That's one of the many memorable quotes I got from Fernando Rodríguez, co-owner and Lifestyle Curator at Aaron Stewart Home and Aaron Stewart Lifestyle who agreed on doing Ambinity's first career profile.
If you have ever been around Puerta de Tierra in San Juan, Puerto Rico, there is no way Aaron Stewart Home's bright colors and impeccable taste hasn't catch your eye. So you can only imagine my excitement when Fernando, who has an amazing résumé, agreed on doing this interview.
It was a Saturday morning and I had just posted a selfie on Snapchat announcing what was about to happen. All of the sudden Fernando's bright smile appears from the other side of my car's window. Umm.. Embarrassing! "Nice to meet you María Elena! Please come inside", he said in the friendliest way, shooking all the awkwardness away. My sister (who assisted me with photography) and I went inside to start the interview and suddenly Backstreet Boys music started playing from his iPhone. I immediately new this was going to be a great interview.
He offered us water and invited me to sit in one of his lovely tables to start chatting while my sister started taking pictures. For the next hour I sat there listening about his incredible career journey and the risks he took that led him to New York and back to his home town, Puerto Rico where he has experienced great success.
"My favorite word is trust", he said at some point in a way that you can tell he's a very loving and spiritual person. To say that his calm voice and contagious smile will make your day brighter is an understatement.
"Some things are very superficial, but memories stay with you", said Fernando while recalling how his dream of opening Aaron Stewart Home came from childhood memories. He used to visit Old San Juan with his family just to see the beautiful display windows of luxury stores like González Padín in Christmas Time. "When we opened the store I told myself that I wanted to bring back that vision to the Island. So last year we brought a snow machine so that it will snow every day in our display windows", he said with sparkle in his eyes. "It's my mission to create great things and I want to bring kids to San Juan so that people bring back those traditions that are part of who we are", he added.
So without further ado, here's how the interview went:
ME: Tell me a little bit about how you started working in the fashion industry?
FR: I worked in corporate America companies like Colgate-Palmolive, GlaxoSmithKline and several pharmaceutical companies since I graduated grade school until I turned forty. I felt like a circle trying to fit into a square. I think that when you are growing and trying to figure out what your ambitions are in life, sometimes you don't look at the bigger picture and you may think that the things that are very inspiring to you are not a reality.
I always wanted to be in the fashion industry and I wanted to go to Parsons or Pratts, but they (his parents) sent me to business school. By the time I was growing up there weren't as many opportunities to kind of have an open mind to say 'this is your call'. In my time it was more like 'look, your dad has a business and your mom wants you to study finance so you have to go to business school'. Long story short, at 40 years old I was in New York and I will never forget the day I was at doctor's office with one of my medical detailers and I told myself 'what am I doing here? I don't belong here... this is not who I am'. Then I literally resigned (from his current position) and gave away company cars, stock options and my corporate credit card and started knocking on doors to get into fashion.
ME: You worked your way up at Hickey Freeman? How was that experience and how do you think it helped you in your career?
FR: It was a rude awakening when I started knocking on doors at 40 years old, trying to find an entry level job that someone who just graduated from Parsons could do for far less money than I would've. I already had a big career behind me in the corporate world which is why nobody wanted to employ me. They told me that I was too old and that I didn't have the skills, but I just kept networking and reaching out to people through LinkedIn and to friends that I had in New York and someone finally gave me a chance.
This is when I started working at Hickey Freeman. They had a new brand that they were bringing out to the market and they gave me the opportunity of opening their new store in SOHO. I basically said 'I'll take it! I'll do whatever I have to do'. So as I opened the store they realized I had style and a huge business background. I did really well and they quickly promoted me to Brand Director. So in a matter of two years I went from Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada into running a brand and going to Florence and working with designers.
It was kind of my dream come true... I was super happy and finally doing what I wanted and then the recession came into New York and the brand closed. Then I started working at Joseph Abboud as their Brand Director, where I worked on everything that had to do with branding and showing the brand to the market, except design.
ME: Tell me about your experience as Regional Manager and then General Manager at women's fashion giant, Tory Burch?
