Danielle Ryan is an extraordinary woman. It would be easy to characterise Danielle by her heritage but her personality and professionalism exceed that. She is kind with her words and with her time. Her hearty laugh erupts at the most unexpected moments and although her polished exterior may hint to an inherited career, the truth could not be more contrasting.
Danielle is one of the most creative and hard working people I have had the fortune to interview. Her work ethic is tireless and the standard which she has set for her herself is monumental. We spoke about branding, creativity and curiosity. Put the kettle on, it will be worth your time.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
I have always been a strangely determined person. I quite like setting myself a goal and then challenging myself to reach that goal. I like having very big to-do list but each item on the list is quite a big ambition. By nature, I’m actually quite a shy person. I think that’s also why I delve into my work a lot. From a very young age, I’ve been immersed in the arts and I’m constantly fascinated by telling stories and the orchestration of a particular narrative, whether that be literature or branding. Otherwise, I’m amazingly simple in my private life. I’m a mum and that’s one of the most important and fun elements of my life but apart from that, I’m extraordinarily curious. I could spend all day, every day, reading about new ‘things’ and asking questions. I have an insatiable hunger for learning.
I, too would describe myself as exceptionally curious but my closest friends say that I’m merely being polite and what I really mean is that I’m nosey…
[laughs] That’s exactly what it is!
Yes, after ten minutes of meeting someone, there’s a good chance that I’ll know absolutely everything about their life. Without them even being conscious of it. I can’t help it. [laughs]
[laughs] Me either. I’m glad that there are two of us.
In terms of being shy, that’s quite a paradox when compared to the industries which you have and do work in, particularly theatre and the arts. Was your introverted nature a challenge when you studied drama?
I think that a lot of actors are branded as extroverts but that’s not necessarily true. They perform, that is their craft but that doesn’t mean to say that they like to be centre stage when the lights are not on. I don’t think that I was on my own, in terms of being shy. In fact, that nature would probably have been true for the majority. Actors have to be two very different things – they must be extremely sensitive and empathetic to understand other people but simultaneously they have to be very strong, cognitively and emotionally, in order to ensure that the performance continues regardless of exterior factors whilst also being very strong at self-promotion. It’s a tricky career, you have to be both things.
Were you conscious of deliberately constructing that dual personality type within yourself?
If I’m honest, I think that was within me since childhood and when studying drama, it wasn’t something I needed to curate but really just expose. The tool which made that process the easiest was undertaking research. That process is still central to my work today but the act of researching a character, to understand them, rather than pretending to be them. For example, if your character is a woman who happened to be a peasant worker in Russia in the 1840s, it’s still you, you just happened to be born into that era and location. The more research you undertake, you begin to realise that your soul is the same, regardless of your character, but it is the circumstances of the era and the location that you must react and adhere to when in role.
Studying drama is an intense but quite succinct period. Is there time for students to undertake such extensive research?
As part of theatre training, we were instructed in a variety of methods to illustrate how to approach character development. Weeks within the schedule were earmarked to provide students with an apt amount of time to explore and employ that research skillset. Like a journalist, you must do extensive reading and questioning to assemble a new and greater understand. It was and continues to be my favourite part of the process and it’s a skill that is intrinsic to ROADS. I’m fascinated in excavating beneath the proverbial foundations of a project to ensure that we have a fluent understanding of our ideas and endeavours.
What character did you feel was your greatest success, in terms of research and execution?
Well, I spent three months as a man [laughs]. It was very unusual, I cut my hair off, and I wore men’s clothing. I dropped my voice by an octave and hung out with guys. I taped down my breasts, I grew out my eyebrows, my leg hair, all as an attempt to gain a holistic and authentic understanding of that identity and experience. I committed to ‘going there’ and I did. I remember when the performance ended, I ran to the dressing room and put on mascara but even the act of that simple task felt so alien after being immersed in such an alternative culture and world for three months. That was probably the most outlandish process I’ve undertaken to get into character [laughs].
What surprised you most about that experience?
As women, we often assume that our experience is the more complicated one and perhaps we attempt to simplify a man’s take on the world but that’s really not true. As a woman, there are a lot of ways in which we can camouflage our insecurities but men are limited within their realm of being. They have to be comfortable and strong with so many elements of their identity which women can transform with clothing or cosmetics. There were pressures in being a man which I didn’t value or realise before immersing myself in that role.
Were you precious about your aesthetic when in that role?
No, not overly so and I wouldn’t be overly precious about my physicality as a woman either. I mean, it’s fun to play with, in terms of make-up and hair, but if it begins to upset you and impacts upon how you think of yourself in a holistic way, that can be challenging. I always think of that overarching question, who do I want to be as an older lady? When I reached 30, I realised that instead of spending time obsessing over how I look, I instead wanted to spend those moments contemplating how I can be a better person, how I can learn more and how I can do more. That became an exciting challenge, rather than being frustrated by another wrinkle or another grey hair [laughs].
