With fast fashion becoming so rampant, it’s no wonder that style circles are obsessing with the notion of fast art too. And few do that better than Toronto native Donald Robertson, a New York based illustrator who’s become a superstar on Instagram (@Drawbertson) with 135,000 followers, thanks to his wonderfully cheeky takes on fashion’s major movers and shakers. The 53 year-old suburban father of five, who was asked to leave OCAD in the early ‘80s because his teachers felt he was too commercial, went on to help with the creative direction of MAC Cosmetics when Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan founded that legendary company in 1984. Five years later, Robertson moved to Manhattan and worked as a creative director at Conde Nast before landing his gig with Estee Lauder, where he now heads up creative projects for brands like Smashbox and Bobbi Brown. But Robertson’s passion for poking fun at famous fashion folk and his love of immediacy when it comes to artistic output has led him to selling his work online (www.donaldrobertson.com) and made him an Instagrammer extraordinaire. “We live in an ADD culture, so I want constant flow,” he says.
Now Robertson has teamed up with J. Crew in a “Save the Bees” campaign, which is part of the clothing brand’s “Garments for Good” program. Robertson’s whimsical bee illustrations are being featured on limited edition T-shirts as well as a series of related products to help raise funds for Buglife, a UK-based organization dedicated to the conservation of bees and other insects. Dubbed the “Andy Warhol of Instagram”, Robertson says he’s flattered by the comparisons: After all, Warhol, too, started out as a commercial illustrator, was unpretentious, open to things and didn’t care what others thought. I spoke with the prolific Donald Robertson about T-shirts suitable for framing and why he sees himself as a “paparazzi illustrator”.
Jeanne: You have been feeding our heads with the most delightful imagery this past little while. It’s wonderful to see how you’ve become this kind of art icon via Instagram.
Donald: Yeah I’ve been hustling! And the sad thing is that my wife is minimal and she just would throw it all out of she could! It’s her nightmare. Actually if you go to Instagram, and look at the pictures of the house that aren’t underground, there’s not a stick of art there.
Jeanne: It’s like the shoemaker’s children always go barefoot.
Donald: Oh my god, the whole place is artless!
Jeanne: Well you’re putting enough of it out there for all of us and seem to be riding the zeitgeist of what’s happening now in fashion. The world is largely about fast fashion, and there’s a sense of immediacy to the illustrations and sketches that you do that really fits the tone of the times.
Donald: I like to call myself “illustration paparazzi”, because what I’m finding is that people are news junkies and they appreciate the artfulness of what I’m posting. But what they really like is recognizing news. A perfect example of this that’s fascinating is Kim Kardashian, who’s not a model size right? Well she comes to Paris Fashion Week, and now her sister (Kendall Jenner) is in every show and she’s got to steal the thunder from her sister somehow. But what’s she gonna do? So I’m in Paris and Kim shows up with that white hair! And I thought, “Oh my god, that is the best thing I ever saw! She was pretty much cheered in the front row of every show. She and Kanye West completely steal the thunder and get all the attention and I’m thinking, “This is too good!” I literally was in my hotel room painting her in this new sort of white hair version of Kim Kardashian, and I posted it right away, and then the next thing you know half the world is on my Instagram account telling me that Kim just “liked” it ! The whole thing is real time news. It’s fun, it’s pop culture and everybody is in on it…. It’s the best!
Jeanne: Most fashion people have been taking themselves too seriously for too long. It’s nice to see that many of them are now lightening up….
Donald: These are the scariest, most elitist people on the planet and they’re poking fun at themselves. I love it! And I don’t think that fashion has become any less exclusive or more down marketed. I just think that more people are participating in it.
Jeanne: This “Save the Bees” issue though is a serious one. I was reading that there’s the possibility of 150,000 species of insects disappearing by 2050 if we don’t take action.
Donald: Yes, the bees situation is very, very intense and it’s one of those things that you have to make note of now before it’s too late. I think it’s fantastic that J. Crew is taking a stand and raising awareness. So when they called me to do this, I said “Absolutely!” And Jenna Lyons (the creative director at J. Crew) is one of those people who you’ll just give her some rough sketches and some rough paintings and what comes back is even better than what you imagined.
Jeanne: Well it’s a wonderful way of getting a piece of your art!
Donald: I secretly tell people that the best thing to do these days, if you’re on a budget, is to frame a J. Crew T-shirt. Jeanne, don’t tell anybody!
Jeanne: What about the artistry that’s becoming so inherent in fashion? Art has really infiltrated fashion in quite a poignant way.
Donald: Oh my gosh, it’s almost like a T-shirt show at Uniqlo right now, with Basquiat and Keith Haring and Warhol being featured on T-shirts. And I’m sure there are people that are like completely horrified, but I think it’s fun, and it’s raising awareness and the kids see it, and then they go back and they Google it. So if it
makes an 11 year-old kid go to his computer and instead of playing Game of Thrones and he’s Googling artists… well, how can that be bad for any artist’s body of work?