The Olsens on Scents, Fashion and Branding

Fashion's most famous designing duo is turning to fragrances — plural.

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Originally, the concept was to do just one fragrance to start, but during the development process the Olsens decided against trying to cram too many notes into one bottle. “We wanted to keep things as pure as we could,” said Mary-Kate. During one tweaking session, Ashley suggested doing two fragrances, an idea that immediately took root. “They also layer very nicely,” Ashley pointed out. “It’s not necessarily meant to be either/or, but both [fragrances].”

Before heading into the fragrance labs at Firmenich, where they spent a lot of time, Ashley and Mary-Kate studied the existing fragrance market and determined how they could differentiate their offering. “We looked at how people are speaking to this consumer and how we could speak differently,” said Ashley. “It was very interesting to focus on what’s working and what’s not working and why.”

Added Mary-Kate: “We didn’t want to do another very average commercial fragrance where it could be anybody’s name on the bottle and a visual, which would be a model with a bottle. We wanted to offer more than that and we wanted to offer a choice. I don’t want the fragrances to wear [the customer]. Ashley and I are really into oils, and those were the notes we were really attracted to. It was fascinating to see how many different variations of ingredients there were, how many different types of sandalwood, for instance. That was one of the things I found most interesting, the quality issues of these ingredients, and also balancing all of the notes so that they would sit well together in the juice.”

“And we have expensive tastes,” cracked Ashley, who confessed that she brought her shampoo, conditioner, face lotion, oils and deodorant to the first mixing session. “People would always say I smell good, but it was really a combination of those things rather than a specific fragrance.”

Mary-Kate said she’s always loved sandalwood, musk and amber notes — “darker and more masculine,” she opined. Nirvana White is built around peony, muguet and musk, while Nirvana Black features violet, sandalwood and vanilla notes. “Also, these fragrances are really about what everyone wants, which is intimacy.”

“Not speaking the language, trying to figure out what someone else wants to express, it’s so fascinating, Even if we didn’t use the right words, Pierre [Negrin, who helped develop Black] and Honorine [Blanc, who assisted in the White development process] knew what we were trying to express,” said Mary-Kate. “We all have skin in this game. It’s a team effort. That’s a fresh way to do things.”

Elizabeth and James Nirvana eaux de parfum will each be available in three sizes — 50 ml. for $75, 30 ml. for $55 and a $22 rollerball.

The fragrances will launch at all 818 Sephora doors in North America, including 388 freestanding Sephora stores and 430 Sephora inside J.C. Penney doors — as well as, in late January.

“We wanted the bottles to feel sensual,” said Mary-Kate of the opaque-textured bottles which bear the color of their respective names. “There was a texture on an antique that we really loved — a completely different shape, but the way it felt when you would hold it in your hand. We wanted to play with all senses. Whether it was scent, touch, size, the weight — we wanted it to be curved so when you held it in your hand it didn’t feel strict and harsh.”

“There’s a nice roundness to it,” said Ashley. “We wanted it to be modern, but not too modern. Also, the contrast of black and white in-store will hopefully be very dramatic.”

Branding on the bottle is minimal, with the scent’s name engraved on a gold-toned plate running down the side of the bottle.

The name Nirvana was chosen, said Ashley, “because to us, this was really about a moment — and what’s that one word that’s going to define that one moment where you feel comfortable, sexy and at ease with yourself? For us, we always came back to our beds. That’s where I love to spend my time off. No noise, no people trying to bug you. So it was about capturing that. And about there being no judgment, and how our generation is growing up with that intention. People are much more accepting of things and of people’s choices. That was also part of this process.”

“Getting to the name Nirvana took a lot of time,” said Mary-Kate. “Then we were in a meeting, talking about launch dates, and Robin goes, ‘That date would be nirvana!’ We were just like, ‘What did you just say?’ What’s better than nirvana? That’s the dialogue we want to have with the consumer, giving them a choice, but figuring out where they’re coming from, what is their nirvana, what is their moment.”

“We wanted the feeling to be intimate, and we wanted a regular girl, not a model,” said Ashley of the ad visual, which breaks in the December issue of Allure. Shot by Ryan McGinley, the image features a naked model snoozing face-down in a cocoon of sheets with a black dog sleeping nearby. Originally the plan was to use Mary-Kate’s dog Jack, but “her dog looked totally big next to the model,” said Ashley with a laugh, teasing her sister about her passion for dogs. “She’s never had a better day on set than when she got to play dog trainer,” said Ashley. “She was so excited.”

An interactive marketing platform is being developed for the brand, said McGeever. “In the first part of their careers, they built a brand that was centered around them,” said McGeever. “When they created the second act of their career, it was really more about the celebration of quality and craftsmanship, with them almost invisible in the beginning. That’s what we’re working on [with the promotional plans.] This isn’t about sticking Mary-Kate and Ashley on a billboard. This is about the brand they’ve spent the better part of a decade building.”

How will the sisters define success for the fragrance? “I’d like to walk down the street and smell a note of it,” said Mary-Kate.

Ashley confessed to a frisson of fear about the beauty business. “I have to be honest, I do [fear it] a little,” she said. “I kind of felt it today and I know it’s because I’m relatively new in this category. But I felt it in a good way — it was like, ‘I have so much to learn.’ I know entertainment and apparel and brands; I’ve had schooling and training with that. With these [fragrances], this has been my training so far, and I’m so grateful to Robin and Michael for educating at the same time as developing.”

While all involved with the fragrance declined to discuss sales projections, industry sources estimated that Nirvana by Elizabeth and James would do about $7 million at retail during calendar year 2014.

This fragrance duo will likely lead to future scents by the sisters. “We’ve learned a lot through Sephora — why things work, why certain things don’t work and what’s new and exciting — and we think there are a lot of logical brand extensions,” said Ashley.

Both sisters attended Sephora’s national employee meeting in August. “It was great to see how they communicate and how much they believe in what they’re doing,” said Mary-Kate. “To me, that was the greatest thing to see. It’s why they’re so successful at what they do. It’s all coming from a positive place. They believe in the product and they trust their management.”

Will they go back to Hollywood? Doubtful. “We have a video catalogue of everything we did when we were younger, so we’re looking at distribution for that now,” said Ashley. “That’s not being in show business, but it’s been fun talking to these people we used to be in business with many, many years ago. But the industries are completely different.”

“We still feel welcome in the [entertainment] industry,” said Mary-Kate. “But it’s not the one we’re in.” Instead, the sisters say they’re still telling stories and entertaining — but through their products.

The fragrance will be sold in the U.S. and Canada for now, and will soon be presented to the other markets. Likely overseas possibilities include the U.K. and Japan, said McGeever. “We need to spend more time in Japan [to further suss out the market], and that’s planned for the first part of next year,” said Ashley.


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