The Future of Fashion: Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen

Dualstar, the world headquarters of Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen’s numerous enterprises, isn’t some high-tech fortress. Set on a nondescript Chelsea block, it’s a low-key loft building that seems to have evaded condo-ization. Step inside and you could be entering the studio of any up-and-coming downtown designer. There are the bare wood floors, the nice flowers, the cartons of takeout food. It’s all very normal, and you sense that’s important to these refugees from massive childhood fame.

At a stage in life where many of their peers are vying for a slot on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, the Olsens are appearing in 130 stores worldwide with their luxury fashion label The Row, and they have been nominated for the Swarovski Award for Womenswear, the top honor for emerging talent, at next month’s Council of Fashion Designers of America gala. They are among the few celebrities to make critically acclaimed clothes (Ashley, left, long ago gave up acting and Mary-Kate now says she is too busy to pursue it, too), and nothing is typical about their approach. They sell their line Olsenboye to JCPenney at the same time that they sell The Row to Bergdorf Goodman, they deliberately aim The Row at women much older than themselves, and though they were born into the digital generation, their embrace of social media is a wary one. Still just 24, they are literally part of the future of fashion.

In conversation, the sisters are by turns articulate and guarded. They’ve done the media dance before and they’re not going to be drawn out of their comfort zone. Ask them about John Galliano’s meltdown and you won’t get much. Ashley: “I think he’s an amazing designer.” Mary-Kate: “I think he’s a brilliant designer.” That’s not to say they lack warmth. They laugh frequently, and though they speak in soft tones, they’re not afraid to meet your gaze with their startled, green-tinted eyes. Ashley is in some ways the designated spokesperson for the pair, Mary-Kate the quieter and funnier one, but their roles are more fluid than that, and yes, they frequently complete each other’s sentences. Here they shed some light on the design process behind The Row, the accidental way they became fashion icons, and the reason Twitter makes them anxious.

You have three or four lines now, The Row, Elizabeth and James, Textile Elizabeth and James, and Olsenboye. Was it a conscious decision to have different lines to address different segments of the market?
Ashley: No, it kind of developed over time. It started when we were 10, working with Walmart, so we already had a mass brand that was the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand. It was our names, it was our faces. The design development process was really done in house as well, so we went all through that process. Then we kind of stopped when we were 18 and came here for school, started developing the concept of The Row during our first and second year of school. While this was coming to fruition we started doing Elizabeth and James, too. Several months later…

Mary-Kate: I think everything kind of happened organically.

A: It just sort of organically started. Things come up and it depends on the timing, if we think it’s a good idea. We started doing handbags for The Row in our fifth year, which haven’t hit stores yet. Just slow growth, organic.

Were you concerned that having a line like Olsenboye, which sells at JCPenney, would detract from building a luxury label like The Row?
A: No, I think they’re just totally different markets, and we approach each market very differently but with the same integrity and the same intent. With The Row we manufacture and produce everything in the U.S, and in Italy for the handbags and one or two sweater styles. Elizabeth and James, Olsenboye is a licensed brand, so that is not in this house. We do a lot of our marketing and PR out of this office, a lot of the design and development process is in our partner’s office…We’re extremely involved in that design process; we’re just not taking on the operations.

You have separate design teams for each line?
A: Yes.

Specifically on The Row, where does the design process start for you?
A: It all starts with the fabrics…Then we go into kind of silhouette development, so we start figuring out our silhouettes, what we’re liking, what we’re leaning towards, an evolution of the previous season, certain pieces, so it really starts with this stylized proportion. Then, through that process, we start our pattern making off the silhouettes that we’re liking and the consistent themes that we start finding, the shapes. So we start twisting the fabrics and then we start trying different fabrics and patterns. And once we have all the fabrics, we have about three weeks to produce the collection.

That’s a different process from a lot of designers, who are inspired by this trip they just took or a photo they came across.
MK: You’d have to take a lot of trips, no?

The Row has become known for a sort of minimalist luxury. Do you feel your last collection [Fall 2011] was a departure?
A: More elaborate.

