SANTA MONICA — Ron Robinson is wearing a bike safety helmet — it’s fashionable and folds into itself for easy storage — and he’s standing in front of a speaker blaring U2. His son Max, at the front of the store, looks back at his father mouthing something inaudible, no doubt about the volume.
This is Ron Robinson, the retailer, at his finest: showing people cool stuff in his store as though he’s just discovering the LED picture frames, Christian Lacroix notebooks and Balmain titanium hair straightener for the first time, sharing it with you like a friend and maybe at the end of the visit you’ll buy.
He’s good. He would be as he celebrates 40 years of his namesake boutique now comprised of stores on Melrose Avenue, in the original Fred Segal location, and the youngest on Fifth Street in Santa Monica, in addition to an online store and candle and fragrance business called Apothia.
The year has been a busy one preparing for the anniversary (which technically passed in February). Robinson has been working on a magazine/book hybrid — it’s nearly 200 pages long — filled with pages of reflections on his business’ history, innovators he’s crossed paths with and some of his past and present employees. There’s also a raft of collaborations in honor of the birthday and special anniversary candles by Apothia. That work culminates in two in-store parties for customers, the first last week in the Ron Robinson store on Melrose, and the second on Dec. 6 in Santa Monica.
It’s a time of reflection as Robinson and team look back on the past — given the publication being put together — while also looking at what’s in store for the longer haul.
“I’ll give the short answer: I want to put on a pair of shorts and go to the beach,” Robinson said on a recent afternoon in the patio of his Santa Monica store.
Max joined the business three years ago initially in shipping and receiving, helping shave off $30,000 in additional costs in six months, and then began shadowing vice president of buying and merchandising Karen Meena on market trips. He now does buying for men’s and a few other categories and mostly concentrates on co-managing the Santa Monica store, with Robinson saying he brings a “freshness and newness of ideas to what we want to do.” He added his son is “part of an interesting future.”
He’s not declaring retirement or even using the words succession planning.
“I’m not making any commitments on anything,” Robinson said, “but I’m just telling you where things are heading because at a certain point in time — it’s interesting because I think about what we’ve done, which I’m very proud of, and then I think about time: what is it? How much of it is there? What do I want to do with it and what’s my best use of it? All of those things are important to think about and I don’t know that I’ve got that kind of plan. We’re planning always just to continue to do what our function is, to be the conduit for our customer to bring them cool new things and keep finding them. That’s pretty much what I know right now.”
The question of whether expansion is in the cards is something Robinson is not saying yes or no to at the moment.
“I don’t know that opening more stores is the way to go,” he said. “I think we’ve got two really good platforms. Our online business is strong and we have our wholesale line of Apothia that, if I spent more time with, would do even better.”
Perhaps what’s taken up most of his time this year have been the efforts to document and memorialize the past four decades beginning with his start at Fred Segal up until this point. Putting together the hybrid book-magazine has been a significant undertaking.
Sifting through the stories has been a never-ending process. There are too many to count, such as when he first went to Japan in 1982 and then taking Stevie Wonder to dinner there in 1985, tributes to people such as Meena or his wife and the company’s vice president Stacy Robinson and highlights of what Robinson calls innovators and creatives.
“They’re people I’ve met over the years that I’m in contact with for inspiration, communication and mentorship,” he said of that last group. “It’s not that I have to do any business with them, but it’s about hearing what they have to say because they’re really good at what they do.”
He recalled the times he spent with Kiehl’s founder Aaron Morse, who he would often visit in New York.
“He’d come out of the back room with red lipstick all over his face,” Robinson said. “Here’s an ex-airforce pilot. Tall guy with red lipstick on his face in his cosmetic shop and I said ‘What are you doing?’ And he said. ‘Well, we made lipstick. I try everything. I’ve got to make sure it works.’ That’s the kind of man he was. Just fabulous and he taught me a lot.”
There are also stories of employees who went on to forge their own businesses including Melissa Fleis, who was a “Project Runway” finalist, and Sarah Horowitz in perfumes.
Then there are the products over the years that turned out to be runaway hits: pet rocks (“I couldn’t keep them in.”), plush E.T. dolls (“Wow, that was a total surprise how many of those you could sell. It was unbelievable.”), nail polish brand Hard Candy and the Child perfume that blew up after actress Jennie Garth plugged it to a reporter in an interview (“Our phones went wild and that [interview] pushed it over the edge.”).
“It’s rare to have an overnight success; it’s very rare,” Robinson said. “You still have to put something behind it. You have to sell it. You have to sell one and then two and then four and there has to be this motion. It’s thrilling when that motion becomes just out-of-control motion. That’s the most exciting part of it when you’ve really put your effort into it and somebody cares, somebody believed in it and somebody responded to it.”
The publication, following the in-store parties, will be distributed at trade shows among other places throughout next year.
It’s a little bit of nostalgia for Robinson without dwelling on the past or wishing to return to it as he looks forward — unless, of course, if it were on his terms.
“I only wish to live in those times if I know what I know now because I could be so much smarter,” Robinson said. “But I guess that’s not allowed in life. The history of it is important. It’s important to know what occurred and why it occurred and what was going on around us and then use that to help shape today.”