High-end and low-key: Olsen twins open The Row store in London
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While in transit to London to meet with Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen — the twin sister designers behind the New York City-based fashion label The Row — I find myself sitting next to a woman who captures the discreet-chic aesthetic for which the brand is known. It’s a hazy morning at London Heathrow, and our flight, inbound from Miami, has just landed. The passenger is waiting patiently to disembark. She is dressed in an expensive-looking black sweater; on her wrists are two well-worn Cartier Love bracelets. She opens an inconspicuous, grainy leather bag to retrieve her passport. The words “The Row” glint in a thin, gold font from inside.
The bag is called the Margaux, and it costs £3,025. It typifies the low-key but high-grade luxury style for which The Row has become so coveted. Founded in 2006 by the former child actresses (Ashley and Mary-Kate are now 33), The Row’s ready-to-wear and accessories have 200 international stockists, including Net-a-Porter, Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman. They have standalone stores in Los Angeles and New York. And, this week, they are opening a boutique in London’s Mayfair.
“We’d been looking for a site for the past two years,” says Mary-Kate of their store, located at 15 Carlos Place. The twins have agreed to meet four days ahead of its opening. They are seemingly at ease — despite the noise of technicians and carpenters working — when they step outdoors to say hello. Both are dressed in layers of navy, and both are wearing impenetrably dark sunglasses. With their petite stature and flaxen hair, they are recognisable, no doubt; a few passers-by pause and maybe do a double-take, but the twins make no indication that they’ve noticed. They are polite and, perhaps surprisingly to the outside world, they are down-to-earth. Case in point: they’ll both apologise repeatedly for the (really quite minimal) state of construction indoors.
“This was an art gallery before, and a bank before that,” says Ashley. Securing this setting was “sort of an accident”, says Mary-Kate. “But, a good accident. We were touring a few other locations nearby, but when we saw this building, we asked the realtor about it and he said, ‘Oh, yes, this is available too!’ ” The Olsens don’t so much finish one another’s sentences as much as elaborate the other’s points.
The Row has become a global go-to for its understated, in-the-know and moneyed style. Women and men pursue — and collect — the brand for its seriously restrained and impeccably produced wares. The Olsens retain consistent critical acclaim in fashion circles and continue to garner a growing international clientele that naturally gravitates toward The Row’s quietness. It does not come cheap: a cashmere turtleneck coat costs £9,020; a wool-and-silk cowl-neck dress £6,420 — the embroidery on it takes one month to finish. A men’s polo shirt in cotton piqué retails for £380. “Every fabric we use is of the highest quality we can source,” says Mary-Kate. Womenswear is made predominantly in New York’s Garment District, with some artisanal production carried out internationally. Menswear is produced in Japan, Europe and the US.
The twins founded the line with the notion of perfecting a wardrobe staple — the white T-shirt — at the designer level. Their current tees are rendered in vintage crepe fabric and cost £205. An early backpack, in crocodile skin, made headlines for its five-figure price, yet it is still part of the collection today; as The Row’s oeuvre has broadened, so too has an understanding and appetite for super-luxe American closet staples. The Olsens’ designs are not trendy and do not age. They tend to operate in a palette of timeless hues; neutrals, grays, midnight blues, whites and blacks. Call their looks artisanal, monastic or serene — or maybe just some of the best wardrobe basics that money can buy.
It’s a noteworthy evolution. In the 2000s, the twins were the subjects of intense paparazzi attention, revered for their shared penchant for luxe-but-just-leaving-the-house looks: recall the worn-in Fendi or Hermès Birkin bags, the Alexander McQueen skull scarves, the big sunglasses, the Starbucks cups, the Range Rovers. There’s even a fan account on Instagram that documents the sisters’ personal style history, with over 1,500 posts. But, as The Row started to blossom, Ashley and Mary-Kate’s public-facing images became more and more private. They do little by way of promoting The Row via their own celebrity, preferring to let the clothing and accessories stand on their own.
In retrospect, some of this is due to their approach to retail. “They’ve created this singular world of fashion, style, design, art and more that we all want to live in,” says Sara Moonves, the recently appointed editor-in-chief of W Magazine. “It really is this gold standard, in a way.” In order to get customers to physically enter a store, these days, there must be something more to gain than just a shopping bag — even if that something is an Instagram story, or a selfie.
