The very stealthy success of The Row
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What do we mean when we talk about stealth wealth? Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the 37-year-old founders, designers and chief executives of The Row, are considering the subject. But first they want to know what it means.
“What is it?” asks Mary-Kate, who is on the call in Paris.
“It’s like the quiet… the quiet luxury…” says Ashley, from the company’s headquarters in New York.
Mary-Kate cuts in: “Can I ask a question?”
“Wait, can I answer the question first then we can ask it,” Ashley replies.
“Yeah. OK,” replies Mary-Kate.
“For us,” says Ashley. “We love beautiful fabrics.”
“No, we love quality things,” qualifies Mary-Kate (whom Ashley calls MK).
Such is an exchange with the Olsens, fraternal twins whose careers – and conversations – have been entwined since babehood when they were first cast (aged nine months) to play, alternately, Michelle Tanner, in Full House, a US family comedy that ran from 1987 until 1995.
“We love quality make, we love quality fabrics,” continues Ashley, the more formal-looking of the sisters. She recalls a hipster Joan Didion, hair parted dead-centre in two long curtains, a scrunchie on her wrist. She is wearing big black-framed sunglasses and a melange brown cashmere sweater, which, when I search The Row website later, I find listed as the Dirva cardigan, costing £5,770. When she speaks she gesticulates in circles. On her wedding finger, she wears a plain gold band. “It’s just been what we’ve done since the beginning. We love to learn about what is best-in-class in what we do, and how we can apply it to our business… And people have been attracted to the product and to the approach that we’ve taken. Even so – I don’t know why there’s this new idea.”
“It’s not a new concept at all,” counters Mary-Kate, who looks, like Ashley, preternaturally youthful, but is the more bohemian of the pair. She wears beads around her neck and wrists and what seems like a vintage flight-suit in pale yellow. On her right hand she wears a ring on which is set a chunky diamond. As she speaks she winds her hair up, down, and then back up into a topknot, before eventually plaiting it in long Pocahontas-style braids.
“But I’m curious to know,” says Mary-Kate with a sudden, slightly intimidating focus. “When you refer to this type of fashion. Who do you think of? Who?”
And so I tell them: whenever I think of stealth wealth, or quiet luxury, or any other buzzwords that mean wearing things that are immaculately expensive, the first brand that comes to mind is theirs. And also Loro Piana, or Hermès (although the branding isn’t very stealthy). And there are also other brands that are craft-based, artisanal and fabulously expensive, and brands that are equally considered in their design. Mary-Kate stops me: “Yeah, I was just curious because of the brands that you just mentioned. But I understand what you mean.”
Since founding their label in 2006, the Olsens have built a template for an expression of über-luxury that has been much copied by other brands. They may not have been the first to do it (I write this as Phoebe Philo, the godmother of modern minimal exceptionalism, has just launched her namesake label), but The Row has occupied the space for understated classics for approaching 20 years now, enjoying an extraordinarily high profile while indulging scarcely any media at all. Though it has very few signifiers in terms of branding – a small name tape on the collar, the subtlest of logos – it is immediately identifiable to admirers via its slouchy silhouettes, luxurious fabrications and cult, distinctive shoes and bags.
“We have had a great partnership with The Row since the early days,” says Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, and interim CEO of YNAP. “It is consistently a star performer – growing strongly despite being an established business – and a favourite brand of our most loyal customers who drive the majority of sales.”
The Row is cosseting, luscious and expensive. Its clients seem to experience no price sensitivity at all. Says Loehnis: “The consumers gravitate towards the highest-quality fabrications... While their more recent growth has also been fuelled by bag and shoe performance – the former aided both by newness and the diversification of the Park [a leather tote that costs from £1,200] and the Margaux [another bag costing from £3,240].”
Even those who don’t know The Row are likely to have seen its influence. Remember when everyone started wearing platform crepe-soled ankle boots? It’s a version of the Zipped boot (£1,450) that The Row has been producing for the past four years. Says Ashley: “We’ve been really stubborn about certain products that buyers don’t buy immediately but that we love and offer season after season.” Their taste is excellent, but it can also be a challenge. Those peculiar mesh shoes that were ubiquitous this summer? The Row first introduced its Sock Shoe in nylon (£600) in autumn 2019.
Mary-Kate and Ashley have become style arbiters for a generation of women – and some men – who want to be fashionable in looks they know will last for years. Yes, the clothes reflect the way the sisters dress themselves, but given they are so rarely seen in public The Row has instead become a portal to the Mary‑Kate and Ashley “world”.
