Absolutely Ashley – Ashley Olsen interview


Ashley Olsen is two minutes older than her fraternal twin Mary Kate and in many ways, Ashley seems like the archetype of a big sister. She’s thoughtful, independent and nurturing. She talks about her companies like they’re babies. She worries about other people’s feelings. When we first meet at the cozy café Cluny in the West Village, close to Ashley’s home turf she apologizes about being late (8 minutes) and for being so difficult to track down (she rescheduled once).  Later in the interview she tells me that she avoids selling The Row to downtown stores because she might open her own shop there one day. No, she’s not afraid of competition, she’s afraid of offending the other retailers. “I’m someone who definitely doesn’t like confrontation at all,” she says.

For someone so sensitive and considerate, it must be excruciating to not be treated with courtesy in return. It’s well known that Ashley is more wary of the spotlight than her sister, who has continued to pursue acting and parties. The reason for Ashley’s withdrawal, she says, is that she can’t stand being hounded by paparazzi. “When you have an aggressive man approach you with a lens close up in your face, you never really get used to it,” she says. Her solution is to keep an extremely low profile. “If I would be constantly bothered by cameras I’d have a complete meltdown. I’d rather not be in that situation,” she says. “What I do is just go to work and hardly ever go out and I’m much happier that way.”

So does all work and no play make Ashley a dull girl? Apparently not. She radiates pride when talking about her fashion endeavors. Ashley and Mary Kate are the founders and creative directors of the unfailingly on-trend contemporary fashion lines Elizabeth and James, Olsenboye and the new vintage inspired denim division TEXTILE, which will be carried exclusively in Canada by Holt Renfrew this fall. But the project that seems closest to her heart is The Row, the acclaimed fashion collection of luxury basics that Ashley and Mary Kate built from scratch.

“It started with two pieces of clothing that I made for me and my friends,” she says. “I showed them to Maxfields in Los Angeles and they asked me to expand on the concept. So we did!”

That meant learning the fashion industry from the inside out. Ashley researched material and manufacturing and went to Paris with Mary Kate twice a year to sell the collection herself.

“It was a real ground-up experience,” she says. “We wanted to tackle this new industry and do it by ourselves. It was purely just my sister and I, taking an idea and expanding on it and bringing it to life.” The elegant, subtly avant-garde and slightly austere collection is so sophisticated that it’s hard to believe that it’s conceived by two 24-year-olds. But then, they’re about 45 in fashion years.

“We’ve always been involved in fashion,” says Ashley. From a very young age the girls were actively involved in picking their costumes and promotional outfits.  “We would try on hundreds of outfits every week. We would have adult designer clothes altered and fitted to us.” Some memorable looks? “I was always baggier and my sister wore really tight things. Mary Kate liked her biker shorts with fringe, I would wear shoes and pants that were three sizes too big!”

After a period of fitted and minimal outfits, Ashley seems to have gone back to her love of volume. The day we meet she’s wearing a light, loose-fitting cotton shirt over a long black dress with a leather jacket tied around her waist. On me, this outfit would have looked like maternity clothes, but she manages to turn it into the height of nonchalant chic.

Speaking of maternity, it’s a subject she enthusiastically endorses. “Kids are just amazing!” she exclaims. She has been happily involved with the actor Justin Bartha (from The Hangover) for two years and has lived with him for one. Although she’s not ready to make the commitment now, she envisions motherhood in her future. “I absolutely want children. I always wanted to be a mom and have a family,” she says. But for now her business seems to be the benefactor of her nurturing. She speaks about brand building with the tenderness of a parent: “At first you have to keep it small and focused and nurture it for a while until it gets to place where it’s OK standing on its own. Then you have to figure out what it needs to go the next place. Though it’s never completely out of your hands, it has a mind of its own.”

Contrary to popular belief, Mary Kate and Ashley are two very different people with different roles in their companies. While they consult each other on every decision, Ashley is the main brain behind the brand building, while Mary Kate’s creative strength is storytelling ( she often works on the narrative of a collection) I come from a very different perspective,” Ashley admits, “I think it pushes you further creatively and emotionally. It’s very interesting. And we always want the same thing in the end.” Her future visions for The Row and Elizabeth and James involves growing them into lifestyle brands with home and furniture collections, and one of her pet projects is to eventually open a flagship store for The Row in NYC.  “I would love a retail venue that would really help people see how you envision the label. I would want to create a very homey place where people could feel comfortable and know that they would be taken care of.”

As for Ashley’s own publicity-free comfort zone, she may be getting ready to step out of it soon. “If I would say that I wasn’t interested in acting ever again that would just be a lie,” she admits. “I was born and raised in the entertainment industry so it feels like a second home still. If I could work with a Woody Allen or Sofia Coppola I would definitely think about it. Talk to me in a couple of years. It will be much different I’m sure.”