By Robin Tolkan-Doyle, Beauty Editor
For more than 40 years, Fred Segal’s legendary Ron Robinson held court in the land of retail royalty. He sold elusive clothing labels to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Sasha Baron Cohen, and launched the hipster Fred Segal beauty boutique Apothia, which catapulted brands like Byredo and Creed. He then launched his own fragrance brand in 2000, aptly named Apothia, which has won countless FIFI awards, the fragrance industry’s Oscars. Within the last year and prior to Covid, Robinson closed up shop to both Fred Segal’s Santa Monica and Melrose retail locations to pursue life’s finer moments. Some say he had a crystal ball to dodge that brick and mortar bullet. These days, he’s gambling on his hunch that perfume can still be as a big a commodity online as it was in the now, almost-defunct department store space. Despite the lack of olfactory senses being put into play while shopping fragrance online, this businessman has proven that he really does have the Midas touch when it comes to sales.
You’ve been a serial entrepreneur your whole life. Since closing your Ron Robinson boutiques earlier this year, do you still consider yourself one?
Well, it's interesting because I told somebody just the other day that I'm sort of an addict. I have an addiction to entrepreneurship and retail. All someone has to say is, ‘Hey, I got this new project. What do you think?’ And I’ll go, ‘Yeah!’ I get so excited. But I have to sort of calm down. It was almost a year and a half ago that I announced to the public that I was going to close my stores.
How lucky were you? That couldn’t have been more serendipitous.
That had been planned for some time. When I actually closed it, we’d been in business for 42 years. I just wanted to have a different lifestyle. I didn't need to prove anything else anymore. My dream had come true. I was pleased and I really wanted a change. I had created Apothia as a fragrance brand 20 years ago this year, and I was going to focus myself on growing that, but I figured that would reduce the time I spent doing all of these things by great deal and I could spend more time with my wife. Then of course with COVID, we're spending a lot of time together.
Ha ha! Do you regret it now?
No, we haven't gotten divorced yet! We're in good shape, and everything is working out fine. No, I don't regret it. My friends call me and they say, ‘You're a genius! How did you know when to close the store?’ But anyhow, I have focused on that because I do love what I do - I do love the things I get involved with, and it just gets in your blood."
Tell me about what’s going on with Apothia.
We have new collaborations that came our way. We have new product that I've put out and still yet to put out. It's very exciting. My son, Max, has been working with me for about a year and a half. He redid the website. Now, he's taking over the direction of it and the marketing. Thank goodness we did that because when COVID hit, our website just took off. It was off the charts. We were in Barney's for 18 years. And with all the retail stores closing across the US, it's become very hard. But what’s interesting is that we ran reports between this year and last year and we're only off maybe 10-15% in domestic stores. That’s really not that bad for what's going on.
How are you giving Apothia's online customers that same personal shopping experience you always gave to your in-store customers?
I come from wanting to take care of every customer, that's my way. And I try to put that in as much as I can through the website. How do you do that through a website? I want to call every customer! But what sets us apart is the product and the level of the product that comes in. I truly know that that's number one. Nothing goes out of our door without each piece cared for by quality control. That doesn't say we have never made an error, but we're very careful about everything.
Talk a little bit about your upbringing. Your father was an entrepreneur too, right?
My family on both my mother's side and my father's side were merchants and merchants of their own, too. The best recollection I have of my grandfather was about the fragrance he wore. He wore this clove-ish fragrance called Bay Rum. It came in this wonderful ceramic bottle. I remember as a small child walking into his bathroom where he had it. He must have had some love of colognes, but he always wore this one, it didn't matter what was on the counter.
So maybe that’s where your love for fragrance came from?
In 1975 when I worked for Fred Segal as a buyer, I brought makeup and beauty into the store. It was a store only of apparel at the time. But this was part of my desire to add something fresh and really hip to the mix. When I opened my own store in 1978, I took a corner and I opened with fragrance. At that time, I had no technical knowledge of the fragrance business, but I really was attracted to the packaging and the bottling and the smell.
Well you came a long way since then. How did you start Apothia?
So, I wrote an email to 100 of our [Fred Segal] customers and it said, “How would you like to be one of a selected group who will help us create our own signature fragrance? If you say, ‘Yes,’ please don't tell anybody until this Q&A process is over because we want to keep it a very secretive thing." I went to Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Gardner, Macy Gray, and Lita Ford too and asked if they would participate in this.
I know you worked with a psychologist to craft the questions. Can you give me an example of some of them?
We started with typical questions like which one did you like the best? Did you mix them? What kind of fragrances do you like? Everyone received small vials of oils. We’d also ask questions that were open such as where do you wear fragrance? How do you feel when you wear a fragrance? Where do you put fragrance? I remember someone wrote, I put it on my cleavage and the inside of my legs when I wear a deep cut black Japanese dress. And how do you feel when you wear a fragrance? I feel like the heroine in an Ayn Rand novel.
Ronrobinson.com is still going strong, correct?
Yes, we redid that site as well on a new platform. Because I don’t have the retail stores anymore, I came up with a concept to sell what I want when I want. Right now, we’re offering cosmetics, beauty, and home accessory design. I didn’t want to have the pressure of having to do this or having to find that because we already have Apothia.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I live near the beach, so this has allowed me to enjoy some of the things right around us. We take walks on the beach at sunset. And we’re on the Venice canals. I often take my stand-up board and just go up and down every canal. It’s great exercise. And very clearing. We've lived here almost 30 years and we never used to take evening walks on the beach and watch the sunset. It’s so fabulous.
What types of charities are you're involved in?
We've always been very philanthropic. Because of our retail ventures all these years, it seems like every one of our customers has a different charity that they were involved in and wanted our participation. So, we gave to many in that way. But now in this part of my life I'm really narrowing down to environmental causes. I do things with the ocean and air quality. I think that that's where I can make a difference.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a business in this day and age?
I'd tell them that creating a business is a learning process. You will have expectations of success, but there will also be downfalls. You’ve got to understand how to go through those in order to get to your next level. I'd also tell them to be bold. Learn that you're just not going to get it if you're not going to ask, if you're not going to put yourself out there, or if you're not going to take the risk. Those are the things that kept moving it along for me.
Photos Courtesy of Ron Robinson, Apothia
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