Image courtesy of The Row

The Row, the luxury fashion brand owned and designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, recently announced that its first full menswear line will debut in October. While the brand, which offers products at Celine- and Thom Browne-level prices, has dabbled in men’s products before, this is the first real foray making The Row’s highly minimalist and refined aesthetic available to men. The line focuses on tailored separates and suits, with prices ranging from $3,950 to $5,795.

In the recent Wall Street Journal article that announced the new collection, the Olsen twins make two claims.

  • First, they mention how little they like to speak about their products: “[The] clothes speak for themselves, and so to put a face or a name with the product doesn’t ever feel right.”
  • Second, they mention how they don’t like talking about the brand and their process: “We’re not product pushers… I don’t know if it’s because of the way we grew up—we just don’t like talking about ourselves or talking about what we’re doing… It’s not really our approach.”

The idea that “the product speaks for itself” is not a new claim for a minimalist brand to make—they have always focused on showing over telling. But the product’s role in a consumer company has never been so simple. There is no objective decision-making process happening that leads someone to buy the “best” product, if such a thing exists, nor can one expect the shopper to sort out who they should buy from and what they should buy—that’s what marketing is for. Purchasing decisions are highly irrational, emotional and complex, and the product is only one piece of the puzzle.

The idea of a product speaking for itself—and The Row following this creed—falls apart upon closer inspection. The purest form of letting “clothes speak for themselves” would be to just put the clothes on a rack on the street in Soho and let them sit there to see if people buy them. This clearly would not work.

Brands need shoppers to seek them out, and then need to differentiate their offering for this to happen—The Row is no different. As such, while the sisters say they don’t like to talk about their products, they go on to spend a considerable amount of the Wall Street Journal interview doing just that. Mary-Kate says of a particular item in their collection that, “When you put this on, you know that it’s not from Italy. It’s not from France. It’s very, very clean.” Ashley mentions that they spent a year figuring out the fit of a suit. They clearly like talking about the products and arguably need to in order to showcase the work that went into them and justify their price.

But more interestingly, the definition of what “speaking” means for a brand has evolved. In the old days, selling in a department store like Bergdorf Goodman or Barney’s (which The Row does), was still a version of speaking. Yes, the clothing would sit there on a rack, but their mere acceptance by these elite retailers was a form of speech, given what it projected to potential customers: If high-end retailers opened their arms to these brands, they must be of quality and significance.  

The Row has two retail stores, in New York and LA as of now, which are beautiful and luxurious manifestations of the brand and its aesthetic. These stores, however, sell more than just the brand’s clothes, and include furnishings, artwork and vintage jewelry. They are stakes in the ground for the brand, an act of speech that shows that The Row has arrived and isn’t going anywhere. Many consider retail stores as three-dimensional billboards that people can enter, which holds true here as well.

Then there is press, which the Olsen sisters have commandeered expertly, given their upbringing in the public eye and continued celebrity status, reaching the highest rungs of the hierarchy to Vogue and beyond. Press is another form of speech, down to the Wall Street Journal article, which gives the Olsens a platform to verbalize plenty about the brand and its menswear collection. “I don’t think people are taking big risks in menswear,” Ashley says in the article. David Schulte, the brand’s president, surmised that there is no equivalent to The Row for menswear—“There’s plenty of hoodies out there, but there’s not a lot of places to go buy a beautiful suit”—which, again, is a far cry from letting the product and brand speak for itself.

Then comes social media—the brand maintains over 1 million followers on Instagram. The article says that the brand’s account “rarely posts photos of its own products. Instead there are the designers’ inspirations—an art piece by Georges Jouve, a flatware service by Pierre Legrain or a photo of Jean Cocteau.” This strategy is again a form of speech—modern press, which gives the brand a broader reach and louder voice. Posting inspirations and further building the brand’s aesthetic is another way to speak about the products, even if indirectly.

None of these actions are problematic. Rather, The Row is doing exactly what it should be doing to make The Row successful, which it continues to be. But the Olsen twins neither let the products nor the brand speak for themselves. Their wholesale and retail strategy, press and social media are all forms of speech that reinforce the product and then the brand in a variety of ways.

Products don’t speak for themselves. Brands and their leaders do.