In London, the twins worked with the architect Annabelle Selldorf, who is currently designing an expansion for The Frick Museum in New York. Selldorf has transformed 15 Carlos Place into an intersection of the industrial with the more natural and crafty. It’s full of open, still spaces, but with just the right dose of lived-in familiarity. Wooden elements offset grays and whites; darkened metal shelving contrasts against the milky light pouring in through towering, paned windows. “There’s a fine line in making something inviting in a room that is, essentially, a concrete rectangle,” says Mary-Kate. “Arts-and-crafts, art deco and French mid-century is the [winning] balance here,” adds Ashley.
Before the customer sees any merchandise, they will pass a white wall with an oblong light installation, called Elliptical Glass (2017), by the artist James Turrell. Art, along with design objects and vintage furniture, is exactingly placed throughout both floors. All of it is hung and placed to serve as a museum-quality complement to the clothes and accessories. Gallery partners include Galerie Jacques Lacoste, Galerie Patrick Seguin, and Kayne Griffin Corcoran. A crumpled John Chamberlain sculpture of red and silver metal has been affixed to a broad white wall opposite the front door. Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier furniture is interspersed, while a Tiffany lamp glimmers in a downstairs annex. A custom scent of a rare sandalwood variety has been developed for the boutique with the company L’Oeil du Vert (it will eventually be available to buy). There are specialised items apart from the main The Row collections, as well, including new pieces made by jeweller Ana Khouri.
It was only this year that The Row introduced its own ecommerce platform (they started selling online through select wholesale partners in 2010). This late-in-the-day move illustrates just how organically the twins tend to advance their ideas; when they decide to try something new, it’s about “nurturing” the concept until they’re 100 per cent ready to go, says Mary-Kate. These choices are more often than not made when the moment arises, as opposed to longer-term strategising, which is possible because the company is privately held and Ashley and Mary-Kate control it, completely.
“Launching [ecommerce] was quite difficult,” says Ashley. “You have to consider when a product is going to be available, what the packaging is going to be, and so on. We probably did about seven different shoots,” she adds, smiling, acknowledging how meticulous they are in portraying The Row’s realm digitally.
“How your clothes translate online is definitely a challenge,” adds Mary-Kate. For a label built on tactile fabrics such as cashmere and leather and top-grade shirting, the two-dimensionality of digital selling is tricky.
Menswear was another natural addition to the brand; launched in 2018, the sisters say it’s catching on. “We started with suiting, and suiting takes a lot of time to get people on board,” says Ashley. “We have learned a lot from menswear,” adds Mary-Kate, “because it is so technical. We’ve brought some of that knowledge to womenswear. Especially when it comes to our factories. We’ve been exposed to a whole new way of working, between France, Italy, Japan, all over the globe, really.”
The Olsens hesitate when commenting on the sector-wide decline in brick-and-mortar retail. Mary-Kate does say, however, that they’re “thinking about department stores. We now run numbers every day. Before, it may have been less frequent, but we’re really keeping on top of it.”
“We’re lucky, though,” says Ashley, “we only have three stores. We’re not sitting on a ton of real estate.” Their cautious formula has meant they’ve found a business model that avoids unnecessary risk. “As you grow, you’re learning a lot, too. It’s always trial and error. I do believe that we need to be careful to not be irresponsible. Growth is uncomfortable, but you have to be OK with it,” says Mary-Kate.
Perhaps it’s not surprising how synchronised Ashley and Mary-Kate are. They grew up in the public eye, and have mastered the art of stepping out of it — together. Design duos are not unheard of; from couple Luke and Lucie Meier of Jil Sander, to Dean and Dan Caten, also twins, at Dsquared2, but have the Olsens always got along so easily?
“If there’s a disagreement,” says Ashley, “it’s more in the tiny details, like ‘Should this go here?’ or ‘Should we cancel this?’ We do come at things from different places but, most of the time, it’s resolved and we talk through it. If it’s not, we know it’s not right and we put it aside.” In unison, the twins say “we know how to communicate.”
“There is partnership,” adds Mary-Kate. “We’re lucky that we have it.”
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