Donald Robertson gazes past the pool of the Sunset Tower Hotel, tap-tap-tapping away on his iPhone. “It doesn’t matter if anyone’s late anymore,” he says, “this thing always has something to keep me busy.” Like his drawings, Robertson, 53, projects a somehow glamorous sense of being hurried, like someone running to a catch a subway dressed in Saint Laurent.
He shapeshifts. Officially, he is the senior vice president of global creative development for Estée Lauder. But in practice, he is an artist and illustrator, connector, and collaborator—his latest joint venture is with the Chelsea boutique Story, a “takeover” that opened in August and runs through Sept. 18. Stocked on the shelves is an assortment of Robertson’s art and accessories bearing his art (and, at some points, Robertson himself).
“It will be half art, half my friends from Smashbox,” an Estée Lauder subsidiary he works with, “and then all these exciting brand partners who’ll come in to make it a fuller experience,” he says. “It’s an orgy of collaboration. It’s just going to be a mess.” Among the many brands participating are Bamford Watch Department, S’Well water bottles, iZZi Gadgets, Warby Parker, Urban Ears, and Bow and Drape. (Full disclosure: Surface is part of the project, too.)
Robertson started on a more clear-cut path. He attended art school in Toronto, his hometown, but was deemed “too commercial” and got asked to leave after suggesting that he and his classmates sell their sketches instead of crumpling them up and throwing them away. He took off for Paris in search of illustrator gigs, and when that proved fruitless, returned to Toronto and linked up with the founders of MAC Cosmetics, who brought him on as their first creative director. He accepted a job at Condé Nast, he admits, largely to get a green card, and served as a creative director there as well as at Hearst. All the while, he sketched: figures, lips, faces, even stuff he’d assign at the office. “If you were going out to do a fashion story for me, you were handed an eight-page drawing, and I was like, ‘Please make it look like this,’” he says.
Three years ago, when his kids made him ditch his Blackberry for an iPhone, he joined Instagram as @drawbertson and started sharing his cheeky, pop art-y sketches. The world lapped them up. He has collaborated with J. Crew on a line of T-shirts and is releasing his own collection of emojis. Last spring, he invaded Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman, painting passersby “like an in-store Santa” and putting his signature scrawls on a whole host of merchandise, including an Alice + Olivia blouse and Claire V. clutch that Beyoncé’s stylist bought. Beyoncé did a photo shoot with the products for her Tumblr.
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“The next thing you know,” he says, “I have every single person on Instagram posting bumble bees to me. She’s basically at this point Jesus. It’s like Jesus holding up your stuff.”
To Robertson, being called commercial is a complement. He gravitates to what’s popular and relishes comparisons to Andy Warhol, “a freak drawer and commercial illustrator who made a conscious decision to do collaborations and to not be poor,” he says. “Poor bad, right?”
He also democratizes art. At Story, his signature red lips will be on a Rolex watch as well as a pair of flip-flops. He and Story founder Rachel Shechtman are putting together an experience rather than a gift shop: “There’s an ‘Express Yourself’ station where people can draw and color themselves,” Shechtman says. “There’s paper [Essent’ial’s] furniture from Italy that he’ll scribble all over.”
Two months ago, after 25 years in New York, Robertson and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he’s helping Estée Lauder make inroads with the beauty and fashion companies on the West Coast and in Asia. He has taken to the space. “I can do fucking gigantic stuff here,” he says, pulling up a photo of a dinosaur he recently painted on a wall. “It just shifts your focus a little bit.”
Brushes and markers aside, Instagram continues to be his medium of choice (he likens the app to “a giant cocktail party”). “I tried Snapchat,” he says. “Five days of this girl in Australia sending her pictures of her kitten, and I couldn’t really block it and I didn’t want to be rude and it went away too fast.”
“It’s just not suited to me,” he adds. “I’ll wait until the next thing.”