Slow Fashion: The Olsen Twins' Rise

Over the past decade, with The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have quietly revolutionized the fashion industry, carving out a niche for pared-down, ageless luxury that is here to stay.

I am waiting on a Wednesday afternoon in early January to meet Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in their showroom's reception area, which could be mistaken for the entrance to an out-of-date gym. It is stark and minimalist, bare-floored, with one tired-looking black leather couch on which I sit and another black couch at the opposite end, next to a single potted plant. It reminds me a bit of the unglitzy quality of The Row itself, the luxe fashion line the two women started in 2006 to a general hoot of disbelief and which has since gone on to win awards and acclaim. In 2012, and again in 2015, the Olsens were named Womenswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. 

As I watch people going in and out of The Row’s offices—all of them thin and dressed in shades of black—I briefly spot the twins, also thin and dressed in shades of black. A few minutes later their assistant comes out to get me and the three of us gather around a table in their showroom, surrounded by racks filled with prefall. Along three bars hangs a delectable lineup of clothes in cream, white, denim blue, navy, brick, and black, and in fabrics ranging from silk and suede to cashmere and fur. The Row’s materials always look like the ne plus ultra of their type—the leathers more supple than other designers’ leather, their cashmeres more plushly soft. The clothes, whether a white silk-poplin blouse or a silver-gray wool-gabardine coat, manage to look essential and ethereal at the same time—both vivid and muted, like clothes in a dream.

After everything I have read about the sisters, who have been on the receiving end of rabid tabloid coverage since before they could walk, I am expecting them to be rarefied specimens who speak in spacey, monosyllabic utterances and have only the frailest of connections to the world the rest of us live in. They have been described so often as tiny and fragile creatures (“animated Kewpie dolls” is one phrase that’s been applied to them), living in some privileged limbo of fame and ambition, that I have been worrying I won’t be able to sustain a conversation, one that will fill the generous hour and a half of interviewing time (more than they’ve ever given, their publicist declares) they’ve allotted me. 

The Olsens, who say their twinship is difficult for other people to grasp (“people think of us like a unicorn,” Mary-Kate volunteers), are not identical, but they look similar, with blondish hair, button noses, and big round eyes. Mary-Kate recently got married to Olivier Sarkozy, who is 17 years her senior and the half-brother of the former French president. (She seems disinclined to discuss the event but does offer, apropos the New York Post Page Six item, “It wasn’t bowls of cigarettes, I can promise you that.”) She is wearing a dauntingly beautiful engagement ring among a bunch of other rings, including one with the face of the man in the moon, and four or five cunning chain necklaces. Her sister Ashley, meanwhile, wears a fair number of rings herself (they each buy pieces of jewelry for the other), but there is something less “done” about her; perhaps it’s no more than that she appears to be wearing next to no makeup. Both are dressed in covetable-looking items—Mary-Kate in a long coat and Ashley in a leather blouson-type top—that I assume to be from The Row.

Here’s the thing, however, about the Olsens that rarely gets conveyed, at least as they struck me that day. In person they’re not only likable, they’re actual bona fide grown-ups, with a bit of baggage (Mary-Kate’s rumored struggles with an eating disorder made headlines all over the world, and more recently a class-action lawsuit was brought against them by former unpaid interns) and a lot of know-how, having been tutored in “the school of branding,” as Ashley puts it, since they were knee-high. 

“We were the first celebrity brand at Walmart,” she adds, “even before Disney characters.” They’re unapologetically serious about what they do, referring to The Row as “our baby.” They describe themselves as “collaborative”—indeed, they pick up on each other’s half-finished sentences, like acrobats working in tandem—and also, with endearing self-insight, as “so controlling.” They’re curious about lots of things—fashion most centrally, but also jewelry and furniture and photography and design in general—and seem to have successfully sidestepped the aura of insularity and entitlement that usually accompanies people who have grown up in the limelight. Brooke Garber Neidich, a close friend who has worked with them on her jewelry line for Sidney Garber, has nothing but admiration for the sisters’ characters: “These young women,” she says, “have navigated an impossible world magnificently. Think of people who were raised similarly and what’s become of them. They’re disciplined but have a sense of humor. They write thank-you notes. They’re always on time.” 