Theirs was a stealth operation from the outset. Child stars who endured an almost unbearable degree of press attention, and came of age with the advent of the internet, the sisters were the vanguards for the new era of tween culture; at one point their popularity in home video sales was described as being second only to Disney among their target audience. In 2004, they assumed the presidency of Dualstar, the holding company founded in 1993 to look after their business interests, including films, television series, magazines, fashion licences, toys and video games, which had generated some $1.2bn in retail sales. Forbes anointed Ashley and Mary-Kate as being the 11th richest women in entertainment. They were also style icons, obsessively documented for looks that put together an early-’90s, grunge-girl, vintage chic. Ashley conceived The Row while studying in New York: the result of a quest to find the perfect T-shirt, or so goes the story. The first collection was established in 2006 with almost zero fanfare. The sisters were still only 20 years old.
To describe Mary-Kate and Ashley as old souls does them a disservice, but there’s something exceptionally precocious about their business partnership: they’ve been working as long as they’ve been alive. The Row launched at a moment when they were stepping away from the scrutiny (“Yes, that’s the word,” says Ashley) that had always dogged them, but they’ve channelled that experience into the building of the brand.
“To be able to take from our past experiences, whether it was from the beginning of our life, or career, or life today, has definitely been beneficial,” says Mary-Kate, who is the dominant partner in this particular exchange. She’s also spicier in conversation, quick to correct the misapprehension, for example, that The Row might have a demographic – “we’re ageless, and we always have been” – and to nod to other labels who might have appropriated their ideas. “We come not only with experience from, let’s say, the luxury marketplace,” but also “with a huge knowledge also of mass market retail. We’ve done everything opposite to a lot of other people and it’s a really nice situation to be in. Whether through instinct, or experience, or knowledge, I think we’re in a good place. You know, anonymity is a luxury as well.”
For a while no one knew that Mary-Kate and Ashley were behind The Row. They did not announce their creative involvement. Nor did they stage a fashion show at first. “It was a very unusual start for a new brand,” says Julie Gilhart, CDO of brand incubator Tomorrow Ltd and former fashion director at Barneys New York, the first store to stock them. “Mary-Kate and Ashley were beloved customers of Barneys. They bought and supported so many brands. Their eye was keen, they loved fashion and were truly dream customers.”
And yet Gilhart was initially “hesitant” about taking on The Row. “Barneys rarely endorsed celebrity brands,” she continues. “This being said, I’ll never forget the first day we went to the showroom. It was, to our surprise, very well designed. It sold out immediately because it was good product. From the beginning Mary-Kate and Ashley broke all the rules.”
Anonymity is certainly the brand’s modus operandi. Was it a strategic choice? “We’re just private people,” shrugs Mary-Kate. “We’ve done interviews our whole life and, no offence, but I don’t know how this conversation is going to go. So after years of that, you just choose to stop talking to people if it’s not going to translate.”
Mary-Kate gets frustrated that their story is told “wrongly”. On further probing, she’s more annoyed by the tone that some journalists have used. “There’s certain words,” she continues. “Like referring to my sister and I as ‘the Olsen twins’ or ‘The Twins’ or ‘The Girls’. We’re 37 years old. We have had very interesting lives. We work together. We’re business partners. We’re sisters. I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind. How many other people are called ‘the girls’ when they’re designing? I think that’s where the disappointment comes from. And that’s why we feel like the product should just speak for itself.”
No personal information is offered about Mary-Kate and Ashley. Ashley married her long-term partner, the artist Louis Eisner, in December 2022, and it was reported in August 2023 that she had had a baby boy, Otto. She has made no official announcement on either subject: even her pregnancy was stealthy. Likewise, Mary-Kate married the French banker Olivier Sarkozy in 2015; the couple divorced in 2021. At one point she refers to an Ayurvedic retreat that she once visited. She is also an enthusiastic horsewoman and show jumper; in 2021, she placed third in the Longines Global Champions Tour in Rome. Their social media account, @therow (with 2.2mn followers) offers a tastefully curated moodboard. Recent posts have included a painting, Two Owls, No. 1, 1959, by Francis Bacon, and images of models walking in their summer 2024 catwalk show. Followers may also download The Row’s monthly playlist, released via Spotify. But if they want a picture of Mary-Kate and Ashley, they’ll have to go elsewhere. Maybe to one of the fan accounts, such as
@olsenoracle (178k followers) and @olsensanonymous (108k), or @mka_smoking (11.5k), which track every detail of their deportment, coffee intake, relationships and style.
“There was a conversation,” says Mary-Kate when asked about their social-media strategy. “It wasn’t very long, and it ended up working out quite well. Ashley and I are not on Instagram,” she grins broadly, as does Ashley. “So that’s the story of Instagram.”
In the 17 years since launch they have since introduced shoes, bags and menswear. They have three flagship stores, are carried in 270 department stores and boutiques and relaunched The Row e-commerce site earlier this year. Mary-Kate and Ashley still hold the majority share, and it remains a private business. A 2009 article in The New York Times put sales at an estimated $10mn a year.
