Rodarte's Fra Angelico Collection at LACMA: How a Monk Inspired Fashion's Famous Duo

Detail of an orange dress by Rodarte, in LACMA's new exhibit
Detail of an orange dress by Rodarte, in LACMA's new exhibit
(c) 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

It is the most unusual of pairings -- a 14th century Italian monk and two fashiony young sisters from Los Angeles, 2011. Yet the devout Fra Angelico was the perfect muse for couturiers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, the good friar's frescoes inspiring an entire collection of gowns now on display at LACMA.

Kate Mulleavy's sketch of the collection
Kate Mulleavy's sketch of the collection

Suspended from the ceiling like pale angels, the ten Rodarte gowns in the middle of LACMA's Italian Renaissance gallery are the prettiest imposters you've ever seen, in decadent hues of mint green, lapis lazuli, halo gold and vermillion. The dresses will remain in the gallery, unworn and virginal, safe from the vulgar lenses of runway or red carpet photographers, too perfect to be worn.

You'll notice how the blue of one dress almost perfectly mirrors the blue on a painted angel's robe. You'll see how the ecstatic religious iconography casts a heavenly glow over the fabrics, turning the gowns into glorious artifacts. There's something a little shocking about seeing dresses dangling alongside centuries-old oil depictions of the Archangel Gabriel. How on earth did this collection come into being?

At a press event yesterday, the sisters described to a small group of journalists how they fell in love with the old monk in Florence earlier this year. For an exhibit there, the Mulleavys had their pick of architecturally-stunning, historically-significant locations in which to house their project. Of course, they picked the least obvious spot -- a series of abandoned store fronts. Then they came upon Fra Angelico's frescoes, and his work, specifically his use of color, brought them to tears. They decided to base their entire collection on the art of a pious 14th century brother.

"We started with color," said Laura. "The frescoes have a chalky nature -- like, they're full of beautiful vibrant colors, but they're chalky. We wanted to find fabrics that had that quality, that weren't so completely shiny that they seemed too vibrant. We started thinking of each dress as something that could exist as part of a fresco."

Gold gown
Gold gown
(c) 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

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Autumn De Wilde was also present at the press event and the only person allowed to bring a camera into the small gallery. Statuesque, red-lipped, and beatific as one of the Madonnas, De Wilde, who has documented the lives of Beck and the late Elliot Smith, has been taking photos of the sisters since 2005. That was before they were famous designers who left L.A. to become the biggest fashion story in New York, winning every conceivable accolade. Clearly, De Wilde has a nose for talent.

When the sisters reached out to her (they loved the cover she shot for Beck's 2002 album, Sea Change), she asked the sisters if she could document them, their lives and work, "much in the same way I would follow a band." She was with them when they visited Florence.

"You'd turn a corner in these abandoned shops and be confronted by the most incredibly angelic dress," said De Wilde of seeing the collection there. Here's a photo of how one of them looked, on her Tumblr.

Detail of a blue gown
Detail of a blue gown
(c) 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Now, the dresses are much closer to home, as the collection was shipped from Italy to L.A., where they will become part of the LACMA's permanent collection, and will remain on display in the museum's Italian Renaissance gallery until February.

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Rodarte's Fra Angelico Collection at LACMA: How a Monk Inspired Fashion's Famous Duo
(c) 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA
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