Conversation With: Ashley & Mary Kate Olsen for The Row
When you first meet Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen, two things strike you immediately: they are more soft spoken and petite than you expected. Couple these with their unassuming manner and it’s easy to forget that they’ve been celebrities since they were 9 months old and starred on the hit TV show Full House. Dressed in head-to-toe black and sporting disheveled blond manes, they look more like a pair of art school co-eds – albeit very pretty ones in impeccably tailored pants.
But get the sisters talking about The Row, the luxury brand they created five years ago, and you quickly realize you’re in the presence of fashion titans who run a global empire estimated at $1.5 billion. As the world and tabloids watched, Mary Kate and Ashley transitioned from Hollywood child stars into articulate businesswomen who are redefining the American fashion industry. In fact, this year, the 26-year-old twins won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year award, becoming the youngest designers to ever win the prestigious accolade.
Defined by minimalism and meticulous attention to tailoring, The Row has been compared to early Armani. Despite their world-wide reputation as trendsetters, the Olsens focus on creating pieces that are trendless, ageless and seasonless. The Row is all about classic basics that fit well, feel luxurious and blend seamlessly into any woman’s wardrobe. Even the labels inside the clothes are discrete and tiny.
Mary Kate and Ashley recently stopped by Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills to meet with customers one-on-one. Every season, they prefer to hold intimate sessions like these rather than splashy runway shows. Just another way that the Olsens are defying expectations and writing their own fashion rules.
NM: Tailoring is a signature of The Row. Why is fit so important to you?
Ashley: Growing up, because we are very petite, we were always altering clothing. So tailoring is something we’ve always been very sensitive to.
NM: You’ve said The Row is influenced by the way men approach dressing. How so?
Ashley: Well, I think a blazer is definitely an essential piece of a woman’s wardrobe as is shirting and sweaters. So we focus on all these basic categories that you can interchange. Whether it’s a jacket or a pair of pants, we think of the way it fits a woman’s body…
Mary Kate: And the way it feels.
Ashley: Yes, and the way it feels. Those are the most important things.
NM: What were your influences for Resort 2013?
Mary Kate: Resort that we just delivered…was this mix between California…this kind of Palm Springs and Big Sur vibe…combined with rain coat weather…
Ashley: Sorry, we are thinking back to three seasons ago and trying to keep the influences straight [both laugh]. Resort 2013 was focused on outwear.
Mary Kate: Even though it is Resort, it delivers in the dead of winter. So we wanted to have things that you can buy now and, at the same time, will still work for women closer to Spring.
Ashley: It’s always an interesting season to design for, because of that.
NM: You grew up in Southern California…
Mary Kate: Yes, we were born and raised here.
NM: Does that influence The Row?
Ashley: I think it’s there and it’s about having a more casual mentality. It’s a feeling of wanting to make pieces that are easy.
Mary Kate: When it came to using prints in this Resort collection, it’s there because we used palm trees. You can see it in the sweater on the back. [Gestures to Ashley to turn around and traces the design of the a palm tree with her finger in the sweater her sister is wearing.] And you’ll see some of the prints as well in the shirting. It was about asking ourselves: ‘How do we make a palm tree look like the most special palm tree ever?’ [laughing]
NM: And it is. It looks so chic and subtle. Describe the spirit of minimalism and anonymity that you infuse in The Row.
Ashley: That’s been our main focus with the brand. It goes back to where the brand started. The goal was to have this anonymous product that can be worn with any other designer whose work is maybe a little more branded. So that when you’re putting your outfit together, you don’t feel like you’re in this fully branded look. You have these luxury basics that you can break up and mix in to your wardrobe to make it all more personal.
Mary Kate: Anonymity is big for us. It’s always a word we use to describe the collections and how we want to approach things. Easy is another one.
NM: There’s also a real timeless and classic feel to the clothes. Do you design with a type of woman in mind?
Ashley: We definitely design the clothes to work for a wide age range. That’s why we’re really glad the collection is being carried by a store like Neiman Marcus. There’s so much history at a store like this. You see a lot of women who shop here with their daughters…
Mary Kate: And their mothers.
Ashley: And their mothers. So shopping at Neiman’s is really kind of a lifestyle. And you get a range of all kinds of clients with different needs. It’s been really special to have our product here.
NM: Earlier this year, you won the CFDA award for Womenswear. You were the youngest designers to ever win the honor. How did that feel?
Ashley: Those sorts of things, I think, just make you want to work harder, do better, keep offering things that are more unexpected and more precious and more available. It just makes you want to get even more creative with the next step you take.
Mary Kate: Which for us is very important.
NM: Who are the designers that influence you?
Ashley: There are so many… I think in terms of The Row, the people that influence us the most are our customers.
NM: So in the personal sessions with Neiman clients, what kind of feedback do you get?
Ashley: For us, we like to hear about the product that they’ve bought in the past. It’s good to be reminded of the past products we’ve delivered that people have liked. It helps us remember pieces that we haven’t really thought about in a while and we find ways to bring those pieces forward in some way in new collections. We like hearing what people were attracted to and the kinds of fits that they liked.
Mary Kate: I think meeting them and seeing their personalities is also helpful. That helps us understand what she’s looking for and how the clothes fit in her life. It’s all helpful because we reference the client all the time in the design process.
NM: Tell us about designing accessories for the Row. You currently offer handbags and eyewear…
Ashley: Hopefully shoes soon too. But we haven’t really gotten there yet. It’s definitely a category that we’ve always wanted to do. As far as designing the accessories, it’s been very interesting and really fun.
Mary Kate: We definitely started in a very small way. We have learned a lot – what’s working, what doesn’t work – and continue to evolve the process from there.
Ashley: We think about them together with the clothes. It’s about the whole look. It goes back to the lifestyle and how you would wear something and how you want it to feel. The challenge is that the process for designing the handbags starts six months before the clothes.
Mary Kate: But it comes down to the silhouette. It’s something that we really pay attention to. We also use leathers in their purest forms. It’s when leather is at its most luxe. It goes back to how something feels against your body, or how a bag feels in your hands.
NM: Both of you are considered style icons. Has your style changed in any way as you’ve become designers and learned more about design?
Ashley: Well, we work every day so we’re in the office every day. It’s more about constantly thinking about what’s going to make my life easier today. It’s about going to work and wanting to look pulled together.
Mary Kate: It also becomes really interesting to shop once you really know the luxury industry. You pay attention to how things are made and where things are made.
Ashley: We make everything in the US except for handbags. There are real advantages to that. We are very close to the process and the quality. That’s really what we started to notice—if something is made really well or if it’s not made well enough.
Mary Kate: Working in an office has made us adopt more of a uniform too. We end up in jeans and flats mostly. [laughs]
NM: The two of you have worked together your entire lives. How has that working relationship evolved over the past few years with The Row?
Ashley: I do feel lucky that I have a partner. You definitely feel like you have someone…
Mary Kate: To bounce ideas off of.
See The Row on NeimanMarcus.com and at select NM stores.