The twins who took on the fashion world... and won
A major award may seal the star sisters' rise to join the design elite.
Kate Moss is out, Victoria Beckham's in – fashion just can't seem to decide its stance on celebrity designers, whether they're cool and cult or brash and bling. There is a third way, however, as former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have demonstrated.
The 24-year-old twins have secured a nomination from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in the womenswear category, for their ultra-luxurious – and rather pricey – womenswear label The Row. It comes only weeks after Michelle Obama, that trusted barometer of marketing success, wore one of their skirts for an appearance on television show The View.
The Olsen twins originally played one child in television comedy Full House, before launching their own series and several spin-off films. They had a clothing range in Walmart by the age of 10, alongside dozens of DVDs, books, dolls and other merchandise branded with their names and faces. In 2007, they launched their first fashion venture, a label called Elizabeth & James, named after two of their siblings.
The Row, a more luxurious line with higher price tags, also launched that year, with the aim of creating the perfect white T-shirt. What began as a range of basics has now grown to a full womenswear collection, known for its minimalist elegance, sharp tailoring and sumptuous furs.
"We exclusively launched The Row with a dinner for the Olsens back in 2007," remembers Averyl Oates, buying director at Harvey Nichols. "Even though it was a new brand, it was an immediate hit. And even then, the girls were not new to the commercial aspects of business."
The twins were given membership to the CFDA in 2009 in an unexpected move by president Diane von Fürstenberg; the CFDA usually takes a dim view of celebrity designers. But the Olsens do not fit easily into this category, which is perhaps why they are doing so well in the field.
The Row is distinctively targeted at older customers, which is an unusual marketing choice in an industry obsessed by youth. It's equally unusual, given the reputation of the Olsens as photogenic young scenesters, not to create clothes for their contemporaries, re-enforcing the brand's sense of credibility and professionalism.
Their main customer is between 35 and 45, and is not short of disposable income: a jersey T-shirt costs £175, while a cashmere and mink sweater is almost £4,000. "The label carries timeless generational appeal," Averyl Oates says, "while still remaining directional. Mary-Kate and Ashley recently achieved their ambition of dressing Michelle Obama. Lauren Hutton has also modelled for the brand, and I think the ageless appeal lies with the fact that the collection has a crystal-clear DNA."
The Olsens have pitched themselves right at the top of the luxury-goods market – with prices in the same league as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Céline and Bottega Veneta. It's a plucky move for ones so young, but The Row's sales are estimated at between £6m and £8m a year, according to Newsweek.
"Mary-Kate and Ashley have great personal style," says online fashion store Net-a-Porter's buying director, Holli Rogers, "and their über-cool ready-to-wear collections reflect this. They offer beautifully made pieces with an emphasis on clean lines and refined cuts, and have become one of the must-have labels for those in the know."
And the cognoscenti respect the Olsens for their fashion sense rather than their fame, which is key to their success as "celebrity designers". Since they grew up and away from their milk-and-cookies reputation, they have become edgy young women, educated at New York University and known for their daring at red-carpet events. Their statement style often lands them on the mainstream "badly dressed" lists, but this is more likely only to endear them to a more sartorially minded crowd. They are, in short, taken seriously – which is crucial in the bearpit of the New York fashion industry.
The CFDA nomination underlines this. The Olsen twins are up against designers Joseph Altuzarra, who used to work at the house of Givenchy, and Prabal Gurung, who until recently was design director at Bill Blass – two up-and-coming designers given much credence in the industry.
Another factor is the twins' fervent patriotism and commitment to the American fashion industry, which they have spoken out about in recent interviews. "Whether it's cars or clothes, I believe in manufacturing as close to home as possible," Ashley Olsen told Newsweek last month.
As such, their label has become a byword for luxury but also American steadfastness – hence Michelle Obama's choice of a silk pleated skirt from the range. And hence the nomination for a prestigious fashion award. Next month, as the twins turn 25 and wait to hear if they have won, they will launch their eyewear label. Celebrities they may be, but the Olsens are quite the entrepreneurs too, and at the moment, everything they touch turns to gold.
Independent News Service