Mary-Kate and Ashley have come a long way since "Full House."
LOS ANGELES — Don’t let their petite frames and polite smiles fool anyone.
Looming behind Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, whose increasingly glamorous and grown-up photos appear everywhere from the Sacramento Bee to Vanity Fair, is a colossal business empire.
Reportedly about to ring the $1 billion-at-retail bell this year, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen branded product stems from the twins unparalleled Hollywood success story.
Born on the TV series "Full House," the wunderkinds moved on to star in kiddie detective videos when they were six, had their first on-screen kisses at 13 in another video-direct hit, "Passport to Paris," and launched commemorative Sweet Sixteen Mattel dolls to mark their birthday this June.
Accompanying all the activities has been oodles of merchandise. Umbrellas, board games, beds-in-a-bag, sports bras and lip gloss will deposit upward of $750 million in Wal-Mart’s coffers this year, according to industry sources.
Now, with freshly laminated driver’s licenses and a junior line that began testing in July at more than 100 Wal-Mart doors, the twins are hoping to zoom into the closets of teenagers everywhere.
More than a simple mission to separate teen girls from their baby-sitting bucks, the line will be an important measure of the twins’ ability to keep their peer group, now entering restless teenage years, interested. But with older customers also comes more disposable income and fresh opportunities for expansion.
Wal-Mart declined to comment for this story, except to say no decision has been made on rolling out the line further. One key indicator of the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailers interest: Mary-Kate and Ashley branded in-store shops.
A departure from Wal-Mart’s uniformly plebian selling floor, two 600-square-foot enclaves housing all things Olsen bowed last October. Now, there are five oases of girlhood blooming under fluorescent lights.
The time is ripe for the Olsens’ brand to grow up. After years of generating only flickers of interest from the adult media, they’re getting the kind of gigs that catapult young stardom: presenting at MTV’s Video Music Awards, getting a cameo in the new "Charlie’s Angels" flick and their first invite to Vanity Fair’s Oscar bash.Photos of them at Morton’s in black lace Versace dresses were the fifth-most e-mailed images worldwide the following week, according to Yahoo News. Warner Bros. is developing a pair of twin-themed scripts for them, according to their publicist, with a release slated for early 2004.
If they can lap up teen dollars, it will be gravy on their conquest of the tweens-and-their-parents universe. While some media outlets still mislabel their pictures or vaguely label them "the Olsens," scores of girls aged 6 to 13 can tell them apart.
Tweens have purchased more than 25 million Mary-Kate and Ashley videos, 30 million books and made their video games bestsellers, according to Dualstar Entertainment, their production company.
Robert Thorne, chief executive officer of Century City, Calif.-based Dualstar, believes Mary-Kate and Ashley will be able to attract kiddie fans for a long time, perhaps even after they have kids of their own.
"We don’t lose the younger audience. How do we do that?" Thorne asked rhetorically. "Well, ‘Full House’ still runs with them in diapers and it’s sold to Nick at Nite for the rest of the decade."
Plus, there’s the cartoon, "Mary-Kate and Ashley in Action," from which Thorne is sculpting a second brand. It’s based on their animated image and includes all related paraphernalia, such as books, dolls and board games. He projects that brand will do $80 million to $100 million at retail this year.
Judy Swartz, the twins’ stylist and now executive designer of the fashion line, said: "They had no fashion sense at all when I met them, when they were eight. In this past year, they’re coming into their own as far as pulling styles together."
In person, Mary-Kate and Ashley appear as versed in fashion as any of their other roles — producers, singers, actors and when they turn 18, Dualstar presidents. They wore Fendi and Versace, respectively, to the prom. They can describe the particulars of Marc Jacobs’ fit. They haven’t yet attended a major runway show. Chloé or Stella McCartney are first choices.
