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Perhaps because we’ve faux-known Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen since their two-in-one television infancy, the explosive early success of their second joint creative career intrigues all the more, its improbability boggling conventional thinking. Cast originally on adorableness alone (talent is a nonfactor at nine months), they parleyed cute into an empire that had them, in their early teens, controlling a billion-dollar entertainment business with a mass market fashion component. Now, approaching their 25th birthday, they are among the hottest forces in fashion.
Theirs is quite a tale. What were the odds that “Full House” would last long enough for the sisters to develop as real actors, and to become role models for a generation of awe-struck peers? That as they grew, genetics and innate flair would coalesce into a wide-eyed, grunge-Goth pixie style both engaging and unsettling? That ongoing public and tabloid interest in that style — and in their private lives — would result in power quotients inverse to the sisters’ diminutive frames? Most significantly, that these famous, fashion girls would ultimately parlay their particular cocktails of distinctive, edgy chic and pre-existing fame into a savvy business that has found serious consumer loyalty across several demographics? None of which could have happened without vision, a furious work ethic and, oh yes, talent.
That talent may be recognized formally Monday night at the CFDA Awards, at which the Olsens are nominated for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent, in competition with Prabal Gurung and Joseph Altuzarra. Win or lose, they have, after a period of they-seem-for-real shock, won the respect of an industry that remains highly skeptical of the celebrity-turned-designer genre.
At a meeting in their Dualstar Entertainment LLC offices on 22nd Street on the morning after the Costume Institute gala, the two wax rapturous about the impact of the Alexander McQueen exhibition. “I walked alone a bit and I sat in front of each piece for as long as I could without being rushed through,” Mary-Kate offers. Ashley notes that a dress she’d worn to the Art of Elysium event in Los Angeles shortly before McQueen’s death was in the show. Seeing it “was really special. It was the only contact I really had with him. He was with a friend I guess and I was wearing it and he wrote to the friend, ‘Tell Ashley I love the way she wore that.’”
The emotion of the moment aside, such a compliment from a true master no doubt resonated deeply, since Ashley and her sister are real, true, hard-core fashion people. They shop, they wear, they collect, they dissect. They were serious students of fashion long before they became creators, though one can argue that unlike the vast majority of celebrity pretties whose every stylist-sanctioned outfit change is paparazzi-chronicled, by developing so bold and creative a look (or looks; although similar, the sisters’ styles diverge, Ashley the girlier of the two) the Olsens created fashion long before they launched The Row. From Chanel to Commes to many a vintage schmatta, everything either of them puts on becomes instantly her own.
“I think we’re in a great place,” Ashley declares as talk turns to the morning’s primary topic, their lives in fashion. The two then run through a litany of evidence in support of that premise. At J.C. Penney, 65 percent growth for Olsenboye over last year. The addition of cold-weather accessories and sunglasses to that line. The addition of handbags to Elizabeth and James. The recent hiring of a Russian agent for The Row. Careful attention to Asian expansion. The comment that The Row’s U.S. distribution is probably maxed “at wholesale,” suggesting their own stores are a possibility.
“I feel like it’s been this constant slow growth but a consistent growth,” Ashley says. “And,” offers Mary-Kate, “all the companies run on their own.”
Though everything operates under the umbrella of Dualstar Entertainment Group, the Olsens have established separate LLCs for each of their brands. “It’s important for us to keep it separate so we also know who we’re reaching at that point for the individual brands,” says Ashley.
The chic anchor, The Row, is wholly owned by the two. They cop proudly to micromanagement, designing the line with just one other designer and getting personally involved in every decision. Says Ashley, “We’ve made every hire; we know everyone’s salary. We run The Row, from start to finish.”
Launched five years ago, the original concept was less about forward fashion than about having the perfect basics to mix in with one’s Chanels, Yohjis and Balenciagas. Perhaps inevitably, it has grown from seven pieces into a full 125-plus collection which, for fall worked a “The Triplets of Belleville”-meets-“Fantastic Mr. Fox” theme with broodingly chic results. (As of a week ago, the Olsens deemed resort, opening June 10, too unresolved for a sneak peek.)
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