The Olsen Twins' Ex-Stylist Tells All

Photo: Dualstar Produ/REX/Shutterstock.
The Olsen twins’ illustrious canon of cinematic hits — Passport To Paris, anyone? — likely holds serious sentimental value if you were a late-‘90s tween. Or, perhaps, you were a bit younger than the intended demographic, but had a cool older sister or babysitter to clue you into the glories of all things MK & A. While we might be a bit fuzzy on the flicks’ PG-rated screwball sister-act plot lines, we certainly remember fawning over the matching ensembles Mary-Kate and Ashley wore both on-screen and in their adorable red carpet appearances. Well, you have stylist Judy Swartz to thank for every twinning tube top moment or lust-worthy spaghetti-strapped midi you so wanted to wear to that eighth grade prom. (Little did we know, the latter may have been some extensively-altered Dolce & Gabbana, so don’t worry, you definitely weren’t missing it on racks of the juniors section of Macy’s.)
Swartz, who styled a number of musicians throughout the '70s and '80s, was also instrumental in launching the Olsens’ first fashion endeavor, long before Elizabeth & James or The Row came about. Remember their Walmart line? Swartz created it — alongside her "great team," she's quick to point out — when she served as stylist, creative director, and senior vice president of the Olsens' Dualstar Entertainment. Along the way, she also played a part in the girls’ oversized, magpie, boho aesthetic, accessorized with a venti Starbucks cup, that defined their NYU years. (But more on that later.) Most recently, she worked with Melissa McCarthy, styling the actress’ red carpet appearances; she also served as creative director for McCarthy's eponymous, inclusively-sized fashion line that launched in 2015. (They aren't working together currently.)
Luckily, Swartz was more than happy to reminisce with us about dressing the Olsen twins in many of the get-ups we lusted after back in the day. Click on for a hefty dose of style nostalgia.
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Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection.
How did you first cross paths with the Olsens?
“I was hired to style them when they were nine-years-old, for one of their straight-to-video movies. I got the job through a director I’d just worked for; I met them after Full House was over. I came in with two racks, and met the girls and their nanny/handler at the time, Jill Zimmerman [now EVP of Dualstar Entertainment] — and we all fell in love. They loved what I did, and [the director] said I was the first person who really got the girls and who they were. I was hired to style them for everything they were doing. I had such a hard time finding clothes for them, because there wasn’t anything out there that I really wanted to put them in. I had to go to high-end boutiques, buy women’s clothes, and cut them down to fit the girls. Accessories were a big part of my styling with them at that age, too; I was very big into sunglasses."

What prompted the twins’ line at Walmart?
“Kids would watch their TV shows and movies and would try to emulate what they were wearing. It took me about three years to talk [the Olsens’] management into doing a clothing line for them. Finally, we got with a licensing agent, The Beanstalk Group, they took us to Walmart, and we tested the product in 1999. When the line launched, I think it sold out within a week. It grew from one sportswear rack to three, and then I brought in other categories in 2001: sunglasses, purses, shoes, pajamas, and intimates. Then, we went global: Germany, the U.K., Australia…it just boomed overnight.”

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "This West Coast look, from Billboard Dad, was a great opportunity to show the care-free California lifestyle. The sunglasses worn throughout the movie came from a very high-end boutique; I had special color lenses made."
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
What was the design process like for the Olsens' Walmart line?
“The girls were young and in school, so they had a limited amount of time. I basically put everything together, then showed them the designs; they’d give their input and tweak things here and there. Then, I’d fly to the manufacturer and work with them to create the line. I emulated what the girls actually wore for the Walmart collection, so a lot of the design process was already decided based on what they were wearing. It was a great time — we got into a niche that didn’t exist at all, and really made the girls into a brand.

“We did four main apparel collections a year, and then we would do a couple collections in between. The collection was so massive that some years I traveled 200 days a year, designing and presenting, while I was still styling the girls for their movies, book covers, and special appearances. Anything that had to do with fashion, I was working on. For a brief time. they had an animated series, In Action, and I even worked on that. It was pretty crazy. Eventually, I had to let go of styling them when they were 16 or 17, because it was just out of control with the clothing line. I just didn’t have the time. But their taste level, aesthetic, and my imprint, had already been evolving in what they were doing during those [teen] years.”

