In the Limelight with Clarissa Burt – Interview with Ron Robinson

Here In the Limelight today we have one of the Men We Love. We have a lot in common because as you all know, I lived in Italy for 30 years and Ron is back from Sardinia where he had some awesome exchanges and a little vacation. He’s been a brand in his own right for the last 40 years working as a salesperson at Fred Segal. Mostly in California, am I wrong when I say that?


Ron Robinson: I used to work for Fred between ’68 & ’78 and I ended up as vice president of the company. Currently, he owns none of the stores, he sold the name to another company and they’ve since licensed some things out. 


Clarissa: You’re still in the stores?


Ron Robinson: My brand is Ron Robinson. We’re 41 years into it and it’s amazing because you wake up one morning and it’s 40 years already thinking how does that happen? I was just hoping my dream would come true 40 years ago. I would pull on my pants, go to work and I’ve done it now. Thank goodness the dream did come true.


Clarissa: It did in a big way. You have your own stores, do you not?


Ron Robinson: I have two stores: one on the original location of where the single store was, Melrose Avenue, I opened that 40 years ago. I’ve been in Santa Monica for 25 years; I have a store on Fifth Street between Arizona and Santa Monica Boulevard. I call it a flagship that one but they’re both around 6,000 square feet and we do everything from fashion apparel for men and women, even children. We have beautiful accessories and jewelry. We have home accessories and design items. We do cosmetics and beauty which is part of the conversation we’re going to have because about 20 years ago, I created my cosmetic and beauty shop that’s blossomed into something wonderful over the past 35 years.


Clarissa: With all of the other things you had going on, what was the thought going towards fragrance?


Ron Robinson: I’m driven by design and creativity. That’s the first reason I got into cosmetics and beauty. I had to learn it, I didn’t know anything about the ingredients inside the bottle. I knew how beautiful that bottle was. It was stimulating to me. Certainly, in fragrance, I remember the way my grandfather smelled and what cologne he used. My grandfather was Old Spice after he was Bay Rum.


Anyway, I found the more I learned about fragrance, the product that was inside of the cosmetics and skincare. I enjoyed it wasn’t just the surface part, it was the internal part and it all makes sense to me.


Clarissa: As an entrepreneur, when you decide you’re going to start to work in fragrance. What’s the first step? 


Ron Robinson: I bought fragrance from some of the best makers in the world but I learned how to make fragrance two ways. One, I had hired a woman years ago named Sara Horowitz a young perfumer and worked for me. She had a tool chest with all these fragrance oils. I hired to work in my store but she said, “I want to work with people and make custom fragrances for them.” I’m fortunate because I built my business over the years so I have dear people that manage different parts of the store. I’ve done it intentionally so it gives me the freedom to find what else is stimulating to me so I can do the next thing. For better or worse, I keep moving. I learned how it’s a technical world about how can you can smell the fragrance and think it’s easy but there’s one drop of this, half a drop of that and two drops of the other.


Clarissa: There are three different layers to a perfume, right?


Ron Robinson: A top, middle, and base note. It’s like learning how to smell and taste wine. Once you learn it, it’s much better and enjoyable than just gulping it down. I made our first perfume called “If”. Communicating in 1999 with 100 women on the Internet, I made my first fragrance in a way nobody had made it before. I’m going to just capsulize it, there wasn’t a good business model. People didn’t know how to sell on the Internet but I knew that I had customers. I couldn’t believe it and I thought to myself how, as a business person, am I going to keep this customer coming back because right now I have a hot fragrance but what about tomorrow when they want a new one.


I engaged with 100 of these customers. I didn’t know their names, didn’t know if they were male or female, didn’t know anything about them but I wrote them an email. I also went to my store and asked Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner, Macy Gray, singers and actresses you may know, if they’d be a part of a group I would create a signature fragrance with, they could be anywhere in the world. I wrote an email and I said, “How would you like to be part of a group that helps me create our signature fragrance,” 100 yeses immediately. We went on for eight and a half months. I had the young girl who I told you about who came from Boston on our office team. We sent vials of A, B, and C out unmarked, unknown. ‘Please try these and tell us about them’ or we asked questions. We talked about their answers internally. Here is where art and science come together; we’re interpreting other’s words to make a fragrance, a three-dimensional product, out of some words that come through.