These young singular women—they will turn 30 in June—have been working nonstop since they were nine months old, when they sprang to fame costarring in the role of Michelle Tanner, the adorable baby on the hit TV show Full House. Little girls, including my daughter, went nuts for them, and their doting fan base was eventually leveraged into a buy-ing audience (girls ages 4 to 14) for not only their movies and videos (they made their first feature film, It Takes Two, in 1995, after the end of Full House) but a proliferating empire that included clothes, shoes, purses, hats, books, CDs, fragrances and makeup, dolls, board games, and telephones. At the age of 12, together with their company Dualstar (started by their parents and their then manager, Robert Thorne, and of which they became copresidents at 18), they launched a line for Walmart, sporting the tagline “Real Fashion for Real Girls.” 

When it came time for college, both girls enrolled at NYU, and it was on a semester off during their first year (neither of them graduated, although Ashley swears she intends to go back, however long it takes her) that the idea of The Row, named after the precise tailoring of Savile Row, was born. “It was a project,” they say. “It wasn’t a huge commitment. We grew up working, going to school, and having a personal life. When we just had school, it didn’t seem enough. We like to commit to things—we decided to commit to [The Row].” The line started with fewer than five items, based around the perfect white T-shirt, priced at $200, and included a perfectly cut $1,150 blazer. Perhaps most intriguingly, it started without press. Rather than shaping The Row as a celebrity enterprise, the sisters intentionally kept themselves in the background, abstaining from doing interviews for the first three years (there are still no backstage interviews or after-parties). They began by renting a hotel room in Paris, buying mannequins there, and then handwriting every order. The first store they sold to was Maxfield, in Los Angeles, and after that Barneys rose to the bait, ordering the entire inaugural collection.

Meanwhile, the line grew organically, “one hire at a time, one sale at a time.” The sisters say they “never wanted to overextend” themselves, and that they’re supremely conscious of not being wasteful, even if that means not allowing stores to overorder. They seem justifiably proud that most of The Row is manufactured in America, in an atelier downstairs from the showroom, with the exception of its handbags (the launch, in 2011, included a $39,000 alligator backpack the price of which immediately created a furor—and promptly sold out). “We’re very responsible,” they say in unison, suddenly sounding both touchingly young and sincere. And, indeed, they seem to think long and hard about each step they take, whether it be introducing a new item (they’ve just created their first full line of shoes, mostly flats, starting at $850) or a new style. It’s worth noting that whereas most brands leap to do accessories quickly, since it’s here—in bags, shoes, sunglasses, and fragrance—that the money is made, The Row has continued to focus on the main stage, the clothes themselves. “Our clothes are ageless and timeless. They aren’t wearing you,” observes Mary-Kate. “You’ll be able to wear something a year from now and not be embarrassed you bought it. A lot of our designs come from a previous design from our own collection,” she adds. “It’s all in the proportion.” 

The Olsens talk about how they “nurture the product” and “tweak each a little,” with occasional forays into “something funny and kitschy.” Indeed, one of the strengths of their aesthetic is how un-smugly trendy their line is. Unlike other lines that go through identifiable “phases” (including rocky ones) that can be pinpointed down to the particular season, theirs was clearly thought out from the get-go and has an intentionally unradical design curve, one that has evolved minimally over the past ten years.  

The result is a sense of continuity that is rare in such a young company. Fashion brand consultant and former Vogue staffer Candy Pratts Price sees this lack of seasonal bells and whistles as all to the good. “There is no noise, as in ‘I love plaids!’ or ‘I’m going to do the ’70s!’” she says. “Instead, it’s their feeling of how a woman should dress. They’re designing for a mood. When you see their clothes, you think, I want to live like that.” 