Offered a rack of junior and contemporary pieces at a photo shoot, they immediately pluck out older, pricier labels like Joie, Smashing Grandpa, Leatherock and Adriana Caras.Squabbles occur when choosing clothing for major events, a sore spot since they have similar taste and the media has poked fun at them for wearing matching outfits.
"A lot of our image is our fashion and our hairstyles," said Ashley, a distillation of the current Angeleno chic in a Kate O’Connor poncho, Earl Jean denims scissored slightly to create ankle slits, and Gucci loafers. "Our fans most want to know ‘Where do you get your clothes?’"
So, do they shop at Wal-Mart? "We’ve been to one in Oregon, I think," Mary-Kate said. "Actually, they sell a lot of plain, white T-shirts and good stuff you need," Ashley added.
Their general complaints with most clothing targeted at teens? The quality is not so hot. "Or it’s just not tasteful enough," Mary-Kate said. "We’re not really into skimpy," Ashley said.
At a Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch, Calif., a test door for juniors, the department offered a single rack of trendy patched corduroy and denim jeans bearing Mary-Kate and Ashley’s smiling head shots. Other styles in the test group (a corduroy Western shirt and a denim duster coat) were either sold-out or otherwise unavailable.
The tween section contained a fuller Mary-Kate and Ashley presentation that was hipper and more sophisticated than surrounding styles. Except for the tiny sizes, faux-suede mail boy caps, chocolate stretch-wool pinstriped pants and a terrycloth bathrobe lined in cherry print could be worn by 13-year-olds or 30-year-olds.
That dovetails nicely with designer Swartz’s long-term vision to avoid pink-and-blue cliches, both for the brand and for Mary-Kate and Ashley as individuals. Early on, Swartz recalled, she began buying adult clothes for the twins’ appearances and having them tailored to fit. Now, at Wal-Mart, "we’re that niche that’s missing," she said. "We’re more premium than what they were offering."
At the Porter Ranch store, Mary-Kate and Ashley items were priced about $2 higher than other labels. For instance, Mary-Kate and Ashley flannel pajamas, produced in Cambodia, sold for $14.96, while a set from Simply Basic went for $12.88.New York-based children’s wear firm Mamiye Bros. produces the clothing and owns all the inventory, which it sells exclusively to Wal-Mart. Swartz designs everything from cami sets to toddler cargo pants to the outfits Mary-Kate and Ashley’s dolls wear. All of this is stored in huge Tupperware boxes in the conference room of Dualstar’s rapidly growing offices.
Somehow, despite school and full social lives, the twins manage to give input at crucial junctures: after Swartz hauls back goods from Europe, after she creates boards and after samples arrive.
"We give [styles] to Wal-Mart and they send it back with comments," Ashley said. "We have to do a lot of compromising. At the beginning, they wanted the pants up to the bellybutton."
Mary-Kate and Ashley don’t plan to make appearances in clothes from their Wal-Mart line, nor did they want to wear them for photo shoots. Thorne said, "They don’t want to seem to be walking around advertising their own stuff."
At Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting in June, they wore white Chloé suits onstage with ceo H. Lee Scott.
"They’ve got a difficult audience who’s increasingly media and marketing savvy and quite resistant to manipulation or being talked down to," said James Bell, senior partner with New York-based brand consultancy Lippincott & Margulies. "People will continue to pay attention to them if they seem real."
Conveniently, that’s the brand slogan: Real [fill in the specific product] for Real Girls. Their clothing line: Real Fashion for Real Girls; their magazine’s cover tag: Real Talk for Real Girls.
The book shuttered after three issues when its publisher, Chicago-based H&S Media, went out of business. Thorne claims to have several major industry players interested in relaunching the title.From left: Both girls are in cotton T-shirts from Smashing Grandpa. Mary Kate, left, wears Seven’s denim jeans. Leatherock belt, Erica Courtney rings, Anne Cherico bracelet, David Aaron shoes. Ashley wears Joie’s cropped cotton cargo pants. Joseph Brooks belt, Erica Courtney rings, Adriana Caras sandals.
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