The road to fashion success is paved with labels that have fallen by the wayside, so it takes serious talent to steer not one but two brands to great heights. And if you came to the industry without any of the usual credentials, via a completely different career? Well, that’s pretty spectacular. Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, former actresses and style pin-ups, now founders and designers of pared-back luxury label The Row and contemporary lifestyle brand Elizabeth and James, have achieved just that over the past decade, gaining industry respect and credibility along the way. No mean feat.
It’s Elizabeth and James we’re here to talk about in the label’s New York offices overlooking the Hudson River, the photoshoot winding up in the room next door. Ashley and Mary-Kate, 30, are happier to be talking than posing: once a common occurrence, being photographed is outside of their comfort zone these days, something they do just once or twice a year. “We’re used to being on the other side of the camera and managing the process, so it’s hard for us to do photoshoots now,” says Mary-Kate. “That’s why you have models.”
Instead, their meticulously mapped-out time (“We’re very organized; every minute is accounted for”) is spent working, alternating their days between this office and the one a couple of floors down that houses The Row, quietly getting on with building their labels. So quietly, in fact, that it’s entirely possible you’ve been shopping one or the other without quite realizing who is behind it.
Elizabeth and James was conceived after the Olsens, with their wily eyes for business, spotted a gap for a contemporary brand in a market that is now saturated but, back then, had little to offer. “We like to say that Elizabeth and James is the new luxury,” explains Mary-Kate. “It’s the idea that you can still have fashion, great fabrics and great fits at a lower price point.”
We like to say Elizabeth and James is the new luxury; great fabrics and great fits at a lower price point”
Last year the sisters took production of the label back in-house after eight years of working with New York-based manufacturer Jaya Apparel Group. And it’s as though they’ve started from scratch; returning it to its roots as an item-driven brand; a one-stop shop for the perfect wear-again-and-again dress or oversized blazer.
“We talk about the mother and the daughter, the comfortable and sexy, masculine and feminine. It’s a balance of both,” says Mary-Kate. Case in point: the SS17 collection is a blend of striped shirts, oversized slouchy pants and romantic ruffled or figure-hugging dresses – everything you need in your sartorial arsenal.
But if they have gone back to Elizabeth and James’ core DNA for the designs, they have charged forward in terms of scope. In the past 12 months, they’ve added 100 new stockists; expanded the Elizabeth and James Nirvana beauty collection; and opened the label’s first store, a beautiful space in Los Angeles decorated with furniture handpicked by the designers. It’s further evidence of an impressive work ethic. “I’ve always been a worker,” says Ashley. “It has taken me a lot to figure out how to take a vacation.”
Her sister, who married French banker Olivier Sarkozy in 2015, says they have found a balance. “I think we’re lucky working hard comes quite naturally for us. We don’t need so much time to sit and think and ponder. But then I have a husband, two step-kids and a life; I have to go home and cook dinner. I ride horses on the weekends. You find the thing that helps you relax and if you don’t have it, look for it. Or you get burned out and then you’re not productive.”
It’s the comfortable and sexy, masculine and feminine. It’s a balance of both”
Granted, the duo’s path to fashion was not that of your average top designer. At six months old, they landed the shared role of Michelle Tanner on US sitcom Full House, and years spent being dressed on set taught them everything they needed to know about cut, fit and proportion. “We’ve been in so many fittings,” says Ashley. “We used to do two a week for 15 years.” They used that knowledge to inform their own wardrobe choices. “When we were younger, being in the public eye was almost part of our role and responsibility – to set the trends at that time or be ahead of fashion,” says Mary-Kate. “We would take adult clothing and cut it down to our size, change the proportions. I think from a young age we understood fit in a very different way because we’re so petite.”
The Olsens’ approach to design is detail-orientated. They try everything on and encourage their team to do the same, to make sure that the clothes really work when you wear them, that they’re as versatile as possible, and can be dressed up or down on rotation rather than worn occasionally.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Mary-Kate, “I’m wearing these pants today as seen above and all I keep thinking is: how haven’t they wrinkled yet? That’s a good sign; we’ll use this fabric again. It’s little things like that.”
We want to help women feel however they want to feel. Every once in a while, women like to switch it up. That’s the beauty of clothes”
The Olsens’ personal style has been microscopically documented, but the attention is not something they give much thought to. “We don’t dive into that world of social media; we don’t have Instagram or Facebook,” says Ashley. “So we’ve never been connected to our customers or our fans in that way. We’ve stayed quite sheltered.”
But their taste informs the clothes they make, of course, and how they style them, both on themselves and their customer. They never shy from oversized shapes and layering, teaming masculine pants with heels or cinching an oversized sweater over a dress. And they lean towards giving the prettier pieces in their collection a grungier slant with a belt and clompy boots (they’re both into Dr. Martens right now), and wearing figure-hugging dresses over slim-cut pants or leggings. They’re loathe to be prescriptive about how their pieces should be put together, though. Ultimately, it’s about dressing for yourself, they say, whoever you happen to be in the moment.
“We just want to help women feel however they want to feel,” shrugs Mary-Kate. “Every once in a while, we want to change our perfume or our haircut; we want to wear heels or flats. We just like to switch it up. That’s the beauty of clothes.”
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.