A Rodarte exhibition space in Washington, D.C. smartly directed the focus of its visitors

Washington, USA – The work of Laura and Kate Mulleavy – Californian sister-designers behind fashion brand Rodarte – was recently celebrated in an eponymous survey exhibition from Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). It was the first show centred on fashion for the NMWA, and the space, spread over eight galleries to showcase collections spanning 13 years, was developed by New York-based architect Rafael de Cárdenas, of RDC/AAL. His work is an example of a backdrop optimising the gaze (and attention) of show-goers when the exhibition content is already quite visually rich.

That was certainly the case with Rodarte – the brand is known for its steady output of ethereal, feminine gowns with touches of darkness, and its steady use of tulle. Despite the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan being nearly a decade ago, Natalie Portman’s breathtaking black and white tutu costumes in the film arguably remain the two most widely-known pieces from the Mulleavy sisters since Rodarte was born in 2005. Designed to symbolise the duality of the role that Portman’s character, a troubled ballerina, performed, the gowns took centre stage in the exhibition, suspended from a built structure as if floating in space.

Though, each of the 90 looks presented at NMWA sang against the stark space Cárdenas created. The architect’s goal was to designate areas with strict focal points, allowing the garments to come to life in the eye of beholder. Points of ‘concentrated colour and energy’ – sourced from variegated mannequins, hued light, ‘creeping patches of flowers’ and, of course, the gowns – disrupted monotony. In Cárdenas words, the result was a ‘pure presentation of the essential “ingredients” of the label’s designs.’ And, in accomplishing that, the architect respectfully underscored the intricate craftsmanship and storyline behind each garment.

The curatorial process of the exhibition, led by Jill D’Alessandro, prompted the Mulleavy sisters to return to New York Fashion Week after a two-year hiatus. The pair have said Rodarte made them ‘very aware of all of the collections they had done over the years in New York City.’ So Cárdenas attention to spatially highlighting the work seems to have worked both ways – both for the creators, and for the admirers.


Rodarte ran at NMWA from 10 November to 10 February 2019. The space has been submitted to the Frame Awards 2020 for consideration for Exhibition of the Year. Love Cárdenas’ execution? Keep an eye on the project's progress, or submit your best work to compete, here.

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