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The Olsens on Scents, Fashion and Branding

Fashion's most famous designing duo is turning to fragrances — plural.

Perfectionists? They freely admit it. That explains the deep dives for knowledge they make on any product category they consider entering.

But that’s part of the reason that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are at the helm of a megamultimillion-dollar licensing and manufacturing company, Dualstar Entertainment Group — which they’re now adding to with fragrances and next year with a first Los Angeles flagship for their The Row brand. They’re also juggling their Elizabeth and James contemporary brand, their Olsenboye line for J.C. Penney and a T-shirt line called StyleMint, among other projects.

During an exclusive interview at TriBeCa’s Locanda Verde, the Olsens discussed their new brand of two women’s fragrances, Elizabeth and James Nirvana, which is built off of Elizabeth and James and will be exclusive to Sephora. Black is a sensual woody scent, while White is a musky floral fragrance. The duo will be launched in late January, after a quick in-store holiday preview from Dec. 13 to 25.

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Given that they’ve been working since they were nine months old — their age when they began the shared role of Michelle Tanner on the ABC sitcom “Full House” — spending much time relaxing isn’t usually comfortable for Ashley or Mary-Kate.

“We were always hard workers as kids,” said Mary-Kate. “It’s just the way we are, the way we were raised. Our work ethic was everything, and that never left us. We like to work hard, and we like to try to do everything 100 percent. In fact, it’s actually almost impossible for us not to. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes not so much, but it’s learning.”

“I always looked at myself, even as a kid, as a businesswoman,” said Ashley.

Added Mary-Kate: “With what we were doing in business when we were younger, I don’t think it ever felt like we were actresses — because we spent so much more of our time not in front of the cameras, building a brand.”

In fact, the Olsens founded Dualstar in 1993 at the tender age of six — “We couldn’t see over the top of the table,” Ashley joked — and their marketing savvy and the support of a strong team of adults reportedly made them millionaires by their 10th birthday. In 2004, on their 18th birthday, the sisters took over as copresidents (they are now co-chief executive officers) of the privately held firm, which has produced movies, TV shows, magazines and video games. While in their tweens, their business efforts included not only movies and videos, but clothes, shoes, purses, hats, books, CDs and cassette tapes, fragrances and makeup, magazines, video and board games, dolls, posters, calendars, telephones and CD players — with a market share made up mostly of the tween demographic. Mattel produced various sets of Mary-Kate and Ashley fashion dolls from 2000 to 2005.

“We’ve been exposed to so much,” said Ashley. “We were very fortunate to have parents and people around us who wanted us to be part of the creative meetings and the business meetings, and we would just sit and listen and be sponges. At that time in your life, you really are a sponge. And we’ve learned so much from people we’ve been exposed to in our lives — interesting people from different walks of life, different ceo’s. The list goes on and on. Mary-Kate and I have always taken advantage of our time with those people and walked away learning a thing or two.”

Best business lesson they’ve learned? Both Mary-Kate and Ashley prize one above all others: trusting their guts. “We have really good instincts, and it’s better when we listen to them,” said Ashley. “That’s both personal and in work.”

“And [growing up] we also were learning about branding and staying true to ourselves as well,” said Mary-Kate. “What always worked was that we were speaking directly to our customers, who were our age. Even down to writing a script, they would want us and our input on what the script should look like or how it would sound — because a 50-year-old man is not going to know the way a 10-year-old is speaking. It was very collaborative, and we were able to learn a lot about branding and marketing and product.”

After moving to Manhattan as 18-year-olds, the sisters took a break from entertainment — and developed a true passion for fashion. “Mary-Kate and I moved to New York to go to NYU, and we put everything else kind of on hold because we wanted to just go to school and experience education without working at the same time,” said Ashley. “While doing that, we started conceptualizing The Row. We started one item at a time, and took it to L.A. because the machines we wanted to use [to create the pieces] weren’t available in New York.”

“We sold it at first with no label,” said Mary-Kate. “Only certain people knew it was us behind it. We didn’t do any press. Our idea — because we had been in the branding industry for a very long time — was ‘If the product’s good, it will sell.’” While Ashley and Mary-Kate were building The Row, the opportunity came for them to do the Elizabeth and James line with a partner. “It was when the contemporary category was very small, and now we have several partners who help us with Elizabeth and James,” said Ashley. “We still do everything with The Row ourselves.”

In fact, the Olsens are about to become vertically integrated. Next year, they will launch their first store for The Row, in Los Angeles. Eventually, they’d like to do a fragrance for that brand, noted Ashley.

“Retail is really our next step,” Ashley added. “We’re building the store right now for The Row in Los Angeles.”

