An obsession with detail and narrative-centric design guides the fastidious founder of Saint Rita Parlor, perhaps the only eyewear and fragrance brand in the world inspired by a whiskey-drinking Catholic grandmother.
Neil Bardon is a designer’s designer. From the confines of his home, which doubles as his studio and showroom wherever it may be—originally in a downtown L.A. bungalow, then Seattle, now St. Louis— Bardon has spawned and maintained the cult eyewear, fragrance, and accessories brand Saint Rita Parlor with an heirloom quality that is increasingly rare in the age of fast fashion. It’s a remarkable feat when taking into consideration that he does everything himself. He has no employees. “I don’t ever want to get to the point where there’s this sellout component. There will always be just one store. If you come to the parlor, I will be there,” he says.
While its origin story and sensibility are unmistakably rooted in a laid-back Southern California cool, the brand’s essence comes from Bardon’s late grandmother, Rita, the muse for his singular collections that trace various eras of her life and nod to the experiences they shared together. The level of detail, customization, and storytelling behind everything Saint Rita does, from the first collection’s receipts that were baked and hand-stained in coffee to the potpourri in jewelry pieces derived from roses grown in Bardon’s backyard, is painstakingly considered and a reflection of his obsessive focus on the finer points. “The way I live my life, everything is designed,” he says. “Everything is intentional right down to the way I dress, you know, I don’t wear certain colors. It’s in my DNA.” Whether it be the whiskey and tobacco notes in a fragrance or custom handkerchiefs, all roads lead back to Rita. “Everything has a touch of her in it,” he says.
We caught up with Bardon to learn about the life-changing event that inspired him to launch Saint Rita, his plans to expand into jewelry, and how he translates his brand’s word-of-mouth ethos to a digital storefront using Squarespace. The designer also reveals photographs of his Seattle parlor exclusively for the first time.
The concept behind Saint Rita is so creative and original. How did you come up with the idea to create a brand inspired by your grandmother?
I had a near-death experience in 2008, when I was a touring musician. I was living in Chicago and returned from playing a BMI show in Nashville that weekend. I passed out on the steps of my parents’ house and was basically dead before [doctors] miraculously revived me. The day I was released from the hospital, I got my grandmother’s hand tattooed on my arm where she used to grab me and say “hey, don’t do this, let’s go for a walk, let’s have a glass of whiskey, knock this shit off.” That day, I told her that whenever I start my business I’d name it after her. She never saw it come to fruition—she died in 2010, at age 87.
My grandmother was Catholic. Rita is the Patron Saint of the impossible and she loved roses, just like my grandma. Conceptually, so much is there. The parlor aspect comes from her inviting my band member friends into her home. These metal guys who had skinny jeans, tattoos, and rat tails used to hang out at my grandma’s and she would be like, “Do you guys want chili?” The warm, inviting concept of Saint Rita is me but it lives vicariously through my grandmother. Plus, it’s a cool name. If her name was like, Cheryl, it wouldn’t work.
You have an unconventional setup where your home, studio, and showroom are one and the same. What’s the intention behind that?
Wherever I’m at is where I’m making everything. Today, I’m drying incense, batching perfumes I made a couple of weeks ago, and getting candles in motion for the upcoming week. I moved across the country [to St. Louis] during the [pandemic] craziness, so I’m setting up shop and fulfilling a plethora of orders. It’s my third parlor, including the original in L.A. and the one in Seattle. Most people don’t know I moved up to Seattle for a couple of years and did everything from there. It’s great—never a dull moment.
What have you learned about growing a business digitally since launching Saint Rita and how has COVID-19 impacted everything?
The brand has become globally known by word of mouth. I never advertise. I like to be found. Somebody who wants to search high and low for something cool will find it. I run my business based on how I like to buy things. I’m a direct representation of the brand like that. I get on a plane and meet the owners of every retailer that carries Saint Rita, from Japan to Mexico city. Then we stay connected digitally.
