At The Row, a seemingly simple short-sleeve jersey T-shirt costs $280, a wool blazer with three-quarter-length sleeves slightly more than $1,300 and a top-handle satchel nearly $3,000.
The prices rival those of Bottega Veneta and Lanvin, houses much more established than The Row, which former child stars Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen founded in 2006.
The Olsens, now 27 years old, are well aware some fashion followers perceive The Row as audaciously priced. Some of that stems from what could be called Backpack-Gate.
A $39,000 alligator backpack that The Row began selling in 2011 raised eyebrows and elicited eye rolls, even as it reportedly sold out.
"That was obviously a very special bag to us but that didn't represent the entire range," said Mary-Kate Olsen in an interview earlier this month at the label's showroom in downtown Manhattan.
Ms. Olsen raised the issue early in the interview to make the point that The Row also sells bags in the $1,000 to $3,000 range. "So we've now spent a couple of years also retraining the customer that that's not the only product that's available."
Retailers were initially skeptical of the line, fearing it was just another celebrity vanity project, and overpriced to boot. At the time, the Olsens were still best known for their years on TV's "Full House."
Now, eight years later, high-end retailers call the line a success.
The Row opened its first store in Los Angeles. The label was recently nominated for Accessories Designer of the Year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The Row is up against Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler for the award, which will be given out in a ceremony early next month.
Older women are The Row's target consumers, an unusual choice for 20-something designers. The Row's customer, Ashley Olsen said, is "probably 40s, 50s, it really could be any age. She's—the women that I know are—sophisticated, very educated within the world of fashion" and appreciates finer fabrics and craftsmanship. That age group is also more likely to be able to afford The Row than a woman in her 20s.
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So rather than showing the clothes on girlish-looking models, The Row cast runway models from decades past for its recent pre-fall 2014 collection lookbook (a booklet sent to fashion editors). And while many designers are accompanied at the CFDA awards by the latest young starlet or model, in 2012 The Row's guest was model and actress Lauren Hutton, now 70. (The label won the Womenswear Designer of the Year award that year, surprising people who thought Proenza Schouler was a shoo-in.)
The Row plans, for the first time, to start selling shoes from one of its runway collections. The shoes are a far cry from the feminine-looking heels and flats that women have proved willing to splurge on. Ashley Olsen said the menswear-inspired derby, mule and loafer styles will appeal to "a very specific customer. I don't think it's for everyone."
The Row collaborated with Enzo Bonafè, a maker of handmade men's shoes, based in Bologna, Italy. The label is only selling the handmade shoes, which start at $850, in its own store initially. It plans to begin producing footwear in house by next year.
Industrywide sales of women's handbags and shoes continue to outperform apparel. Spending on luxury items—including apparel, leather goods, watches, jewelry and cosmetics—is starting to slow, in part due to very wealthy consumers nearing the limits of what they are willing to spend. Sales of such items rose 7% last year, down from the 11% annual rate in 2010 through 2012, according to Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm.
The Row started with a T-shirt, Mary-Kate Olsen said. "How we could make a perfect T-shirt in a great fabric that would fit any age. It was sort of just a project" that evolved into a brand. After the T-shirt came "the blazer and then the legging, it was about quality clothing," she continued. The twins, who don't have formal design-school training, tried to keep The Row from being lumped in with celebrity fashion lines. "We didn't do an interview for it for the first three years," Mary-Kate Olsen said. "Our whole point was if it's good product, it will sell without a label or a logo or a face behind it and it worked."
About 145 high-end department stores and boutiques world-wide carry The Row's apparel, while 77 carry its accessories. The Row declined to discuss sales. A 2009 New York Times article estimated sales at $10 million. The label is a division of Dualstar Entertainment Group, a private, brand-management company owned by the Olsens. Dualstar oversees their other businesses, which include lower-priced clothing lines, as well as movies and books—many featuring the twins as children.
Savile Row inspired The Row's name, "the idea of made-to-measure clothing," Mary-Kate Olsen said. The line's minimalist clothes are sometimes elegantly slouchy, luxurious takes on staples such as the cable-knit sweater or the double-faced cashmere overcoat. The accessories share a similar discrete aesthetic.
To casual observers, The Row's merchandise raises the question why something so basic and simple-looking costs so much.
The clothing "is a luxury product made in the U.S.," Mary-Kate Olsen said. "So I think we're pretty much priced…" She paused a moment to consider the word she wanted to use. Ashley Olsen swooped in, saying "we're competitively priced." (The two tend to complete each other's thoughts.) "Everyone that we sit next to as far as from the apparel standpoint, we're competitively priced."
Ashley Olsen continued: "We always do competitive research about materials, make, and what we are doing versus what other companies are doing." Some techniques in the way The Row's clothes are made add to their cost.
The Olsens looked unsure when asked what their titles were. "We don't like titles at this company," Mary-Kate Olsen said with a laugh. (Their titles are co-chief executives and co-creative directors.) The label's bags are made in Italy, which raises the cost. The Row uses expensive materials: One version of its new Book Bag comes in crocodile and was made using a Bombé technique, one of the twins described as "an older technique that you don't see very often," that gives the leather a pebbled texture. Bags' linings are fabrics such as linen rather than synthetic.
Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York, the first retailer to carry The Row's bags, said "Mary-Kate and Ashley were right all along by keeping their debut collection in rare and exclusive materials." The Barneys customer responded to that, she said, but the Olsens "also recognized it was not sustainable in these super-luxe versions and began to evolve the collection into leathers, canvas, and suede with beautiful simple hardware. This evolution has really broadened their audience at Barneys."
Ms. Vitale said the retailer has been "very pleased" with way The Row's bags, carried in Barneys's flagship store on Madison Ave., in Beverly Hills and its website, have performed. "Now with the range of pricing and styling," Barneys would consider carrying the bags in its smaller stores, she said.
The Olsen sisters get excited when they spot someone in public carrying one of their bags. "The last time we were in Paris, we saw a few people with the handbags that we didn't know and we didn't gift so we did sneak a few photos," Mary-Kate Olsen said.
Sources: 1, 2