The Olsens on Scents, Fashion and Branding

Fashion's most famous designing duo is turning to fragrances — plural.

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Perfectionists? They freely admit it. That explains the deep dives for knowledge they make on any product category they consider entering.

But that’s part of the reason that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are at the helm of a megamultimillion-dollar licensing and manufacturing company, Dualstar Entertainment Group — which they’re now adding to with fragrances and next year with a first Los Angeles flagship for their The Row brand. They’re also juggling their Elizabeth and James contemporary brand, their Olsenboye line for J.C. Penney and a T-shirt line called StyleMint, among other projects.

During an exclusive interview at TriBeCa’s Locanda Verde, the Olsens discussed their new brand of two women’s fragrances, Elizabeth and James Nirvana, which is built off of Elizabeth and James and will be exclusive to Sephora. Black is a sensual woody scent, while White is a musky floral fragrance. The duo will be launched in late January, after a quick in-store holiday preview from Dec. 13 to 25.

RELATED STORY: The Row RTW Spring 2014 >>

Given that they’ve been working since they were nine months old — their age when they began the shared role of Michelle Tanner on the ABC sitcom “Full House” — spending much time relaxing isn’t usually comfortable for Ashley or Mary-Kate.

“We were always hard workers as kids,” said Mary-Kate. “It’s just the way we are, the way we were raised. Our work ethic was everything, and that never left us. We like to work hard, and we like to try to do everything 100 percent. In fact, it’s actually almost impossible for us not to. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes not so much, but it’s learning.”

“I always looked at myself, even as a kid, as a businesswoman,” said Ashley.

Added Mary-Kate: “With what we were doing in business when we were younger, I don’t think it ever felt like we were actresses — because we spent so much more of our time not in front of the cameras, building a brand.”

In fact, the Olsens founded Dualstar in 1993 at the tender age of six — “We couldn’t see over the top of the table,” Ashley joked — and their marketing savvy and the support of a strong team of adults reportedly made them millionaires by their 10th birthday. In 2004, on their 18th birthday, the sisters took over as copresidents (they are now co-chief executive officers) of the privately held firm, which has produced movies, TV shows, magazines and video games. While in their tweens, their business efforts included not only movies and videos, but clothes, shoes, purses, hats, books, CDs and cassette tapes, fragrances and makeup, magazines, video and board games, dolls, posters, calendars, telephones and CD players — with a market share made up mostly of the tween demographic. Mattel produced various sets of Mary-Kate and Ashley fashion dolls from 2000 to 2005.

“We’ve been exposed to so much,” said Ashley. “We were very fortunate to have parents and people around us who wanted us to be part of the creative meetings and the business meetings, and we would just sit and listen and be sponges. At that time in your life, you really are a sponge. And we’ve learned so much from people we’ve been exposed to in our lives — interesting people from different walks of life, different ceo’s. The list goes on and on. Mary-Kate and I have always taken advantage of our time with those people and walked away learning a thing or two.”

Best business lesson they’ve learned? Both Mary-Kate and Ashley prize one above all others: trusting their guts. “We have really good instincts, and it’s better when we listen to them,” said Ashley. “That’s both personal and in work.”

“And [growing up] we also were learning about branding and staying true to ourselves as well,” said Mary-Kate. “What always worked was that we were speaking directly to our customers, who were our age. Even down to writing a script, they would want us and our input on what the script should look like or how it would sound — because a 50-year-old man is not going to know the way a 10-year-old is speaking. It was very collaborative, and we were able to learn a lot about branding and marketing and product.”

After moving to Manhattan as 18-year-olds, the sisters took a break from entertainment — and developed a true passion for fashion. “Mary-Kate and I moved to New York to go to NYU, and we put everything else kind of on hold because we wanted to just go to school and experience education without working at the same time,” said Ashley. “While doing that, we started conceptualizing The Row. We started one item at a time, and took it to L.A. because the machines we wanted to use [to create the pieces] weren’t available in New York.”

“We sold it at first with no label,” said Mary-Kate. “Only certain people knew it was us behind it. We didn’t do any press. Our idea — because we had been in the branding industry for a very long time — was ‘If the product’s good, it will sell.’” While Ashley and Mary-Kate were building The Row, the opportunity came for them to do the Elizabeth and James line with a partner. “It was when the contemporary category was very small, and now we have several partners who help us with Elizabeth and James,” said Ashley. “We still do everything with The Row ourselves.”

In fact, the Olsens are about to become vertically integrated. Next year, they will launch their first store for The Row, in Los Angeles. Eventually, they’d like to do a fragrance for that brand, noted Ashley.

“Retail is really our next step,” Ashley added. “We’re building the store right now for The Row in Los Angeles.”

Following the sisters’ affinity for perfectionism, they’ll build the empire “one store at a time,” said Ashley. “And eventually, Elizabeth and James would love a home as well.” Other categories are likely for The Row down the road. “We pretty much have all categories with Elizabeth and James right now, but for The Row it’s just apparel and handbags,” said Ashley. Shoes are on the wish list, “but that’s a very different type of business,” said Ashley. “We’ve done a ton of research, and it can be a really big expense, depending on how you want to do it. We like having success with one thing before we move on to the next. We don’t like to spread ourselves too thin.”

But they do appreciate what each of them comes to the table with. “We feel so fortunate to have each other, to have a dialogue,” said Ashley. “Communication is key; it’s the most important thing in life. And Mary-Kate and I get to communicate all day long, on all sorts of subjects. It gets us to a more educated, thoughtful place, because we often come to things from different directions — although we want to get to the same space and have the same goal and vision. But that conversation is what gets us there.”

Ashley and Mary-Kate were inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2009, and confess they get overly excited when they spot someone wearing one of their pieces. And while you’d think taking surreptitious shots would be the work of their fans, Ashley and Mary-Kate both confess to snapping shots when they see someone on the street in one of their creations. “Anytime we’ve started a brand and we see people wearing it — and we haven’t given it to them — we try and take pictures of them,” said Mary-Kate. “The first time we saw a Row T-shirt, an Elizabeth and James piece, a handbag — we got giddy.” Added Ashley: “It’s such a nice feeling that somebody appreciates your work.”

Roughly two years ago, Sephora’s Kendo division — the development arm that handles strategic partnerships — approached Mary-Kate and Ashley after a fashion market research survey commissioned by the beauty retailer continually referenced the Olsens’ Elizabeth and James brand. “We always knew we wanted to have a fragrance for this brand, because it’s very lifestyle,” said Ashley. “There are many components to the brand. We felt that between the brand Elizabeth and James and Sephora that we were really speaking together directly to our customer. We felt that was a really good place to start exploring the world of fragrance and beauty.”

After deciding the venture felt right, Ashley and Mary-Kate began working with fragrance veteran Robin Burns, cofounder of brand developer Batallure, and Michael McGeever, senior vice president of Sephora and general manager of Kendo.

Mary-Kate and Ashley spent close to two years developing the scents. “We’re not perfectionists at all,” deadpanned Mary-Kate. In fact, the Olsens’ attention to detail included flying in out-of-season peonies from New Zealand and lily of the valley from Holland for the interview because they are key ingredients in the scents.

Nirvana Black, developed first, took a year and a half, with around 50 different concoctions before hitting on the winner — “and that’s 50 versions not including the various tweaks we made to individual notes,” said Ashley. Nirvana White took just a few months.

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