Last year, my sales were about 40% online and 60% from boutique partners. Since the pandemic, my online orders have gone through the roof. People are home, they want to smell good and have good looking eyewear. But retailers make the world go round. People love to travel. New designers are coming and going all the time. Once COVID is over, I think mom-and-pop boutiques will absolutely come back. We need human connection.
Why did you use Squarespace to create your website?
The importance of an online presence is imperative, obviously, and Squarespace makes it seamless and virtually effortless. I created the current site in 2014 and update the design and concept every time I release a new collection. Squarespace allows me to implement my intricate designs—visual representations of Saint Rita that conveys my narrative to every corner of the world—very easily. The brand is only me. All under one umbrella. I like that Squarespace is plug and play. Everything is there for me. Commerce. SEO. It’s clean and simple, almost like how Apple is the computer of choice. I always say ‘it’s so easy to use that it appears difficult.’ It’s also the best overall platform for analytics and order fulfillment. It makes running my business from an online standpoint feel natural.
How would you describe Saint Rita’s ethos?
It’s an intimate bond that you have with someone. I shine a light on that versus, you know, “buy this because it’s cool.” It’s a limited product. Everything is connected, from the color of the glasses to my grandmother’s signet ring, which has potpourri from roses I grow and harvest myself. My grandmother was an avid rose grower, which makes it even more special. Or the scent inspired by the smell of her ‘86 Cadillac. When I started this, I wanted people to understand who my grandmother was.
Conceptually delving into the whole process is my favorite part. Other brands have different stories, but that’s what makes the world go ‘round. What I do is different, but that’s what makes my brand stand out.
Your brand is rooted in heritage but your designs are modern takes on retro styles.
I decided Saint Rita would mirror my grandmother’s life, but it’s a modern take on it. As the brand grows, the story will expand, and we’ll eventually come to the present day. The first collection is very simple. She was born in 1923, so it starts when she became an adult in the 1940s—think oversized aviators, brown leather, and red, blue, and green colors.
The Fluorescent Collection is named after my hometown in Missouri, just north of St. Louis, and draws inspiration from the next era of my grandmother’s life, the ‘50s, so it’s based in mid-century modern. The glasses are thicker. The next collection channels the ‘60s: Swiss modern, Sans Serif fonts, and cat-eye frames. I change all the visual language, such as the website, models, and locations—it becomes a big art installation.
How do you conceptualize a new collection? What’s your creative process?
Most of the work is in my head. I spend years thinking about materials, names, and inspiration. I’ll sketch it out and go from 2D to 3D. I’ve done the process several times now, so it’s become more fluid and natural. Now I spend most of my time conceptualizing.
When it comes time to actually sit down and design, I take the concept and really harness every little nuance, from the typography and style of imagery to what type of film I’m going to use for the photoshoot and where the location is going to be. For my next collection, the models are two guys from one of my favorite groups growing up, they’re in a grindcore band called Daughters and we have a very similar aesthetic. So I have Lex the singer and Nick Sadler, the guitar player, both modeling even though they’re not models. I’m kind of breaking away from the traditional route and taking my own approach.
What spurred you to get into the perfume game?
I want to focus on the senses. All of the perfumes and apothecary stuff is handmade by me. Even the labels. I have a large format printer and do all the graphic design. Of course, it’s conceptually tied to Rita. She loved tending to her rose garden, drinking a whiskey, and smoking a cigarette. Those are some of the old memories I have. She also wore these really gaudy, you know, grandmother rose perfumes. So this was kind of like my take on that.
You’re about to launch a jewelry collection. What can Saint Rita fans expect?
My grandmother collected jewelry—mainly pearls, rubies, and loose diamonds. She always had tons of jewelry but was very simple in what types she wore, so I wanted to recreate that. I have some signet rings, but I’ll get more intricate in laser engraving. It’s very much true to what she would wear.
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