Did you cull inspiration from any specific designers for the line?
“I got my inspiration from everywhere; one time I saw a splatter, and I put that into a T-shirt. I would emulate high-end designers: I’d look at a couple of Miu Miu pieces and a few from Dolce & Gabbana; one collection might have been Chanel-inspired. I also looked through vintage books, or I would design off of fabric: I’d find a fabric that I liked and think, ‘Oh, this would be cool.’”

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "It was a true style evolution: In this movie, I brought more dresses and feminine qualities to their aesthetic. I loved giving an eclectic and distinct look to each movie, shoot, or event."
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Photo: Dualstar Produ/REX/Shutterstock.
Where did you source the twins’ on-screen wardrobes?
"I’m a very eclectic stylist, so I didn’t go to one particular place to dress them; I’d go to a lot of different places to pull the looks together. A lot of the designers that I would reach out to really weren’t interested in giving clothes to the girls. I had the same problem with the girls as tweens as I do finding things for Melissa [McCarthy].

Everything was tailored, all the time. There was never an instance where I could just stick something on the girls and have it not need tailoring. I’m a perfectionist; things had to be cut down. We had at least three fittings for everything they wore. I always made sure the third fitting was the final fitting, and was just a tweak at that point, like taking in an eighth of an inch somewhere. I’ve always been very obsessed with fit. We had a tailor that we pretty much had on staff the whole time. She was really an integral part of the girls’ movies."

How did your styling differ from film to film?
“Their videos always had a theme fashion-wise: Holiday in the Sun was very summery with a beach vibe, so I used pieces from Pucci and Calypso, for example. Winning London was very English-driven, with a a lot of texture. For Passport to Paris, they were really young, and that’s when I started putting dresses on them and really making it look Parisian."

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "I designed these looks, inspired by the artist Piet Mondrian, for a '60s-themed party scene in Our Lips Are Sealed. This was a very fun movie to work on; Australia was amazing."
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Photo: Getty Images.
Did you have anything to do with the twins’ ultra-oversized, heavily-layered boho aesthetic from their NYU years?
“Well, the layers came from me. It’s how I dress. It comes from my days of dressing rock stars. I’m pretty petite myself, and I just have always worn big, oversized things to cover myself up. I still do. I might wear a tight pair of jeans, but I’ve got a big baggy sweater on, and 50 layering pieces. I’m not surprised that layering moved forward with [Mary-Kate and Ashley’s] aesthetics, because it was such a big part of their style growing up.”

Ah, so we kind of have you to thank for that early-aughts trend!
“I just think it’s something that happened naturally!"

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "In this photo, the girls needed to be in dresses. I went to my stomping grounds, Barneys, and bought adult dresses and tailored them to fit. I brought my own accessories, including jewelry and hair, to give it a complete look."
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Photo: STEWART COOK/REX/Shutterstock.
Did you have a suspect during the twins’ tween years that they would go on to start a fashion line as successful and critically-acclaimed as The Row?
“You know, honestly, the answer is no. I didn’t. I knew that they loved fashion and they wanted to be involved in fashion. But at that time, I didn’t realize that they were going to make Dualstar a complete fashion company. When they were around 15 years old, they said in an interview that they wanted to become fashion designers. I later reminded them that they’d said that, and they didn’t even remember!

“I’m not surprised that they are as successful as they are: I mean, they have great taste. They learned early on what a good design looks like and what people like to wear. They obviously took it a thousand steps forward into emulating into what their brands are today. And I can honestly tell you that my favorite brand in the whole world, if I could afford to buy it all the time, is The Row. When I get dressed up at night, it's the first thing I’ll pull out.”

So do you get a former-stylist discount of any sort at The Row?
“You know what, I get a little bit of one! Not anything that’s gonna make me go in and go crazy on it, but they give me a little bit of a break.”

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment, at the premiere of Goldmember: "At the last minute, I quickly had to dash through their closets and go out and do some shopping. I brought choices of tops and used existing skirts. They loved the print of this Dolce & Gabbana camisole, and both decided to wear it."
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
When did the twins’ distinct personal style M.O.’s emerge?
"It actually started in their first TV series, Two of a Kind; Mary-Kate's character needed to be 'funkier' and Ashley needed to be more 'classic'. I always had racks of clothes, and they definitely had their say if they liked something or not. From the very beginning, they weren’t like dolls; they always had opinions."

