Credit: Floto+Warner

For a time in the late aughts, it was hard for a certain class of women to set foot out of their flats wearing anything less than impossible platform heels. As the global economy plunged into the Great Recession, the fashion world was already in crisis mode, gleefully enmeshed in arch narratives of death and decay. Gothic shoes were a central chapter of this morbid story. Hope was not the watchword, in 2008, for haute couture; change always is.

So a pair of golden Christian Louboutins, elevated and spike-encrusted, sets the stage for Rodarte. The exhibit, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, tracks the rise of designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy during a perilous moment. Founded by the sisters in 2005, the Rodarte fashion house emerged as a bright new American star as the world spiraled toward darkness. While Rodarte embraced the Stygian themes that were so prevalent a decade ago—Rodarte is indeed responsible for some of the era’s most iconic moments—the designers also opened the way toward recovery. But that trajectory can be hard to trace through the museum’s presentation. 

Rodarte is an achievement for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which has never before mounted a fashion exhibition. The museum’s first foray is an ambitious one: Assembled by guest curator Jill D’Alessandro, curator of costume and textile arts for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Rodarte comprises nearly 100 complete designs drawn from runway shows over the last 13 years. The exhibit teases out both the droll and earnest tendencies in Rodarte’s work, from the flippant references to Star Wars to the meticulous layering that suggests a world fraying at the seams. Yet Rodarte’s place in the context of recent fashion developments is missing in the show—the tell-tale Louboutins notwithstanding.

Rodarte opens with a showstopper: a trio of gowns in dyed silk tulle and nylon net from the house’s spring–summer 2009 collection. Mounted on invisible mannequins, the display serves as an introductory essay to the Los Angeles–based designers’ use of playful materials to create sweeping silhouettes. The gowns marry material with color for a distinctive, adaptable, and deceptively simple strategy. The designers used dyed tulle for horror-inspired dresses in 2008, then returned with a different theme with digitally printed tie-dye silk dresses in 2013. (That arc, from the macabre to the boheme, tells a whole story about fashion.)  

Some of Rodarte’s best work can be found early on in the industrial ensembles of the house’s fall–winter 2009 line. One runway design combines a jacket of marbled leather and knitted wool with a dress of knitted mohair, felted wool, and metallic thread and sequins. The outfit looks like infrastructure.  The Mulleavy sisters have cited Gordon Matta-Clark as an inspiration, the American artist who tore buildings apart for his installations in the 1970s; Mad Max could be another. The designers build by layers, sometimes using fugitive or unlikely materials, in dense accretions that still feel coherent. Rodarte’s uncanny trick is in making post-apocalyptic armor feel light and accessible.

Rodarte’s upstart story includes a feature role in Black Swan, the 2010 film starring Natalie Portman in a paranoid production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Given the designers’ dip into tulle and terror for their 2008 collection, the Mulleavy sisters were an inspired choice. Rodarte’s depiction of Portman’s on-screen transformation from white-swan ingénue Odette to dark-swan villain Odile marked a high-water moment for luxe fashion in popular culture. Yet the museum’s Black Swan installation falls flat. The tutus, which are suspended within an enclosure, look squat, and they’re hard to see against a dark backdrop; mannequins might have been the way to go. Video excerpts from the film wouldn’t hurt, either. If ever a show calls for supplementary media, it’s when that media is directed by Darren Aronofsky

That missed opportunity points to a larger problem in the show: There’s no runway video to showcase how Rodarte’s gowns and dresses flow on a figure. One video screen shows excerpts from Woodshock, a 2017 film directed by the Mulleavy sisters themselves that stars Kirsten Dunst, but it’s hardly as familiar as Black Swan, and fairly abstract to boot. Still, even this moody collage helps to animate the intentionally lifeless black and white slip dresses that Dunst wears in the film—some of Rodarte’s darkest and most straightforwardly minimal work on view.

Several set-pieces in Rodarte do the work justice, especially the display for the house’s ground-breaking 2008 collection. Arranged on two concentric circular stages, one bisected by a glass plane, the dresses are lit by harsh, Dan Flavin–style fluorescent tubes along the curving wall. The installation gestures at the cinematic flair of the era, when designers such as Alexander McQueen were hell-bent on co-opting the runway for theater. (His absurd platform heels still set the standard.) There’s something to be said for stepping out of the way and letting the work speak for itself, but Rodarte isn’t that kind of bare-bones exhibit and clearly doesn’t want to be. A single room devoted to runway projections, and Rodarte would be complete. 

Instead, there isn’t quite enough material to describe the state of the fashion world when Rodarte showed up on the scene. That matters. Even when Rodarte’s looks were of a piece with the brooding trends during the Obama years, Rodarte was pulling away. The house used color to convey horror, for example, without resorting to explicit gore. In 2014, the designers launched a series of print dresses featuring the Death Star, C-3PO, and other fun figures from Star Wars. Narratively, these were a lightly snarky departure from the often self-serious Victorian themes that had dominated fashion for years. Perhaps more importantly, these designs quickly went viral—a different mile-marker and a new phenomenon in fashion.

One thing that Rodarte emphasizes is how the Mulleavy sisters insist on the figure in their works. Dress after dress, there’s never any violence against the feminine form, a quality that differentiates Rodarte from their peers. Rarely is the figure a platform for abstract, unwearable sculpture. Sunny yet severe, fantastical but realistic, Rodarte captures a moment in the making.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to Feb. 10, 2019. 1250 New York Ave. NW. $8-$10. (202) 783-5000.