Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen Can’t Stop Sage Smudging
As the collective stress level reaches a fever pitch, leave it to Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen—famous twins with famously exacting taste—to volunteer a cure. “I sage everything, all the time. Constantly sage’ing,” says Mary-Kate, enveloped, along with her sister, in an overstuffed white sofa at the Manhattan headquarters of their 10-year-old label, Elizabeth and James. “I don’t want bad energy,” she stresses. “Clean space.”
That level of rigorous editing has become an Olsen trademark over the course of their career, which spans their entire 31 years of age. It’s clear in the spare cuts and sumptuous fabric selections showcased in their high-end line, The Row. It’s clear in the vintage furniture (by design masters like Franco Albini and Kaare Klint) that they handpick for their retail and work spaces. And it’s clear in their growing fragrance portfolio under Elizabeth and James. Launched in 2013 with Nirvana White and Nirvana Black—a twinset of perfumes, packaged in monolithic flacons tinged with ’70s glamour—the collection soon expanded to include scented body oils, candles, and a feverishly collected dry shampoo. Last year brought a new pairing in the Nirvana canon, Bourbon and Rose, the bottles taking their color cues accordingly. Now the designers unveil yet another duo: Nirvana Amethyst, a woodsy blend of tobacco and honeysuckle, and Nirvana French Grey, which layers neroli and lavender over one of their olfactory touchstones, musk.
An appreciation for brooding base notes is not all they share. Both Olsens are dressed in black Elizabeth and James dresses, along with kindred black strappy sandals. “I’m wearing Céline shoes, because Ashley took mine,” Mary-Kate says, gesturing to her sister’s pair by The Row. “I did—I stole her shoes!” Ashley confesses. Here, the designers discuss their taxicab beauty routines, middle school scent memories, and why two is better than one.
In a culture so dominated by images, what role does scent play?
Mary-Kate: Fragrance is an emotional choice. You have to have some kind of connection to whatever you’re smelling to want to wear it all day long. It can also change the vibe, like background music. The first campaign shot of the fragrances, when we launched Black and White [in 2013], was a dog and a girl in a bed. Ryan McGinley shot it, and it was just about a feeling—something that felt like a really good day.
The Elizabeth and James fragrances have always launched in pairs. What is the strength in the diptych? How do they act as foils or companions to one another?
Mary-Kate: When we first launched, we wanted to have two fragrances so there was an option. There was a duality: a play on fragrance, a play on color, a play on choice. And then we stuck with the same formula, in the sense of launching two at a time. It’s challenging sometimes because there are notes that we gravitate toward and love, and they can be a little too similar, so you have to hold off and maybe think about a different floral that you want to explore, or maybe you want it to go darker, lighter, airier, greener.
What drove the two new scents, Amethyst and French Grey? Was it a fascination with a certain note or two, or are you obsessed with crystals right now and amethysts are covering your table at home?
Ashley: Well, we do love crystals.
Mary-Kate: We were going to put crystals everywhere today, but no [laughs]. There are so many different musks out there, and I think it’s an amazing tool—like, you can navigate a scent based on what musk you want to use. Cedar or sandalwood or tobacco, those warmer notes, really do stand on their own, but when you layer them properly, too, they can be quite sensual and not so masculine.
You both love vintage fashion. Have you also found yourselves interested in perfumes of the past?
Mary-Kate: For us, when we were in, like, the seventh grade, people loved Clinique Happy. That was a big moment. I didn’t personally wear it, but I remember that being very popular.
Ashley: Our [thing] was more oils. One of our parents’ friends was very hippie, and she would take us on outings to go mix our oils and lotions in Topanga Canyon. Those are more the experiences that I remember. They were much more personal and creative.
Mary-Kate: But our love of certain notes always stayed the same.
Like sandalwood, musk . . .
Mary-Kate: Yeah, or vanilla—the right vanilla. When I say these things, I mean it very specifically: the right sandalwood, the right musk.
Speaking of alternative modes of fragrance, your scented dry shampoo has been a breakaway success. Where did the idea come from?
Ashley: It was just a thing that we wanted to do that went in and out of the stores, like a little teaser. We’ve always loved dry shampoo.
Mary-Kate: When we talked about how we wear fragrances, we didn’t really want to get into shampoo, conditioner, body soap. But when you give someone a hug and you’re like, “Oh, my god, what’s in your hair, what did you use,” it’s part of that warmth, that comfort. So that was sort of the beginning. And [hairstylist] Mark Townsend, who has been working with us since we were 12 or so, he knows our hair better than anyone. He was testing it along the way before we actually put it on the shelves.
How do you define what modern beauty is about today?
Mary-Kate: I think it’s about convenience, the same way people are shopping. Yes, they want some of the experience, but they just know what they want. Ashley and I get ready in the car every morning, or we might work until 7:00 p.m. and have 10 minutes to get ready in the car on the way to an event or dinner. Your routine becomes quite specific and short, and you know exactly what you need to put on to look fresh.
Hence the rollerball.
Ashley: It’s easy.
Mary-Kate: And you’re not offending anyone. It’s subtle, the way you put it on.
You’re already veterans of the beauty industry. What was your early education like?
Ashley: We were, like, born in a hair and makeup chair, so we were exposed to all those things at a very young age. Then we worked with the beauty industry on a very mass level when we were 12 for seven or eight years, where we learned a lot about the business and packaging.
Mary-Kate: And we worked with the best makeup and hair artists. We learned their tricks—even just knowing what photographs well and what does not photograph well.
That sense of fluency plays out in the perfumes, which are not the typical fruity florals.
Mary-Kate: Right. I think when you smell the fragrances, [you can tell] they’re not made with a commercial intention. They’re really quite niche and very considered. We took a risk, and I hope people like them as much as we do.
Given that you’re so into fragrance notes, are there any incredibly rare ingredients on your wish list?
Mary-Kate: There are—but they’re too expensive.
Ashley: Not for sale!
Mary-Kate: We’ll show you the dream in a couple of years.