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "I wanted to bring a British feel with a rock 'n' roll twist."
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Who were your go-to designers for styling the Olsens circa their tween years?
"Oh, god. You know what we used to love? Earl Jeans. And then, when Earl Jeans made leather pants, I bought those and cut them down. We also used a lot of Theory. I bought lots of Prada, Miu Miu, and some Gucci, too.

Were designers receptive to dressing the twins?
"I would try; I’d call up a [fashion] company and try to get accessories; I'd go, 'Mary-Kate and Ashley are doing…' But, hey, they were young. It’s ironic to me that those are the [industry names] they’re hanging out with now. People were coming around and lending them clothes when I stopped working with them, when they were 16 or 17 years old. But when they were tweens, no [designers] were interested [in lending]; I don’t blame them. But I went and bought [those designers' clothes] anyway."

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "I went vintage shopping to find key pieces. I also bought a few new pieces and aged them to look vintage. Vintage clothing has always inspired my designs and looks."
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Photo: Jim Smeal/WireImage.
You’ve done it with the Olsens as well as Melissa McCarthy — are there any unexpected behind-the-scenes aspects of designing a celebrity fashion brand?
“I think people might be surprised by how involved a celebrity actually can be in designing and building their own fashion brand. Now, the caveat is not all of them are that involved. Some of them take it very seriously, and some of them just don’t; they’d rather have their name licensed out, and not really be involved. The designs might come across their desk, and they just approve it.”

Is it better to have a celebrity's involvement, or does that make your job harder?
“Sometimes, it’s made my job harder, because I have to become almost a psychic with a turban on to figure out what that person would like. With the [Olsens], it was easier for me because of the fact that I was styling them and helping define their look, and in doing that, I was extremely involved in the whole process of what that brand would look like and what the girls should look like. Basically, I was doing what I liked, and they happened to like it as well, so that was easy. And the girls trusted me; they were involved, but they gave me a long leash to help grow and design the brand."

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment, at the premiere of Anna & The King: "I have always been a huge fan of cashmere, so I incorporated cashmere sweaters and Pashmina skirts that I had tailored to fit. To complete the look, I added Manolo Blahnik shoes."
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Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection.
You also worked on the Hannah Montana line at Walmart after making the Olsens' such a success. Limited Too bit the dust, sadly, but now there are tween retailers like Justice catering to the demographic. What do you think of that market these days?
"I personally feel that what I’ve done has not been duplicated yet. I think that some of the high-end designers making kids and tween clothes are doing a really good job. As far as Justice goes, there’s always room for improvement, even though it’s a popular store. The concept that I had done originally, I don’t see a lot of them out there. I see a few pieces that are here and there. But I feel that it’s still a market that could be tapped into in a big way."

Do you think that needs to involve celebrity-headlined tween lines?
"Look, having Mary-Kate and Ashley’s name got us into Walmart, but it was the product that kept us on the floor. Walmart made that clear to me early on. If I came in with bad product, it won’t have lasted. Having a celebrity name always enhances getting a deal with a retailer, but it’s important to have something [design-wise] behind the name. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a celebrity’s name; as long as it's feel-good and parent- and kid-friendly...I have ideas, but I’m not going to tell you, because then everyone else is going to jump on that bandwagon!"

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "This was also from Winning London. I have always been big into layering; it's one of my signature looks. I believe in using accessories to enhance character."
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Photo: Getty Images.
Do you still keep in touch with Mary-Kate and Ashley these days?
“Yeah, I do! A few years ago, my husband and I came to New York, and we had dinner with them. From time to time, I’ll reach out and we’ll have a meal. Once in a blue moon, they’ll maybe call me on my birthday. I’m not in their day-to-day world at all, but we have a great deep love for each other.”

The scoop behind this Olsen twins fashion moment: "Because this was an event for Game Boy, I was following the direction of management, and they always wanted the girls to dress the same yet different. So, this look was a fun play on denim technique that was really relevant for the time...and still is, even now."