Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, the petite 28-year-old créateurs of The Row and contemporary label Elizabeth and James, join NM Fashion Director Ken Downing to talk about their process, their impressive new handbag collection, and the transformative power of the leather legging.
KEN DOWNING: When I see a collection that you do, it seems like such a personal journey. What’s your jumping-off point when you start a collection?
ASHLEY OLSEN: We always start with the fabrics. We’re fortunate to be able to work with amazing fabrics and fabric mills, so we’ll start that development process first. The next step: We do a bunch of styling. So essentially it [the silhouette] usually comes from the season prior.
KD: So the season before becomes your haute couture and a bit of a laboratory?
AO: A little bit, yes! We knew what we are doing for spring and then sort of backed into it for resort. It’s our way of sort of saying, “Okay, this is the most special silhouette, so let’s take this fabric that we’ve seen and develop it.”
KD: Do your own wardrobe needs and desires ever drive your ideas and what you create each season?
MARY-KATE OLSEN: Yeah, and it’s not necessarily pushing a trend piece; it’s just adding something to the wardrobe that you don’t have—a new fabric, a new fit. We’re not changing fashion, we’re just enhancing someone’s wardrobe.
KD: It’s interesting you say you’re not changing fashion. I give you full credit for reintroducing the leather legging to the fashion vocabulary. Did you realize that
when you created that leather legging what it was going to do?
MKO: No! If you really thought about stretch and leather in the same sentence, it just sounds gross. But they were this amazing fit, and at the time, everyone was obsessed with tights, so it was like, “Okay, how are we going to translate this?”
KD: It has transcended trend. You’ve put a leather legging in every woman’s wardrobe—in the entire world.
MKO: Leather is a big part of our business—and knitwear. We really try and cover everything…it’s the most simple or most extravagant, you know?
KD: Is that a reflection of your personalities in a sense, too?
AO: Probably. We’re Gemini.
KD: When I see the collections, I always find there’s a real tailored element, and there’s also a very bohemian romanticism. When I look at the two of you, it’s almost a melding of both.
AO: It’s that—and being petite, and having been in a million fittings growing up for other work, we developed an understanding of the body, silhouette, fit, and proportion. So we’ve become obsessed with what that means.
KD: When people talk about the two of you as fashion designers, they often ask, “Are Mary-Kate and Ashley as involved in the collection as we think they are?”
AO: Yeah, we’re very controlling people. Our manufacturing happens in New York, so we get to see what production is going to be, what the sampling is going to be throughout the whole design season. It’s not like it gets sent away and comes back. You’re with the product.
KD: We certainly know you had a career before you were designers, but fashion is a part of you, isn’t it?
MKO: We’d have to change 30 times in an episode…
AO: …and fittings like six and seven hours a week.
MKO: [Wardrobe] is also how you define characters. So, you know, a lot of fashion is storytelling, and it was just a different form of storytelling. And we were exposed to everything that was available from a young age.
KD: Did you always love the clothes they put you in?
MKO: We had choice. As close as we were, we were very independent people. We definitely had a voice as to whether we wanted to wear it or not.
AO: Yeah, there would be a rack from here to the end of the room to go pick from—this, this, this, this, this, this.
KD: It’s interesting that you started in such a quiet way with the collection.
AO: We decided to take a step back from our public life and really focus on school—to take a break and explore what we wanted to do. And from there found a pattern-maker, and we started making things. Eventually, we had this tight little collection, named it The Row, and really didn’t want to have any sort of public association with it.
KD: And the name The Row comes from?
MKO: Savile Row. But the first label we had was just the gold chain, so nobody knew what it was called. It was the brand with the gold chain. Now everyone does a gold chain, but we’ve stepped away from that.
AO: That’s how the concept started, and that’s how we continue to grow—as a discrete, luxury company that just focuses on the woman, the woman’s body, her needs, and her lifestyle.
KD: And that’s what you did with the handbag collection.
AO: Yeah, and I think making handbags is a very interesting industry. It’s really run by three main people.
KD: But you’re getting your slice of it!
MKO: When we started, we really didn’t want an “it” bag; we wanted a collection of fabulous bags.
AO: At first, we focused on the most beautiful things that we could possibly think of. From there, we’ve been able to create the more wearable—the day, the evening—and have more of a range, like what we do with our apparel, especially with price points.
KD: There’s really a kind of comfy-cozy quality to the entire fall show. As petite as the two of you are, you really embrace the whole idea of volume—sweaters were oversized, skirts were really big…
MKO: It really started with this 90-gram cashmere that we found, and we worked with some people in New York who hand knit this beautiful, beautiful knitwear and…
KD: It just got bigger and bigger?
AO: Yeah, kinda. It was all about shapes—circular and triangular—and how these silhouettes come together based on these patterns. And then the circles got bigger and bigger, and these capes are becoming skirts, and you know, that’s when it starts getting playful and interesting.
KD: Don’t you love the whole runway piece? It allows you to create that dream as you see it. Or do you find it a little scary?
AO: Well, you’ve been to our shows; you see how intimate we keep them. I don’t like Olympic fashion shows. It has to be small so it can function. It was actually really hard for me to initially embrace the idea of a runway.
MKO: We call them presentations for that reason—so we have flexibility. We can do something crazy, or do nothing, or only do something if it means something, or travel around and do a show whenever it’s necessary. It’s important to be able to do what feels right for your brand, period. Whether that’s doing a show, or going into someone’s home, or going to Paris because your collection is late.
KD: I love when you bring that embroidered element into the collection, because it’s not on everything, so you know it’s superspecial when you introduce it.
MKO: We’re working on some really fun embroidery for spring.
KD: So spring and resort are going to give us a little more hint of that?
MKO: Not resort, but spring will. Resort is just about soft, beautiful, easy. Like real resort.
KD: A hint of color for resort?
MK&A: Yeah, there’s some.
KD: Gonna give me a little insider peek?
AO: Red shoes.
KD: Red shoes? I love red shoes! Can we write that?
AO: I think so, no?
MKO: I don’t know. It’s fine.
KD: It won’t give too much away.
Shop The Row at select Neiman Marcus stores and neimanmarcus.com.
Photography by Pete Thompson.