Get to Know Donald Robertson, Insta-Famous Fashion Illustrator

We spoke to the newly minted author about Beyoncé, the life of an artist and his edgy children's book Mitford at the Fashion Zoo

Before I’ve barely had the chance to start my recorder and have a sip of my complimentary green juice—one of the perks of interviewing a Fashion Person at a Very Fashionable Place (Holt Renfrew’s Toronto flagship)—Robertson muses on how Canadian kids choose a university (his theory: based on their booze of choice) and why he’s thrilled to be back in Toronto (a free trip to visit his mom thanks to Mitford’s North American launch, fittingly held at Holt’s). The fashion, art, and high-end beauty worlds that he inhabits may seem rarified, but Robertson—who answers my questions while drawing pop-art hearts on Holt Renfrew catalogues—could not be less precious.

Mitford at the Fashion Zoo

Mitford at the Fashion Zoo

Tell me about the history of Mitford.
Mitford was born on a pad in a meeting. I was bored out of my mind, so I started doodling and then Instagrammed it. The reaction so crazy that it just became a thing. I kept doing it and the more I stuck this giraffe into fashion situations, the more people loved him. Then I needed a groovy fashion name for the character so I was like “OK, Stella Tennant is actually a relative of the Mitford sisters [the infamous Brit aristocrats] so I’ll make Mitford Stella Tennant’s childhood pet”—just the most fashion-y thing on the planet. Make Mitford Stella Tennant’s childhood pet who when he grew up was introduced to Grace Coddington and got a job at Vogue. You can’t get any more fashion-y than that.

How did Mitford go from Instagram character to published book?
My wife was like “OK, that’s enough ‘likes.’ Let’s try to turn this into something that will help pay for college.” She’s an author and has worked with publishers before, so she hooked the whole thing up through her book agent and the next thing you know, I had a deal at Viking. My wife wrote it for me based on all my Instagram posts because she just wanted it done and she didn’t want to share the royalties with anybody!

Did you collaborate on the names of the characters?
No. She based it loosely on my Instagram posts but also on the fact that we met at Condé Nast in a magazine environment [at Glamour]. So, we know all the tricks. We know all the ridiculous things that happen.

A photo posted by Mitford (@mitfordfashionzoo) on


Did you know right off the bat that you wanted Mitford to be a children’s book?
I look at it more as a book for childish adults who happen to have kids. I wish there was a childish adult section in bookstores, because that’s where it should be. Because I really don’t want it sitting with the kids’ books. It’s a little bit more edgy.

Have you had any feedback from any of the iconic fashion characters that inspired the book?
The editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, called me and said, “We’re doing an article on you and this book. ” He taught me with Spy magazine that if you make fun of people in the fashion industry, you will be celebrated.

What about some of the actual individuals that inspired the characters in the book?   
More importantly, I have not heard from any of their lawyers!

What’s your reaction to the Instagram fame?
It’s unbelievable because for the longest time, I had put illustration to the side and didn’t do it for years and it was drying up as a medium. Now what’s happening with Instagram is that it’s such a content suck. If you’re not able to make your own Instagram content on a daily basis, you just end up with inspirational quotes all day. Whereas illustrators, try and stop us!

What was one of your most exciting regrams?
One hundred percent the most exciting thing was when Beyoncé took all the stuff that I had made [items from pieces Robertson collaborated on with Clare Vivier, Alice & Olivia and Brian Atwood] and did a photo shoot with them and posted it on her Tumblr. That was crazy.

Would you agree that you don’t seem to take art too seriously? And I mean that in a good way.
I was raised in a time when Andy Warhol was on The Love Boat. It was mind-blowing and it kind of burned into my little kid brain that you don’t really need to, first of all starve to death, which is terrible, or lead a horrible, miserable, lonely life, because you’re trying to be artful. You can live a completely and totally artful existence and be commercial and be a fine artist or you can do really ridiculous things, it’s just sort of how you pace it out.

Is your approach to art and fashion to make it less rarified?
My approach is that I’m just not even thinking about it. I’m really trying to just be as childlike as possible in the way I approach things. One of my favourite quotes ever is from Picasso, saying that he spent his entire life trying to paint like a child and it’s just that childish approach to everything that I’m really going after. And I have so many kids so I’m kind of watching them in action. My whole M.O. is to be wide-eyed and think everything is awesome.  

So you don’t care about what’s going to look cool?
What’s cool? Owls are in. Splatter painting is hot. I’m just trying to not go there and so what I’m doing is, I’m making walnut portraits, celebrity walnut portraits, and not even thinking about it and the next thing you know, I’m having a show at Colette in Paris and Carine Roitfeld is there.

Do you feel like your recent move to Los Angeles from New York affected your art or inspired you differently?
Oh my god, I love it! One best thing is scale. I can paint really, really big. Because in New York, it was a little bit squishy. I can literally make scale dinosaurs out of paper in my carport now because I’m outside and I’m barefoot. And it’s year-round.

What was a moment that one of your kids was like “Oh my god, my dad’s so cool”?
No, the reverse. It’s like, “Dad, why does everybody at my school have your drawings on their shirts?” and I was like “Shut up! If my dad had had that, I would have been so happy” and he’s like “Dad, it’s embarrassing.” But I will say, Lena Dunham recently gave me a shout-out for a surfboard that I had done on Instagram and my daughter nearly had a heart attack. So I was like, “Yay! Dad’s cool!”

A photo posted by Mitford (@mitfordfashionzoo) on

If you were a character in the next Mitford book, what animal would be you and why?
The other day my daughter and I were like, “OK, we’ve got to make the next book in the ’60s because you could have the Beetles, Mick Jaguar, Jean Shrimpton, Christian Deer.” They just keep coming. But I do like the idea of Karl Loggerhead Turtle, just because he’s old and cool. But the next book, I think we’re gonna have to make a time machine.

So, there’s going to be a next chapter for Mitford?
Oh, yeah! Mitford 2 is coming soon. As soon as I finish signing these 5,000 Holt Renfrew catalogues.

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