Meet Robin Sheldon

Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Age: 65
Marital Status: Married
Education: BA, University of Denver

What did your folks do?

My father was an attorney in New York. I grew up with a whole family of lawyers. My grandfather was Eisenhower’s attorney. Other than being a mom, my mom played bridge, mahjong and Bezique, a French card game from the 1800s.

(Editor’s note: Winston Churchill was a fan of Bezique.)

Oh, your mom was sophisticated.

Yes, she was. She had a wonderful sense of humor and really set the bar for what it means to be a good friend. My mother had beautiful taste. She could have been a natural buyer, no doubt about it.

How would you define good friend?

Someone who has no judgment and is there for you.

Do you have children?

I have a son, 40, and a daughter who is 37. My daughter works for Soft Surroundings as a supervisor in our call center. She manages people on the phones and trains call center employees about the product. My son is a contractor.

Are you married?

I’ve been married 20 years in April. My husband is now retired after I moved him out of three of his own businesses. We made a deal that when we came to St. Louis, he could do whatever he wanted, and pretty much what he wants is to take care of our property and our investments and play ice hockey.

So this is your second marriage?Image

No, it’s the fourth. I got married for the first time when I was 18, before I knew what I was doing. I did that twice, so those marriages were a little bit more of an investment in knowledge and learning experiences.

What about the third marriage?

I married a stock broker/farmer in Virginia and started working in the catalog business. He had children who were the same age as mine, so for a while, I had four children under the age of five.

What happened with that marriage?

After 11 years, I realized he had a drinking problem. He went into AA, and that was very good for him, but what came out was somebody I’d never met before. We had nothing really in common anymore.

Where did you go to university?

I married a skier so we both went to the University of Denver. We could take the winter off to go skiing since the school was on a quarter system.

What happened after you graduated?

I had no idea what I was going to do. I was an English major, and I had a young child. I actually didn’t work–other than for a ski pass–until the seventies, when I was on the farm in Virginia and my husband would watch me order from the various catalogs. We were way out in the country and there wasn’t much shopping, which I missed, being from New York.

My husband said, ‘wow, if there are women across the country who are interested in ordering from catalogs like you do, this can be one heck of a business.’ So we launched ourselves into the catalog industry. And at that time, most of the catalogs out there were only associated with large retail chains like Neiman Marcus, Sakowitz and, of course, Sears, Spiegel and Montgomery Ward.

So my husband and I cleaned out a couple of barns on our property and built warehouses. We were a mile in on a dirt road and UPS would chug up that road everyday. We learned as we went, by working on every aspect of the business. I selected product, wrote copy, styled photographs, answered the phones, took orders, packed merchandise in the warehouse, and put labels on the catalogs.

What was the catalog called?

It was a boutique catalog called The Mixed Bag, a mixture of cool things we happened to find. We had some clothes, but mostly we featured home decorative and gift products. We even sold a vintage Mercedes.

Eventually, we sold the catalog to a company from New York.

Then I divorced and needed to figure out what to do with my life. When a friend asked me to help her decorate her home, I accidentally stumbled into the field of interior design. Before long, I had a long list of clients, both for residential and commercial design.

What happened next?

I finally tired of relying on indecisive women and contractors, so I became buyer for a new catalog from the National Wildlife Federation and built it into a $47 million business in about two and a half years. After that, I joined Hanover Direct and moved from Virginia to New Jersey. Next, I was recruited to be Vice President of Merchandising for Coldwater Creek in Idaho, which I helped build into a $247 million company in less than five years. We also took it public.

Tell me about your personal life at this time?

I met and married my fourth husband when I was in Virginia.

How did you get to Soft Surroundings?

After five years in Idaho, I was anxious to get back to the East Coast, but a man who owned catalogs in St. Louis [Grant Williams] wanted to talk to me. He was absolutely delightful, but I still had no intention of moving to Missouri. Although he really didn’t have a job for me, he wanted me in his organization and said that if I have an idea for a catalog perhaps we could do it together. On the plane ride back to see him, I put Soft Surroundings together on two and a half sheets of scratch paper. That was in 1998.