Following the sisters’ affinity for perfectionism, they’ll build the empire “one store at a time,” said Ashley. “And eventually, Elizabeth and James would love a home as well.” Other categories are likely for The Row down the road. “We pretty much have all categories with Elizabeth and James right now, but for The Row it’s just apparel and handbags,” said Ashley. Shoes are on the wish list, “but that’s a very different type of business,” said Ashley. “We’ve done a ton of research, and it can be a really big expense, depending on how you want to do it. We like having success with one thing before we move on to the next. We don’t like to spread ourselves too thin.”

But they do appreciate what each of them comes to the table with. “We feel so fortunate to have each other, to have a dialogue,” said Ashley. “Communication is key; it’s the most important thing in life. And Mary-Kate and I get to communicate all day long, on all sorts of subjects. It gets us to a more educated, thoughtful place, because we often come to things from different directions — although we want to get to the same space and have the same goal and vision. But that conversation is what gets us there.”

Ashley and Mary-Kate were inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2009, and confess they get overly excited when they spot someone wearing one of their pieces. And while you’d think taking surreptitious shots would be the work of their fans, Ashley and Mary-Kate both confess to snapping shots when they see someone on the street in one of their creations. “Anytime we’ve started a brand and we see people wearing it — and we haven’t given it to them — we try and take pictures of them,” said Mary-Kate. “The first time we saw a Row T-shirt, an Elizabeth and James piece, a handbag — we got giddy.” Added Ashley: “It’s such a nice feeling that somebody appreciates your work.”

Roughly two years ago, Sephora’s Kendo division — the development arm that handles strategic partnerships — approached Mary-Kate and Ashley after a fashion market research survey commissioned by the beauty retailer continually referenced the Olsens’ Elizabeth and James brand. “We always knew we wanted to have a fragrance for this brand, because it’s very lifestyle,” said Ashley. “There are many components to the brand. We felt that between the brand Elizabeth and James and Sephora that we were really speaking together directly to our customer. We felt that was a really good place to start exploring the world of fragrance and beauty.”

After deciding the venture felt right, Ashley and Mary-Kate began working with fragrance veteran Robin Burns, cofounder of brand developer Batallure, and Michael McGeever, senior vice president of Sephora and general manager of Kendo.

Mary-Kate and Ashley spent close to two years developing the scents. “We’re not perfectionists at all,” deadpanned Mary-Kate. In fact, the Olsens’ attention to detail included flying in out-of-season peonies from New Zealand and lily of the valley from Holland for the interview because they are key ingredients in the scents.

Nirvana Black, developed first, took a year and a half, with around 50 different concoctions before hitting on the winner — “and that’s 50 versions not including the various tweaks we made to individual notes,” said Ashley. Nirvana White took just a few months.

Originally, the concept was to do just one fragrance to start, but during the development process the Olsens decided against trying to cram too many notes into one bottle. “We wanted to keep things as pure as we could,” said Mary-Kate. During one tweaking session, Ashley suggested doing two fragrances, an idea that immediately took root. “They also layer very nicely,” Ashley pointed out. “It’s not necessarily meant to be either/or, but both [fragrances].”

Before heading into the fragrance labs at Firmenich, where they spent a lot of time, Ashley and Mary-Kate studied the existing fragrance market and determined how they could differentiate their offering. “We looked at how people are speaking to this consumer and how we could speak differently,” said Ashley. “It was very interesting to focus on what’s working and what’s not working and why.”

Added Mary-Kate: “We didn’t want to do another very average commercial fragrance where it could be anybody’s name on the bottle and a visual, which would be a model with a bottle. We wanted to offer more than that and we wanted to offer a choice. I don’t want the fragrances to wear [the customer]. Ashley and I are really into oils, and those were the notes we were really attracted to. It was fascinating to see how many different variations of ingredients there were, how many different types of sandalwood, for instance. That was one of the things I found most interesting, the quality issues of these ingredients, and also balancing all of the notes so that they would sit well together in the juice.”

“And we have expensive tastes,” cracked Ashley, who confessed that she brought her shampoo, conditioner, face lotion, oils and deodorant to the first mixing session. “People would always say I smell good, but it was really a combination of those things rather than a specific fragrance.”

Mary-Kate said she’s always loved sandalwood, musk and amber notes — “darker and more masculine,” she opined. Nirvana White is built around peony, muguet and musk, while Nirvana Black features violet, sandalwood and vanilla notes. “Also, these fragrances are really about what everyone wants, which is intimacy.”

“Not speaking the language, trying to figure out what someone else wants to express, it’s so fascinating, Even if we didn’t use the right words, Pierre [Negrin, who helped develop Black] and Honorine [Blanc, who assisted in the White development process] knew what we were trying to express,” said Mary-Kate. “We all have skin in this game. It’s a team effort. That’s a fresh way to do things.”

