LOS ANGELES — Nearly a decade after founding The Row, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen on Tuesday will open the brand’s first flagship — a 3,800-square-foot store at 8440 Melrose Place that looks like the quintessential midcentury modern California pad, right down to the swimming pool in its glass courtyard.
They both refer to the store as “a hidden gem” because, save for a short white signpost on the cobblestone sidewalk, a brushed steel plaque and a narrow window displaying an antique cabinet filled with folded white T-shirts and a signature backpack, none of the actual store is visible from the street. Customers first pass through white double doors in the gray stucco building, then through a narrow brick courtyard flanked by other offices, before reaching the store’s glass door, beyond which the pool is visible.
“It’s really tempting,” said Mary-Kate as she stretched her arms out beside the pool and tilted her face up toward the sun. In case anyone decides to take the plunge, a leather basket of neatly rolled beach towels has been thoughtfully placed nearby. “We’ve always wanted our own store; it’s always been part of the plan,” she continued. “It was a toss-up between New York and L.A., and when this space became available, we jumped on it. It used to be a hair salon and my sister and I used to come here, so we were very aware of the space.”
“We had been coming here since we were, like, 10 years old,” added Ashley of the former Sally Hershberger and John Frieda space. “We are from here and The Row started here, so it was all very appropriate.”
Back in the days when celebrities kept production offices on the quiet, tree-lined street, the space belonged to singer Neil Diamond. “We changed it a bit, but we left the bones,” said Ashley. “We like to enhance what’s already existed so the integrity of it is still very on par.”
Mary-Kate, dressed in The Row’s silk slipdress from a past season over a current white T-shirt, finished her outfit with a multicolor vintage coat and burgundy crocodile Manolo Blahnik sling-backs. Ashley wore a black silk shirt from The Row’s spring 2012 collection with a black pre-fall skirt and flat sandals. Mary-Kate’s engagement ring was one of the smaller pieces of jewelry the sisters were sporting, given their predilection for chunky gold bracelets, rings and pendants.
For the designing duo, it was important that the store represent Los Angeles. To that end, they worked with designers David Montalba and Courtney Applebaum and local furniture and antiques vendors such as JF Chen, Galerie Half, Blackman Cruz and Thomas Hayes Gallery to outfit the three distinct areas with items such as a Jean Prouvé dining table, a Fortuny floor lamp, Poul Kjaerholm coffee tables and Paul McCobb woven leather chairs, all of which are also for sale.
They refer to the spaces on either side of the pool courtyard as the west and east galleries, the west staged to resemble a dining area and the east a living room, while a third, smaller space in the front of the building is referred to as the library. “Ultimately, for us, it was about setting it up like a home and just having the apparel be a part of the space,” said Ashley.
Brown and neutral wool and cashmere jackets and pants from pre-fall hang on movable racks in the west gallery, along with bags displayed on thin, double-layered matte steel shelves that appear to float on the back wall, and Sidney Garber jewelry in a dark wood vitrine. The space seems to invite shopping as well as lounging, with sunglasses and scarves arranged on the round dining table along with potted succulents and scented candles. Tucked behind the galleries are three dressing rooms featuring pink limestone walls, giant floating mirrors and springy carpeting.
In the hallway that crosses the courtyard on the way to the east gallery, two John Tweddle paintings hang above another vitrine containing antique jewelry, cutlery and desktop items culled from the sisters’ personal collections. “Over time we’ll start curating more and more pieces,” said Mary-Kate, who added a Sergej Jensen painting from her own house to the entryway.
The east gallery houses T-shirts and sweaters as well as a few items exclusive to the store, such as a black coat from the fall 2013 collection featuring beading in a palm tree motif, and fine-gauge cashmere scarves. The sisters also plan to showcase capsule collections in the store, the first of which arrives in two weeks.
In the library, the sisters settle into a black leather love seat and armchair in front of a limestone fireplace. The room contains dark wood and pigskin-lined shelves displaying evening bags and Manolo Blahnik pumps, and mostly black eveningwear pieces. “We have all 170 pieces in our collection represented here. A lot of stores obviously don’t buy the whole collection, maybe 20 percent, so this is really the place where we can present it like a showroom,” said Mary-Kate.
“It was important to us to open up our doors quietly. We’re not going to have a party or anything; we want to make sure it’s set up properly, merchandised properly, that things are working. Maybe in a month or so we’ll do a dinner. For now, we just want to be open and get feedback from people close to us,” said Ashley.
Like almost everything they have done with The Row, opening the store has been a methodical process. “We’ve always been one T-shirt at a time, one hire at a time,” said Ashley. “We still run our business that way. We take on what the company can handle when it can handle it. This is not a fast-fashion brand, and I think it’s important to allow [it] time to exist and grow the way it grows naturally.”
While she declined to reveal their sales volume, she said, “It’s healthy.”
Said Mary-Kate: “What’s more important to talk about is that every step is really imperative to the brand and we don’t like to do everything at once. We’ll get into e-commerce sooner than later, but we want to make sure we do this right first. We will get into shoes in the next year. And hopefully men’s. To us it’s really about a lifestyle, and I think this store is a great starting-off point to express where we are going.”
As for their wholesale business — the brand is in 188 doors in 37 countries — Ashley said she’s happy with their U.S. distribution but that there is room to grow internationally. “I feel like we are in the countries and stores we want to be in internationally; it’s just about cultivating the client. It’s starting to happen, and the response is the same as it was here in the beginning, so it’s just about being patient and going to those places and really meeting the client and understanding their needs.”
A store could also be in the offing for their contemporary brand Elizabeth and James, according to Mary-Kate. “We’ll obviously wait to see the reaction of this store and how it enhances the brand, but the environment is very important,” she said.
Although it was just a coincidence that they found the ideal space in Los Angeles first, the sisters, who are a month shy of their 28th birthday and already have a CDFA Womenswear Designer of the Year award under their belts, said they were glad to open here before New York. “Starting in New York seemed pretty aggressive. This gives us some time to learn. I’m sure there’s many mistakes we made, so we will learn from those as well,” said Mary-Kate.
Ashley summed up, “This is our baby. This is something that we have nurtured and will continue to nurture. That is the way we feel about all our brands, but this one has always been a labor of love, and the space also reflects that.”
But the store isn’t their only project, of course. The sisters showed off photos of a wedding gown they are designing for a friend. Asked if they would ever design their own wedding gowns, Mary-Kate — who is engaged to Olivier Sarkozy — said, “I’m, like, not even there yet. I think it may be a matter of getting five or six or making two or three and being stressed out. That seems kind of far away. We’ll take one step at a time.”