Retail

Olsen twins, Elizabeth & James Rises At Kohl’s

The Olsen twins’ fashion empire has had a rather twisty and turny path through the world of retail apparel. Their first entry was an eponymously named line for Walmart that launched in the early 2000’s.

Their second major effort, a couture line called The Row (named for London’s Saville Row), was launched in 2006, and in the 13 years since has earned lush praise, scores of celebrity followers and even the Womenswear Designer of the Year award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2012 and 2015, as well as an award from the CFDA for the brand’s accessories in 2014.

The Row, however, is a couture label that is very much priced like one: A GQ writer described it as “the oh-my-god-it’s-so-soft-and-expensive-I’m-sobbing luxury label The Row,” and while that might sound a bit hyperbolic, if anything they are underselling it. The Row’s most beloved item of 2011, for example, was an alligator handbag that promptly sold out – even though its retail price was $39,000.

For a point of reference, the Birkin bag by Hermes, widely considered the most desirable and difficult to obtain bag on Earth, starts at about $10,000. In fairness, because not everyone can buy a Birkin directly, its value tends to increase on the resale market, sometimes quite dramatically. Selling out a bag that is three times as expensive as the most desirable bag in the world demonstrates that among people who take fashion quite seriously, the Olsen twins are considered a serious force.

But while their (now defunct) Walmart line and their high-end couture line were inarguable hits, the fate of the duo’s middle child, Elizabeth and James, has been a bit less certain through the years. It was pitched as a middle-point fashion line for professional women looking to spend more than entry-level prices, but less than designer prices. The pieces weren’t cheap, and tended to be sold at high-end retailers: Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. Most items fell between the $300 and $600 range, appropriate to the stores that housed them – but not the four-figure starting point that is common among The Row’s offerings.

Elizabeth and James started strong, generating a lot of buzz with its 2007 launch and driving a lot of sales. But in 2008, the recession hit – and the fashion world became a different place.

“The recession drove us all to declare ourselves H&M people or Chanel people, and now no one goes to the mall, because they want to spend either $30 or $3,000,” GQ noted of Elizabeth and James’ difficulty competing in a market in which it no longer fit properly. Toward the end of last year, Elizabeth and James announced it would be shutting down its stores and in-house operations – another middle-market victim of the great retail reset.

But Elizabeth and James, it seems, has another ride left in it – albeit in a very different venue than it has known before. It is coming to Kohl’s.

“We have always seen Elizabeth and James speaking to a much larger audience, and this new business model with Kohl’s will allow us to achieve that,” Ashley Olsen told WWD, adding that she and her sister are “excited” to work with Kohl’s in “building out additional lifestyle categories.”

The deal comes as part of a licensing agreement wherein the Kohl’s design team will create the future collections, overseen by the Olsen twins.

“Our vision for Elizabeth and James is to deliver a lifestyle brand that offers women access to premium fashion at an affordable price, without sacrificing quality and fit,” Mary-Kate Olsen said in a press release. “Kohl’s is the right partner to take our brand into a new era, while staying true to the high-quality, fashion-forward designs that our loyal brand enthusiasts expect from us.”

Will it work?

The Olsens are a force in fashion – though whether their trademark eclectic and neo-bohemian look will be a big seller with a largely suburban consumer base remains to be seen. The other big question mark is the price on the new Elizabeth and James collection – and whether the brand can deliver the premium looks they are promising at a price point that is familiar to Kohl’s customers.

But when the going gets tough, the tough pivot, which the Olsen twins are evidently doing here. What their audience will look like remains to be seen.

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