There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. Role Call highlights some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them. For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.
NEW YORK, United States — Robin Zendell is a founding partner at real estate brokerage firm Robin Zendell LLC. An art history graduate of Columbia University, Zendell first worked as a curator for galleries and foundations in Manhattan. After acting as the director of John McEnroe Gallery, she worked as special projects assistant at investment firm MacAndrews & Forbes and, in 1999, joined GVA Williams (now Colliers), where she helped managed East Coast real estate leasing for clients such as American Express Financial Services, Swarovski and Tommy Hilfiger. Zendell launched her own tenant representation firm in 2009 and has since worked with clients such as Bonpoint, Coach, Jimmy Choo and Richemont.
BoF: Please describe your current role.
I am the founder and president of a luxury boutique real estate firm, Robin Zendell LLC, based in New York City. I work with clients such as the CFDA, Kering, Lalique, LVMH, and Rebecca Minkoff in locating, negotiating and securing their physical retail and office locations in New York and throughout the US. At any given time, I may be working on four to eight different transactions, each in varying stages. As a result, no two days are alike. Flexibility and responsiveness are key elements of success in my role, as my clients' needs come first and reactivity is crucial to securing deals. This can mean travelling at a moment's notice anywhere in the world.
I am proud to be a woman entrepreneur running a boutique agency in an industry dominated by large real estate giants. There is no substitute for personal attention and dedication. I walk Madison Avenue and SoHo daily. It's the only way I can really keep my finger on the pulse of the market and provide my clients with the best firsthand knowledge possible (and window shopping never hurt anyone!) I study how the neighbourhoods are evolving, and since I grew up in Manhattan and live on the Upper East Side, I have reference points on the changing landscape.
BoF: What attracted you to the role?
Looking back, every step of my career led me to this position. My appreciation for aesthetics and design have been with me from a young age. I studied art history in college and started my career in the art world. That helped me to develop my eye and appreciation for luxury, which has proven essential to understanding and communicating with my luxury retail clients today.
In terms of getting started in real estate, I worked for ten years in New York and New Haven, Connecticut and then found my way toward commercial brokerage at GVA Williams (now Colliers), where I worked on the team that handled real estate for American Express. While working on this account, I did my first two deals, for Restoration Hardware and Tommy Hilfiger. Both deals taught me a great deal, as SoHo is land-marked and we had to go through many committees before the leases were signed. The Tommy deal was a corner parking lot in SoHo and the owner built us our building. I had a few great mentors, like Jennifer Raab, then Commissioner of the Landmarks Preservation Committee. She was so generous with her time to help me get through so many hurdles.
This experience at larger firms offered great exposure, but I've always felt that I do my best work independently. I saw lack of personal attention in the commercial real estate brokerage industry and that helped me carve out a space for myself in the luxury retail market. I specialise in a sub-market where understanding the details of each brand value is key. It becomes an advantage if you are a consumer of the brand, which, most of the time, I am. You need to manage expectations, know the market inside out and, sometimes, gamble on an area. Knowledge is power. So is location, location, location.
America, and New York especially, is a place where you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work after a setback.
BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?
There are a few, but one is the Ladurée space in SoHo. It is their first tea salon/restaurant in the US and they wanted a unique place with a French garden feel. It took over a year, but the result is truly like a piece of Paris. What I find intellectually interesting about the process is the negotiation, the legal aspects and truly having the same vision as the brand — just "getting it." Since no two deals are the same and no two stores are the same, "getting it" requires a combination of expertise and instinct.
BoF: How is your role changing?
My role is at a crossroads. As referrals come in at a faster pace and my business continues to grow, I'm constantly thinking about how to remain nimble and stay plugged into the latest developments in the retail world. I'm excited for this new phase of expansion, but there are always unknowns. Expanding into new markets while keeping a high standard of service and attention requires a particular mindset. You need to stay relevant.
BoF: What are the forces driving this change?
I would say the US is having a moment again, even with the dollar being strong. People love to shop here. Deals have to be made and more retail areas have to be discovered. Of course, e-commerce is growing at rapid pace, but a brick-and-mortar store still delivers the experience of the brand. The real challenge today is the rising costs of rents and retailers' budgets. It takes a lot of creativity, patience and time now, as the deals are larger and more intricate. I feel like if I don't negotiate a good deal, I am throwing away my clients' money, so I fight on every point I can.
BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.
I am in a cutthroat business and run a very tight, small operation. I have, at times, made errors or something did not go my way, but I always tried to grow from those experiences. It is not the failure that matters, it is how you learn from it, so as not to repeat the same mistake. That is progress. Failure is a word I don't really like. America, and New York especially, is a place where you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work after a setback. My most important advice would be to trust your original instincts. If you have a weird feeling about a deal, a person or a point, there is a reason why it doesn't feel right.
BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?
I would suggest to work for a big firm and find a mentor, or find someone like me and trail them as an assistant, to understand the mechanics of multiple deals, both on a larger and smaller scale. I follow the fashion and retail industry as well as real estate. By 7am, I have most of the papers and newsletters finished, and then I check Twitter. Most of all, be passionate. Listen, and remember that honesty and patience are your greatest allies.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.