“Pre-pandemic they were turning revenues of between $100mn and $200mn,” says fashion business writer Lauren Sherman, who notes that the pandemic hit them “really hard”. One industry insider estimates their annual revenues today as being between $250mn and $300mn. “We’ve grown consistently around 20 to 30 per cent every single year,” is all Ashley will elaborate. “As much as we have the capacity to grow year over year – whether that means from a resource perspective, a financial perspective, a capacity perspective – we have only made decisions based on what we can handle as a company, as individuals,” she adds. “What we’re doing is as sustainable as possible for us. But most of the time we’re saying no to things so we can be more in control. I think if you grow too quickly and feel pressure to push forward, you risk making more mistakes. It’s a family-owned business and we need to do what we feel is right for us. And that’s what we protect.”
Mary-Kate and Ashley are almost pathologically furtive about making revelations. But it’s easy to imagine a future that features The Row fragrances, cosmetics, furniture, jewellery and even objets d’art. The stores, filled with midcentury furniture and occasional capsules by the famed 20th-century French jeweller Line Vautrin (and a James Turrell light installation in the London shop), are already an excellent canvas for the brand’s potential as a fully realised lifestyle business. There’s also a major focus on the top-tier clients to whom the brand offers a couture-like business from its Paris atelier.
What’s more surprising is how they managed to crack their codes so early. In the best way possible, the brand DNA has remained essentially unchanged. “The Row is always The Row and always has been The Row,” says Mary-Kate, who maintains that their evolution has moved in lockstep with their clients. “We have great relations with our clients, they’re dear friends. And that’s how we’re still able to offer product. Because we’re hypersensitive to their lifestyle and what they already have.”
“What we really want to do is make our customers’ lives as easy as possible,” agrees Ashley. “We think about that constantly and how we can improve certain things. And obviously there’s a lot of creativity and a lot of refinement on the product. But from the beginning, it’s always about going back to our customer needs, which has helped drive us down a certain path.”
Mary-Kate describes their approach as obsessive: “To make it better, to make it better, to make it better. The challenge is and will always be the perfectionism,” she says. “Ashley and I are perfectionists. But 150 per cent is what we give. It’s the way that we were raised.”
Their biggest lesson? “We are constantly reminded to trust our instincts,” says Ashley.
“It’s our positive and negative,” adds Mary-Kate.
Asked where they are happiest, Mary-Kate answers without hesitation: “On the floor with some pins and some scissors.” For Ashley “it’s adjusting and shaping a garment”. The making? “The making,” Ashley nods. Both Mary-Kate and Ashley are the creative directors, and always have been, and it grates that some still doubt their skills. “The Row hasn’t changed regardless of any titles,” shrugs Mary-Kate. “And other brands would really love to have the business that we have, and so they take who they think can offer that…”
In the studio, the approach is quiet, solicitous and earnest. Małgosia Bela, the model who has walked in The Row’s past three shows in Paris, describes the mood. “The atmosphere. In short, it’s not a party. People talk in lowered voices, everyone is focused and the work division seems to be carefully organised. It reminds me of working for Comme des Garçons some 25 years ago. Secondly, there’s an attention to casting. And, thirdly, to detail – we all see it in the final product. Be prepared to try on styling variations where even you – the model who is wearing the given outfit – don’t see much difference. And yet, there is a difference. The designers act very unanimously.”
Early on, the critics were dismissive of two celebrity teenagers deigning to create a high-fashion line. Do they feel vindicated? “You know what?” says Mary-Kate. “Everyone has an opinion and that’s OK. And for us, the only thing that matters is if the clients like it, if it sells through. And that’s what we’ve gone by from day one.”
“Yeah,” says Ashley. “I mean, at 18, we decided to go to school and see what the world had to offer, and we started a company together in 2006, and have been in business for almost 20 years. I think everyone knows that this industry is extremely, extremely difficult. And we started with just the two of us… One step at a time. And MK and I have been running this business – the creative and the business and every aspect. And we still own the majority of the company, which I think is also quite incredible. And we’re hard workers…”
“And we carry the risk of that,” adds Mary-Kate.
“We’re students of this,” says Ashley. “And we want to share what we learn with other people at the right time and in the right way. At the end of the day, we’re just two hard-working women who love what we do.”
Two working women, who are “almost 40”, says Mary-Kate. “Age doesn’t really matter,” she adds slyly. “But we’re still The Girls.”
Models, Diane Chiu at Milk and Max Wagner at One. Casting, Ben Grimes at Drive Represents. Hair, Tamas Tuzes at Atelier NYC. Make-up, Cyndle Komarovski at M+A World Group. Photographer’s assistants, Ethan Greenfield and Clay Campbell. Stylist’s assistants, Verity Azaraio and India Reed. Hair stylist’s assistant, Aya Tariq. Production, Tann Services. Special thanks to Corner Studio