ARCHIVE: How Did Mary-Kate, Ashley Olsen Go from Celebrities to Legitimate Fashion Forces?

As the former New York Times fashion director, Cathy Horyn wrote in 2006: “Very few celebrities are either so fascinating or appalling that they manage to get under our skins, as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have.” But is pedestrian intrigue – much of which is driven by a cult obsession with their attire, whether it be their boho looks from the early to mid-2000’s or their more refined wardrobes of late, as well as their romances and net worth – enough to make their high-end collection, The Row, a success? Given the viability of their label, with its low-key elegance and steep price tags, there is arguably more to it than fanfare. 

Star power does sell. We have Kanye West and his sneakers as proof of that. But does buying on the premise of a celebrity endorsement alone work season after season in the upper echelon of fashion, where price points are at their highest and in many cases, logos are secondary? Does this type of demand lead to industry-wide approval (think: winning the biggest Council of Fashion Designers of America prize – one based at least in theory on design (and maybe also based on favoritism as indicated by the small pool of nominees each year) – twice before the age of 30)? Almost certainly not.

Since the launch of their collection in 2006 (when they were just 20 years old), the now 29-year-old Olsens, who boast no formal design training, have had many wondering: Do they actually design for The Row, a collection named “in reverence of London’s Savile Row” and known for its exceptional quality textiles and impeccable fits? (A question of which they've grown a bit tired). 

It seems they might – only to a very small extent – but there is a more accurate description of their role. The twin sisters act as creative directors, with a design team that does most of the heavy lifting, so to speak. In this role, they oversee the brand. Their awareness of business and branding, and their welcoming of collaboration in connection with the daily operations of their collection certainty doesn’t hurt either.

We know that they have quite a bit of help in terms of design and the running of the business itself, which is not something for which to fault them – it is quite the opposite actually. Identifying that they could not do this on their own – without formal fashion or business training – is wise. And in fashion and entertainment, industries rife with creativity and delicate (yet substantial) egos, this willingness to share the spotlight can be rare but also smart.

You may recall that in July 2014, we learned that the sisters’ secret weapon, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, their design director since 2011, would be leaving to fill Christophe Lemaire’s place at Hermès. On the heels of the announcement, publications were quick to laud Vanhee-Cybulski’s skills and track record. Writing for the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman noted: “It seems pretty clear that in choosing Vanhee-Cybulski, Mr. Dumas [CEO of Hermès] is sending the message that he is committed to keeping his apparel line at the highest, most discrete end of the luxury market, as opposed to, say, moving toward a more buzzy, Instagram-oriented, sexy-livestream positioning.”

She continued: “Ms. Vanhee-Cybulski, after all, has perhaps the most impeccable track record of any designer when it comes to experience in understated-yet-ultra-high fashion: She began her career at Maison Margiela (Mr. Margiela having been, probably not coincidentally, artistic director of Hermès women’s wear from 1997-2003); worked with Phoebe Philo at Céline, from 2008 to 2011; and then joined the Row, where she has been instrumental in crafting its aesthetic of ageless style in ultra-lush fabrics.”

When Vanhee-Cybulski left The Row for Hermès, which actually occurred ahead of the July 2015 announcement, the twins reportedly did not replace her. However, despite her departure, there is still a fairly significant team in place, including a Senior Technical Design Manager; assistant designers (notably, a promising young Parsons grad named Harim Jung, who was the 2013 Kering x Parsons Competition Winner); sweater and knit designers and a director of this department; accessories designers and a director; fabric and trim associates; patternmakers; production managers for everything from handbags to fabric; and Fabric Research and Development Coordinators. There is also Francesco Fucci, the label’s “head designer,” who formerly worked as a senior designer director for Diane Von Furstenberg and as a creative consultant for Calvin Klein Collection. He came on board in November 2012.

The twins have certainly bulked up their team from what Cathy Horyn described as “five employees who share the two-room office” in 2006. In short: they have a fully functioning in-house design team and if we are to believe the reports, they do, in fact, go into work at The Row on a daily basis and oversee the work on the collection.

On the business side, The Row is run by a rather impressive President and Chief Operating Officer, François Kress, who previously served as President and CEO at Prada USA Corp. He joined in 2012 to coincide with some significant points of expansion (think: shoes, which have since come in house as of this year; eyewear; a standalone store in Los Angeles; rumors of menswear). Their CFO, Andrew Wong (who has been with them since 2012) came from Derek Lam, and moonlights as the financial head of Dualstar, the sisters’ entertainment company, that produces their movies, TV shows, magazines, video games, etc., and owns the rights therein.

