NEW YORK, United States — It’s late afternoon on one of those sweltering, only-in-New York summer days and Donald Robertson is standing in an unfinished store space, scribbling giraffes on a stack of Warby Parker cases. His long-necked friend, named Mitford, is a character of Robertson’s own creation that has attracted a bit of a following via his Instagram account @drawbertson. Mitford is also the star of the illustrator’s satirical picture book, Mitford at the Fashion Zoo. “It’s not really for kids, it’s for you and your fashion friends,” says Robertson, pulling out a copy of the book from a packed cardboard box. “It’s about a fashion intern who works in the industry. You’ll love it.”
Robertson’s delivery, no matter the subject, is casual. The way he tells it, things sort of just happen to him, from being the first illustrator hired by MAC Cosmetics in 1987 to developing his own name brand on Instagram, where he has amassed more than 146,000 followers in just two years. His social media presence has led to several collaborations with designers — Giles Deacon, Lisa Perry and J. Crew’s Jenna Lyons, to name a few — as well as influential retailers, including Colette and Bergdorf Goodman. “I call it paesano marketing,” he says. “Only work with people who are your friends.”
At the moment, he’s working with his friend Rachel Shechtman at Story, her Manhattan-based store, which changes concept every three to eight weeks. From August 10 through September 20, Story will be all “Drawbertson,” all the time. The artist’s signature gaffer-tape models and brush stoke lips will grace everything from Urbanears headphones to Rolex watches, the latter of which land in store during New York Fashion Week. Along with the more than 20 merchandise collaborations — which also include Denik journals and hand-painted Canada Goose puffers — there’s a customisable-clothing station from Bow & Drape, where shoppers can decorate t-shirts and varsity jackets with Robertson-designed emoji patches. Another corner houses a make-your-own lip gloss station operated by Smashbox, one of Robertson’s clients. “I just thought, ‘What else could I do that would be fun, as opposed to being strategic, cold and aloof?’” Robertson says, arms covered in pen and paint marks, his right hand sloppily bandaged up because it’s overworked from drawing. “I used to be a focus group-led worrier. Now I’m a wacky warrior.”
As a student at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, he found the practice of fine art out of sync with his life goals. “I only went to school for ten minutes, because I really, really did not like starving,” he says, recalling a time when he tried to get his classmates to rally together and sell their life drawings. “I learned that fine artists are not commercial, nor do they want to be. They like being poor. So I said, ‘Scratch fine art.’”
In the mid-1980s, Robertson was hired by MAC cosmetics, which was founded in Toronto in 1984, to illustrate the brand’s face charts. He was tasked with depicting many different ethnicities, an out-of-the-box idea at the time. “All races, all sexes, all ages — that was our tag line,” he says. As creative director, he led visual merchandising for the company’s first New York store, which opened on Christopher Street in 1991. Then, in 1994, he helped develop the concept behind MAC’s Viva Glam line. “It was the first big brand collaboration that wasn’t an easy sell,” he says. “AIDS was super scary and at the time it was a big, scary move.” Since its inception, the company has donated 100 percent of the purchase price of every Viva Glam product to the MAC AIDS Fund, all with the support of celebrities including Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
MAC was still a relatively small, independent brand when Robertson moved to New York from Canada in 1991, so he took on work at magazines in order to secure a green card. (In 1998, MAC was sold to the Estée Lauder Companies for an undisclosed sum.) His first editorial gig was at now-defunct teen title YM. “Celebrities on the cover started to happen the day I got there. It was still considered very bad, but you did it anyway,” he says. “I arrived from Canada and suddenly I was on a beach in Los Angeles, putting [the cast of] Beverly Hills 90210 on the cover.”
