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Mark Townsend Talks His Muses: Ashley, Mary Kate, and Elizabeth Olsen, as The Row Wins Designer of the Year

As the hair guru for Ashley, Mary-Kate, and Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Townsend has perfected cool, chic, and effortless hair. In an industry where overdone hair is everywhere, Mark’s magic fingers remind us that less is definitely more. Starting his career as Sally Hershberger’s assistant, it wasn’t until she was unavailable for a job, that he caught his big break. Below, he reminisces on meeting his muses 13 years ago to walking us through this year’s CFDA Awards glam where they were honored as Designer of the Year…

Mark Townsend Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen

Being a freelance hairstylist is, in a nutshell, completely NUTS! You never know where you might be the next few days and you especially don’t know how one single day might change the rest of your life. For me that day was in July 2003; it was the day I met Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. I was booked on a photo shoot with photographer Patrick Demarchelier for a portrait of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for the inaugural issue of Teen Vogue.  

I was beyond nervous because while I had been on many photo shoots with Patrick Demarchelier as Sally Hershberger’s assistant, this was my first time working with him on my own. The shoot went great and I remember them being a little shy, but very easy to talk to and very professional. My agent Lisa Walker came to the studio to visit (yes, agents used to do that back in the day to schmooze publicists, agents, managers, and photographers) and while I was on set working a wind machine I saw her step out of the studio with their personal manager and my stomach did a backflip. I starting thinking “did I do something to offend them?” “Do they not like the way I styled their hair?” But when they came back in the studio Lisa had a huge smile on her face and gave me a thumbs up (yes, people actually did that back in the day too.) While the girls were changing for the next set up, I grabbed Lisa to get the scoop and she told me that the girls really liked me and wanted me to work on a film with them. A week later I was living in Toronto and working on their movie New York Minute.

mary-kate, ashley, and elizabeth olsen CFDA awards 2016 mark townsend 

Fifteen years later, I am writing this while prepping my kit for the 2016 CFDA Awards where MK&A are bringing their sister Elizabeth as their guest. You would think that after 15 years I would be able to break my kit down to just a few things when working with them but I never know what idea might come to them, like when we wrapped a piece of black velvet inside of Mary-Kate’s bun for the 2014 CFDA awards or when Ashley suggested letting the gold Bobby pins show in her half-up top-knot hairdo for the Met Gala in 2015. Everything I know about hair texture I’ve learned from them and they both like to change it up pretty often so I bring every tool and product I have, but diffusers, double barrel irons, and dry shampoos are definitely the most used these days.  Mark Townsen Mary Kate Olsen Met Gala Hair

Because we have worked together for 15 years, now we basically have a shorthand when we talk hair. It’s so incredible to work with them, because they have such an amazing appreciation for every detail and they know what hairstyle will compliment what they are wearing best.

Mark Townsed Ashley Olsen

For this years CFDA Awards, I really wanted to play with variations on texture. It’s not often that I do three women on a carpet in one day anymore, let alone three gorgeous sisters who would be posing next to each other. Thankfully, all three girls were down to play when it came to their hair last night.


I’ll never forget the first time I got my hands on the Lizzie’s hair; I was at the house getting Ashley and Mary-Kate ready for an event and they asked if I could stay and do their sisters hair for her junior formal and I jumped at the opportunity. 

Mark Townsend Elizabeth Olsen

I’m always scouring the Internet looking at hair references and my phone and iPad are filled with inspiration pictures. The picture that REALLY got me excited and set the whole vibe of the night was one of Kate Moss from an Isaac Mizrahi fashion show from 1994. I’m pretty sure the GENIUS Garren was behind the hairstyle for the show and I loved her glossy and healthy half-up hairstyle. When I showed it to Elizabeth Olsen, she was really into it. We decided to go for a retro yet modern take on the half pony.

Elizabeth knew that she didn’t want a lot of wave  in her hair, so we went with a sleek blown out look. I started by spraying her damp locks with Dove Quench Absolute Leave in Detangler Spray and blew her out with my Harry Josh blow dryer and my trusty Spornette mixed bristle round brush. Once the hair was dry, we talked about pony tail placement. She knew she wanted it high and with a lot of lift so we really went for it, placing it atop her crown and securing it with 3 Blax elastics. Once the pony tail was set and we saw how dramatic it was, we decided to add some length to her hair so  I clipped in a blend of Garland Drake (garlanddrake.com is where I’ve been getting all of my hair extensions for almost 20 years!) extensions and used my thinning shears to blend them with her naturally thick hair. Once we got the length and blend right, I went in with my R Session Pro Tools Tidal Waver and gave the slightest bend to her ends. I topped the look off with a spray of Elizabeth and James Nirvana White Dry Shampoo for shine and scent. 

Elizabeth Olsen Hair by Mark Townsend CFDA Awards 2016

Once Elizabeth’s look was set, I turned to the other girls and decided that we should continue our nod to the early 90’s with their hair.


Ashley has the most beautiful natural texture in the world and I really didn’t want to mess with it too much. Sometimes being a hairstylist is knowing when NOT to do something, so we decided to let her hair dry as naturally as possible. I applied a few drops of Dove Regenerative Nourishment Serum to her damp hair and let nature run it’s course while she had her makeup done. We finished off her look with a few drops of Sally Hershberger 24K Dry Oil on her ends and sprayed Dove Detox and Purify Dry Shampoo on her roots in large sections to get a gritty voluminous texture. We weren’t afraid of a little fuzz with with this look.


For Mary Kate, we wanted her hair to look like she came directly from the beach. I started by liberally spraying her hair with Ouai Wave Spray and used the diffuser attachment on my blow dryer for that perfect beachy bendy texture. I then went in and used my trusty R Session Pro Tools Tidal Waver, alternating between the different size barrels. We wanted it to look natural and imperfectly perfect. To top it off I gently teased her crown and set her on a side part, spraying her roots with Dove Dry Shampoo for Volume for extra volume and hold. I find that dry shampoo is even better than hairspray for volume because the starches and powders on dry shampoo build on top of each other, literally lifting the hair from the scalp. 

Mary Kate Olsen Hair by Mark Townsed

Make sure to read Mark Townsend’s inspiring interview for more.


2 minutes

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