With structural organization out of the way, I ask: How did The Row get to a point of such respectability? How have the sisters managed to win awards, develop a significant base of stockists (The Row can be found in more than 188 stores in 37 countries), and have their goods sell-out? How did they manage this in the cold, hard world of high fashion, where celebrity lines are not only not welcome, they almost don't exist at all? 

As you may know, the vast majority of "celebrity lines" that have managed to make a profit are often situated at far lower price points (think: Jessica Simpson’s extremely profitable collection that appears to stock almost exclusively at Nordstrom Rack and the like). There is also Lauren Conrad’s collection for Kohl’s, which has also performed quite well, with garments and accessories retailing for less than $50. Even the sisters’ Olsenboye collection is thriving at JC Penney.

At higher price points, there are Kanye West’s Yeezy collection. Victoria Beckham, who shows her collection at New York Fashion Week and stocks at Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Bergdorfs and similarly situated retailers, is one of the commonly cited exceptions to the no celebrity collections rule – along with the Olsens, of course.

Not only has The Row ascended above the taboo associated with celebrities “designing” fashion, it has somehow climbed on to a pedestal that stands taller than the brands of many of the sisters’ design school-educated peers. This is likely the result of a number of factors, including a heightened awareness of what they were up against and the utilization of savvy business tact to enable them to cope.

For instance, the Olsens appear to be thriving on what most celebrities seemingly neglect to consider, and thus, underestimate the power of, when they make their foray into fashion: a level of understanding of and respect for the fashion industry. We all know their initial tactic. In lieu of announcing their design intentions to the world and showing at Paris Fashion Week between the Hermes and Louis Vuitton shows, they opted to rely on showrooms, making a far quieter debut.

“When we first started, we wanted to have, like, a front man because we just knew how hard it was going to be. We wanted to have someone else be claiming to design it,” said Mary-Kate. But the calculated dynamics of their commencement did not stop there; they shied from the press, hoping to put all of the focus on the garments themselves.

Mary-Kate told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “We didn't do an interview for it for the first three years. Our whole point was if it's good product, it will sell without a label or a logo or a face behind it and it worked." (There is also the argument that they were building hype by keeping quiet – something Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons have been known to do)

The result? Retail buyers and consumers are hooked, and if we are to believe the reports, the Olsens'’ success is not based on their last name. In the mid-2000’s, when she was still serving as the fashion director of Barneys New York, Julie Gilhart was convinced buyers were not heavily swayed by the fact that the famous twins were behind the label. She told the New York Times: “I don’t think anybody really cares that it’s Mary-Kate and Ashley’s collection. They’re buying it because they like it.”

It would be easy to chalk this statement up to unwarranted praise for the designers, but at the prices that they are asking (think: at least $2,500 for a bag), their garments and accessories are not the impulse buys of young fan girls. Instead, The Row attracts seasoned shoppers, who tend to fall between ages 35 and 60. Moreover, the designs are not mere replications of what the twins are spotted wearing in street style photos. Speaking of the collection, Ashley said: “It’s that ageless design that we try to focus on, but it’s not defined by one of us.”

So, what their success comes down to – at least, in part – is this: these two have professional tact and an innate sense of fashion that goes well beyond the surface, and which serves as a real asset for them. They have an understanding of the industry beyond merely liking and wearing expensive clothing, and even more importantly, an appreciation for it.

So, while they quite obviously had an advantage when they started (think: resources of $1 billion from their Dualstar venture that most designers simply don’t have when they are starting out), their process was, nonetheless, one grounded upon respect of the industry and a focus on the garments themselves – on quality and craftsmanship – and not reliant on their personal selling power as a mechanism for sales. As a result, they have earned industry respect but certainly not all in one season.

The collection was initially a very difficult sell, in part, because their prices reflect the quality of materials they use and their almost exclusively New York-based manufacturing. (There is also the immense support early on from fashion industry organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue, etc., which can do A LOT for a brand in its early stages).

Yet, what was probably their biggest obstacle, their use of the highest quality materials and their refusal to be swayed by trends, may be the exact thing that helped them overcome the initial odds. Their collection speaks to one of the most difficult demographics to attract: Those who have turned up their noses to cycle of trends and the allure of celebrity-endorsed luxury. Not those with logo-laden handbags and loud, red-soled shoes, but those who value small-scale, high-end manufacturing, much like the twins themselves.