FR: After Joseph Abboud I went to Tory Burch and stayed with them for about two and a half years. That was a great opportunity going from men's to women's and getting to do both and learn that market with a completely different pace and different demographic. It was super fun and super challenging running 13 stores all over the Northeast. Now Tory is opening a store here at The Mall of San Juan and the Regional Director came to the store the other day where we sat down for an hour just talking about the market.
It's funny how things come full circle. I always say you have to be good and make an impact with people in a positive way because you never know when they will come back to your life. That says a lot about yourself and your personality. It's really easy to reject something and leave it behind, but when you take the bull by the horns, that's when you develop character as an individual. You need to finish everything in good terms.
ME: Tell me about your experience at MANHATTAN Magazine?
FR: After Tory Burch, a fashion lifestyle magazine asked me to be their Fashion Director and run every ad that went into those magazines. I was in charge of making all the relations on all marketing events and getting brands to advertise with us. Brands like Prada, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Chloe, Stella McCartney and Chanel.
I'm very blessed because I was able to do things that people dream of and I don't take it for granted because it's part of what has brought me here. Part of the success of my brand is due to the fact that I've been exposed to all the big brands.
ME: Do you think these experiences in the fashion world helped you open your store?
FR: The skill that I mostly developed from being in the fashion world was creativeness. I've always had it (being creative), but I think it allowed me to become more in tune with those things. Living in New York and working in fashion is a schooling by itself... walking by the street everyday and seeing the diversity of people, the way that people dress, the way that people shop, the way that people enjoy life. Everything is schooling.
I think the store is a mixture of Aaron and myself being able to travel the world for work and for pleasure and being exposed to many things that are now part of our DNA. That's what really helped us do something special here. Most of these products are things that we used in New York or our friends' own the brands. And we love helping our friends come to a new market!
ME: How did you meet Aaron and how long have you been together as life and business partners?
FR: Aaron used to work for a bedding company called SFERRA as the Creative Director and I was the Brand Director at Hickey at the time. We shared the same vendor (a girl also from Puerto Rico) at a sample sale in New York. She was always telling Aaron about this guy from Hickey and telling me about this guy in SFERRA because she thought it would be really nice if we met. I was like 'yeah, yeah yeah. No, no, no'.
So like six months went by and we were in the Hamptons and I saw him at a party. The next day I stopped him because I saw him walking down the street and I told him 'Hey I saw you yesterday at the party!' and he told me 'Yeah I saw you too!'. I thought he was lying until he told me 'you were wearing a Yankees t-shirt and aviator sunglasses' and then I asked him to buy me a drink and we started going out since that day.
We actually met on our own... It was serendipity, it was meant to be. If we had not met that summer on our own, we were still going to be introduced by our friend in common. We've been together for eight years now.
ME: How's been the experience working together?
FR: We went from partners to business partners when we moved here (Puerto Rico). We went from having different jobs, responsibilities, categories and fields to all of the sudden doing everything together. It's been a really cool ride.
I think that when you're meant to be with someone, life molds you in a way that it becomes really organic and we quickly realized what were my strengths and what were his strengths. We don't step on each others toes... when I'm down his up, when I'm up, he's down. We are never down at the same time.
It's very Ying and Yang, and I think that the attraction of human and spirit when to people are meant to be together created this really great formula for us. When you have this type of bonding, it sheds all the bad stuff away and you can focus on many other things.
ME: How did Aaron and yourself decided to open the store?
FR: Aaron and I decided to 'close shop' and come to Puerto Rico to open this brand (Aaron Stewart Home). We made the decision on January 2013 and opened our store doors in November 2013. We came to Puerto Rico without really knowing the market, but we just knew we had a great idea. It's tough, but when you have a point of view and a clear vision of who you are, it makes it much easier to maximize efforts since it's part of your DNA. We knew we had something very special.
ME: Why open Aaron Stewart Home in Puerto Rico?
FR: I left and amazing job to move back here in a time of financial crisis in the Island, not knowing the market, but we took a big risk. I think life pays off when you take risks, because they allow you to generate new experiences in your life. Fear can be very decrementing to your life and it will hold you from experiencing many things.
I grew up around famous stores in the Island like González Padín and Velasco and there was so much elegance in these stores. I remember that the way they packed their stuff was very beautiful. From the way they packed with paper to the little presentation cards. It wasn't that it was expensive, it's just that it was special and that was my inspiration when opening this type of store in Puerto Rico.
