‘I grew up horseback riding,” Mary-Kate says, lighting the first of what will be many Marlboro reds. “I never even picked up a fashion magazine when I was a kid.” But she did like fashion, and marvels with gaspy teenage incredulity over the dress code at her high school (khaki pants, collared shirts, closed-toed shoes), which, so she figures, was what first inspired her to look less like everyone else.
Mary-Kate’s first show was Marc Jacobs. Then there was a trip to Paris: Balenciaga, Christian Dior, French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. “When I really started looking at fashion, I was amazed,” she says. She claims to have arrived at her vampiric European look through a series of accidents. There was the giant-sweater boho era of her (short-lived) NYU career—“I was just trying to stay warm!” She also insists she was trying to be somewhat inconspicuous on her way to class, but the heaped-on layers, the giant sunglasses, the hunormous lattes had quite the opposite effect. Every other starlet was showing oodles of flesh, and here was this little gremlin buried in a massive hat. How not to be intrigued?
Mary-Kate left NYU (she’s still enrolled and has just a year and a half to go) because she didn’t feel safe, she says. She was freaked out by the kids in her class who were selling anecdotes to tabloids, in some cases even getting school credit for it. “They’d have internships at the weeklies,” she says, adding, “Learning is not fun if you’re not safe.”
Mary-Kate’s style has evolved since then. Fashion followed her into big coats and glasses, so now she is going small, dressed today in a tiny knit black dress and well-fitted coat.
The Row, she says, “was my sister’s baby, and of course I wanted to do whatever I could to help her.” She suggested additions to the line, like oversize man-tailored pants.
Both Olsens insist that they don’t shop much. They like simple, somewhat anonymous pieces and loads of accessories. “I love how you can totally change your look by changing your shoes,” Mary-Kate says, and pauses. “Or maybe you don’t look different, and no one else thinks you look different, but I feel different, anyway.” She laughs the crinkly-nosed, squinty-eyed chipmunk laugh that made her a tween queen, and then announces that she’s off to an audition. “I’m so sorry,” she says a few times, and then she’s gone.
Ashley arrives next, tottering across the garden on her own crazy, crazy shoes: They are sandals, platforms, stilettos all at once. Ashley is still tiny but somehow more robust than her sister. She was born first, is maybe two inches taller, and her bearing is far more alpha than Mary-Kate’s. Her look is somehow sleeker—giant Christian Dior shades, tight, narrow rubber pants, a tiny leather jacket with little ruched sleeves. Where Mary-Kate takes her soy latte decaf, Ashley asks for a double shot.
Within seconds of sitting (and lighting her Parliament Light), she’s talking business. “This is hands-on,” she says. “It’s production, it’s planning, it’s taking the right steps. It’s everything you need to do to start a business.” She looks like something from a cartoon, but she talks like she’s just stepped out of a Joan Collins boardroom scene.
The Olsens have been businesswomen for years, vetting their merchandising deals at Wal-Mart and elsewhere. But their work —in both fashion and “film”—has never been exactly a reflection of who they were or the adult lives they’d been leading. “When we were growing up, it was always about being appropriate,” Ashley says of the years spent in matching floral party dresses and silly sailor hats. And that’s what their Wal-Mart line reflects. But they’ve grown up to be something other than mainstream and appropriate. College taught Ashley what she wanted to do, but, as is so often the case, inadvertently. “I was studying architecture and psychology and I loved it, but I kept thinking about T-shirts and how to make the perfect one. It was my dad who said, ‘You should do it.’ ”
So she called a childhood friend, a designer named Danielle Sherman, and got to work. “That’s what I’m good at,” she says. “Seeing voids.” Ashley says she left NYU because she was ready to do the Row. “Wal-Mart was about the customer,” she says. “It taught us how to be commercial. This is about me and my sister, and what we like to wear.”
The Olsens are aware that their fame, so useful at Dualstar, is liable to be a hindrance with their new line—fashionistas won’t fall over each other to buy $150 T-shirts from a young-adult brand. So the Olsen name appears nowhere on the product, and they won’t be photographed in its promotion.
Whether the Row will attract the customers who buy Alaïa and Ghesquière is an open question. But the clothes do, in fact, stand on their own. They are sophisticated, elegant, versatile, understated. In a way, it’s a different tween act—idols to both goofy little girls and snotty fashion ladies. And for all their riches, it’s what they wanted. “I think,” says Mary-Kate, “my sister would be happy selling it out of the back of her car.”