Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have been famous since before they could talk. In the three decades since, they’ve never identified as any one thing, choosing instead to market themselves as two golden girls who might, under the right circumstances, show up at your slumber party.
They were never really actresses, despite sharing the role of Michelle on “Full House” — cast because they stayed quiet when held by strangers — and starring in a slew of direct-to-VHS and theatrical releases. They were never really singers, despite albums like “Brother for Sale”; never really writers, despite the 2008 release of “Influence,” a coffee-table book that compiled interviews with people they deemed inspirational. And despite a 2001 clothing licensing deal with Walmart, they weren’t really fashion designers until 10 years ago.
For the first 18 years of their lives, they didn’t require a particular medium to succeed; their mere existence was enough to persuade children, myself included, to buy anything they were selling. Books, headbands, monthly newsletters that arrived in the actual mail: I threw all my babysitting money at children my own age. They were a special kind of American royalty — princesses who, as if by birthright, commanded a paycheck.
As adults, they’ve retained their skill for silence. For the most part they no longer act. They rarely give interviews, and though they’re still hounded by paparazzi, the images are mostly of them walking between offices and cars, hands in front of their faces. They’ve embraced being behind the scenes of fashion, with a stable of lines for different price points. Their prized collection, The Row, was founded in 2006. Since then, the Olsens have won CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year — the highest award available to American fashion designers — twice, in 2012 and 2015.
Given that they are among the most famous and wealthiest members of my generation, it’s striking that they also share few of the trademarks commonly associated with our cohort. They don’t tweet (at least not on Twitter accounts we know about). They don’t use Facebook (that we know of). If they party, it’s not at clubs we’ve ever heard of; if they have unfortunate political views, well, they’re keeping them to themselves. The Olsens don’t use social media because they can’t — there is nothing they can share that their audience doesn’t already think they know.
Instead, their social media presence comes through the Instagram account for The Row. It’s doubtful that the Olsen twins have any direct contact with the Instagram account; it’s most likely a task for an employee who studies their seasonal mood boards and picks from a list of approved inspirations. When it was created, it had the look of a teenager decorating her locker, full of pride over being so precociously sophisticated: A still image of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Marilyn Monroe wrapped in a knit sweater, Jean-Luc Godard filming Jean Seberg. Interspersed with these conventionally aspirational ideas of beauty, elegance and power were images of clothes in various stages of production. Their very first post showed bolts of fabric, stored and cataloged inside a shelving unit, with a rosy filter and the simple caption “office decor.” A few weeks later, the same filter and a slight blurring effect was used to show scissors and measuring tape artfully strewn across a drafting table, with the caption “Made in #America #therow.”
As the brand grew in prominence, its Instagram began to show a more refined sensibility, one that prized artists with aesthetics similar to The Row’s own. There are Alfred Stieglitz’s sepia-toned portraits of Georgia O’Keefe’s neck, as well as O’Keefe’s landscapes. Richard Serra, Henri Matisse and Yves Klein became recurring figures. The photos of clothes also evolved: An image from the Spring 2016 collection, a model in a white dress walking through a garden toward a bright blue pool, is particularly evocative. Their accessories are shot with instructional details — sunglasses on hardwood tables, a tumbler of clear liquid in the background. White leather boots sit beside a minimalist white coffee table, and cream cashmere slippers next to what looks like a very soft couch.
We’re meant to see what these clothes are for: sipping afternoon cocktails on our way to a quick dip in a pool, after which we’ll sit on a very nice piece of furniture. It’s the epitome of understated, adult indulgence, at least as seen by someone (read: me) who only recently started thinking of herself as an adult. The days of safe adolescent icons, banal beloved heroines of eras recently past, are gone. The Instagram has caught up to the Olsens; as they grew into their work as fashion designers, they grew more confident in showing their evolving values, and used this account to do it.