Around the start of the new year, The Row released a pre-fall lookbook featuring the sixty-something beauty Linda Rodin at its center. Also cast were Ursula Wallis and Esther de Jong, who both ruled the runways in the ‘80s. Admirable, but not exactly conventional choices. In wool skirts, flats and sumptuous overcoats, the models presented a confident yet relaxed way of dressing.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, The Row’s celebrated creators, have always operated with preternatural maturity, and it’s as clear as ever that they design for women of the same ilk. The Row (which, astonishingly, they launched at the youthful age of 21) is for a sophisticated customer, one more likely to eschew a conspicuously branded jacket or handbag in favor of something more discreetly luxurious.
At times, this can feel like a quiet form of subversion. While one corner of the fashion industry churns out trends, logos and new talent, in the other, you’ll find the Olsens, staying the course. That’s not to say The Row isn’t evolving—it is with every season—but rather that laudably, Mary-Kate and Ashley are able stay true to this restrained approach despite the current climate.
Recently we had a chance to sit down with the Olsens to discuss how this design philosophy manifests itself in the form of handbags, which they have been producing since 2011. Today the collection comprises hand-held satchels, over-the-shoulder slings, crossbodys, backpacks, totes and clutches—all expertly made pieces with the kind of timeless appeal we’ve come to associate with The Row. The ever-polite sisters explain the evolution of the line in the Q&A below.
You launched your handbag collection here at Barneys two years ago. How has the collection evolved in the time since? And what has remained constant?
Ashley: When we first launched, we went into it just really wanting to make the best quality bags that we could imagine. We didn’t exactly understand the market aspect—we just wanted to design handbags—so at the beginning, there wasn’t as much range. Now we’ve gotten to place where it’s more like our ready-to-wear collection, where we have our basics and then our elevated pieces as well. So we’ve really broadened the selection.
We’ve also added an element of ease. We have our structured bags but now we’ve gone into easier more lifestyle-oriented bags.
Mary-Kate: But the quality is still the same.
What kind of women do you design for?
Ashley: It’s our clients, it’s us, it’s a range.
Mary-Kate: We hope to make things that are ageless and timeless.
Are there new silhouettes you’re focusing on?
Mary-Kate: The sling. We worked on it for two seasons before we launched it. We really felt strongly about the hands-free concept, something like the backpack but something closer to your body, something a bit more intimate. We’ve been playing with different materials—a beautiful nylon, woven macramé, woven leather—and some other twists on classic shapes.
Where did the inspiration for woven leather come from?
Mary-Kate: It came from a sweater we were working on—a beautiful knit. But we’re always looking at new ways to explore leather and I think we took it a really nice place.
Is there a certain style of handbag that every woman should own?
Ashley: I think everyone will love the sling. It’s an easy over the shoulder or crossbody bag. It’s light, it’s packable. You can fold it in on itself and travel with it.
Mary-Kate: We don’t design bags to design bags. We design bags with a purpose. It’s the same way we design our clothing—thoughtfully. Because we are women, we think about what a woman needs.
Ashley: For example, we’ve thought a lot about weight. We’ve focused a lot of our attention on keeping them light knowing that women, myself included, tend to stuff everything in their bags and they tend to get so heavy. If they start heavy, it can’t end well.
So in your words, what makes for a good bag?
Ashley: The quality of the materials, how a bag is made, where it’s made, what it’s made from.
Mary-Kate: Our clothing is all made in the US and we can get the best quality we can by being close to our product. For our handbags, the best quality we can find in manufacturing is in Italy, although we’re working on a bag that’s made in America.
There’s an air of understatement to the entire collection. Why is keeping your bags minimal and clean-lined important to you?
Mary-Kate: We take the same approach as with our clothing. It should be about quality and the way it fits on your body. We always say that the definition of luxury, at least our version of it, is to make a woman’s life easier. And that’s what we aspire to.