MK: Yeah, we haven’t really done a lot of color, and slowly over the seasons we’ve explored that a bit. And different techniques as well when it comes to the fur, beading, lace. But if you go through our entire collection, you’ve seen it all before. Meaning, pieces repeat. That fur T-shirt, for example, that’s this T-shirt [ points to plain one she’s wearing] from a couple of seasons ago, so it’s always consistent. It’s just about how we can evolve and also give the option to either buy this version or that version, creating a story.

Do you have an ideal customer in mind for The Row?
A: I think a lot of different women pop into my mind, just because we were raised by a lot of very chic women and just constantly working…so I think we do think of a lot of different women. What’s great is that it really is an ageless collection. I think 30 to 60 is the core of our customers, and it’s someone who’s really educated on the fabrics and the fit. That’s the information that’s trickled back to us and it’s kind of what it is.

There’s a feeling that a lot of designers, older designers, only make clothes that work for a 16-year-old model on the runway. But you guys are 24…
A: 25 in June.

…and you’ve deliberately set out to appeal to a broader cross section.
A: When we first started the T-shirts and the dresses, we tried it on bodies that were our bodies and we tried it on our parent’s bodies and our friends’ parents’ bodies. So that was kind of an important process that we took in the beginning, as to why something works on someone older, why it doesn’t, why it works on someone young, and why it doesn’t, and to not get rid of a customer base.

How do you handle the responsibility of having these different lines?
A: I don’t think it’s the creative process that has ever gotten to us. More than anything, it’s about trying to find balance with work and how we can personally stay balanced while having our corporations grow, and I think that’s been the biggest thing that we are constantly aware of. We have to put boundaries on scheduling. We work crazy hours every week, so it’s been more about figuring out when we need to put our foot down. “We can’t add this extra meeting. It’s one too many meetings in a day; push it later.” So it’s been about that. And with The Row, it’s about how to elevate the process with growth without putting too much on the overhead.

MK: The creative process is important but so is understanding numbers, the growth of the company, what you can handle, what you can’t handle or take on, keeping your team balanced from design to production.

A: So those are things we all work on every day.

MK: And make sure everyone has the support.

How big’s the team on The Row now?
A: The design is two. Tech and sweater tech, patternmaker, seven. Seven then two in production. I’d say there’s about 12 or 14 between design, production, and development. A lot of the team is extremely young and talented and have been with us for a while.

You run the business, too?
A: Yes.

MK: We’re CEOs.

That’s pretty unusual, to be in charge of both the business and creative sides.
A: You do want to keep your creative team just creative. You don’t want to bog them down with numbers. I’ve always been a business and creative person. That’s the way my brain works. I like numbers…but I also love the creative process and I love working with my hands. So between the two of us, we’re so lucky that we have someone to balance and to talk through ideas constantly, so it’s not just one person banging their head against a wall. We do have a dialogue, a constant dialogue, whether it’s regarding our financial infrastructure or a T-shirt. Whatever it is, there’s a constant communication.

I’ve just figured it out for the other designers. They all need a twin. Seriously, though, is that support the most important thing?
A: 100 percent. At the end of the day, we know that every decision we make, we can hold ourselves accountable for it ourselves. There’s no pointing fingers at anyone.

MK: Also, it’s important to have a constant dialogue [and not] get stuck in your own thoughts. Bad day, good day, our dialogue is the most important.

A: And I think that it keeps you focused and grounded and lighthearted, and it kind of always puts things in perspective in regards to other things, in regards to the rest of the world.

Does being in charge of the business help?
A: Yeah. When we were 17, we bought out a partner who was part of Dualstar at the time when we were younger. Not that we had to answer to anyone, but it was just that idea of us knowing at 17 that we really wanted…

MK: …to have control…

A: …to have control. So for The Row we have 100 percent control, and we own our brands, so I do think it’s really important…Because we’ve been working since we were nine months old, we’ve been able to get to this place. And [we’ve] worked in other industries and understand how to run other businesses and corporations and how it’s all the same but different.