What made you come up with the concept?

It wasn’t that hard to put it together ‘cause I’d been marketing to the baby boomer customer for a long time. I’m a student of demographics so I understand this woman. I made a list of famous women in this age group who I identified with, such as Goldie Hawn and Candace Bergen, as well as all the women I knew. Celebrity or not, nobody has any time anymore. Our generation has been brought up to believe that we can have it all and, as a result, we’ve become experts at multi-tasking. We’ve also been brought up to put everybody ahead of us. How often do we get to do the things for ourselves that would give us a little better quality of life?

So I wondered if I could impact something that we do everyday, like the way we dress.

Although the baby boomer woman has a good sense of self, she still has a hard time with all of the skinny clothes in the stores. I thought: ‘What if I could design a line of clothing that would make her feel as good as she looks?’

As the concept developed, we realized we should also help women create sanctuaries for themselves in their bedrooms, with the finest sheets and the right blankets, with things that make them relax and enhance the quality of life. The final element turned out to be beauty. We demystify beauty products for our customers and test everything, putting together a collection that addresses their issues and saves them time.

So you obviously moved to St. Louis?

Yes, Grant already had all of the operations for a catalog, including the warehouse and phone center. I’d bring the buying, merchandising, creative and branding to the business. The two of us created the first Soft Surroundings catalog. I called in an awful lot of favors from people I knew in the apparel world who cut me incredible deals and let me create my own lines with very low minimum orders. Our first test mailing was half a million catalogs. It blew the doors off and we knew right away that we had something special.

What other catalogs were around then?

J. Jill, Coldwater Creek, Garnet Hill.

What made you different?

Our photography was almost as important as the product itself because we wanted a woman to sit down with the catalog and a glass of wine and feel soothed after looking through it. We would take her someplace and do something just to make her feel good.

After 9/11, when everybody saw a pretty significant dip in their business that holiday season, we had a significant lift. When we studied the messages on the gift cards, we found that people were reconnecting with loved ones by sending them our products. They were sending soft throws ‘as a hug until I can get there and give you one myself;’ they were sending people robes to ‘keep you cozy till the baby comes.’ We knew right then that people were getting the fact that we were something different.

How do you define your personal style?

I’m easygoing and casual and my clothes reflect that. I don’t have a waist so I love tunics, which are heavenly. You’re most apt to see me in a good pair of boots, skinny pants and a great looking tunic or a big, bulky sweater.

Do you wear leggings?

I do. I love them. And we have a ‘relaxed legging,’ which is like a little cigarette pant. If you don’t have perfect legs and don’t want everybody to see every little muscle and bit of skin through your leggings, the relaxed legging gives you the look without all the tightness. I’m wearing them right now.

Who or what in your life has inspired you most?

My two grandmothers were incredibly strong women who taught me to be myself.

Do you only wear clothes from Soft Surroundings?

About half of my wardrobe is from Soft Surroundings.

Which designers do you like?

I love Carolina Herrera, Eileen Fisher, Elie Tahari. I love Eileen Fisher’s fabrics but sometimes I have issue with the price because I know what it costs to make these things. I know I’m paying for the name, but her silhouettes are better than anybody else.

Do you have a signature perfume?

I have two: The original Prada, which is Amber. I also wear one of our own fragrances called Aya Blu, which is on the spicy side of things. I think I’m on the spicy side.

A great book?

I wish I had more time for reading. I love The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, which I read fairly often. I grew up on Long Island, very lucky to have a certain kind of lifestyle, and The Great Gatsby reminds me of it. Newport fascinates me.

Your favorite restaurant in St. Louis?

The Brasserie. They do a wonderful fusion of comfort food in a really chic presentation. It might be lobster macaroni and cheese, just enough to really tease me into wanting more.

Your secret favorite place in St. Louis?

