Beige Ambition
New York magazine|March 1-14, 2021
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen grew up to make New York’s most desirable clothes. But can even perfection survive the pandemic?
Matthew Schneier

WHEN IS A sweater more than a sweater? When is a sweater even a sweater? The difference between a pullover and a few skeins of yarn isn’t much more than two needles and a dry-cleaning tag but for that cymbal crash of desire. The Row makes sweaters, thousand-dollar sweaters, that grip the mallet. ¶ There’s something about The Row. It beggars explanation. It has long since transcended its beginnings as a celebrity-fashion-label lark founded by the entrepreneurial fraternal-twin former child stars MaryKate and Ashley Olsen. Now 34, they were, 20 years ago, the most hyperbranded tweens on the planet. Then they gave up acting to dress the women they hoped to grow up to become. The Row is fashion for those for whom money is no object but who don’t need to look obviously rich, not in the way a Versace blouse looks rich—which is to say, aggressively, literally. It purses its lips at logos and that’s-from-last-season trend obsolescence. Nor does The Row flaunt sex or youth or the body. It speaks in the hushed tones of perfect propriety, of connoisseurship. It is crafted just so, cut just so. It is not original and doesn’t pretend to originality. It is chic in the excellent, unfaultably appropriate way that reminds you that true chic may be the apotheosis of boring.

In this, it’s a lot like its once screamingly famous mass-marketed owners, who have retreated into a kind of genteel moguldum in their 30s. As such, it has found its people: not the women (mostly women, though it does sell menswear) who want to make it but those who have already made it. The Row knows what its customer thinks she needs. “They’re thinking about the client because they’ve been the client,” says Rachel Tashjian, a GQ writer whose email newsletter about her obsessions, Opulent Tips, frequently covers The Row.

Marina Larroudé, for years the fashion director at Barneys New York, where The Row was the No. 1–selling ready-to-wear brand—better than Prada, better than Gucci, better than Alaïa, better than Saint Laurent—told me a story about her time there. She had come from the world of fashion magazines; there, The Row was considered cool, but she didn’t know a lot of women who wore it. Then one day “a client walked in,” she told me, “and bought 30 Row sweaters—three-zero. Of the same crewneck. She bought everything we had in the company in her size so she would never run out of them. $30,000 in crewnecks.” She realized then that “if you’re a superwealthy woman in New York? The way we go to Uniqlo—they go to The Row.”

For most of the past 15 years, that has been a solid business model and, in its way, something of a revelation. The Row’s pieces weren’t flashy or revealing and were kind to a range of ages and body types, provided you could afford them. They were, unusually, almost entirely made in the United States, despite the expense. “At a time when the culture is in a frantic dash for the newest technology, the brashest idea, the most subversive gamesmanship, the fastest solutions,” Robin Givhan once wrote in the Washington Post, “aiming to do a simple thing utterly, deliberately, beautifully right is something of a marvel.” But its discreet charm may not be enough right now.

THE PROBLEMS STARTED with Barneys going bust in the summer of 2019. At the time, The Row was Barneys’ single-largest vendor creditor, to the tune of $3.7 million, a sum eclipsed only by some of its landlords. In the wake of that debacle, The Row’s then president, David Schulte, left the company that fall. (He is now suing the company, its parent company, and the designers personally.) Mary-Kate and Ashley stepped in to right the ship, sharing CEO and creative-director duties, and Burberry veteran Fabrizio Fabbro, who had recently been hired as chief product officer, took an increasingly central role in the company’s leadership. An exodus of talent followed: Jim Robinson, who had been with the company for almost a decade and had been promoted to design director in 2019, left in 2020; so did Anna Sophia Hövener, another durable studio hand, who had been named co–design director in 2019. Several others in design, development, and patternmaking departed, as did long-term executives. Two, infuriatingly enough, decamped for Gabriela Hearst, another wealthy, tasteful New York label that competes with The Row.

In 2020, the pandemic complicated matters. Mary-Kate ended up back on the gossip sites thanks to her Zoom divorce from 51-year-old banker Olivier Sarkozy (her $250 million fortune was protected from him by an “ironclad” prenup, per Us Weekly). In April, the company was approved for a government PPP loan of about $2.3 million, citing a staff of 51, but by that July, Women’s Wear Daily reported that as much as half of the workforce had left or been fired. The piece also alleged that The Row employed very few people of color. In response, the company acknowledged “responsibly reduc[ing the] overhead” of its “diverse and inclusive workplace” but declined to comment further on the story’s allegations. But as one former employee who refused to speak with me, citing the company’s strict nondisclosure agreements, said as he hung up, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

For The Row, discretion is the cardinal virtue. “The clothes, not unlike the sisters, betray very little eagerness to be noticed,” a reviewer once wrote. The sisters designed The Row, in effect, as the bushel under which to hide their light. They declined to speak for this article and insist on absolute confidence from those they know and NDAs from those they work with.

If you do not already know that The Row is the second-act life’s work of the Olsens, they would likely be just as happy if you didn’t find out. The Row is not meant to showcase them, and that is how they prefer it, having spent their entire early lives being showcased relentlessly, starting when they were infants with the long-running television show Full House, on which they shared the single, adorable role of Michelle Tanner. (They did not participate in the recent zombie reboot, Fuller House.) With their then manager, Robert Thorne, their parents co-founded Dualstar Entertainment when the girls were 6. It spent years monetizing them through direct-to-VHS programming, a clothing collection at Walmart when they were 12 (“The upper tier of the tween market,” Ashley told Vogue), dolls, makeup, a magazine, fragrances, board games, and much else. They reaped the success that ubiquity could bring—when they assumed ownership of the company at 18, it was reportedly grossing more than a billion dollars a year—but also endured the creepy leer of sustained public interest. As teenagers, they were hounded by “time till 18” countdown clocks, the unseemly on-air attentions of Howard Stern, and Connie Chung, who asked in a TV interview whether they were virgins.

By the time they got to NYU for college, in 2004, they were tabloid fixtures and fashion icons in tent-size sweaters and giant shades. Maybe they were hiding behind those big sunglasses in part because their fellow students kept tattling on them to the press: “Learning is not fun if you’re not safe,” Mary-Kate told this magazine. She dropped out, as did Ashley not long after.

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