Did those concerns consume much of your twenties?
I don’t think I obsessed over it, I probably took it for granted more than anything else but as I’ve gotten older, I just knew that I never wanted to feel like I was at my best when I was twenty one or twenty two. I constantly strive to be better, to challenge myself more with each year that I age and that’s not in terms of looks but in how I think, how I behave, how I feel and how I act.
You spoke there about constantly challenging yourself, what made you diversify from theatre to create a lifestyle brand, such as ROADS?
Initially, ROADS came about in a number of bizarre circumstances but simply, after I had graduated from RADA, we had two deaths in the family. It was a requirement to come home and to manage that situation. I just didn’t feel like acting. There was a lot going on and I remember doing some auditions and afterwards, casting directors who I was very close with, they told me that there was something lost behind my eyes. I wasn’t in the right space to act and that lasted for approximately six months. I was then pregnant with my first child and that physical change limited the roles which I would have been able to play but I realised what a fortuitous time it was. It gave me time to be creative and to decide what I wanted to do next.
When you’re in that moment, it’s not always easy to see it as fortuitous.
No, in that moment it was almost a hassle to envision a whole new life and teamed with pregnancy hormones, it was a challenge. However, it gave me time to reflect on my previous experiences, how I could have improved them and what I wanted for myself in the future. One of the aspects which I reflected most on was my time at RADA and how, in a way, I could use that experience to help redefine Ireland’s theatrical landscape, particularly in terms of education. Thus, The Lir became the product of that ambition. I wanted to create something that allowed me to put in place the lessons which I had just learned at RADA and root it in local culture and history. It was through that process that I discovered that I naturally favour the producer role, a skill which I didn’t utilise when I was training to be an actor. I love managing tasks, pulling people together and bringing a sense of optimism and enthusiasm to projects which seem wholly unrealistic. I really enjoyed that and in realising The Lir from conception to how it stands today, inspired me to see that things can be done and change can occur. I sat down and asked myself, ‘what next?’ and the conflict of arts and business arose and I plotted ways to marry the two together seamlessly and productively.
The idea of monetising the arts is not a culture which explicitly exists in Ireland, was that a deterrent for you?
It didn’t make sense to me. There is no reason why theatres and the arts can’t view their endeavours as a business – it’s not a dirty word. I wanted to see the infrastructure of the domain become sustainable and for audiences to be explicitly aware of the value and worth of investing in the arts but that’s not an easy feat. I can fondly remember being a student in London and queuing for three hours in a theatre to try and attain a return ticket. I would stand at the back of the theatre for £5 and crane my neck just so I could see the production. That’s not a culture that we have here in Dublin and I don’t know why that is.
The struggle to have bums on seats for producers and theatre makers is a continuous conversation in Dublin and sometimes you ask yourself if the challenge would be lessened if we deliberately hired cast members due to their societal influence to ensure that tickets are bought?
London does it and very successfully too. We are challenged with the width of our theatres – several of the European touring companies cannot visit due to the size of our stages. If you had companies such as Punchdrunk or The RoundHouse in London available to audiences in Ireland, society would place a new value on the arts, both as a medium for entertainment and education. That’s not the only avenue that can inculcate and many producers and directors are already having a huge influence but with The Lir, I wanted to reassign the path for prospective actors, directors, scriptwriters and set designers, in that they didn’t have to travel abroad for work. We attempted to create a hub of extremely talented individuals, encourage them to experiment and to draw on their local experiences and environment to redefine what it means to be working in the arts in Ireland. It’s been successful, so far but these things take time.
Speaking of time, from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that ROADS has developed and been embraced internationally within a mere number of months. Is that a true reflection of the behind the scenes graft?
In a way, yes. It’s been grafting in my head since we began to construct The Lir. ROADS came about due to me being infatuated with the idea that a brand could speak volumes about an ethos and the power attached to that narrative. I’m not sure that people question the ways in which associate brands, names or labels with a specific identity, worth or commentary.
It’s extremely difficult to create such a complex brand.
Yes! [laughs] If you delve deeper, you realise that a lot of influential brands do nothing but the construction of their brand and license out the manufacturing of their products. They concentrate on the image and voice of their brand. I started thinking about the ways in which we could construct a brand with a cultural voice. Attempting to answer that question took up significant space and time in my head. Of the triad of ROADS entities; scent, publishing and film, I had quite successfully invested in film previously, including ‘Dreams of a Life’. I liked that and I’ve always had a healthy obsession with books. We have a library at home and it’s imploding with books. I loved the idea of putting a book together and being very respectful to how it’s made and designed. Finally, the fragrances was almost a derivative of The Lir. Scent is in its essence, a story and one of the basest forms of communication; before we could speak, we smelled each other.
