My Conversation with Donald Robertson: The World's Top Fashion Ilustrator

Isoul H. Harris

In-demand pop artist, top fashion illustrator and Estée Lauder Creative Director Donald Robertson tells his story-- from immigrating from Canada and disrupting whiteness in the beauty industry in the 1990s to witnessing the glory of the supermodel era and receiving the ultimate co-sign from Beyoncé 

By Isoul Hussein Harris

Donald, how did you create your unbelievably popular world, full of art, style, blue-chip brand collaborations, and 200K Instagram followers?  

This is super lucky. It's excellent timing, super lucky. It was a perfect storm of drawing and painting daily and posting the pieces every day on Instagram, which, luckily, I was able to get on in the early stages. [Robertson has five children with his wife, Kim Gieske.] I developed a good rhythm, gained an audience, maintained a constant workflow, and it turned into a thing. It's been fantastic. It's been a great ride.

In addition to an in-demand art career, you are also a corporate executive, yes? 

Yep! I'm a Creative Director at Estee Lauder. I call it creative disruption. I work with GlamGlow, Smashbox, and Rodin. That's my 9 to 5, I'm half corporate and half creative. 

That's really cool. Everything in your professional career informs everything else. 

Everything informs everything else, yeah, exactly.

What is your secret to time management?  

 I turn off the TV! If you watch Big Brother, you're going to wake up and find yourself obese, 40, and poor. 

What was your big break? 

When I first came to America, I started working in magazines to get my Green Card. One of my first jobs was to bring Marie Claire from France to The States. So. Much. Fun. It was fun because editorial budgets existed back then! Yes! It was [1994] and the heyday of print magazines. Money was flying out of windows. We flew an entire crew to Paris and shot Claudia Schiffer under the Eiffel Tower. Imagine.  

 What is your best memory of that era? 

I tried to explain to my kids how I flew to Milan for this Versace fashion show in the mid-90s with all of the legendary supermodels: Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford all in one show. It was at night. It was in Italy. And there was this thing happening, with these supermodels. Gianni Versace pulled them all together and put them all into a show. This was before social media, before everything. I just remember sitting there thinking, "Whoa, what's going on here? This is unbelievable." And then it was over, and everybody went to dinner. It wasn't like it was live-streamed.

It was only for the people in the room. Imagine. 

Yes, exactly. It was just for everybody in the room. I imagine it was similar to the opera singer Maria Callas. Legend has it that she never allowed recordings of her live performances. So, anybody that heard her live, that was it. You just heard her live, and then it's over. That just seems so foreign. 

Everything that the kids are now referencing, including the legendary supermodels, you were there during that time.

Not only were we there, but it was just for us. Sitting there with no phones on the chair, staring at it. The girls walked up and down the runway doing all that stuff, just for us to stare at them. We sat there, watched the show, and was inspired. Nobody had a phone or camera. We would go back, and it would end, and there would be runway film, but there weren't even really runway film magazines then, you know what I mean? Those magazines kind of happened after. We came back home, explained to people what we saw, and then the film would come in a month later from the photographers. It's just so hard to believe. 

That sounds like another world. 

Oh my god, a completely different world! And then, after the show, we would say, "Let's all go out for dinner. What's groovy? Where should we go?" And instead of Googling it, you had to--and this is going to really sound foreign-- talk to one another! You would have to turn to the person beside you and say, 'What restaurant is good? Where should we go?;. And then they would say, 'Oh, this is really good. Here, let me give you the directions. Well, why don't you just come with us?" I know, it sounds foreign and crazy, but that's what it used to be like in the olden times in high fashion in the 1990s. It was the golden era of print—the pre-digital age. 

Do you remember that magazine called Model?

Yes! Yes!

I used to buy that magazine every month. Every issue was wholly dedicated to one model. One edition in total homage to Naomi Campbell. Another featuring only Kate Moss. 

Oh my god, it was ridiculous. So crazy.   

When did you first notice that a shift was occurring in the industry? 

I went downstairs at the Conde Nast building in Times Square to buy Italian Vogue, and I watched them replace the international magazine rack with extra chips! I was like, 'I've got to get out of here!' The enormous salaries, big budgets, and all the fun stuff were over.

So, after smelling the Wavy Lays, what did you do? 

