The Row’s Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen Are About to Open the Most Beautiful Store Yet
On Tuesday morning, this was the scene at 17 East 71st Street, a three-story townhouse in New York and the location of The Row’s first store in the city: Art was being shipped in, such as the large Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas that was being carefully maneuvered faceup, like a priceless dining table; photographer François Halard was busy shooting the still-in-flux interiors for the images you see here; and, at the center of it all, projecting an aura of 100 percent calm and concentration, though also reverberating with a barely sublimated nervous anticipation, were Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Everyone needed their opinion. What height, the contractor and art installation team wanted to know, should the Man Ray be hung at? Did they, Halard was asking, want this area of the store to be shot with or without an orchid? (Both, was the answer, so they could choose later.)
Getting the details right is pretty much a full-time occupation for the Olsen sisters, and practice has made them near perfect at it. You know that from seeing their collections for The Row. You realize it when you visit their store in Los Angeles, which unfolds at ground level in a personal, quiet way, where one minute you can’t tear your eyes away from some gorgeous gazillion-ply cashmere robe, only to have some exquisite mid-century chair begging for your attention the next. (Honestly, when I first visited it, I wanted to take the entire contents of my home and burn them. Then move in there. And not ever leave.)
The Olsens would have opened in New York first, but having found this space a few years back, it wasn’t immediately available, so, while they waited, they set up shop in L.A. Now here they are, poised to finally have a place of their own in Manhattan. They took some time out from answering questions about the store from their team to answer questions about the store from me. This was after a tour of all three buttery/sandy/pale-toned floors, which they decorated with the help of Jacques Grange, who last worked on a boutique with Monsieur Saint Laurent. In addition to those Basquiats, there are incredible pieces of furniture: a Carlo Bugatti chair, a Frank Lloyd Wright mirror, a Jean Royère standing lamp, not to mention the ceramics created by legendary Japanese chef Masa Takayama . . . Listed like that, it sounds impressive, which it undoubtedly is. Yet it’s an environment that also feels warm and welcoming, not a stuffy, ostentatious, look-don’t-touch showplace. “Intimate” is the best way to put it, so that’s where we started . . .
From the very beginning, intimacy has been the cornerstone of what you do, whether it’s that first French seamed T-shirt or the most luxurious, ornate, elaborate pieces, right through to the L.A. store and now here.
MARY-KATE OLSEN: Intimacy and, I really think, a true collaboration. This store is coming from two sets of eyes with the same mentality.
What kind of environment did you want to create here?
ASHLEY OLSEN: In Los Angeles, it’s all about mid-century homes and growing up, it was glass and water and trees. Having lived in New York now for 12 years, we wanted the store to very much feel like a home—that’s sort of the dream of here: a brownstone in New York. There’s a fantasy to that, and I think bringing that fantasy to reality in a way that everyone can enjoy is a really nice thing.
And how did you want to present your collections?
AO: It was really important for us that when you walk into the store it wasn’t about clothes being shoved in your face. It was about the experience of walking in, taking in the space, being able to slowly introduce yourself to sweaters and slippers, or maybe a handbag, have an open area for shoes so you can relax, come upstairs, walk through the collections in a space that’s calm. Less is more, I believe. Then, on the third floor, it’s open again with more of the home objects and a great little private area, as well.
MKO: We have a lot of people who want to display their art or collaborations that can utilize these little suites. Everything is for sale, so it will be forever changing. Even in Los Angeles, it constantly rotates. It’s like your house—you tweak it, you add things, you take away things.
So tell me a little bit about your experience of working with Jacques. That’s kind of incredible that he hasn’t done anything since the days of Yves Saint Laurent. Was he the first person you thought of when you decided you wanted to do this?
MKO: We did a lot of research, and I know a few friends who work with him. . . . I think that the idea of doing a public space was really exciting [to him], especially when we wanted to have not only clothing, but also art and furniture. The way he curates a space, that’s really his strength.
Did you have a very clear idea of what you wanted it to look like when you started?
AO: Yes and no. We knew the feeling that we wanted, and we knew what we loved of Jacques’s signature pieces, whether it’s the wall finishing or the floors or the upholstery. But I think as soon as we went to the people in Paris where we started picking out the fabrics, it totally opened my mind to the idea of using color in another way.
MKO: I’m used to buying old couches and not having them made, so that alone was a new way to think about color, space, function, and size differently. It’s interesting: You would think it’s easy, but it’s actually a real art!
Yes, and the emotional experience of when you see things together, too. Speaking of which, what about the art?
AO: We knew we wanted art, and there are a few private collections where people have been nice enough or able to participate. We’re excited. I think, again, it’s bringing a little bit of everything together.
MKO: A little bit of special things in New York together.
AO: And to be able to inspire and to show people things they haven’t been able to see or get close to. To dream.
I think everyone is engaged in the question of what a store should look and feel like now. I think physical spaces are still hugely important to understand a designer’s point of view and just the sheer pleasure of walking around and experiencing, distinct from how you interact with a designer online.
MKO: I’ve never purchased anything online.
Really? Wow, that’s amazing.
AO: I would agree. I prefer to see, touch, feel, and experience.
What do you think was the learning curve to opening the first store in Los Angeles? What were you told about L.A. that you thought, We should remember this for New York? I know they’re very different spaces and cities.
AO: I think one thing we’ve had to keep reminding ourselves is that remember the day before we opened, we didn’t think we were ready to open.
MKO: A week before, it was a construction site and it’s really very stressful. It’ll be very interesting to see how women shop in New York versus in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is on the more casual side . . .
Also from a design point of view, how that will make you think about your collections going forward . . .
MKO: That’s for sure. Being able to think about exclusive products for here or there. And testing product . . .
AO: It’s also the first time we’re launching shoes, so that will be interesting . . .
MKO: We’ll just have to wait and see! Shopping can be a little uninspiring now, so I think if we can bring a little bit of that experience wherever we are to stay, that’s great. That was our ultimate goal when we started—to bring an experience to life, and we’re making it happen. Everything looks the same now, and we wanted this to be special.