MK: I think if we didn’t feel we were capable of doing it, we wouldn’t do it.

And you were able to get to that decision when you were 17 because you’d been exposed to so much all your lives?
In unison: Right.

How has being women affected your designs?
A: I think the way being women has helped us in our designs is that we do a lot of research on what women like, what women don’t like.

MK: Also, for ourselves, we’re really petite, so ever since we were six, eight, we’ve been cutting down clothes to fit our bodies, and that never went away…Just the little things, how the waistband fits, what you want against your skin, and what’s flattering to your body and different body types.

A: What you’ll show and what you won’t show.

MK: Women that will show their arms and won’t show their arms; there’s so many things that women think about.

Do you think the future will be more and more about women designers?
A: It doesn’t seem that way. Like when you look at the up-and-coming designers, there’s not a lot of women.

I guess it leaves the field open for you guys. Have any particular designers inspired you?
A: Fortuny’s always been my favorite, just the ease and the beauty and the colors.

MK: Yohji.

A: Yohji’s always just magical.

MK: There’s a lot of designers.
A: Christian Lacroix.

MK: I mean, old Donna and Calvin Klein, and there are so many.

A: There are so many moments that happen in the fashion industry that, like art, constantly come back as references.

One of the criticisms of contemporary design is that there isn’t enough focus on technique, but technique seems to be important to you.

A: I think how we gained a lot of our techniques and our knowledge is by doing our research and looking at older pieces of clothing and taking it to a pattern maker, so our factory could digest what it is and how it was accomplished and why you could do it back then and you can’t do it now, and how can you accomplish the same thing now. So each season, more and more, we dive deeper into techniques, especially older techniques that aren’t necessarily utilized today.

And you’re able to find the craftspeople?
MK: [There are] a lot of extremely talented craftsmen here.

In New York?
MK: Yes. A lot of Europeans are coming here as well.

You’re in an unusual situation for designers in the sense that you’re also known as fashion icons. Does that term mean anything to you?
A: I don’t think we ever related to anything that anyone calls us, but I think when we moved to New York…You know, we’d been involved in fashion even when we were doing movies at six and we’d have 25 costume changes, so it goes back so much further than that, as to what the public saw when we were doing our videos and our shows and the fashions that we focused on. And the fashion-forward trends, which really started the Walmart business, ’cause there were no cute clothes for kids, no cool clothes for tweens. Or tween didn’t exist—I mean, this is how far this goes back. So it goes back further and maybe that word [icons] just comes out of that.

But people in fashion became aware of the way you dressed…

A: When we moved to New York I think, for NYU.

People called it homeless chic or granny chic. There were a lot of terms. But it was a very striking moment. Were you conscious it was happening?
A: That moment for us was us waking up, going to school, and not wanting anyone to take our picture. Kind of a piece of protection.

MK: For me, it was so cold, like the wind chill. How could you not put on 20 things when you’re going from Los Angeles to walking through the snow?

A: Yeah, we were California girls.

MK: I think it was probably that. And laziness.

The irony is everybody wanted to photograph that and then copy it. In a way it relates to the rise of street style and the whole idea of fashion coming from the streets.
A: The people and the streets. It really kind of goes back to paparazzi and the accessibility that people have to one another now.

Any favorite fashion blogs?
MK: JakAndJil. I love looking at the use of color. Not sure if it’s so much the fashion, but I think [Tommy Ton]’s a great photographer. I’ll read Terry [Richardson]’s blog occasionally. That’s also for his sense of humor.

A: For me, it’s more about the art world probably.

Do you hang out with other designers?
A: I mean, honestly, I don’t leave my house.
MK: We’re either here or at the house.

A: I’m friendly with a lot of people, but when it comes down to it, you won’t see me actually in that [scene].

We have some party pictures on that might contradict that.
MK: More so than designers, I think it’s people who are involved in the industry…When we have a dinner party, my idea of being with people would be an artist, a designer, a writer, a sort of a mix of personalities.

