With The Row Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have transcended their celebrity youth to become serious designers with an eye for nearly monastic classicism that's redefining American luxury.
SHARED AMBITION | Ashley, left, and Mary-Kate Olsen, who founded their first company at age 6, wearing pieces from their luxury fashion label, The Row. Photography by Amy Troost, Styling by Catherine Newell-Hanson.
WATCHING MARY-KATE AND ASHLEY OLSEN pose for a photo shoot is like watching a hypnotic piece of performance art. Former child stars, extraordinarily savvy brand nurturers, founders and owners of an estimated $1.5 billion business empire and, now, designers of the critically acclaimed high-end fashion line The Row, the Olsens have spent the great majority of their 26 years either in front of a camera or otherwise hard at work. Veterans of fields in which "consummate professional" is a vastly overused term, these two women know exactly what they are supposed to do. And they do it perfectly.
In this case, it's changing into pieces from The Row's resort collection, taking seats behind a simple table and creating an instant tableau. As the camera clicks away, it's as though they're responding to a photographer's usual commands: "Turn this way, now a little more to the left... Mary-Kate, can we do a couple with your hair up? Okay, Ashley, you look up while Mary-Kate looks down... That's it, tilt your head back—can we have a hand under your chin? Look straight into the camera...Great, now let's have you turn toward each other."
In fact, the photographer hasn't uttered a single word. She doesn't need to. The whole thing happens organically, seamlessly, without a wasted moment or modicum of tension—it may well be the fastest and least stressful photo shoot on record. When it's over, the Olsens ditch their well-worn Manolo Blahnik alligator Carolyne spikes for flats (Balenciaga loafers for Mary- Kate, suede Manolo sandals for Ashley), thank everyone politely and light up cigarettes. It's the Thursday eve- ning before Labor Day weekend but theirs will be a truncated holiday. On Sunday morning, they'll be back at work, tweaking their spring/summer collection that's little more than a week away from presentation.
In the flesh, Mary-Kate and Ashley are beautiful young women, with luminous pale-green eyes and famously petite statures (roughly five feet). Given the fact that they became stars on the hit TV show Full House at 9 months old (taking turns playing the single role of Michelle Tanner), as well as their more recent status as regular tabloid targets, the most striking thing about them is how weirdly not weird they are. Likewise, their unfussy, elegant collections are so relentlessly not about trend or fashion or red-carpet moments that they've already achieved near-cult status. In June, when the label was barely five years old, they beat out far more established competitors Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler to win one of the industry's highest accolades: the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Womenswear Designer of the Year award.
THE TRANSITION FROM celebrity to fashion designer is often a phony one, and in the beginning, the Olsens were met with no small amount of skepticism. What the doubters failed to take into account is that their longtime TV and video career also served as a nonstop, hands-on fashion school. For 18 consecutive years, Mary-Kate and Ashley spent countless hours in wardrobe, changing clothes as often as 12 times a day. They learned about fit and proportion and tailoring, as jackets from Marc Jacobs and Chanel were resized for their frames when they were still preteens; they loved rummaging through Full House costar Lori Loughlin's Donna Karan–filled closets. At 12, the sisters and their company, Dualstar, which they'd launched six years earlier with their then-managers, debuted a line for WalMart aimed at the mostly untapped tween market. Described by Mary-Kate as "fashion forward... jeans, a bit of bohemian or with a little blazer," the brand sported a tagline: "Real Fashion for Real Girls." By changing just the last word, it would make an apt description for their current venture.
When they turned 18, Mary-Kate and Ashley took sole ownership of Dualstar and moved from the West Coast to enroll in New York University, where inspiration for The Row took hold during a semester off. "We had never not worked before," says Ashley, "so it was a little bit of a trip." They were well versed in the art of creating brands around themselves, she says, but "this was more of a test to see how we might create some- thing on our own, without any outside influence—not as a business, but as a passion project to see where it could go." They began with a simple draped T-shirt and spent a year and a half learning about pattern- making, production and sampling. The first collection, presented in 2006, consisted of only seven pieces, including that first shirt, a pair of cotton sateen leggings and a cashmere tank dress.