Their success is also very noteworthy, as they took this path, “aiming at the very people who are likely to shun celeb-related collections—picky women of the world who buy clothes only on intrinsic merit,” as Vogue’s Sarah Mower put it in 2011.

Similarly, while the industry has largely seemed to welcome the twin sisters, it hasn’t been completely unanimous. You may recall that celebrity stylist Lysa Cooper told Vogue Italia in 2013: "The only [celebrity line] that's any good, and I hate to say it, are our girls, the twins. The Row. But the reason that works, is because they hired designers. They 'yay' or 'nay' [the concepts]. And they are the best line at ripping off other lines that I've ever seen," she says of the former child actresses. "I mean, they've taken Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester. But it's good. You know, they're good at it. I don't buy it, but they're good at it."

Upon reading Cooper’s comments at the time, I found myself siding with the twins and questioning Cooper’s motive. Was she trying to gain relevance by tapping into their success? It seemed possible. After speaking with industry sources and scouring comments sections of articles that covered the Cooper story, I learned that I was not alone in my allegiance to the mini-moguls. And here lies something very important. The Olsens have managed to build a fashion brand and actually have people rooting for them. This is something most celebrities just can’t seem to manage. 

Maybe this stems from the sisters’ sense of discretion – another major source of success for them. They value anonymity “in life and in clothes.” With this in mind, they have repeatedly stated and more importantly, demonstrated that they did not set out to become more famous as a result of their foray into the fashion industry. (Already household names, this would be a difficult feat, anyway). This can be seen in the marketing and promotion of the brand in comparison with those of other celebrities. 

“While Beckham has expertly used her personal public profile to promote her brand, the Olsens have taken a step back from celebrity status. They’re rarely on the red carpet, for example. This means it’s possible that some women who buy The Row’s clothes have no idea of their celebrity pedigree. And that, arguably, is how the Olsens like it,” wrote the Guardian.

Or consider Kanye West’s debut Yeezy for Adidas lookbook. The rapper is firmly situated in it via photographs. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, on the other hand, do not talk to press often (when they do, questions are reportedly approved before hand, as industry practice has it) and will barely stop for a photo, let alone rant on Twitter or be pictured in their brand’s lookbook.

And unlike other celebrities, the twins, as indicated above, chose not to rely on their celebrity selling power to sell clothes. "We wanted to see if we could sell without a label that people knew. We sold them to Barneys, no press, no PR. People bought it. And being able to sell the product spoke for itself,” says Ashley.

Moreover, they did not enter the industry on a whim. They identified a void and focused on that, launching a smart business, as distinct from using their name/resources to merely create an outlet for their fashion aspirations. Speaking to this point, Ashley told the Los Angeles Times in 2013: "We saw a space in the market. We knew there wasn't another brand offering basics in a luxurious and contemporary way. If you are wearing a Chanel jacket and you need an anonymous piece that will show just how special that jacket is, I hope that is what the Row gives you."

Also worth noting: The twins have identified their customer. They know her. “The Row skews toward an older market — an educated consumer who’s been shopping for years,” Mary-Kate has said. “The main thing we thought was lacking in the luxury market were basic pieces that could break up an outfit so you didn’t feel like you were totally dressed in one designer. You could add some ease and comfort, tone it down.” Their approach certainly does not scream – well, anything. Instead, it speaks to those like the Olsens, themselves; those looking for quality, yet quiet, garments.

And lastly, the Olsens share a common joy in learning the industry – something they started doing before they launched their label ten years ago. Ashley says: “I don't think you know anything unless you try it yourself. The exciting thing is entering the industry and learning every day. Mary-Kate and I love to learn." "We love what we do,” says Mary-Kate. This display of humility is endearing. Maybe this is why we root for them.

With that, their industry takeover of sorts has been solidified. As the Guardian very aptly stated early this year, “It’s safe to say that the twins are no longer ageing child stars trying their hand at fashion. Their success is being taken seriously.” And they do not appear to take it for granted. Upon accepting their second CFDA Award for Womenswear, Ashley spoke for the two, saying: "We have really enjoyed our time, the past 10 years in this industry, and we love our customers." It’s difficult not to like that. 

* This article was initially published in December 2015.