Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are forces to be reckoned with. And I don’t say this because I’m fangirling the former Full House actresses or their formidable clothing brand The Row. I say this because they’ve displayed on a world stage how one can forge a path that’s authentic to oneself, yes, even amid as intense pressures as child Hollywood careers can muster.
The Olsen twins had been on TV since they were nine-months-old babies, and by middle school, they were billion-dollar brands. This week, the fashion magazine i-D published a rare interview with the two, marking the 15-year anniversary of their starting their revolutionary and minimalist clothing line after they turned 18. To me, it brought up some insights that couldn’t be more apt for the modern woman’s journey through the range of challenges and pressures the world continues to dish out to us—insights on staying in touch with what’s most important to you, pursuing it with vigorous intentionality, and surrounding yourself with good sisters for support along the journey.
The story of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, which the i-D interview drew out, is even more stunning to me when I consider the backdrop of a number of recently published accounts from former child stars decrying the costs of Hollywood and high-pressure, exploitative work environments. Mary-Kate and Ashley may not have left unscathed from Hollywood child stardom, but they clearly left, and, despite whatever pressures they may have experienced to keep on the hamster wheel, they were victorious in breaking the cycle and stepping out.
While many of us today face some struggle to stay true to what we feel called to do versus what others tell us to do (or not do, or look like, and so on), the Olsen twins' choices tell a remarkable success story of how to step away from the noise and make a fresh start. And I would submit there’s something all of us can learn from their example of reinventing their futures by their own design.
“We were 18 years old,” Ashley Olsen shares with i-D, “and I think what we did know was that we wanted to take that time to take a break from what we were previously doing and to explore things that interested us, and explore what life has to offer…”
“Creatively,” Mary-Kate adds.
“We wanted to explore making something of ourselves,” Ashley finishes.
No one would doubt the Olsen twins had “made something of themselves” if by doing so we mean being successful in the eyes of the world. But I think the sisters are referring to something else—it would seem they’re referring to the goal of “making something of ourselves” as in producing something reflective of themselves and what they have to offer the world that’s unique, as opposed to external forces directing things.
“It really was kind of just a passion project,” Ashley says.
It’s fair to say that the bustle of Hollywood stardom is enough to overstimulate anyone, so it’s not surprising now to see that the trajectory the Olsen sisters took to pursue their own project was one of radical retreat from the public eye.
“We didn’t want to be in front of it,” Ashley shares; “we didn’t necessarily even want to let people know it was us . . . It was really about the product, to the point where we were like: Who could we get to front this so that we don’t have to?” It’s an extension of how they were raised to be “discreet people,” Mary-Kate adds, maintaining some aspect of a private life. The result, as i-D puts it, was “understated, purist clothes that instantly attracted discerning women, many of whom had no idea that the sisters were behind it.”
The sisters are still protective against spreading themselves thin and are modern models of boundary setting to preserve much-needed personal space. “They rarely give interviews,” i-D notes, “they don’t have social media, nor do they shop online. At a time when almost every fashion house has adopted the see-now-buy-now temperament of fast fashion and opened the floodgates, they have spent their adult lives doing the opposite.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to surmise that an entire childhood in the public eye has resulted in an adult-hood defined by its regimental boundaries. Today, they’re still hounded by paparazzi, their outfits chronicled by fan pages and blogs, their twindom greatly exaggerated. Yet, the way they present themselves demands privacy, and so do their designs.
Designing to the beat of their own drum
What I love about the Olsens' success is how clear it is for all to see, 15 years after they started this project, that all their efforts—their careful boundary-setting, quieting external noise, and tuning in to their internal creative drives—have undeniably borne fruit.
It’s become the cliche mantra of the life coach, but it’s true—we usually succeed the best when we think outside of the box of what everyone else is doing and plug into our own unique inspirations. When the Olsen sisters did this, it led to doing things differently, even within the world of fashion.
The sisters’ first fashion show for The Row was for New York Fashion Week in 2010 in “more of a traditional show format”; Ashley recalls. “I remember walking away being like, ‘I can’t do this again!’ I think that is why we really started to explore presenting in a more intimate environment. It’s more work for us—we have to do three shows instead of one—and it’s definitely a lot more effort, but it’s really about eliminating the noise in the room.”
“With time, the brand has gained confidence and trust in what they really wanted to do,” The Row’s sound designer Wladimir Schall notes, “even if it was kind of against the rules—like doing a show in a castle outside of Paris or even a show for 60 people in their show-room. They made it what a show should really be, rather than just something pleasing to journalists or buyers.”
