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BEVERLY HILLS — Ashley Olsen, in stilettos and wearing Ray-Bans, navigated a brick courtyard to a banquette in the back of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel here, and diners did discreet double takes at the sight of the petite blonde.
This was a new Ashley Olsen, evolving her fashion identity to a sophisticated, sexy look that also is a business strategy as she and her twin sister, Mary-Kate, orchestrate the full launch of their new high-end label, The Row.
Carrying a vintage Fendi crocodile tote and pairing a tight black Wolford tank dress worn as a miniskirt with a snug chocolate-colored leather jacket by Rick Owens, Olsen upturned the bag lady look she helped popularize.
For fall, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, with the help of four staff members in production, sales and public relations, doubled the number of The Row’s offerings to include $3,220 Tuscan lamb-fur coats, $1,700 cashmere tuxedo jackets with three-quarter sleeves, $875 banded strapless dresses and $360 legging-style pants.
They also expanded distribution worldwide to 29 premium retailers, including 10 Corso Como in Milan, Maria Luisa in Paris, Harvey Nichols in London, Jeffrey in Atlanta, Isetan in Tokyo, DNA in Saudi Arabia and Holt Renfrew in Toronto and Vancouver. In comparison, the spring collection featured 28 knitwear pieces, such as silk Modal tanks retailing for $150 and floor-length Modal cardigans selling for $655, sold at Barneys New York across the U.S. and Maxfield in Los Angeles.
Fourteen years after founding their company, Dualstar, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen face the challenge of evolving the business as they grow older and new competitors, such as pop-star/actress Hilary Duff, launch their own clothing brands targeted at tween girls. Privately held Dualstar, based in Culver City, Calif., doesn’t disclose sales figures, but an industry expert in 2004 estimated that the company rang up $1 billion in retail sales in almost a dozen countries.
Unlike their tween brand, mary-kateandashley, which markets clothes, furniture, cosmetics and other products to mass retailers, including Wal-Mart, Claire’s and Albertsons, The Row is the first business that the former child stars, who turn 21 on June 13, didn’t license out to another company. Estimated by Forbes magazine to have earned $40 million last year, the sisters are financing and running The Row by themselves because they want more control.
“We want to control its image and each piece and each collection,” Mary-Kate Olsen said in a phone interview. “The Row is very separate from everything we’ve done so far.”
Later, in the Polo Lounge, her sister said, “It’s definitely in a different marketplace.”
Indeed, executives at Dualstar, which oversees the mary-kateandashley label and develops the D.C. Sprouse brand for twin brothers Dylan and Cole Sprouse, said The Row was incubated at the parent company two years ago before being turned into a separate venture. “That is their baby,” Dualstar chief executive officer Diane Reichenberger said of The Row.
Ashley Olsen said she and her sister were “very selective” in everything, from listing the retailers they wanted to carry The Row to choosing celebrities to receive a gift of the same sheer silk Modal T-shirt she wore under her Rick Owens jacket. For instance, one recipient was former model Lauren Hutton. “She’s a classy lady and has a beautiful sense of style and self,” Ashley said.
That feeling also sums up the fall collection, which was inspired by black-and-white photographs shot by Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh that were, in Ashley Olsen’s words, “really androgynous.” A blood red shocks the dominant palette of black, white and gray. Ashley, who had been an intern with Zac Posen in New York in 2004, started The Row as a T-shirt project before roping in her sister. She said the siblings collaborated with their childhood friend, Danielle Sherman, and her roommate, Tiffany Bensley, in designing the label. Staying true to the label’s namesake, Savile Row, where bespoke tailoring rules, they all focused on the fit so that women with different body types can wear the clothes.
Ashley Olsen said her personal favorite was the tuxedo coat with cropped sleeves that can be worn as a dress. “It was important to me that the shoulders were narrow,” she said, adding that woven items like the coat will number 10 to 15 per season while knits will form the line’s core. “You can see enough skin on top and enough skin on the wrist so that it’s sexy.”
Such sophistication in thought and styling appealed to retailers such as Stacy Kosene, who carries Balenciaga, Michael Kors, Thomas Wylde, Tory Burch and other contemporary and designer labels at her 10-month-old boutique, French Pharmacie, in Indianapolis. Joining other buyers who saw The Row’s second collection presented in late February at a rented apartment in Paris, Kosene bought the leggings, thin tunics and tuxedo jacket, among other pieces. Yet, she said she will refrain from telling her customers that the Olsens produce The Row because many people still associate the sisters with the trend of wearing rumpled, baggy clothes.
“The draw is wearing it and showing it,” she said. “I think we’ll sell out of everything.”
Ashley Olsen emphasized that The Row isn’t another celebrity fashion line. “It’s not our focus,” she said. “It’s not our name on it.”
Yet, her fame afforded the means to slowly build the business. “I thought I was going to wear the shirts myself,” she said. “I didn’t care if it sold. It wasn’t about building a business or making a statement.”
Though she disclosed that sales were “really healthy,” without citing specific figures, Ashley Olsen said The Row plans to introduce T-shirts and a small group of knitwear for men exclusively at Maxfield this fall. She also said a bag line could be ready as soon as the holiday selling season.
Whatever the Olsens do, John Eshaya, vice president of women’s wear at Ron Herman, said they have “a great point of view” and “amazing taste.” He said he bought the fitted dresses and banded skirts that evoked Azzedine Alaïa, Hervé Léger and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo for his Las Vegas and Costa Mesa, Calif., shops. And he liked that the sisters personally showed him the clothes in Paris.
“It looked as great as everything else I had seen in Paris,” Eshaya said. “You’re there with the real designers, so you can’t fool around.”