After those stores closed, there was nothing like that here. So we started working on our packaging and making sure that everything looks really pristine and beautiful all the time. The packaging has a ribbon that wherever you go with that silver and blue ribbon present, they know it's from Aaron Stewart Home. We used Puertorrican luxury in those days (1970's-1980's) as the inspiration to open this store.
It's nothing new, we just want to bring back that customer service; if you can't come to our store, we'll deliver it to your home. It's very personal. This is not a place where you come in a rush. You can even drink champagne or juice!
ME: What is the hardest part of owning a business?
FR: The most challenging part is that you know what needs to happen, but you don't have enough time in the day to get it done. Having people around you that don't completely understand what you are trying to do is kind of difficult too. Sometimes there's a lot of growing pains, but its part of the journey of having your own business and I don't see it as a mistake. I see it as an opportunity to learn something new so I don't do it again and I find a solution to the problem.
There's not a lot of things I don't like about owning my own business. The freedom of doing things at my own pace is the thing that I most like about it.
ME: In this economy, why do you think you have a successful business?
FR: By finding opportunities everywhere. I think our success has to do with that we came from the States and we had a very different way of looking at things. When you come from a different place you don't see things the same way. It doesn't matter if it was Puerto Rico or Miami, you always find that your way of doing things is different than what all the people are doing.
That's how we saw an opportunity of something that was not here and we marketed this store true to what we are. We haven't changed, we are who we are and I think that having the right products, something different and having amazing customer service are all part of the success.
There's no room for failing. Like, there's no crying in baseball! I root for myself. Some people used to tell me to not rent this space because there is a sewer in the front and it may cause the store to flood if it rains. And I was like, why am I going to stop getting an amazing space because somebody is telling me this? Let's fix the sewer!
The thing is to follow your instinct and ignore the rest.
ME: What advice would you give someone trying to get into the fashion and luxury industry?
FR: You have to stay up with it because it changes all the time. You can't rely in just what you know. You have to keep learning and reading and look at things with a different eye. You don't have to love it, but you have to appreciate it because it's part of your world. I think fashion and luxury evolve all the time and you have to be on top of that and you need to appreciate it so you can keep evolving with your brand in tough times.
You have to put your time and effort to learn the industry in order to be successful. Be humble and do whatever you need to do to develop the skills you need to become a master at what you are working on. Just because you planted that seed in the soil and the plant is not yet on the surface, doesn't mean that it is not starting to create roots.
When you have a vision or a virtue, you can't let it go. I think that when you have a desire of doing something you just have to really do it.. there's no room for fear. Fear is your worst enemy... you just have to keep trying until it works. As long as you know that you have that skill in you and you just need somebody to give you an opportunity. But once you get that opportunity you have to work really hard. It's not just going to come to you and that's it.
ME: Talk to me about wonderful Clooney!
FR:He's human! I wanted a dog forever and since we used to live on a tiny apartment in New York, Aaron never agreed. But I kept asking him and sending him dog pics until one day I found a dog breeder online. That is how I found Clooney who is half cocker spaniel/ half poodle and I sent the picture to Aaron and he was like "when do we pick him up?!".
Clooney has become a beautiful part of our lives. He can do no wrong.
And last, but not least... Fun Facts about Fernando!
- Favorite scent: Gardenia
- Favorite music: 80's music
- Favorite book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- Favorite way to unwind: Playing tennis
- Favorite restaurant: Santaella and Yamburger (both in San Juan)
- Favorite social media: Pinterest
- Favorite coffee shop: At home from my Nespresso
- Favorite beverage: White Tequila
- Must have home decoration piece: Good sheets/ good bedding
- Most proud of: Having no fear and doing what we did. I am really proud of being where I am right now.
- Necessary luxury: A good watch. You can be in jeans and t-shirt but the watch says a lot about you.
- What's at the top of your bucket list: Taking a vacation for 14 days. Excluding the flying and coming back and forth! Two full weeks of vacation.
- Best place you've ever visited: Florence, the Amalfi Coast and Capri. I love Italy!
So if you live in Puerto Rico or are just visiting and you still haven't come around this store, make sure you give it a try. I assure you'll be in for a treat. ;)