By Liesel Schmidt | Photography courtesy of Ron Robinson
It’s a word that Ron Robinson strives to inspire through all that he does—not only with his career but also in the legacy he has built over the past forty years. His eponymous stores stake an impressive claim on California real estate in areas whose zip codes comprise the shopping routes of the well-heeled one percent. Their demands run high, their expectations are stratospheric, and their utterance of that one word seems to be beyond elusive.
For Robinson, however, that goal has been reached. Still, after forty years, he’s not satisfied with having achieved what others might consider unattainable; instead, he feels it is only one of many benchmarks. It’s a point of pride that he ponders with equanimity and humility as he circles back over those four decades to realize that—after taking one day at a time, getting up to “face this one day, and then the day after that, and the day after that”—forty years have indeed come and gone in the blink of an eye.
Rather than considering his success as entirely his own, Robinson shares the glory, recognizing the importance of the people who helped shape who he is: a shrewd businessman who seems to hold in equal balance the bottom line, a passion for people, and the desire to create an experience for his customers. As he so often states, his vision is one that has served him well over the years as he has studied the practices of those who have come before him and those who have walked alongside him in similar pursuits—sometimes with successes to celebrate, sometimes with failures to lament and take heed of. One might say that, looking back over multiple generations of retailers in his own family—as well as the prestigious position as executive vice president at Fred Segal that Robinson left behind to establish himself independently—he holds a particularly unique perspective on things. Robinson has watched markets, demands, and expectations shift, seeing how modern times have affected the retail industry as brick-and-mortar stores are often phased out by virtual ones and customer service suffers in the face of technology.
“We’ve lost the experience that it used to be, where people would look you in the eye and greet you when you walked in the door to welcome you,” Robinson says. “People have forgotten what it’s like to go into a store and feel that sense of occasion, of having shopping be a truly connected social experience. When you offer that, people remember and come back.”
And therein lies the Ron Robinson difference. He has hardly forgotten. It’s an integral part of his business plan and a mission statement of sorts, espoused in six simple words that have arguably created distinction for his brand: old-school values, new-world vision.
“We’ve lost the experience that it used to be, where people would look you in the eye and greet you when you walked in the door to welcome you.”
“There’s an overall driving ethos that I have about the retail business because we’re actually in the customer service business, the hospitality business, the product presentation business—all combined in one,” Robinson explains. “When you’re running retail properly, your execution of all of those things determines whether people come back. The way people get treated, the way that we serve them, and the way that we present product to them are crucial—and implementing an ‘old way’ of doing things to personalize all of that is being combined with what we’re doing as we move into the future.”
That’s not to say there’s anything “old” about Robinson and his stores. Quite the contrary, as he could well be considered a visionary and a tastemaker. Even though he could have followed the trends set before him to bet on the safe horses—the “must haves” and the “it” labels considered luxe by the world at large—Robinson dared to take a risk on something different, banking his success on the fact that he knew a good thing when he saw it. He realized that if he created the demand and a perceived value, those good things would become appreciated and sought after—perhaps not always by the mass market, but in a way that mattered, elevating the dreams of the creators whose talents showed incredible promise in his eyes.
Being the one to see that promise has earned Robinson a place of honor among his competitors—stores whose awnings have long shadowed the sidewalks of exclusive streets all over the globe. Even while they hold their breath to watch what will unfold as Robinson brings in an “unknown,” they take notes from the man who has shown himself to be a master. They often follow the path he paved by creating demand for these special individuals with exclusive designs, “underground” lines, and cutting-edge products and creations before releasing the products to the public.
Robinson sees what something is and the beauty that it holds—regardless of the price. He recognizes the fact that the word “luxe” has too long been bandied about with a strict definition in mind when, in fact, it can mean something different for everyone. What makes it truly luxe, in Robinson’s estimation, is its presentation and the way it makes the wearer or buyer feel. And anyone who knows anything about Ron Robinson knows the brand has presentation down to a science.
Robinson dared to take a risk on something different.
It shows in Robinson’s two wow-inspiring stores, their floors shiny expanses of white carefully mapped and merchandised in such a way that every item is a chance for him to elicit a “wow,” no matter whose label it might bear or its exact price point. The value is created by Ron Robinson and his team, and that skill has shown itself to be a successful one both in launching the careers of once-unknown designers and in creating his own perfume line, Apothia. Its development was secretively circulated among a select few while scents were tested and refined before being released for small production. His baby to be sure, Apothia has a story that Ron is exceptionally proud of—and with good reason, as his creative approach gave him the foresight to use the internet before social media, email, and websites had claimed even a toehold in the everyday lives of the world.
Now, nearly twenty years later, Apothia is a full product line of perfumes, soaps, candles, diffusers, body lotions, and body washes—not to mention fragrances that have that perfect scent, that one that lingers in the air in just the right way. Having won FiFi’s prestigious title of Interior Scent of the Year for eight out of Apothia’s twelve scents hasn’t hurt, either—nor has the fact that the line is carried internationally at boutique hotels and spas as well as in Robinson’s stores. An amalgam of two words he loves, “apothecary” and “utopia,” Apothia has the perfect name and one that has held strong over the years, still sounding relevant without ever creating an impression of who the wearer might be. At its core, the line is what Ron envisions when he thinks of the word “luxe.”
Now, Robinson looks back at forty years of having his name on buildings, creating many authentic “wows,” and amassing so many stories of inspiration and aspiration. He’s passionate, and he finds passionate people. That is his gift and his story. That is worthy of celebrating, and Robinson has been doing just that by throwing anniversary parties and developing special designer collaborations; creating exclusive, limited-edition branded items; and even publishing a stunningly written and inspiring coffee-table book tracing back over those forty fabulous years. The book, aptly entitled Stories, is priced accordingly at forty dollars. And even while he celebrates, Robinson knows it’s not over yet. He has many more stories to create and to share—and still many more “wows” to hear whispered into the air.
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Liesel Schmidt lives in Navarre, Florida, and works as a freelance writer for local and regional magazines, a web content writer, and a book editor. Having harbored a passionate dread of writing assignments when she was in school, she never imagined making a living at putting words on paper, but life sometimes has a funny way of working out. Follow her on Twitter (@laswrites) or download her novels, Coming Home to You, The Secret of Us, and Life Without You on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.