Elizabeth and James Nirvana eaux de parfum will each be available in three sizes — 50 ml. for $75, 30 ml. for $55 and a $22 rollerball.

The fragrances will launch at all 818 Sephora doors in North America, including 388 freestanding Sephora stores and 430 Sephora inside J.C. Penney doors — as well as, in late January.

“We wanted the bottles to feel sensual,” said Mary-Kate of the opaque-textured bottles which bear the color of their respective names. “There was a texture on an antique that we really loved — a completely different shape, but the way it felt when you would hold it in your hand. We wanted to play with all senses. Whether it was scent, touch, size, the weight — we wanted it to be curved so when you held it in your hand it didn’t feel strict and harsh.”

“There’s a nice roundness to it,” said Ashley. “We wanted it to be modern, but not too modern. Also, the contrast of black and white in-store will hopefully be very dramatic.”

Branding on the bottle is minimal, with the scent’s name engraved on a gold-toned plate running down the side of the bottle.

The name Nirvana was chosen, said Ashley, “because to us, this was really about a moment — and what’s that one word that’s going to define that one moment where you feel comfortable, sexy and at ease with yourself? For us, we always came back to our beds. That’s where I love to spend my time off. No noise, no people trying to bug you. So it was about capturing that. And about there being no judgment, and how our generation is growing up with that intention. People are much more accepting of things and of people’s choices. That was also part of this process.”

“Getting to the name Nirvana took a lot of time,” said Mary-Kate. “Then we were in a meeting, talking about launch dates, and Robin goes, ‘That date would be nirvana!’ We were just like, ‘What did you just say?’ What’s better than nirvana? That’s the dialogue we want to have with the consumer, giving them a choice, but figuring out where they’re coming from, what is their nirvana, what is their moment.”

“We wanted the feeling to be intimate, and we wanted a regular girl, not a model,” said Ashley of the ad visual, which breaks in the December issue of Allure. Shot by Ryan McGinley, the image features a naked model snoozing face-down in a cocoon of sheets with a black dog sleeping nearby. Originally the plan was to use Mary-Kate’s dog Jack, but “her dog looked totally big next to the model,” said Ashley with a laugh, teasing her sister about her passion for dogs. “She’s never had a better day on set than when she got to play dog trainer,” said Ashley. “She was so excited.”

An interactive marketing platform is being developed for the brand, said McGeever. “In the first part of their careers, they built a brand that was centered around them,” said McGeever. “When they created the second act of their career, it was really more about the celebration of quality and craftsmanship, with them almost invisible in the beginning. That’s what we’re working on [with the promotional plans.] This isn’t about sticking Mary-Kate and Ashley on a billboard. This is about the brand they’ve spent the better part of a decade building.”

How will the sisters define success for the fragrance? “I’d like to walk down the street and smell a note of it,” said Mary-Kate.

Ashley confessed to a frisson of fear about the beauty business. “I have to be honest, I do [fear it] a little,” she said. “I kind of felt it today and I know it’s because I’m relatively new in this category. But I felt it in a good way — it was like, ‘I have so much to learn.’ I know entertainment and apparel and brands; I’ve had schooling and training with that. With these [fragrances], this has been my training so far, and I’m so grateful to Robin and Michael for educating at the same time as developing.”

While all involved with the fragrance declined to discuss sales projections, industry sources estimated that Nirvana by Elizabeth and James would do about $7 million at retail during calendar year 2014.

This fragrance duo will likely lead to future scents by the sisters. “We’ve learned a lot through Sephora — why things work, why certain things don’t work and what’s new and exciting — and we think there are a lot of logical brand extensions,” said Ashley.

Both sisters attended Sephora’s national employee meeting in August. “It was great to see how they communicate and how much they believe in what they’re doing,” said Mary-Kate. “To me, that was the greatest thing to see. It’s why they’re so successful at what they do. It’s all coming from a positive place. They believe in the product and they trust their management.”

Will they go back to Hollywood? Doubtful. “We have a video catalogue of everything we did when we were younger, so we’re looking at distribution for that now,” said Ashley. “That’s not being in show business, but it’s been fun talking to these people we used to be in business with many, many years ago. But the industries are completely different.”

“We still feel welcome in the [entertainment] industry,” said Mary-Kate. “But it’s not the one we’re in.” Instead, the sisters say they’re still telling stories and entertaining — but through their products.

The fragrance will be sold in the U.S. and Canada for now, and will soon be presented to the other markets. Likely overseas possibilities include the U.K. and Japan, said McGeever. “We need to spend more time in Japan [to further suss out the market], and that’s planned for the first part of next year,” said Ashley.