A: Yeah, like, our closest friends are in all types of fields. My best friend is in law school, the other one’s a Pilates instructor, the other one’s a yoga teacher, the other one works in production, real estate, an entrepreneur…The people that are really close to us, our friends that we’ve grown up with, they’re in a lot of different creative fields.

But is there a sense that the social scene can nourish creative people?

A: Every once in a while I think it’s OK, but as we get older, you can’t do that. [ Laughter.]

Social media has become an unavoidable topic. Are you guys on Twitter?
A: No.

There are a million Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsens on Twitter, but none of them are you, right?
A: No Facebook. No Twitter.

There’s a lot of pressure on brands to have a digital strategy now, but you’re from the digital generation and avoid that. You have Twitter feeds for each line but you don’t have personal accounts to promote your stuff, the way, say, Lady Gaga does. And you know, if you started on Twitter tomorrow, you’d have millions of followers overnight.
A: That gives me so much anxiety.

MK: We’ve spent our whole lives trying to not let people have that accessibility, so it would go against everything we’ve done in our lives to not be in the public.

Going forward, how important is e-commerce versus traditional bricks and mortar?
A: I think we’re really just focused on this Stylemint thing [a partnership with Beachmint to sell limited-edition T-shirts online] and seeing really what direct-to-the-consumer is.

MK: But it is interesting. When we started selling The Row to Net-a-Porter, overnight it became our third largest retailer…For me personally, I like to walk into a store and feel the fabric, try it on, see everything. That’s what I like from the shopping experience. So I love what Net-a-Porter has done, I think it’s really quite extraordinary, but I’m not an online shopper.

Any plans to have your own stores?
A: I think every designer would say they’d love to open their own store, just because when you produce a collection, this whole room will be filled with God only knows how many racks and 150 pieces. What hits the stores is maybe ten pieces, in different colorways…so it would be nice to be able to represent it in your own way.

MK: Also, you’re speaking directly to your customer. It’s not an edited version of it.

A: But it’s all a matter of timing and when it makes sense, and it’s a really big undertaking, so it depends.

Do seasonal deliveries—resort, spring, pre-fall, fall—still make sense?
A: No, I think there’s a couple of things that need to be ironed out as far as deliveries. Is it buy now, wear now? Is it not? Do you deliver a tank top and sandals in December? I don’t know, but I do feel that everything keeps speeding up so something’s going to shift. It’s just waiting, it’s just going to happen naturally. There will be a shift. I don’t know what it will be, though. Or someone needs to put their foot down. [ Laughter.]…Pre-collections are on the floor much longer than your design press seasons, so you’re doing all this press and all this push on a collection that’s never really going to be on the floor longer than three weeks.

You’ve approached fashion shows in different ways—video, runway.
A: We first just did market, and for our holiday collection, because we couldn’t afford to go to market and do the whole thing, we did an online video where you saw a girl undressing and dressing.

The one shot in L.A.?
A: Yes, and that was years ago. It was before anyone knew how to open it.

MK: None of our buyers could figure it out.

A: None of our buyers could figure out how to click and whatever. We did that, and then like a year and a half or two years later, we did the Fall show, which we really wanted it to be a small presentation, and that small presentation definitely turned out to be a little bigger than we expected…It’s just we were afraid to speak in front of everyone because I have really poor speaking skills in front of lots of people, so we were like, why don’t we just do it in a runway format. That’s kind of how that got to that place. And then for Spring, samples were really delayed based off of new techniques we were using, and we decided instead of putting a halfway thing together and rushing through it, to move it, and we were fortunate to be able to move it to Paris. Thank God for our team. Everyone pulled together, and we were able to deliver a beautiful presentation in Paris…And this season we wanted to shoot it like a runway but not have a runway show, so we shot it like that so the images could be pulled for the purpose of the press. So we had that image and then everyone was like, “We missed your show.” [We said:] “It wasn’t a real show; you were invited. Don’t worry, it wasn’t just you.”

You don’t feel you need a full runway show to get press and make a statement?
A: We didn’t come into it doing it, so maybe because we came into it a little later and it was more about our customer, it didn’t really relate to this brand specifically. I also really don’t like going to runway shows, I don’t like being around a lot of people, I don’t like being in crowds, so that’s another more personal part of it. It’s hard for me.

