The Non-Starving Artist

By Isoul Hussein Harris

How did a 50-something, suburban dad of 5 become a widely-celebrated fashion illustrator, known for his bold and colorful sketches—that celebrate as well as critique the fashion world—and chic collaborations with brands such as J. Crew and Bergdorf Goodman? With razor-sharp wit, refreshing candor, and a Factory-esque grasp of fame, Donald Robertson shares the details of his impressive, multi-hyphenate career.  

Your world of is full of art, style, blue-chip brands and a 200K Instagram following. How does that happen?

It was a perfect storm of drawing and painting daily and posting the pieces every day on Instagram, which, luckily, I was able to get on in the early stages. I developed a good rhythm, gained an audience, maintained a constant workflow, and it turned into a thing.

Aren’t you also a corporate executive?

Yep! I'm a senior vice president of Creative at Estée Lauder in Los Angeles. I call it creative disruption. I work with Glamglow, Smashbox and Rodin Olio Lusso. That's my 9 to 5; I'm half corporate and half artist.

Tell us about your big break.

When I first came to America from Canada, I started working in magazines right away to get my green card. One of my first jobs was to bring Marie Claire [magazine] from France to the States.

It was fun because editorial budgets existed back then.

Yes! It was [1994] and the heyday of print magazines. Money was flying out of windows. We flew an entire crew to Paris and shot Claudia Schiffer under the Eiffel Tower.

What is your best memory of that era?

We flew to Milan for a Versace show and all of the supermodels were there—Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford, in one show. Nobody had a phone, and it wasn't live-streamed. Back home, we explained to people what we saw, and then the film would come in a month later from the photographers. It's just so hard to believe. It was the golden era of print. The predigital age.

When did you first notice the shift to digital?

I went downstairs at the Conde Nast building in Times Square to buy Italian Vogue and arrived only to witness the international magazine rack being replaced with extra chips! I was like, "I've got to get out of here!" I called [Estée Lauder President] John Demsey, whom I had worked with when I was the creative director at MAC, and I said, "I want to come and work at Estée Lauder."

Cut to now: Who is your favorite new-school fashion designer?

[I love the team of] Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, the new co-creative directors of Oscar de la Renta. They dress the society ladies in ODL, and with their own, edgier line, Monse, they dress Nicki Minaj. That sums the whole thing up.

Who is your favorite style content creator?

Margaret Zhang is very interesting. She is a lawyer, writer, photographer, model and filmmaker from Australia—who also has collaborated with Kanye West.

How do you describe yourself as an artist?

I'm a not starving artist. I'm not starving. Art school teaches you how to not be able to afford to be an artist. The key is to make money and live like a finance guy but do art for a living. That's key.

What advice do you have for artists?

Turn off the TV. If you watch [reality shows] you will wake up one day and be 40, overweight and broke. Second, try not to sleep so much if you can. Third, force yourself to work every day.

You have worked with numerous brands. What is the key to a great collaboration?

You must actually collaborate. There have been instances when I ask: "What are we going to do? And they tell me exactly what to do. That's not collaborating. That's called bossing.

Play favorites. What was your favorite fashion collaboration?

alice + olivia. [The designer and CEO] Stacey Bendet says, "Send me some art." I do, she turns it into awesome pieces, and then Beyoncé wears it! 

What was your first thought when you saw Beyoncé sporting a shirt and bag you co-designed?

I thought: "Oh that's nice, somebody Photo-shopped this for me.” And the way her hand is, she's not covering up my name. She's holding up the bag, with her fingers carefully not covering my name. And that's the thing that I am most grateful for.

Are you excited about the current direction of fashion? 

Fashion is bigger and better than ever. There's nothing sadder than a cynical old person in the fashion industry. The kids love what’s happening. It's fun. If you're going to hang around, you must stay positive. Otherwise, just go away!

Article by Mosaic and provided courtesy of Morgan Stanley.

The authors are neither employees of nor affiliated with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC ("Morgan Stanley"). By providing this third party article, we are not implying an affiliation, sponsorship, endorsement, approval, investigation, verification or monitoring by Morgan Stanley of any information contained in the article.

This article has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. The opinions expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Morgan Stanley.  The information and data in the article has been obtained from sources outside of Morgan Stanley and Morgan Stanley makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of information or data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley.

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC.  Member SIPC.   CRC 2204326  08/2018