Behind The Row: Meet Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
They may be only five feet one apiece, but the Olsen twins are much bigger than you’d think. This is the year they’ve jointly jumped hurdle after hurdle toward winning credibility for The Row. First there was their impressively wearable blush-tinted spring collection, which they wrested from disaster when the samples didn’t turn up on time and rushed to show in Paris. Then came the fall collection in New York, which left the most hard-core fashion skeptics in a slight state of shock over its subtle sense of inclusivity. Here was something for everyone to aspire to: considered, wearable pantsuits, great corduroy jackets with ostrich-patch elbows, incredible coats of every length, pretty but not cute slipdresses, crazily glamorous furs—not to mention the surprise garnish of glossily tactile crocodile and python bags. How could this collection, which started with a nicely made T-shirt and a few leather leggings, suddenly be looking suspiciously like a contender for the higher ranks of American luxury?
At the West Twenty-second Street headquarters of Dualstar, where The Row is based, the sisters sit at a swatch-strewn studio table. Ashley is bundled up in a pilled Marc Jacobs oatmeal sweater pulled over an old black Moschino slipdress and a rusty-red shahtoosh looped around her neck. Mary-Kate had tramped through the January snow in an oversize ribbed-leather motorcycle jacket and multiple black layers, a neon Guatemalan knitted hat perched on her head. It is a jolt how far down you have to look at them, not to mention how many clothes they like to wear between them.
The girls laugh about their lack of stature. Even their 22-year-old little sister, breakout actress Elizabeth Olsen, whom they can’t wait to dress for Cannes, is taller than they are. “We had to share the height!” jokes Mary-Kate. All their lives, they say, they’ve watched and respected women bigger than themselves. “We grew up with adults, surrounded by a lot of women who had great style,” she continues. One of them is Jill Collage, the twins’ former on-set guardian, a tall, slim woman in a black pantsuit from The Row, who is roaming the office. The twins appointed Collage president of Dualstar in January 2010 to oversee all departments and planning. “We made sure they were surrounded by women who were truly nurturing,” Collage says, “their acting coach, their teachers, their stylist—so they didn’t feel the pressure.”
The pre-fall collection is just in. Ashley holds out a plain man-tailored sand-colored overcoat, saying, “Try this. It’s cashmere and ermine.” Putting it on is almost a physical shock of pleasure. The cut is subtle, exact, formal yet easy, and looks perfect proportionally. Ashley founded The Row in 2006 in her drive to make a luxurious basic white T-shirt to suit many women—she meticulously tested it on all shapes and ages, 20 to 60, trying to find a commonality of fit and attitude. Still, the Olsens were up against a cynical audience of retailers; suspicious given the bad reputation attached to celebrity lines, nobody really believed the girls were designing it at first. “We hired a showroom and talked buyers through,” remembers Ashley. “People would drill us about fabric, where we’d make it,” says Mary-Kate. “The first season, customers bought it, so the stores came back. And drilled us again.”
one extra designer, an assistant, and a bag designer: It’s tight and efficiently run. If The Row offers upper-echelon-designer prices (it does—and they’re rising, what with the addition of fur and precious skins), what sets it apart is the young American pragmatism. Ashley is obsessed with things’ being versatile and multi-optional for many women. “Each of the looks we’ve shown for fall was designed top to toe, but then we thought about how everything should dismantle as separates.”
Still, how have they pulled any of this off without a formal design education? “Fair question,” replies Ashley, “but Dualstar started when we were six. And we had a collection with Walmart at twelve, which was the upper tier of the tween market. It was before celebrity designers.” “And we were really designing it,” adds Mary-Kate. “It would be jeans, a bit bohemian, or with a little blazer. It was really fashion-forward.”
The girls took control of the company built on their childhood earnings in TV and movies on their eighteenth birthday, when they bought out the former owners, took a hiatus from acting, and moved to New York. Dualstar has now had retail sales of $1 billion. What could possibly have qualified them for such corporate responsibility, or made them even want it?
Mary-Kate, expert thrower of the stunning conversation stopper, replies, “Well, at that point we had been working eighteen years.”
As blonde and cute and as endlessly measured in paparazzi pictures and gossip-column inches as the Olsens are, you quickly learn how stupid it is to think of them as dinky little celebrity girls with an accidental business in clothes. Today, Dualstar, which owns their back catalog of movies and TV shows, also operates a sizable fashion business strategically layered to catch all levels of the market: The Row at the luxury end, Elizabeth and James as the bigger contemporary slice, and Olsenboye, accessibly priced for teens, which reaches the mass market in partnership with JCPenney.
The twins had been brought in on all business and production decision-making since childhood, vouches Collage. Ashley thrived on absorbing business knowledge. “I loved being in those meetings!” she declares. “We were working with the smartest people, learning from them.” If Malcolm Gladwell is correct about the way children who put in 10,000 hours of specialist study become outliers in later life, then the knowledge she absorbed virtually qualified her for an MBA before the age of sixteen.
Ashley is often considered the financial brain, Mary-Kate the creative—though it’s more complex than that. Sometimes—you see it in photographs, where they stand, shoulders touching, half-turning inward to each other—they almost seem like a single, self-protecting organism. “Some of our memories are shared,” Mary-Kate says at one point. “We don’t know what actually happened to whom. One of us was stung by a bee, but we can’t remember who, because we both felt it.”
This twinny-creative dynamic was evident during a fall design meeting weeks earlier. Their fabric-sourcer had brought in an array of luxurious samples of leathers, skins, and fur, which they set about stroking and distinguishing between. “See, all we do is pet things all day!” joked Mary-Kate. Ashley pulled out a length of glossy, chocolate-colored python. “I want to make driving gloves out of these, with the knuckles out!” She got excited over how they’d sourced a specialist Los Angeles glove-maker, Gaspar, which has a history dating back to nineteenth-century Europe. They care about tradition and provenance, producing locally as much as they can to support employment, but then they’ll fuse it with pure twenty-first-century girl-think: Some of the gloves have fingertips made in high-tech treated leather so you don’t have to take them off when using a touchscreen.
On another desk were the makings of their next brand extension: bags. “I’m obsessed with branding,” said Ashley, turning a narrow rectangular brass snap over to show the tiny logo concealed on its edge—a finishing component for their supremely supple, superdeluxe range of crocodile and snakeskin backpacks, computer bags, and clutches. One design, which ranges from mini–shoulder bags to totes, has two compartments sandwiched together, with textured skin on one side, suede on the other. It’s called the Twin.