A decade in, despite the griping—that the Olsens had no hands-on training (“we drape,” Mary-Kate says pointedly, going on to note that Miuccia Prada doesn’t know how to sketch, either), that the clothes were too expensive (a notion the women find “offensive,” leading them to assert that they are priced “competitively” and sending them into a brief lecture on “value” versus “perceived value” and “mass” versus “luxury” fashion), that it wasn’t clear who their target customer was—The Row looks to be nothing short of visionary. Its subtle, unfussy, and supremely sophisticated approach to the way women dress is a window to where fashion is heading rather than where it comes from, a brilliant business concept rather than the latest caprice of two spoiled and very rich (a $1 billion empire, says Bloomberg) former child stars. Despite their line originally being treated as though it emerged without forethought from the heads of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the sisters have had almost 20 years’ worth of informal design experience—and countless wardrobe stylings—via their Hollywood careers. They changed clothes as often as 12 times a day, learning cut, fit, and proportion as jackets from the likes of Chanel and Mark Jacobs were resized for their small frames. 

Somewhere along the way they also figured out that the new fashion was antifashion—clothes that can’t be read in the usual way, as a manifestation of a clearly identifiable brand, but rather that speak in a coded aesthetic of anonymous luxury, one that bypasses the iron grip of advertising and red-carpet publicity and manages, all the same, to establish a place in the consumer imagination. The message The Row’s underdesigned and meticulously tailored collections—think a less stringent Céline or a more grown-up version of Helmut Lang, slouchy but principled—convey is one of quiet cachet and insider knowledge. They have the kind of style, in other words, that doesn’t announce itself, doesn’t immediately make you ask who the designer is, but floats beyond such mundane signifiers into an empyreal dimension that is labelproof. Their clothes, I’d guess, are particularly alluring to women who are looking to play with their own personas rather than buying into a designer’s imprimatur or slavishly following the latest latest. Women whose relationship with fashion is a private transaction rather than an exchange meant to be assessed (and priced!) by others. 

Babe Paley, who looked ineffably chic in a man-tailored shirt, would have loved The Row, as would have Audrey Hepburn. Not to overlook Jackie Onassis, who could make a black T-shirt and white capris the essence of anonymous luxury. Michelle Obama has worn them, and Kate Hudson is also a fan. At Bergdorf Goodman, The Row is considered to be the anchor of the newly named sixth floor, the Modernists, which features designers who prefer a pared-down aesthetic, including Tomas Maier, Brunello Cucinelli, and Derek Lam.

What’s particularly intriguing, in a youth-obsessed culture such as ours and given how young the Olsens themselves are, is that they are comfortable with having a client who, as they have determined, “is probably in her 50s—a woman who knows what she wants.” When they went searching for a look-book model, they bypassed all the gamine young things and headed for Lauren Hutton. Then again, both have an old-soul quality, a feeling of having been through a lot and survived to tell the tale. As if reading my mind, Mary-Kate announces, as Ashley nods her head in agreement: “I’ve never been scared of being old. Don’t you want to be old? Don’t you want to be a grandparent? Isn’t that the goal? I’m looking forward to it. With age comes wisdom.” 

These days, The Row “pays for itself.” This is all they’re willing to reveal about their sales, which are rumored to be $50 million annually. The company remains small, with fewer than 80 employees, including four ready-to-wear designers, one sweater designer (they’re looking for another), and four or five pattern makers. Its first retail store opened in Los Angeles in 2014 and another will open on New York’s Upper East Side later this year. Like the L.A. boutique, it will carry their clothing, as well as curated items the Olsens have collected, a high-low assortment that includes art and jewelry, both vintage and contemporary, socks and blankets. 

If it seems a tad anomalous that two such diminutive, delicate-looking types are possessed of so much determination and drive, I suppose some of it derives from the fact that there was, by their account, “a lot of perfectionism and competitiveness in our family.” (Their mother was a professional ballerina; their father is a talented golfer; and their younger sister Elizabeth is an accomplished actress.) Another part of it, of course, derives from the women themselves, from their wide-open outlook and spirit of high individualism. Although they’re not ones to openly crow other than to boast of what they don’t do (“We’re not out to capture other people’s businesses,” they declare. “We don’t take other people’s samples and put them on our rack”), as far as I can tell they’re just beginning. When I ask them if they have plans to conquer the world, they answer in one voice: “Ver-r-ry slowly.”