On a quiet stretch of the Upper East Side, at the slightly numinous, palindromic address of 17 East 71st Street, just down the block from the Frick Collection, a glass window displays a folding screen, a sculptural column and a single pair of women’s shoes, composed with the painstaking precision of a Braque still life. A gallery? A furniture showroom? No. According to the small sign by the door, barely visible to passers-by, it is the Row’s first New York store, which opened discreetly last week.
At the Row, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen have made discretion, abstention and quiet the cardinal virtues. They generally abjure interviews and stage their collections in presentations in their tastefully designed showrooms or privately, for clients. Many of the women who buy their clothes, which are elegant and faintly monastic, are decades older than the designers, who are not yet 30. And many of them, they have said, are unaware of the Olsens’ earlier fame.
The label is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year (it has collected handfuls of industry awards along the way), but the New York store is only the Row’s second, following one in Los Angeles. For the New York store, they wanted a townhouse, uptown, not on Madison but off Madison Avenue, a list that Mary-Kate, dressed in a Row blazer and shirt over threadbare vintage jeans, ticked off from her perch on a sofa on the store’s third floor. For the right space, a former Japanese tea shop and later denim store, they were prepared to wait.
When the space finally came available, they gut-renovated, then designed it top to bottom with the French interior designer Jacques Grange, whose most prominent previous retail client was Yves Saint Laurent.
“It’s more private-feeling than business-feeling,” Mr. Grange said, speaking by phone from Paris. “In the words of Mary-Kate and Ashley, ‘More private.’”
Indeed, the store feels more like a tastefully appointed manse than a traditional retail shop, its individual rooms decorated with marquee art (a Basquiat here, a Borge Jorgensen sculpture there) and significant furniture. Curtains sweep shut for privacy; dressing rooms are equipped with cotton dressing gowns. All of it, from the furniture to the art to the clothes to the dressing gowns, is for sale.
“I was telling people earlier that it’s for sale tomorrow,” Mary-Kate clarified, “because I can’t imagine moving a couch out of here today.”
The Row’s fashion and beauty assortment doesn’t end with the Row, though the Row’s own product range is growing. (It recently began making its own shoes, which are displayed in a first-floor salon.) The sisters brought in a curated selection of items they love or respect, including Serge Lutens fragrances, Sidney Garber jewelry and Santa Maria Novella beauty products. They convinced Masa Takayama, the renowned sushi chef, to sell them his ceramics, and they carry Japanese teas in homage to the space’s former resident.
“We never thought of a store being just our brand,” Ashley said. “We think our stuff works best when it’s in a proper context.”
In an age of e-commerce and mobile shopping, the Olsens remain steadfastly committed to an in-person experience, where context can come through and service can be fine-tuned for peak bliss. (Coffee, tea, lunch, a drawn curtain — for customers, the Row will oblige.) Ashley said that she has never purchased anything online; her sister added that she hasn’t either, save for one piece at an online auction. They admitted that its appeal is not lost on them.
“People like shopping online because they’ve made it so easy,” Mary-Kate said.
“You don’t have to deal with people,” Ashley said, and laughed.
“That can be unpleasant,” her sister said. “If you are going to deal with people, you have to make it a pleasant experience.”
Pleasant it is, a respite from the agitated gregariousness of many multibrand stores and the frigidity of some of their luxury competitors. They aim to offer, the designers said, the comfort of home, albeit a fully shoppable one. (Some of the art and furniture, they said, will rotate between their homes and the store.)
Visiting can feel like paying a call on a tax bracket significantly higher than one’s own, and when Mary-Kate asked a reporter whether it felt like a home to him, he admitted that it did, although, he added regretfully, not his.
“I didn’t say your home,” she replied, a touch tartly.
But she admitted that even hers didn’t quite match this one.
“This is more fantasy,” she said of the opportunity to create an extravagant extension of their own personal tastes. “This is a treat. This is creating your ultimate world.”
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