Woodshock: The Rodarte Duo’s Kirsten Dunst Fantasy Has Its New York Debut

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Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the cult California-based fashion label Rodarte, recently joined the American fashion expat’s club when they debuted their dreamy spring collection in Paris this July. But as yet another New York Fashion Week wound down this week, the pair was nevertheless making its presence felt. Like Tom Ford most recently before them, the Mulleavys have joined the relatively small ranks of contemporary designers turning their attention to narrative film while still maintaining a career in design. Their debut, the A24-backed Woodshock, had its world premiere in Venice earlier this month; on Thursday night, it screened at the Whitby Hotel, where Julianne Moore and Cindy Sherman hosted, and viewers watched the sisters’ longtime friend-slash-muse Kirsten Dunst take a literal trip to the depths of her psyche amidst the haunting setting of California’s Humboldt County redwood forest.

The shift to film comes with inevitable skeptics. As Laura joked at a New York Times talk earlier in the week—not without a hint of exasperation—for months, people have been telling the sisters, “We’re so excited about your fashion documentary.” But the sisters have never been ones to sacrifice their personal approach to whatever venture they’re working on, such as designing costumes for Black Swan or creating an affordable capsule collection for Target. Plus, Rodarte’s runway shows have always possessed a certain cinematic flourish; whether trailing bouquets of baby’s breath or wearing gowns emblazoned with Star Wars prints, it’s always been easy to imagine their models strutting onto a film set dreamed up by the designers.

Kate, 38, and Laura, 37, maintained control over their first film by hiring a team of trusted collaborators and keeping the project as small and insular as possible—an approach not dissimilar from the one they have taken thus far with Rodarte. They wrote the lead role of Theresa, the unmoored woman through whose eyes viewers experience the psychologically slippery narrative, with Dunst in mind, knowing she would grasp and convey their vision for the character. For her sparse-yet-powerful wardrobe, through which they aimed to externalize Theresa’s fluctuating emotional states, the sisters collaborated with costume designer Christie Wittenborn (whose credits include I’m Dying Up Here and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know).

At the Whitby, in a dark, candlelit room swarming with elegantly dressed well-wishers, Dunst took a moment to reflect on how personal this particular experience felt to her. “I always saw the filmmaker in them,” she said. “Through their collections, they’ve always told stories. Whenever I’d see a collection, it would make me cry—like I was seeing them give birth to a different story. To me, this was very natural for them to segue into. I didn’t question it once.” Dunst added, “It always felt like we were making something private that no one else would see.” She will more than likely get another opportunity to collaborate with them again: Kate said Thursday that another film is in the works, and Dunst seemed to figure into it, telling Vanity Fair that the sisters planned to reveal her new character’s name to her soon.

The professionally fractured state within which the sisters created Woodshock wound up influencing the look and feel of the film, which explores extremities of nature, both exterior and human. (Their friend, New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, described the film as “Alice in Wonderland in reverse.”) The narrative centers on a detached young woman’s spiral in the wake of personal loss (and the surrounding redwood- and weed dispensary-laden landscape), and reflects their recurring obsessions—namely, the root of fear, humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and the endless mysteries of one’s inner life.

“We would work on collections, and any free time we had, we were writing the script,” Laura said of the whirlwind process, which included pre-production in Humboldt County, designing, showing, and selling their spring 2018 collection in Paris, editing the film, and eventually unveiling it in Venice.

Dating back to their undergrad days at Berkeley, the sensorily attuned sisters have found an array of fields for artistic expression (Laura studied biology before switching to literature, while Kate studied art history). As the sisters explained at their Wednesday panel, the filmmaking process allowed them to tap into their aesthetic sensibilities while stretching new creative muscles. “It’s a different process,” Laura said. “With fashion, you make and make and make, and then you have your show. It’s a live experience, and there’s no going back. It’s one time. Things can go wrong on the runway. With filmmaking, it’s theater when you’re shooting, and then you get to spend time really thinking about your decisions and critiquing them.”

Their post-grad year spent immersed in horror films both campy and classic paid off, Kate explained. “I think we have a specific idea in our mind of what a horror film is. But really, for me, the reality of the fact that those redwoods were completely destroyed, our place in the world—these are all underlying fears. I think Theresa’s essentially having an existential crisis on screen. She’s processing a lot of [real] fears: when the human body fails you—when humanity fails you—what does that mean?” she said. “I think, in an interesting way, horror is not necessarily just how we perceive it as an easy, boxed-in genre. It can be more about something that’s much more rooted in the fear of existence—a bigger philosophical question.”

As for the crowd’s verdict, Rookie editor-in-chief and actress Tavi Gevinson, another early Rodarte aficionado, stepped out of the screening (wearing a vibrant teal, off-the-shoulder dress from the label’s spring 2012 collection, which paid homage to Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionist paintings) feeling as though she had witnessed how the Mulleavys’ “brains work,” as played out on screen. She also appreciated the soundtrack, which features Suicide and Galaxie 500—specifically, the moment when the latter band’s “Blue Thunder” was deployed.

“When things click like that in real life, you feel like you’re witnessing a moment of synchronicity. Whenever I experience that, it’s sort of lonely . . . this movie is full of those moments, and it shows what it’s like to view life as a movie,” she told Vanity Fair. “I feel like [the film] showed how they have some kind of synesthesia. How there’s a secret code among colors and types of light and parts of nature and types of sound. I really loved getting to live in their sixth sense for that stuff for a while.”

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