MK: I think for magazines it’s nice to have those images and have that consistency. At the same time I think if you had the images that do the same thing, and they can all still come here and feel a T-shirt or a fur jacket, that’s also important. It’s sort of what our brand is all about.

But you’re not ruling out doing runway shows in the future?
A: No, listen, there are a couple of shows that I’ve been to that are just stunning…so if you’re going to the right thing at the right time, it can be fantastic.

MK: We just feel bad for all of you guys who have to schlep everywhere and then write your reviews in the car on a BlackBerry.

How important are the critics these days?
A: You mean how much do we pay attention or not pay attention? Because we’ve been used to criticism our whole lives as far as what we do, as a rule we try to not read or look at anything. It’s more something we’ve been doing since we were born because we’ve had so many interviews. We’ve done this for so long that the easiest way for us to keep going and not become stopped in our tracks by words is to sometimes just not pay attention.

Where do you see the business in ten years? You’ve talked about running a studio for other creative talents.
A: I think we’re just creative people and we love working with creative people, and I guess we’ll see where that takes us, with that mentality and supporting talent and supporting young talent and being in love with architecture and interior design and film and art.

MK: We also don’t necessarily know what we’re doing tomorrow. If you’d asked us ten years ago if we thought we’d be here, we probably [would have thought] it’d be a stretch. [ Laughter.]

But you can see yourselves branching out into different fields beyond fashion one day?
A: Who knows?

MK: You never know.
A: Branching out to retirement.

Would you ever sell your company, say to a fashion conglomerate?
A: Dualstar or The Row or Elizabeth and James?

Any combination of those?
A: I think it depends on the brand. Right now we have no plans for anything. The main thing is we’re really focused on making the strongest brands we possibly can at the moment, and we’re just getting into accessories.

The industry is so fragmented these days. Can a young brand still develop into a global brand like Ralph Lauren?
A: I think it depends on your intention of what you want, and I think that maybe all these people’s intentions are a little different. In terms of turning into a global brand and what that means and what all those little parts are that build it, I can say for The Row we always want to keep it American luxury and always to the highest quality…making the best product we can for the right price point with the most beautiful fabrics. That’s kind of right now our main focus, that type of consistency and integrity.

How important is eco fashion going forward?
A: I think there’s a lot of information out there, and I think there’s a lot of information that we also don’t have, as far as what it means to be conscious. Is it shipping? Is it the dyeing process? There’s so many parts that actually do affect our air and our water that just having 100 percent organic doesn’t mean 100 percent organic anymore.

Is it important to keep up part of your celebrity? There’s pressure on every designer these days to become a celebrity and get out there and sell the brand. You came from the other direction with this huge celebrity.
MK: I think if the product’s right, it sells.

A: Yes, and I think in regards to what you’re saying, we are in a very unique situation, so I don’t think going one way or the other is the answer. I don’t think there’s a black and white answer to what you’re asking. I think that we grew up in a very unique situation. That’s an understatement. I would love to be able to say one thing will work, one thing won’t, one thing’s important over another thing, but I just think at the end of the day we’re in a unique situation.

But is being “the Olsens” a brand you’re conscious of separate from The Row?
A: When we see Olsen and you put it in terms of brand, one, I think of all our video catalogs that we still have and that we can reinvent one day, if we want to go back to that Olsen branding celebrity thing, bringing the past into the future. That’s one way, and then I think right now it’s just important…What you’re talking about as a brand is kind of just how we develop our relationships, our partners, who we partner with and how we all work together, and making sure we’re in the right relationships with the right people.

MK: All over the world I think people know us from different stages of our life and different things, whether it’s videos or Walmart or as designers or acting…I think it’s remarkable that children know us now from things that we did 20 years ago, when we were little guys.

In 20 years time, would you be happy to be known as just designers?
A: I don’t think that’s going to be the case, [but] I think we’ll be happy if people recognize the work we’ve done and we’ve done it well.