This story first appeared in the May 31, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
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.
That they had become fashion icons crystallized even more clearly several years later while at a press event in Toronto. When the houselights went up, they saw an almost comic scene before them: a sea of girls dressed à la Olsen, in giant sweaters and sunglasses and whatever accessible handbags best resembled the twins’ Balenciaga stunners. If the business was there, why shouldn’t they get some of it?
The interest had been long-brewing. Jill Collage started as a production assistant with the Olsens when they were six. Now president of Dualstar Entertainment, her relationship with them runs deep. She tells the story of a trip to Tokyo to promote the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand when, en route to the airport both girls broke out notepads to record their experiences. “Ashley,” Collage recalls, “looked at me and said, ‘I may just not do acting anymore. I really, really have a thing for fashion and that’s really what I want to do,’ This is when she was 14 or 15.”
While Ashley was the first to show intense interest in the business side, Mary-Kate has always been overtly creative. Exhibit A: prom-time. “The first dress that I made was just this black fabric with really thin leather cords,” she describes the DIY affair. “It was sort of backless. My friend was actually the one to sew one seam down the center. I showed up and the whole thing was just like…” — she flings her hands open wide to indicate disaster. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Who has a stapler?’” Fastening lesson learned, for another prom, Mary-Kate had plenty of pins at the ready. Serious pins. “I’d taken this old silk kimono and I chopped it off. I made this sash thing out of green fabric I found. I turned it into a minidress and then I borrowed a bunch of jewelry from Neil Lane. I covered the whole thing with diamond broaches. I was going with a kid that was a grade younger than me. I just didn’t care. I mean yeah, I think we’ve always been creative in different forms.”
Still, it took a while for them to articulate fashion as a new career direction. A not atypical catalyst: college. It was indeed a moment of transition, as the sisters learned that they had the power not only to inspire, stylistically speaking, but to incite; the endless chronicling by the paparazzi of their early days at NYU approached stalking. To this day they remain highly protective of their privacy, shunning personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, even as such are key to their various brands’ marketing strategies.
At the same time, Ashley was looking for something to do. “I started developing T-shirts and developing a concept,” she says. “I really just wanted to give them to people because I thought, ‘Everyone needs a perfect T-shirt.’ Then we spent some money on it and I was like OK, let’s try to at least recoup that. How can we do that? Just sell to Maxfield’s, just sell to Barneys. And then everything just kind of came around.”
As The Row was developing organically, the Olsens made the clinical decision to do all they could to avoid classification as a celebrity brand, deciding not to use their names on the label, nor their images for marketing purposes. “We were aware of [the growing trend of] celebrity brands,” recalls Mary-Kate. “We were trying to get away from that because we’d already done it [with Wal-Mart], and we did it well. We’d been there, we’d done that.”
For her part, Ashley was adamant. “I was looking at it as I’m switching careers. I’m no longer going by my face. Who knows what I’ll do in the future, if I act again or if I don’t? My point at the moment was, I’m literally disappearing. I’m not going to be in front of the camera. I want to do something created with my hands and with my thoughts. It wasn’t about being a face. It was about being able to create something.”
Both sisters have maintained that stance, until now. Ashley and Mary-Kate will finally put their faces out there in support of their latest brand, StyleMint, an online venture in partnership with the e-commerce umbrella site BeachMint. The T-shirt-focused, membership-based project launches online July 1. They will be the faces of the project and have shot “eight or nine videos” so far. They see this as an entrée into a whole new world. “We’re excited about because we’re creating this world,” says Mary-Kate. “BeachMint has educated all of us about the e-commerce online retail structure. It’s knowledge that you need to have almost accumulated from Day One. I feel like we learn something new every day, which we can apply to our other brands.”
Ashley gets more specific. “The online world of communicating directly with the customers is amazing,” she says. “From the whole process of how you speak to the customer, how the customer will speak back to you, to why did that person buy the blue one versus the pink one and then having all that data. Where is she located? How old is she? It’s like they have these algorithms that they keep plugging in and then they can change one word on their landing site and all of a sudden see a huge switch and know exactly why, down to the mathematical part of it. It’s very interesting.”
And if speaking to consumers directly by going on camera furthers the cause, so be it. It fact, the Olsens seemed to have enjoyed being in front of the camera again. “They had their hair and makeup done. There was a director,” Collage recounts with obvious pride. “Seeing them interact again together on camera — I couldn’t get a grip because I’ve watched that since they were six years old. Some people have the ‘It’ factor — they have It.”
Which begs the obvious question, a return to acting one day?
The two consider the query as they sit in the Elizabeth and James showroom at the Jaya office. Both are now black-clad and shod sensibly in matching Prada sneakers. Mary-Kate wears The Row leather leggings with a Balenciaga sweater and Ashley, an airy, voluminous Junya coat over one of her much-favored slipdresses. Multiple rings decorate her fingers, including one, a gift from their mother, and another, an impressive diamond, a gift from Mary-Kate. The sisters give each other swell presents. At the previous interview, sitting on the table was a reverse gift, from Ashley to Mary-Kate, a severely beaten up — make that well-loved — vintage Hermès bag. “I really use things,” its owner offered in embarrassed defense of its lived-in state. “Why wouldn’t I use things I love?”
Back to the question at hand, will they act again, they give virtually the same answer offered the week before when asked if they would consider taking their business public: Not now. But never say never.
Then Mary-Kate expands the thought: “Right now we don’t have the time. I was thinking about this recently. We don’t use that form of expression anymore. But it’s still ingrained in us.”