Look, Ma, We're Fashion Moguls!

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek, May 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

Look, Ma, We're Fashion Moguls!


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Givhan

With their high-end label The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have such a grown-up hit on their hands that even Michelle Obama wears their clothes.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, whom most people know as the diminutive former child stars of Full House and an endless stream of straight-to-video tween movies, are inspecting a rolling rack of crisp white cotton shirts and another one lined with black stretch-leather leggings seemingly sized for miniature gazelles. The sisters and the clothes are crowded onto an exceedingly unglamorous factory floor in New York's garment center. The L-shaped workspace, brightly lit with fluorescent lights, smells vaguely of steam irons and fried rice.

This is the Olsens' new reality, one that has replaced a childhood lived on Hollywood backlots and an adolescence spent in the glare of the paparazzi. They built a billion-dollar empire on the cult of celebrity, adoring kiddie fans, and a vast array of tchotchkes. Now they are creating something else entirely. Against significant odds, the Olsens have found grown-up respectability and social purpose in the unforgiving world of high-end fashion with the success of their womenswear brand, The Row.

The collection--embraced by older women with little patience for celebrity frippery--has been worn by business executives and first lady Michelle Obama.

Critical validation has come in the form of a nomination from the Council of Fashion Designers of America as the year's best new womenswear designers. They have been recognized alongside Joseph Altuzarra, who worked at Givenchy, and Prabal Gurung, a Bill Blass alumnus. The winners will be announced in New York on June 6.

The Olsens, who will be 25 in June, did not go to fashion or art school. They have built a considerable reputation by obsessing over darts (they hate them), gamely absorbing the blows of skeptical retailers, and keeping their celebrity mostly under wraps. They also have become champions in a longstanding effort to save this country's garment factories. In 1965, factories in America produced 95 percent of the clothes sold in this country, according to savethegarmentcenter.org. Today, only 5 percent of the clothes sold here are produced locally. The future of New York's garment center is no longer in mass production, activists argue, but rather in small-scale, high-end manufacturing that relies on skilled artisans.

"The whole point is reinvention--not what it was, but what it can be," says designer Yeohlee Teng, who has been a leader in the effort.

The Olsens have taken up this blue-collar cause by producing their collection in factories in New York and, to a lesser degree, Los Angeles. (Their handbags are produced in Italy, as are a few of their superfine knits.)

"I really believe in our being able to create here and utilize the skills that people have here," says Ashley. "The skill set is here. Our main issue is that some of the machinery is gone, so some knitwear is produced in Italy. But whether it's clothing or cars, I believe in manufacturing as close to home as possible."

It was late one drizzly morning in April when the Olsens offered a tour of their factories. We'd climbed into a black GMC Yukon, with tinted windows and a driver who looked vaguely like Chris Daughtry, for the short ride from their headquarters in Chelsea to the garment center. Mary-Kate, sitting in back, wore a black leather jacket and blouse from The Row, along with a geometric-print miniskirt. Ashley, riding shotgun, was swaddled in long layers from The Row--a double-face cashmere coat, a loose-fitting ivory dress, an ivory vest. Their long blonde hair was pleasantly tousled.

It's tempting to refer to the twins, who live separately in New York, as "girls" because they are so tiny, even in what appear to be four-inch heels. But when you look at them, really look at them instead of just glancing at the big round eyes and the angular contours of their famous faces, you realize that any sense of little-girl "cute" is long gone.

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