen in magazines that I had to sit down and drink it all in. The first grouping of mannequins is the softest, in shades of peach and beige with a pile of glittering, knife-sharp stilettos arranged in a pile on the floor. Up close, you can see just how intricate the workmanship is on the hand-knit dress from the Fall/Winter 2008 collection. The beautifully cut leather and cotton knit skeleton blouse is presented as it was shown on the runway, with the pleated leather and cotton net skirt and hand-cut leather leggings.
A set of garments in marbled grey tones meets you next, my favorite being the hand-marbled biker style jacket with python trim and scarf-like cowl from the Spring/Summer 2009 collection. Close by are the marbled, collage-like mini-dresses from the same collection, with the hip boots designed by Nicolas Kirkwood lying on the floor in a sensual heap. I am struck by how much sense the garments make when seen in reality. The Mulleavy sisters are able to tap into something so essentially feminine that being this close to the clothing puts me into a bit of a trance. I don’t want to look away.
The last setting is the most dramatic. Fire-scorched walls and a floor that has been broken into rubble – shoes are strewn about as if at a real disaster scene, monstrous studs gleam like diamonds – are the backdrop for the last group of mannequins. Gothic eveningwear is comprised of cheesecloth, feathers, crystals, and net. Swirls of textured leather form a cropped jacket, which is layered over a needlework sleeveless blouse, recalling Spanish moss. The colors of the Aurora Borealis dress glow in the darkness, making it even more magical.
Taking a last look around, I was struck again by the strength of the garments, and also by the way that the Mulleavys are able to combine disparate elements to create a truly cohesive whole. I pulled myself together and went down the stairs, and as I was leaving bumped into legendary fashion journalist Lynn Yaeger, entering [the exhibit. Wearing a fluffy fur coat with perfect Kiki de Montparnasse lips, her presence seemed conjured up by the romantic cobwebs that I’d just finished viewing.
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St. at Fifth Ave. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, 12- 6 p.m. Feb. 11-Mar. 14.