Ten years ago, if someone told you that the Olsen twins--they of the matchy-matchy outfits and cheesy made-for-TV-movies--would win the most prestigious fashion design award in America, beating out the likes of Marc Jacobs, you'd laugh. But that's precisely what happened last night, when Mary-Kate and Ashley took home the CFDA Award for womenswear designer(s) of the year.
Celebrity-designed lines are not exactly rare--but what is rare, is for them to be taken seriously by the industry. So how did the Olsens, who began their careers sharing the role of the adorable Michelle Tanner on Full House, manage to avoid the stigma of the 'celebrity designer' and become legitimate creatives and businesswomen embraced by industry? What were they doing differently? What were they doing right?
SLOW AND STEADY According to CFDA president Steven Kolb, part of their success is due to the way the Olsens approached the industry--namely in the same way that any other designer would have to. "Any new designer needs to prove they are legitimate and from the start [the Olsens] came to our industry as authentically involved," he wrote to us in an email. "It can take time to be noticed. They were patient and did it right."
Kolb is right. The Row was founded in 2006, and launched in Spring of 2007 with a line of 28 basic knit items. Over the past six years the brand has grown to include a complete womenswear collection, handbags and even a menswear line. It's an impressive climb to success but it's by no means meteoric when compared with the likes of Proenza Schouler, who won the CFDA Womenswear Award after four years in the business. Rodarte won the same award after only three years.
Despite their celebrity (or perhaps, in spite of it) The Row was not an overnight success. In fact, it took the label a couple of years before they began showing during fashion week. The Olsens built their brand the old fashioned way: Slowly, steadily and with a lot of hard work.
"They took time to become part of the industry and didn’t expect any special favors," Kolb says. "They proved themselves with real hands-on talent and not just a famous name."
SMART BRANDING STRATEGY The Olsens clearly made the decision to keep their famous names as far away from the brand as possible. "We didn't want people to know that we were behind [The Row]," Ashley told The Telegraph in 2011. "We'd learnt so much about building brands and talking to a specific customer. We did it with our faces at the beginning, and we knew we didn't want to do that any more. It's far more fun this way."
It's this aspect that truly sets them apart from other celebrity designers. Brands like Jessica Simpson, Lauren Conrad, and even Victoria Beckham (a respected designer in her own right), all leverage their celebrity's fame to a greater degree: Their name and face are inextricably connected with the brand. The Row took a decidedly different track.
"Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen have resisted the temptation to treat their brand as an extension of their own persona," said Ferdinando Verderi, who leads the fashion and luxury division as creative director at Johannes Leonardo, an NYC firm which counts Google and Clarins among their client list. "I don't think the brand would have suffered [had they decided to attach their names to it], but I am sure it would be a very different brand. Surely not as timeless in its aura."
Another decision the Olsens made early on in their fashion design careers was to clearly delineate--and separate--their different clothing lines, which allowed them to target different consumers without confusing their brand message. The Row, for instance, which is a luxury brand through and through ($39,000 backpacks, hello!), and Olsenboye, a tween line sold at JCPenney, are never confused for one another--a neat marketing trick.
"One thing they have done very successfully is to create a genuinely desirable product for all levels of the market, from Olsenboye to Elizabeth & James to The Row," Imran Amed, the founder and editor of Business of Fashion, said. "This is something that not many designers have been able to do successfully and puts the Olsens in very good company with the likes of Armani and Marc Jacobs. Winning over discerning fashionistas at the high-end, as well as aspirants at the entry-price points is formidable indeed!"
Marketing and branding aside, the Olsens have one other ace up their sleeve: Talent. Vision. And good product.
"What do they have in common with other successful designers?" Kolb said. "They make clothes they want to wear and they have a creative vision that is consistent." In other words, fame has nothing to do with it.
"They were very focused on being designers from the beginning," Kolb continued. "Any past celebrity they may have had was not part of their brand."
Verderi agrees. "[Mary-Kate and Ashley] had the courage to do what other brands should do: start from the purity of the product, and let the lifestyle follow." The result is a brand that is as well-reviewed by critics, as it is coveted by shoppers.
In this respect, it's no mystery as to why the Olsens have become such respected designers. They make gorgeous, luxurious clothes that people want to buy and they do it consistently. Famous name or not, it seems it's the clothes that really do the talking.