The Row, the luxe minimalist brand founded by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, is weathering financial difficulties, layoffs and the scaling back or closure of its short-lived men’s wear line, according to sources.
Despite numerous accolades, the Olsens’ reputation as arbiters of taste and CFDA Award wins and nominations — including those released this week, for Womenswear Designer of the Year and Accessories Designer of the Year —sources say the brand’s finances have long been choppy and that the current global economic crisis resulting from the coronavirus has been a further blow to the label.
When reached for comment regarding its business, The Row issued a statement to WWD saying it is, “actively producing the pre-fall 2020 and fall 2020 collections, developing the spring 2021 collection and working on its expansion plans for 2021 and beyond.”
“Like all retail brands, the company responsibly reduced overhead to address what we all hope will be a temporary disruption of the supply chain due to the global pandemic,” the statement said. “The Row is steadfastly committed to and maintains a diverse and inclusive workplace. We are not going to comment on the other inaccurate gossip about our business, other than to say we are excited about The Row’s future, including our men’s wear line, accessories, our e-commerce business and our future profitability.”
Following global COVID-19 lockdowns, The Row made extensive cuts to its staff, according to sources, by one account slashing 50 percent of all jobs. Among those said to have exited are womenswear co-design directors James Robinson and Anna Sophia Hövener, as well as founding head men’s wear designer Paul Helbers, while a fleet of other design, sales and development positions were also eliminated. Those cuts followed the October ouster of president David Schulte, who has since filed a sealed lawsuit against the sisters, their label and its parent company Dualstar Entertainment.
The job reductions came on the heels of Barneys New York’s bankruptcy last year — the court filings from which revealed that The Row was owed $3.7 million in outstanding debts. Barneys was among The Row’s biggest wholesale accounts, and the brand was the store’s second-biggest debtor — even outpacing two of the retailer’s landlords.
But even as third-party retail continues to decline globally, The Row has not made a major push to develop its own e-commerce channels, which some sources pointed to as one of the reasons for its current woes.
Some say the departure of Helbers, formerly head men’s designer for Louis Vuitton and Maison Martin Margiela, represents the end of The Row’s experiment with men’s wear — a launch charted in August 2018 at Schulte’s insistence, according to a source. The concept never quite got off the ground and was underperforming at retail, they said. Helbers did not respond to requests for comment.
When New York City entered phase one of reopening, between 10 and 12 members of The Row’s design and development team — a group that originally stood at around 30 people — were called back to the office to begin working on new collections. Among those called back were the label’s in-house patternmakers, according to a source.
It is understood that with the teams called back, Ashley is now serving as the company’s ceo, while Mary-Kate is creative director.
A source said at one point it appeared that The Row would shift its operations to Milan to be closer to its handbag and shoe development sites — two of the label’s biggest categories — but it appears the brand’s headquarters are staying put in New York for now. One source said The Row’s longtime leather supplier had some trouble getting paid and recently received notice from the brand terminating their working relationship.
Financial hardships aside, The Row has also seen internal turmoil regarding racial inequity, according to a source, who noted that the brand does not employ any Black professionals in its corporate headquarters and has very few employees of Asian decent. The source said that Asian employees were often excluded from promotions and raises even after years of working for the company. After the company’s recent round of layoffs, the source is unsure if any people of color remain on staff.
When asked to confirm or deny specifics relating to this story and their accuracy, The Row declined further comment.
The Row has long been regarded for its carefully crafted, guarded image — the kind of label that avoided discounting in order to maintain an aura of exclusivity. The brand’s fashion shows are attended by a curated list of fashion figures and are organized as refined, meditative experiences. The company’s Instagram is often cryptic, posting photos of minimalist artworks and archival photos.
All things considered, one would not expect to encounter The Row’s designs at discount retailers. However, one well-placed source said that in recent months The Row liquidated a considerable amount of merchandise to off-price channels in order to drum up a much-needed spurt of cash. The brand is still operating two flagship stores, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, which are well-respected for their environmental approach to retailing and tasteful assortment. Both locations are currently open for shopping.
Throughout the label’s history, The Row has done well at producing some high-margin accessories, like its signature Ascot bag — a piece of silk knotted into a hammock shape that retails for around $1,000. The label also sells velvet Furlane gondolier shoes, versions of which cost around $20 at stores across Italy, for the retail price of $550. Recently, more of that product had ended up on sale racks at luxury stores.
But as The Row faced financial trouble, sources say that Ashley and Mary-Kate continued to spend lavishly — even installing a fur bed in the middle of their studio office that no one sat on. This summer, Mary-Kate became enmeshed in a high-profile divorce from Olivier Sarkozy, and was reported to spend $325,000 on a summer Hamptons rental to hide out in during COVID-19 lockdowns this summer. The designer has since been photographed back at work outside The Row’s corporate headquarters.
This story has been updated.