Bottom line, at the end of eight and a half months, I had an 80% agreement between 100 women on one fragrance called “If” because there were possibilities. I’ve made many fragrances since and we talked about Italy. I found fragrances for the Masoni family & home in Italy. I worked with Rosita Masoni. In 2014, she was about 80 and her mind is so sharp. She is on it. She knows every fragrance, names, Latin names, generic names and she had me asking “What is that?”


Clarissa: The teachable moment there is: you decided to do a focus group and a survey with 100 women and they told you what they wanted. You knew right away you were on the right track and that’s what you decided to go with.


Ron Robinson: We started the program by creating a group of fragrances then selecting between that group three starting points, A, B and C. Sending those out to a focus group over the Internet sending samples back and forth. We designed and we continued to go.


Clarissa: Good moment for you to show us. 


Ron Robinson:  I just redesigned the bottle into white.


Clarissa: So simple, so beautiful.


Ron Robinson: That’s my ethos. I like simplicity. I like understatement but I like beauty.


Clarissa: I wore Vetiver for many years. I love light, fresh, crisp, citrus scents. Got me all day long there.


Ron Robinson: All those notes I’ve learned how to understand them and how to live with them. I found this as a new art form for me. A new way to be creative. It was coming from a thought in my head to a four-dimensional product so, in addition to holding it in your hand, you can smell it. 


Clarissa: As of recent you’ve moved into fragrance, correct?


Ron Robinson: Actually, 2020 will be 20 years in fragrance. “If” was my first fragrance launched in 2000.


Clarissa:  Wasn’t there a more recent fragrance?


Ron Robinson: We did one for our 40th anniversary last year called “Icon” and the one just before that we called “Pearl” because that was the gem for our 30th anniversary. Let me use an example of Pearl. I imagine that gem as a very simple, smooth and beautifully non-textured gem. I also imagine it in my mind, Asian, Pearl seems to start there. All of those thoughts, I wanted to translate them into a perfume. Something elegant, smooth, simple, that can be worn with a black dress or with a t-shirt & jeans because it works all those ways and something that has a heritage in the Asian community somewhere.


The notes that I used were shiso leaf. As an enjoyer of Japanese food, you will see it in most Japanese restaurants. It’s an herb somewhere between a basal and mint and it’s the most delicious herb. It’s fabulous so that’s one of my top notes. It’s got this bright, fresh mint basil sort of start. We combined that with ume plum blossom and the center note is white peony and pink jasmine. Amber is the bass note that holds everything together. Here’s a construction of a fragrance that happened because you imagine an object and that’s how these kinds of things happen. When I was talking to Rosetta she said, “We made air, water, fire, and earth but there’s Italian air, water, earth, and fire.” It’s different in whatever region you’re in and a signature fragrance for her. I had to interview her and we talked about thoughts that she had, different places that she’d been in, fragrances that mean something to her and then putting that all together to come out with a balanced fragrance because you can’t just put this stuff together.


Clarissa: It’s all very fascinating and I want at least one teachable moment you would like to leave everyone with and then I want to know where they can go to find you.


Ron Robinson: I think one of the things if I could help anybody in business, it would be to be bolder. You have a shot, you have an opportunity. Even I want to be bolder today. I don’t mean aggressive, I mean bold. I mean those hard things you want to come out with, to say, to ask for, or want to do. Be bold, give it a shot. I had to get past that and people would say, “Oh, my gosh, how are you saying that you want to be bolder? Look what you’ve done.” It’s a teachable moment, I think, for others. That’s the point of life I’m in. I want to give the love back and that’s one of the things that keeps coming up for me. Where to get me? If you’re in Los Angeles, please come to Ron Robinson on Melrose Avenue or Ron Robinson in Santa Monica. If you’re not going to My fragrance company is a combination of Apothecary and Utopia and it’s Apothia. We have an where all of our fragrances and candles we’ve won awards for will be on. And I just want to tell you that you’re delightful. Thank you so much.


Clarissa: I do appreciate that and thanks so much for giving us your time today.