by Beth Hammarlund
It’s no secret that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have been killing it in the fashion world. But what’s still pretty amazing is that they’ve actually earned the respect of the fashion world. An insular club that’s notoriously dismissive of celebrity lines, the high fashion community’s respect is almost impossible to earn. Take Christian Siriano. A remarkable talent, the designer’s post-Project Runway career seems to be permanently stuck under a reality TV/celebrity glass ceiling. But the Olsens, whose timeline started in a sitcom and then came of age in the tabloids, have been awarded the coveted 2012 CFDA Designer of the Year Award for Womenswear.
Though they have no formal design education, the Olsens received years of on-hand design experience when they started their own clothing line for Wal-Mart while they were still children. Obviously, they weren’t designing and constructing clothes, but they were included in the design process as much as possible, and they seem to have immersed themselves, absorbing knowledge along the way.
In 2007, the Olsens founded the Row while on the quest to make a couture quality t-shirt. Named after Savile Row, they described the brand as “discreet luxury, focusing on clean lines, fine fabrics, and the perfect fit.” It was certainly hard to argue with any of those claims. Everything they produced was simple and extraordinarily well-made, though it seemed focused on a very small demographic. Their leather leggings were gorgeous and soft as silk, but the designs were clearly aimed at young women, and the number of young women who can drop $500 on a t-shirt is pretty small. However, they kept things small at the beginning, focusing their energies on only a few department stores and boutiques while they grew their new brand and their new reputation.
With the Row comfortably releasing stylish, but hardly groundbreaking pieces, the Olsens debuted Elizabeth and James, their slightly lower-priced contemporary line. Named after their siblings (Elizabeth, who seems to have the majority of the family’s acting talent, garnered raves last year for her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene) and a balance of masculinity and feminity, the diffusion line took inspiration from the designers’ own wardrobes, while incorporating trends that would be too out-of-place at the Row.
They have since released a third line, Olsenboye (named after the original form of their last name), a line for juniors available exclusively JC Penney. Though the line does not accurately reflect what the designers are capable of, it makes a cute alternative to junior discount fashions at Target and Kohl’s. They celebrated the launch by sending out a cupcake truck in New York, and the brand’s website is painfully cute. But despite the launch of a new line, their hearts still seemed to be mostly in The Row.
Wisely and unpredictably, the Olsens evolved The Row so that it would be just as appealing to older women as well as twenty-something starlets. They made the visionary choice of bringing in Lauren Hutton as the face of the brand. Hutton’s always been one of my favorite models, with her beachy hair and gap-toothed grin. Her can-do Katherine Hepburn-esque persona combined with her choice to age proudly and gracefully transformed not only the fashion community’s perception of the line, but of the Olsens as well.
Since then, the Row has expanded to include handbags that are modern, retro, and classic all at once, as well as sunglasses the would make Linda Farrow proud. The clothing become more forward-thinking, but retains the timeless nature for which they strive. They have also started the lower-priced Textile: Elizabeth and James and Stylemint (surely inspired by Kate Bosworth’s successful accessories line with her stylist, Jewelmint), an online boutique that sells a rotating collection of tees designed by the Olsens, for $29.99 each.
And now the pair have a CFDA award. I can’t imagine where they’ll be in ten years, because I’m pretty sure they can accomplish whatever they set their mind to.