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.)
On this particular day, the sisters exemplify the two distinct ways to work The Row. Ashley plays to its original incarnation, wearing pale slipdresses from two different seasons, chiffon over satin, under a huge, blue fluffy John Galliano sweater; Mary-Kate is in black, boyish and head-to-toe The Row. “We are our customer in a way,” she says (even though they have famously not targeted a young customer, instead reaching a core from 30 to 60). “So I think the way we like to wear it and the way our customers like to wear it is very similar.”
Adds Ashley, “We constantly go back to our top customers and what they keep getting attracted to. ‘These,’” she tugs on her own dresses, “our customers were saying, ‘You need to do a bunch of these; this can be a core business for you.’ We create these programs so if women can come back to us and say, ‘Oh, I love this, I’d wear this all the time.’”
Public relations honcho Pierre Rougier, who in his no-nonsense way has nurtured many a young designer over the years, handles press for The Row. “The one word I would use to describe Mary-Kate and Ashley is impressive. They are extremely impressive in their focus, in the clarity of their vision, of where they want The Row to be. I have never seen them late to a meeting or on a deadline. They know how to handle themselves.”
“We’re disciplined,” says Mary-Kate.
Only after they deemed The Row sufficiently established with a distinct ethos and customer base, and after they’d found a compatible partner in Jane Siskin of Jaya Apparel Group, did the Olsens expand into contemporary with Elizabeth and James. And for the record, it wasn’t named for their siblings, not really. Rather, their concept was a masculine/feminine counterpoint. “Thinking of the name is the hardest thing, so we were brainstorming,” Mary-Kate recalls. “‘What about a girl’s name and a boy’s name?’ Ashley and I came up with Elizabeth, and Jane came up with James and we thought, ‘Oh it’s kind of funny.’” Were the alleged namesake siblings wounded to learn the truth? “They know the real story so they don’t look at it that way. I think everyone sort of has it backwards, but who cares? It’s all in the family, really.” (Besides, within the family James isn’t even called James. He’s Trent.)
Last year, they launched the junior brand Olsenboye at J.C. Penney. Now in 600 doors, it was met with immediate success. In that case as always, the partnership had to feel right. “We make sure when entering a business with a partner that it’s a relationship we can definitely work with and grow with, one that’s a true collaboration,” says Ashley. “We love all of our partners. I think that’s what makes our job not easy, but manageable, as far as we’re working with people that we trust and people that we love to be in business with.”
The sisters’ work ethic developed young, part of a natural curiosity that triggered interest in brand-building, although as children they would hardly have labeled it such. Rather, they were two little girls in a grown-up world led by their parents and other involved adults to believe that they could and should have a say in matters involving their careers. From Day One they sat in on Dualstar strategy meetings. Whether the topic was where their video characters should go on vacation or an upcoming Wal-Mart collection, they always felt comfortable speaking their minds. “And they wanted to hear it because we were surrounded by a bunch of adults and we had to communicate to [other children],” says Ashley. The nascent moguls also learned that sometimes it pays to just listen, to take in how adults in business operate as well to punch up on the nitty-gritty, such as learning the legalese of contract language.
On hiatus from “Full House” the girls would typically go off to make videos, which is when they got their first inklings of the convergence of fashion and celebrity. Every video had multiple costume changes — as many as 12 for each girl — the looks fueling public adulation. The fan mail poured in, and, says Ashley, “Our number-one thing that everyone would talk about, ‘We love your hair, we love your clothes, where do we find this?’”
The answer was nowhere this side of the Olsens’ fitting room. “We had these crazy wardrobe changes,” Ashley adds. “We would do two fittings a week that were two-hours long. Just constantly, fitting, fitting, fitting, fitting. You couldn’t find it anywhere because we were cutting down adult clothing for kids.”
It’s also when they started paying attention the technical side of fashion. “We’re petite,” says Mary-Kate. If she states the obvious, it’s an essential point. By remaking adult designer clothes to fit their tiny frames, the Olsens’ were in fact creating new silhouettes. They were also learning about construction and fit. While many kids might have been bored silly, they became obsessed.