He went on to launch American Marie Claire in 1993 with Bonnie Fuller, then followed her to Cosmopolitan, where she replaced legendary editor Helen Gurley Brown in 1996. He also redesigned Glamour while Fuller was editor in chief in the late ‘90s. Unlike Fuller, who left Condé Nast in 2001, Robertson stuck around for a while, launching men’s shopping magazine Cargo with Ariel Foxman in 2003. After bopping around as a consultant, Estée Lauder Companies president John Demsey made a case for Robertson to return to the mothership in 2007, where his first task was reintroducing Estée Lauder to the Asian market. He then spent time at Bobbi Brown and is now somewhat of a roving creative director among the Estée Lauder portfolio of brands. (Most recently, he’s been working quite a bit with the Los Angeles-based Smashbox, and even relocated his family to the West Coast.)
Robertson’s title, no matter what type of brand he’s working for, is creative director. But he tends to take a more hands-on approach than what might be expected. Whether working on a brand campaign or editorial, he’s there from ideation to completion. “I like to do all the parts. Concept it, illustrate, and market it,” he says. “That’s completely not typical. Usually it’s farmed out. I’m the Amish guy. I like making my own stuff.”
At the same time, Robertson speaks of each project or job as a collaboration: His goal is to help every brand, whether that’s a magazine or a makeup line, tell its story. For Bobbi Brown, that meant bringing on Katie Holmes as its first-ever celebrity spokesperson in 2012. “We just happened to sign a face who was escaping Scientology the next day via the cover of Vanity Fair,” he says. “Never in the history of signing somebody did we get more bang for our buck.” For Smashbox, that meant taking a lip-covered white Cadillac to Miami’s Art Basel in 2014, where celebrities including January Jones to Miley Cyrus were photographed posing with it. “You don’t have to put your name on everything,” he says. “People worked harder trying to figure out what the car was for than if I had put a giant Smashbox logo on it. You can do an artful project with a brand.”
It’s a skill that makes Robertson as much of a chameleon as he is a creative. “John Demsey calls it, ‘Sending in the Canadian,’” Robertson says. “We’re morphers and a little more diplomatic than most cultures. We don’t come into things with a big Parisian attitude or a big Italian attitude. I’m able to go in, meet with Bobbi Brown, hang out with her and learn what she’s about. It’s about finding out who they are and trying to magnify — megaphone — their message out.”
On Instagram, Robertson is magnifying his own brand. The father of five, who is married to interior designer Kim Gieske, says he was encouraged by his children to start posting in 2013. “My kids were like, ‘Dad, you’ve got to lose that Blackberry. It’s sad,” he jokes. But his family also believed that his original artwork, in all its bright, irreverent glory, was a perfect fit for the social media platform. He started posting on the regular, sometimes eight or nine times a day. In fact, he has posted more than 8,700 photos. To put this in context: Kim Kardashian has posted just under 3,000. “Two days after I launched, Giles Deacon called me,” he recalls. Major stars, including Beyonce and Pharrell, have Instagrammed his work on their own accounts.
While it may be Robertson’s illustrations and paintings that show up on the lining of a Giles coat or as the backdrop of a Lisa Perry presentation, it’s the candid snapshots of his family — in particular, his towheaded toddler twins — that offer the human element so crucial to a successful Instagram account. “People advised me to have three Instagrams: one that’s my kids, one that’s my art, and one that’s my work,” he says. “They said that if I didn’t, I would devalue my art and ruin my children. I said, ‘You’re wrong and I’m posting it all together.’ Now, I’m having art openings and people like Iman are coming up to me and asking me about my kids.”
And, for the first time in his career, Robertson is actually selling his original artwork. Prices for smaller works have risen from $1,200 to $4,000 over the past two years, while larger pieces have sold for up to $22,000. Along with Story — where he’ll be popping in throughout the run to promote his book and customise items for fans — he has partnerships with Bergdorf Goodman and Canadian department store Holt Renfrew lined up. As for whether it’ll be all @Drawbertson, all the time now? “There’s no one world, one thing for me,” he says. Over the span of his 30-year career, Robertson has found that there are many interesting stories to tell. And plenty of people who want to hear them, focus groups be damned.
“People are smart,” he says. “Don’t dumb stuff down because you want to reach a lot of people. Women know that you won’t get AIDS from a lipstick. They totally get it.”