 I knew Estee Lauder President John Dempsey. I had worked with him when I was the Creative Director at MAC, where I started the Viva Glam Campaign, which happened during the beginning of the AIDS crisis. When I first started in magazines, I told him, "I'm going to go do this magazine stint, and then if you don't wreck MAC, I'm going to come work with you". And he didn't wreck it. In fact, he made it huge. Like, the biggest in the whole world. So, when the Italian Vogue was swapped out for potato chips, I called him and said, "Okay, now I'm going to come work for you". I said, "I want to come work at Estee Lauder.' And it's been great.

You are a pioneer! Wasn't RuPaul the first spokesperson for Mac Viva Glam?  

 It was RuPaul! No one remembers that! It was an era of white. Every cosmetic contract was with some white blonde girl. But, we signed RuPaul, who was essentially everything: a woman, a man, a black man, a white woman, a blonde woman. Ru was everything combined all in one person. 

Ru Paul's Drag Race is now global. Was there any pushback for signing Rupaul back then? Society was much more conservative back then. 

Back then, he was this alternative club kid from Atlanta performing in Manhattan. He appeared in the Brady Bunch movie, but he was not mainstream by any means. But the fantastic thing about the founders of MAC was, they didn't do a focus group. They just went with their gut, and it was kind of like an overnight, universal high five. I don't think there was one negative thing anybody said about it. Everybody was like, "Yeah, that makes sense".

What designers do you appreciate? 

I love Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia at Oscar de la Renta. They dress the society ladies in ODL and Nicki Minaj in their own, funkier line Monse. That sums the whole thing up. 

Who is your favorite fashion influencer? 

Margaret Zhang is a lawyer/writer/photographer/model/filmmaker, and she collaborates with established artists like Kanye West. She is one of the "slash" girls. They are doing everything. 

What musical artist do you like? 

I love Cardi B; I love the fact that she's talking about being a stripper. I love how honest she is. I like anybody who's just super honest and telling it like it is. She's original, and she's unapologetic. I don't know if she's a fad or not, but I'm enjoying her while she's here. I think she's hilarious. 

So you weren't a formally trained artist?

Oh my god, no. First of all, there's no such thing. I am what you call: a not-starving-artist. I'm not starving—a not starving artist.

What advice do you have for artists to become ‘not starving’? 

Live like a finance guy but do art for a living! That's key. And guess what doesn't teach you that? Art school. Art school teaches you how to not be able to afford to be an artist. Art school is the worst.

You have worked with numerous brands. What is the key to a great collaboration? 

 You must actually collaborate. There have been instances when I ask: "What are we going to do?", And they tell me exactly what to do. That's not collaborating. That's called bossing. 

What has been your favorite fashion collaboration? 

Alice + olivia. [The designer and CEO], Stacey Bendet, just says, "Send me some art." I do, she turns it into fantastic pieces, and then Beyoncé wears it!

What was your first thought when you saw Beyonce's Instagram post sporting both a shirt and bag you co-designed? 

I thought: "Oh, that's nice, somebody photoshopped this for me." Because, if you look closely, Beyonce's holding up the bag, with her hand not covering up my name, which I'm most grateful for. 

It was intentional. Beyoncé is fully aware of the influence of her social media content. 

Totally. She's Beyoncé and can do whatever she wants.

What are your thoughts on Anna Wintour? 

She's the last man standing. It's unbelievable, and I cannot believe it. From my generation, every single person is gone. She is like the ultimate survivor.

How do you keep from becoming jaded with the industry? 

There's nothing sadder than a cynical old person in the fashion industry. If you're going to hang around, you must stay positive. Otherwise, just go away! 

What has been your absolute favorite project? 

My favorite, favorite, favorite thing has been my book with Assouline. I was so desperate to have a coffee table book that I just started taking Assouline books, painting the covers, and putting my name on them. I figured nobody would open them!

And you were selling them? 

Yes. I painted over the top, and I was selling the books for $2800 bucks. The Assouline folks called me, and he said, "What are you doing?" And I was like, 'Uh-oh. Here we go. Lawsuit." I told them, 'I'm painting over book covers and putting my name on it because I want a book really badly.' And he was like, "Well then, let's just do a book". And I was like, "No way! You're lying!" 

Well, that's the epitome of 'faking it until you make it.' 

Yes! That's the way to get a book with Assouline with your name on it. The worst name in the world to have on the cover of an art book, by the way. I want you to go and ask your mom: "Hey Mom, do you think I should launch an art book called 'Donald' right now in this political climate?' See what she says. Because when I called my mom to tell her my book was out, she said: "That's a terrible title." I was like, 'F*@k off!' 

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I explore culture through curiosity and compassion.

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