My backyard, out by the pool with not another sound and a good book. That would be my idea of heaven.

How do you cleanse and moisturize your skin?

I use a product called One that does ten different things in one application. It’s the only thing you need. It was developed by somebody who did TV make up. It’s a moisturizer and a primer. If you pat it on your face after you’ve applied makeup, it mattes you down so you don’t shine. It’s just the most amazing thing.

I use Dr. Robert Rey’s oxygenating cleanser. It’s a foaming gel. And when it foams it lifts everything out of every pore. It tickles a little and makes me feel that it’s working.

Your biggest indulgence?

Flying international first class. I’ve found a wonderful way to do it that you’ve got to pass this on to the members of your site. American Airlines has something called Air Pass. Let’s say you often fly to Asia. After buying an $11,000 Air Pass, for example, you can book a business class ticket to China, Hong Kong or Shanghai for a huge discount, and the cost of the ticket is then deducted from the $11,000. Subsequent trips are deducted the same way.

You’re also greeted at the airport. There’s a ridiculous amount of service that goes with it. It gives you access to all of American’s priority clubs all around the world.

What’s your favorite place to travel?

Istanbul and Paris. Istanbul is the most divine city. The average age there is way younger than you would expect. It has an incredible vibe, wonderful restaurants, good shopping and the Grand Bazaar, which is the most fascinating place I have ever seen.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Istanbul?

Mikla, on a rooftop overlooking the Bosphorus River.

What about your passion project?

We’re setting up a fund that will support women’s shelters around the country. We also want to be involved wherever we have shops. We have to find ways to be more supportive of women and to recognize outstanding women who contribute to all of us in so many ways.

How many stores do you have?

Three now, but we hope to open about 15 in the next two years.

Favorite hair stylist?

Donnal’s Hair Design. Donnal is a 6’2″ Chinese guy, who is an artist more than he is a hairdresser. He took my hair from being over processed, over blonde, frizzy, fried and dull into long, silky, perfectly colored hair that I didn’t think I was ever gonna have again. I’m serious. I went to so many places and said, ‘Gosh my hair doesn’t shine anymore,’ and all they said was, ‘You’re getting old.’ And he took a look at me, and in his wonderful broken English said, ‘Ohhh, you look bad.’

Do you exercise?

I walk. I don’t walk enough and I don’t exercise enough but I have dogs that I can walk with and that’s about it.

The most important thing you’ve learned in your career?

Don’t waste your life doing something that you don’t love. I can’t even imagine going to work everyday to a job that doesn’t fulfill you, doesn’t make you feel the way my job makes me feel. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be bored on a daily basis. Life is just too short.

  • Miki

    I too am an online shopper and have been shopping with Soft Surroundings for many years. Robin is on spot when she talked about the photography of the catalog causing a woman to feel transported to someplace else. The photography matches the beautiful items and models – the well-lit and soothing surroundings are elegant and comforting.

    I love everything about SS and have always been curious about who and how it was started. This interview was a delight and I truly appreciate Robin’s candor.

    Well done Robin and thank you for creating Soft Surroundings.

    Miki
    Brooklyn, NY
    May 2016

  • I’m a catalog and online shopper; I’ve been shopping Soft Surroundings since the late 1990s. Finally, while visiting my sister in Philadelphia in January 2016, I had my first in-store SS experience. Though I hate shopping malls (and hadn’t been in one for about 20 years (!), I learned there was a Soft Surrounding store in the King of Prussia Mall — about 15 minutes from my sister’s house. And what a fine shopping experience that was for this fab-over-fifty female!

    I wanted to learn more about Soft Surroundings and its founder,
    Robin Sheldon. That search brought me here, to your article. Although this piece is
    from September 2010 — more than five years ago — it was a well-done interview, and I appreciate
    the insights into the beginnings of Soft Surroundings and how Robin got to
    where she is.

    Robin is indeed a “Fab Founder”!

    Thank you!
    Cassie Tuttle
    Pittsburgh, PA