Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion brand Rodarte, are strolling the grounds of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., finishing each other's sentences and often speaking in unison. They discuss the delicacies of a certain Victorian rose. They agree that the stem of an antique lightbulb inside the library reminds them of a carousel. They recall childhood trips to the Huntington estate to visit their maternal grandmother, who worked there as a docent.
What they don't talk about is fashion. Kate, 33, and Laura, 31, are dressed down in jeans and matching navy moccasins; Kate wears a Three Stooges T-shirt under a Kurt Cobain--ish fuzzy cardigan. An eavesdropper might guess them to be eager Ph.D. candidates in plant sciences--in fact, their father is a botanist who specializes in fungi--not internationally acclaimed fashion designers whose celebrity fans include First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Natalie Portman and Star Wars creator George Lucas (who attended Rodarte's New York Fashion Week show in February). Now the sisters are designing the dramatic, couture-like costumes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's star-studded production of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting and with sets by Frank Gehry. It premieres May 18 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In the opening act, the womanizing title character, played by renowned baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, murders a man, whose ghost later drags him to hell. This is right up the Mulleavys' street. Don Giovanni "is a big horror story, which is why it's cool," says Laura, who with Kate once watched nothing but Japanese, Korean and Italian horror movies for an entire year. "There's a supernatural element. There's fanaticism." There's also a family connection of sorts: the same late grandmother who guided visitors around the Huntington estate had a brief career as an opera singer. (Her last name--their mother's maiden name--was Rodart; the designers added the e.)
Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour recommended the Mulleavys for the Don Giovanni gig. "They have a theatrical, couture approach to their work and often weave a narrative into their runway 'stories,' which made me think how intriguing it would be for them to work for the stage," she said in an e-mail to TIME. Wintour has known the Mulleavys since 2005, shortly after the sisters had cold-pitched their debut line to magazine editors in New York City using paper dolls fitted with miniature versions of the clothes, which were made on their parents' kitchen table in California. The collection almost immediately established the Mulleavys as meticulous craftswomen with a deep romantic streak, more interested in form and floating-on-air fantasy than functionality.
On that fateful trip, "we were staying in a small East Village apartment, and we'd never really had an urban experience like that," Kate says. "It was just me and Laura with this box of clothes--"
"We did not even want to go outside," Laura says, interrupting. "We were scared to leave!"