Based in San Francisco working as an art director at eluxury.com — the e-commerce site of French luxury goods giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy — flying out to New York every couple of months for photoshoots, staying at the Soho Grand Hotel, earning a decent salary: Rony Zeidan had it good. But in 2002, he left it all behind, moved to the Big Apple and crashed on a friend’s couch.
“Everyone thought I was insane because I had a great job, but the company was going down a more commercial and less creative direction and it wasn’t my vision,” says 35-year-old Zeidan as we sit in the offices of his four-year-old company, RO New York, a boutique modern luxury design and advertising agency. Eluxury.com eventually closed down in mid-2009.
As a child in Lebanon attending Saint Joseph School in Cornet Chahwan, Zeidan wanted to become a fashion designer, drawing sketches to show his uncle who had an atelier in Beirut. As he eventually decided to study a broader spectrum of design, he moved to California and graduated from San Jose State University with a graphic design and photography degree — entirely self-funded through different jobs from working as a file clerk at a technology company to working at a fried chicken restaurant.
With a passion for fashion, Zeidan was naturally drawn to New York, the trend- setting capital. With an internship and some freelance experience at Donna Karen, Zeidan’s first full time job in the capital of fashionistas was as art director at Ralph Lauren, “not my favorite brand at the time, as what I liked was Balenciaga,” he says.
Three years after moving on from Ralph Lauren to join advertising agency Kraftworks, Zeidan’s not-so-favorite brand was back to push him up the career ladder again. This time as global creative director for Ralph Lauren fragrances at French cosmetics and beauty company L’Oréal. The odd thing is Zeidan does not even wear a fragrance, though that ended up being a turn in his favor. “I walked into the interview, they asked me what fragrance I wear and I said, ‘I don’t wear a fragrance, I never designed a fragrance model nor packaging for fragrance’, to which the answer was ‘this is exactly what we are looking for, someone who can come in with a fresh point of view,’” says Zeidan, who went on from there to manage the launch of six fragrances.
In 2009, in the midst of the economic meltdown, his career path took a sharp turn. As L’Oréal attempted to save costs, Zeidan was asked to consider getting rid of the entire creative team, outsourcing the work and becoming creative director. “I said, ‘I’m not interested in being a traffic manager; I’m ready to open up an agency. Give me part of the work and I will take a few of the employees that you want to lay off’,” he recalls. Lengthy negotiations ensued and RO New York was eventually set up with the help of his sister Dina and with a first contract from Ralph Lauren — probably his favorite brand by then.
For his new agency, Zeidan opted to offer several services at lower prices as opposed to specializing in a particular aspect of design — a less attractive offering during the economic crisis. His approach proved profitable as RO generated $700,000 in revenues in its first year of operation. After dropping up to 15 percent in the next two years, revenues were up again in 2012 (though he did not disclose absolute figures). For this year, Zeidan hopes that revenues will reach $1.2 million and ultimately $3 million within five years.
His 10-member team caters to clients from different regions in the world including New York’s Calvin Klein, Switzerland’s Chopard, Austria’s Swarovski and Lebanon’s fashion designers Georges Hobeika and Joseph Abboud.
Returning to Lebanon is not on his foreseeable agenda, but Zeidan said he would love to have more opportunities to provide Lebanese companies with an international perspective. He hopes to corner new markets, mainly hospitality, with two New York restaurants already on his roster. A Lebanese gourmet café “Man’oucherie”, founded by Sara Trad, will be opening in the Chelsea district by the end of the year and features in his upcoming projects.
“That’s very exciting to me because it goes back to my heritage with a cool New York vibe to it,” says Zeidan. As our meeting comes to an end, I am left wondering how much Beirut’s own vibe is missing out with such Lebanese talents abroad.