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How To Seek Out Creative Partnerships That Work

Instagram’s favorite doodle dad drums up collaborations with the likes of J.Crew, Bergdorf’s, and Alice+Olivia. Here’s how he does it.

He’s known for the loud red lips he paints on everything from store windows to designer handbags. The 150,000 fans on his Instagram account are among those clamoring to meet him in person at Bergdorf Goodman, buying the $45 J.Crew T-shirts and $725 Brian Atwood pumps he’s guest-designed.

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(“Lips have paid the bills,” he told Fast Company earlier this year.)

Donald Robertson—the Estée Lauder creative director and fashion illustrator—has carved out a spot in the fashion community with his Instagram-friendly drawings and creative promotional tactics. And today he’s releasing a coffee-table book he wrote with his wife filled with his whimsical fashion-driven illustrations: Mitford At The Fashion Zoo. (Mitford is a black-framed-glasses-wearing giraffe who debuted on Robertson’s Instagram as Anna Wintour’s intern and now frolics in the fictional high-fashion universe of “Shark Jacobs” and “Mikael Boars.”)

Donald Robertson and Rachel Shechtman

To celebrate the release of the book, Robertson is launching a collaboration today with Rachel Shechtman’s Manhattan concept store Story, which changes its theme each month. Robertson has “art-bombed” the 10th Avenue shop with his work, and Story will sell products from lipsticks to headphones to Rolex watches that he custom-designed with brands like Warby Parker and UrbanEars until September 10.

Robertson recently filled us in on how he’s made a lucrative career out of partnerships with the likes of Alice+Olivia, Bergdorf Goodman, Colette, Smashbox Cosmetics, and more:

Partner With Your Friends

“Collaborations beget collaborations,” Robertson says. “Of the people that you partner with and work with, the best ones are the ones that recommend the next best ones.”

Rachel Blumenthal—entrepreneur and wife of Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal—was one of the first to approach Robertson when his Instagram became popular. After he worked with her on her baby products site Cricket’s Circle, the Blumenthals introduced him to their friend Rachel Shechtman. Robertson did a backdrop for her shop, and then when it came time to launch his new book in the U.S. (he’s Canadian), he knew whom to call.

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His limited-run T-shirt line with J.Crew came thru close friend and J.Crew president Jenna Lyons. Pal John Demsey got him the staff gig at Estée Lauder . And not only do his friends connect him to future partners—he’s also able to vet each new venture through people he already trusts.

“There were no contracts; there were no meetings. There were no big negotiations. There were no lawyers involved. It was just friends getting together and making stuff,” Robertson says of his partnership with Story. “It gives the whole thing a nice vibe.”

“I have not signed a single contract. Not one. And if I do [have to], I don’t do it,” Robertson says. “If it’s so contract-y and panicky, then I don’t want to do it. It’s really not the nature of the beast.”

His “casual and fun” marketing strategy might seem risky—or even impossible—from a business perspective, but Robertson swears by it.

Don’t Go After The Money

“Do not approach things from how much money are you going to make. It’s a complete and total waste of time. And don’t walk away from awesome opportunities because of silly negotiations. Just get in there and muck around and get it out there, and worry about it later,” Robertson says. “You’ll get more money doing a renegotiation off of something successful than you will off of killing a project because you were too hard-ass in the beginning.”

In May, he collaborated with Bergdorf Goodman to sell his art by creating paintings on handbags for customers on the spot for free.

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“A couple people said, ‘Donald, you’re being silly. You should be charging.’ And I was like, ‘Just watch what happens.’ So I stood there at Bergdorf’s and I hand-painted things for high-end clients.”

The next day, Beyoncé posted a picture of herself holding up a Clare Vivier bag on her blog that he’d painted for free. He never asked Bergdorf for a commission.

“It’s not like a money thing. It’s not really like a work thing. I call it paesano marketing,” says Robertson. “Paesano” translates roughly to “countrymen” in Italian.

“If you’re an idea person, you’re going to have more ideas. What drives me crazy are the people that go to their graves with brilliant ideas because nobody was willing to pay for it,” he says. “If you have a brilliant idea, you are a brilliant idea person, and you will have another one, and another one, and another one.”

Keep It Within Your Means

Not only do his side projects not conflict with his full-time job at Estée Lauder—he says they love the buzz he generates through his various forms of experimental marketing (even when he’s doing a capsule collection for other cosmetics brands like Smashbox). Robertson’s work is consistently what he calls “limited-life”—fun, and disposable.

“Everything is geared to the fact that all of our attention spans have been shot to hell by Instagram,” he says. “I like to go to the people that are the very, very best in their category.” Colette is a favorite brand, he says, because of creative director Sarah Andelman’s expertise in retail theater. Bergdorf is another.

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He tends to collaborate in a triangle with another top brand or product and a partnering brick-and-mortar location. It keeps him from needing to stay past his expiration date, and the issue of “inventory” doesn’t exist at all. Instead, he tends to make pieces himself on the spot.

“I like the feeling of being so Amish,” he laughs.