The Olsen twins, Ashley and Mary-Kate, arrive at the bar of the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan. Paparazzi snapshots of the occasion are up on the Internet just a little later: two small, blond persons in enormous sunglasses climbing out of a car. Mary-Kate Olsen speaks hesitantly, in a quiet voice. She has a dreamy look in her eyes. Ashley Olsen, who is two minutes older than her sister, speaks like a seasoned professional. At age 27, the two have already played plenty of different roles. They were child stars on the TV series Full House, a show that wasn’t especially good. They acted in countless films. These too were rather shallow. They made millions in teenager merchandising. Their latest role: successful designers in the tough world of luxury fashion. For several seasons now, their label, The Row, has epitomized the cool, minimal style coming out of New York.
You moved from Los Angeles to New York in 2004 – the year you turned 18 and became the sole proprietors of your million-dollar business Dualstar. You went from being cute little girls to serious fashion icons.
Mary-Kate Olsen: Well, I guess that’s true. We got an awful lot of unnecessary attention. But the New York paparazzi are nicer than the ones in Los Angeles. They know their boundaries.
Ashley Olsen: Fashion is one way of expressing yourself. When we came to New York, it was the first time we were perceived as two different people. Maybe some people were surprised by that. We broke with our past when we were 18. We no longer played parts in the same films. We wanted to leave that teenager act behind us, that’s why we came here.
Has fashion always played a big part in your lives?
Mary-Kate Olsen: I remember the exact day when we were first allowed to dress differently. We were 14. For us, that was a big deal. We were nine months old when we were cast in the lead part in Full House . We took turns playing the character Michelle Tanner. So even as babies we were wearing costumes.
Ashley Olsen: And because we’re twins, we always asked ourselves whether we should wear the same thing or something different. When we got to New York, it felt like we weren’t wearing costumes for the first time.
For your label The Row you design minimalist – one could even say, serious – fashion that is quite clearly anything but girly.
Ashley Olsen: It’s important to us that fashion is not a costume. It’s all about how the clothes feel on your skin. We enrolled in college here, but we missed working! So we thought about a brand. What was missing on the market? We noticed that there was no luxury brand that offered simple, minimalist clothes – clothes that you can wear again and again. Other brands just didn’t do that. The big couture houses are so expressive in their designs, but there are few pieces that transfer the brand’s philosophy into something that is suitable for daily wear. We started with a T-shirt – we wanted to make the perfect T-shirt. That was the challenge we set ourselves. That’s how The Row got started.
After all your earlier success, you could have just leaned back. You could practically have gone into retirement.
Ashley Olsen: I will never stop working. I want to have something to do. When you work, you’re taking part in life. We were 13 when we developed a label for Wal-Mart. The label also distributed clothes. We were the first to do this kind of merchandising: a name behind a brand. The Row is completely different, but we learned something about business management, about communication and how a business is structured. We learned that you need different partners and that you have to stay in constant contact with all of them. That you must always try to get the best out of them, at the best price. The training we got back then is still helpful today. We also learned that it is important to define your audience. Back then the market didn’t offer kids much to wear between childhood and puberty. Now they’re called tweens, back then there was no term for them. It’s a big market with a lot of mothers and grandmothers, and nobody was serving them. We were the first.
A lot of people lament that children are becoming consumers earlier and earlier – you were already businesswomen at 13. Do you sometimes think that may have been a little too early?
Mary-Kate Olsen: We’ve always been very determined. For us it was like going to school. We wanted to learn something.
Ashley Olsen: We went to all the meetings. Our parents wanted us to be involved in all aspects of the business. We listened, and we learned the language. And people were interested in our opinion, partly because we are about the same age as the target audience.
How did you know whose advice to listen to when you founded The Row in 2008? You were so young and had amassed quite a fortune. There must have been a huge risk of getting involved with the wrong people.
Ashley Olsen: I think it’s instinct. We just took one step at a time.
Mary-Kate Olsen: Maxfield – a store in Los Angeles that’s well-known in the industry – ordered pieces from our first collection. And they sold out immediately. Only a few people knew we were behind the brand. When fashion buyers and fashion magazine editors found out that The Row was the Olsen twins’ label, they couldn’t believe it.