Similarly, with the music choice,” Schall says, “they follow what they think is right for the show, [rather] than trying to be something else. . . . Once, they were like, ‘Oh, we were listening to The Smiths’, and I said, you know what? Let’s just buy a vinyl record of The Smiths and play the whole album, with the silences in between the songs. And it made sense because it was just so natural.”
The sisters also show their uniqueness in their opting to have fewer brick-and-mortar stores, but to prioritize a curated and artful ambiance in each location they have. It’s quality over quantity, and integrity over extendedness.
Clothing of a higher standard
The Row’s line of clothing itself, while at New York luxury prices most cannot afford, evokes in its design a simple, return-to-basics, and enduringly elegant vibe that many are finding preferable to fast fashion. As i-D puts it, “yes, the prices are eye-watering. Not because of superficial branding or celebrity endorsements, but because it’s all made by hand in the world’s best ateliers by fairly paid and highly skilled seamstresses.”
“The word luxury is used pretty much everywhere now, but for us it’s something that makes your life easier,” Mary-Kate notes. “The idea that you could buy something off the rack, put it on your body and it already feels like a part of your wardrobe, that’s luxury. You don’t even have to think about it.
Mary-Kate explains, “It had to be easy. It had to be comfortable on all bodies. It really had to have all the elements that we continue to put into our projects and design. The fabrics had to...have longevity. The items were really about perfecting and simplifying the details.”
Model Yasmin Warsame shares an account that suggests they’ve accomplished their goals:
I was walking in one of the shows and I didn’t know it then, but I was pregnant, and I remember not feeling any restriction in the clothes. It was this beautiful long skirt and an oversized shirt. I could tell something was going on with my body, but their clothes didn’t make me feel any different. I felt beautiful in them. I remember we were all in a line-up before we went out on stage and all the girls were just admiring every single piece. There are other shows where I’m like, ‘Get it off me!’ [Laughs] With The Row, you always just want to spend a little more time in them.
“The Row has become known for its discreet, modest style of clothing," i-D notes. "Hemlines often skim the floor, armholes are dropped for a more generous fit, and the clothes presented layered on top of each other. As a result, a diverse array of women—different sizes, nationalities, ages and tastes—have become devoted customers." For many, "what may appear minimal or even monastic actually feels wildly indulgent."
Against a backdrop of oversaturated excess, a return to simplicity can feel like a luxury. And even the most booked models agree. Gigi Hadid shares, “when I think about being in their shows it’s something that’s very calm, quiet, not over-exposed. They don’t have a thousand photographers backstage. There’s not even that many photographers on the runway. That comes from them. They want to put out their art without feeling too exposed or too vulnerable or used for the wrong reasons.” Hadid adds, “I feel very understood by them, and so I walk their shows with comfort and gratitude because they see me for myself. Not that other designers don’t, but other designers see me for myself in terms of a quality of my life that more commercialized, big, money-making shows can take advantage of. When I walk for Mary-Kate and Ashley, I don’t feel taken advantage of.”
“Not all women want to be seen in the way that the world thinks that they do,” photographer Zoë Ghertner explains. “A woman wants to feel like themselves, wherever they’re from. There’s a touch of an ‘American Frontier’ woman who has to be strong and make it through the cold winter. That clean slate of moving out West, and the simplicity of design as function."
Whether I can afford the clothes or not, I appreciate the ethos of the product and its success in making women feel more themselves and less objectified. That’s not a small accomplishment in today’s world of fashion, entertainment, or any endeavor whatsoever. And it all flows from the starting point of clearing out the noise and having the patience to strive for something better. “We’re not chasing anything,” Mary-Kate notes. “We’re just being really honest with who we are and where we are with the brand.”
Sisterhood of the redefined pants
Many media outlets love to zero in on the Olsen sisters’ twindom. And in the i-D interview, the sisters do note how their closeness helps the business:
“We like working together and we like having that dialogue. I think it helps harden your ideas to be able to hear them out loud, to speak something through. You know, we definitely go by intuition and instinct and it can either confirm that feeling, or if we’re both not feeling right about something, for some reason, we just don’t do it. Our instincts are kind of the same. But I think what’s great is that we have each other to lean on.”
It is great to have someone to lean on, and I’d add that it’s likely priceless when going through a challenging ordeal such as exiting a stifling entertainment industry and starting a new venture from scratch. Many don’t make transitions like this unscathed, and few make it as successfully as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have. But they’ve always had each other. The gift of cohabiting the same womb led to not only a close kinship, but to a constant source of communication with someone you can relate to, who has been through similar lived experiences, and who can be an honest sounding board. Whether or one has a biological twin, we can seek out such support in those around us. That, along with healthy boundaries and the space to be in tune with one’s internal drives and priorities, can lead to great fruit no matter one’s goals.