‘Black Swan’ tutus twirl in Rodarte exhibit

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‘Black Swan’ tutus twirl in Rodarte exhibit

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - The black tutus from “Black Swan” twirl slowly, almost dancing with six other black feather-trimmed Rodarte dresses that hang suspended on invisible mannequins beside them.

The white tutus from the film spin beside other white dresses layered with pearls, lace, silk chiffon, cotton cheesecloth and embroidered gauze. Long fluorescent tubes animate the display in white, red and black light, illuminating “Rodarte: States of Matter,” an exhibit that opens Friday in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

“I definitely see something very different when I look at them in this way,” says Kate Mulleavy, who founded Rodarte six years ago with her sister Laura. They share design duties. “The experience of dressing people and doing shows is such an incredible and thrilling experience because clothes take on a different life and I always say people transform them, but to see them in this way makes you kind of confront and look at the actual garment in a different way.”

The tutus that Oscar-winner Natalie Portman wore in “Black Swan” stand out among the ornate frocks. Each of the six tutus featured looks like a delicate sculpture, all layered tulle underneath and a celebration of textures on top: feathers, beads, embroidered vinyl, silk netting and Swarovski crystals.

“We were just inspired by the idea of objects and clothing as objects and wanted to play with that idea,” Laura says. “I think it lets you look at things in a different way and lets you reflect on your own work and the way you interact with your body of work. It’s kind of interesting.”

The tutus brought the designers a new awareness of the sculptural elements of their work, which already boasted runway collections based on the condor, hardwoods and the American heartland. They had never made garments quite like this before signing on for “Swan,” their first venture into costume design. The whole process was made more challenging by the lack of real examples available.

“Archival tutus are something that every ballet troupe stores and keeps, they’re like prized possessions,” Laura says. “And they’re very expensive, so a beautiful one is very hard to come by.”

The Mulleavys read, researched and experimented, carrying on with their signature approach of mixing and draping a variety of fabrics, from fine silks to simple gauze. Seen in the context of the exhibit, the tutus are clear cousins of the black and white collections that preceded them in spring and fall of 2010.

“I think you can see a nice lineage in the making,” says MOCA’s associate curator Rebecca Morse. “They’re all in conversation with each other.” Without traditional mannequins, there’s nothing to distract from the detailed designs.

“We wanted for these dresses to float and have a life of their own,” says exhibition designer Alexandre de Betak, who also produces runway shows for Rodarte and other brands.

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