Slowly, they added a blazer here, a stretch leather legging there—minimal silhouettes occasionally punctuated by spot-on adornments, like the perfect button or a textured stripe on a tuxedo pant. "We're constantly doing research on insanely small details," says Mary-Kate. The goal was to create an ever-expanding group of trendless, often seasonless pieces that women could incorporate into their existing wardrobes and have them remain relevant. "We like the mentality of the way men dress," says Ashley, who is wearing black-washed silk pants from four years ago and a top from their spring/summer 2013 collection. "It's that thing about having a few very special investment pieces that you can wear all the time and build upon."
In their earliest days, the designers were also the fit models, "basically selling all the clothes off our backs," Ashley says, laughing. "We started one client, one boutique at a time." One of those "boutiques" was Barneys New York, which bought the entire first collection and, later, helped launch The Row's handbag line in 2011. "We viewed them as designers from the get-go," says Tomoko Ogura, the store's senior fashion director. "All you have to do is look at the integrity of the design, the quality of the materials. When we touch and feel the product, we're not thinking of Mary-Kate and Ashley as celebrities; we view them as on par with some of the best designers in the world. As young as they are, they have a very sophisticated sense of style."
Part of that sophistication comes not just from their childhood "training," but also from their long history as consumers. Both Olsens are major collectors of vintage fashion (friend and client Carey Mulligan won the role of Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby wearing one of Ashley's 1930s dresses), and are equally well acquainted with the non- vintage luxury market. "We knew what was available," Ashley says, "and no one was doing really great wardrobe basics as a full collection." Concentrating on basics, even—or, perhaps, especially— very expensive basics, turned out to be a prescient business decision. "When the recession hit, The Row was still growing, people were still buying it," Ashley says. "They knew they'd have something forever. And I think people were attracted to more modest things that weren't so splashy."
Refined is the word that comes up most often in descriptions of The Row's clothes, in addition to "minimal," "airy," "luxe" and "serene." More than one fashion editor has compared The Row to early Armani, with its emphasis on fabric and cut as well as its "uniform" nature.
Interestingly, one of the words the designers themselves use is "anonymous." "There's an anonymity to the clothes," says Mary-Kate, but the word also applies to every other aspect of the line: The labels are minuscule metal bars (silver for resort; gold for every other season); their collections aren't presented on a star-studded runway, but in a series of intimate gatherings for the fashion press and buyers. At their recent spring/summer show at the Carlyle hotel, silver baskets filled with pastries graced the tables while a lone guitarist was the only soundtrack. There are no backstage interviews or glitzy after-parties à la Marc Jacobs or Diane von Furstenberg, nor do they reveal the names of their clients—though Jessica Biel, Julianne Moore and Michelle Obama have all been spotted wearing The Row, and Lauren Hutton, who was among their first look-book models, professes to be a huge fan.
"Our true customers, the ones who understand the brand, always come to us when they have events," says Mary-Kate. At the CFDA awards, each wore evening looks from the resort collection (Mary-Kate in long-sleeved black and Ashley in cap-sleeved fuchsia) that were dramatic in their simplicity. During the photo shoot Ashley chose a tailored black shirt adorned with gorgeous (but not remotely flashy) beaded palm trees. She called it "the perfect evening shirt"—but not necessarily for anyone who wants to shout, "Look at me!"
Focus is what they've always done best. In addition to The Row, their fashion labels include Olsenboye, a mass-market juniors' line in partnership with J.C. Penney, and Elizabeth and James, an enormously successful mid-market contemporary brand that shares the names of their siblings. In addition to the handbags, The Row has expanded to include sunglasses—shoes, watches and freestanding boutiques are next. The latter will likely feature the vintage jewelry Ashley loves and the personal experience they already give their longtime clients, including tailoring and monogramming.
The boutiques are at least a year off, and for now, leaving the photo shoot, Mary-Kate plans to head out to Long Island for a night or two in Sagaponack, where Ashley will join her with a girlfriend who's in law school. "I can't stand to be away from her," Ashley says, in a send-up of their inseparable twin image, and they both burst into peals of laughter. The only thing on the agenda is a stop at Mary-Kate's favorite farm stand, The Milk Pail, and both are looking forward to feasts of late-season corn. Theirs has never, despite their celebrity, been an especially flashy existence—which means they already have the perfect clothes for it.
(Julia Reed for WSJ.com | October 25, 2012)