Our insight into the craft of fragrance is so limited.
Yes! We view it as a beauty product which is incorrect. It’s not something you see, it’s something you sense which makes it very different. I’ve always viewed it as a form of expression. If you walk into a room and there’s a pungent odour, you get an instant impression and the same thing happens with a person. You don’t make an immediate connection to someone based on their light or dark and mysterious fragrance but there’s a subliminal power at play and that’s what makes it interesting. There’s a message that’s being transmitted deep into your subconscious but it’s there and you can comfort someone without them even being aware of it.
You mentioned that the scent branch of ROADS is connected to The Lir, could you explain that a little more?
It was a derivative of The Lir but of immersive theatre too. Fragrance was being employed in theatre to create an atmosphere and to set context and background. Audience members were rarely aware that the fragrance was in the room but it changed the atmosphere. I was fascinated by that research and enveloped myself in the process to discover more about how scent could narrate a story. It was never my initial intention to create a line of fragrances but it stemmed from and was the result of my curiosity. I started experimenting, mostly to satisfy my interest and collectively, we created approximately 150 fragrances. However, having been to a number of trade shows, I wanted to explore how scent could be distributed and managed to build a relationship with a niche distributor who also had a flair and interest in the arts. They encouraged my exploration of creating fragrances and really just said that they would be interested in a collaboration if I wanted to make this hobby a part of my business. I said yes, of course [laughs] and that’s kind of how it happened.
Were the three strands of the business ready to launch simultaneously?
It was really important to me that when it came to launching ROADS, the three divisions were each established. I didn’t want us to be a publishing house and to then announce that we were exploring fragrance or film, it was the communication of the brand and the ethos which ROADS stands for which I was passionate about launching. The launch occurred with the installation of a truck in Florence.
I live in County Meath and I feel that my definition of a truck and the one which Florence prescribes to might be slightly different… [laughs]
Perhaps [laughs]. In Florence, you walked into the truck, the films were being broadcast, surrounded by lights, the ten pods of the fragrance were exhibited on the walls and the books were simultaneously displayed. In front of huge international press, we launched the triad of companies which constituted ROADS.
Launching a triad of companies in Florence sounds quite casual but were you nervous?
I was really nervous! I was the new kid on the block when it came to fragrance and there’s such a familial and historical tradition in terms of creating scent that often, they can be quite reluctant to engage with you. I wasn’t a fourth generation perfumer.
I’m disappointed, Danielle – you didn’t go to school in Grasse? [laughs]
Ha! No, no I did not. However, I never tried to pretend that I did. I’m a producer and my skill is being able to bring the best together and harnessing that talent and creativity.
How did Florence react?
They loved it! Not all markets immediately understood what we trying to construct but the main markets did and that was quite affirming. We emerged into the market at the right time where consumers were appealing to brands for more than product and that’s what ROADS offers.
In terms of branding, how intrinsic is your personal DNA to the success of the business?
ROADS had to start with me being at the forefront because I’m still the individual who is making the majority of the choices but as the brand continues to grow, that will no longer be my role. Take Taschen Publishing for example, initially the business revolved around Benedikt Taschen but it has since evolved and I see ROADS following a similar path. At the moment, I make all of the decisions in film and publishing but particularly in perfume as that’s my art and the avenue which I have the most amount of creative exploration. My vision for the future is that I will collaborate with a variety of artists and collectively, we will design and create projects. I want ROADS to become about them rather than for it solely depict my personal interests and tastes.
You’ve already collaborated with some very interesting characters. Tell me a little about Charlie Le Mindu and his book published by ROADS. He was born to a Spanish gypsy father and a French drag king mother, I believe.
Yes, Charlie is exceptionally interesting. He started his career as a hairdresser at 16 in the drag clubs in Berlin but is now a staple feature at London Fashion Week and has created wigs for Tim Burton’s films along with iconic hair pieces for Lady Gaga. His work is almost instantly recognisable because of its eccentric artistry. I loved working with him for ‘Haute Coiffure’, we even collaborated on a special edition of the book which are sold with incredible wigs with a pocket sewed in for a condom. It says Charlie Le Mindu and ROADS on the condom [laughs].
You get to meet so many fascinating people due to such collaborations but what is important to you when working on those projects?
It’s essential that we accurately portray the artist’s vision. One of the most exciting parts of the collaboration is when you initially meet the artist and get to sit with them in their studio and openly ask them what they want from the project. We’re fortunate that we can spend time with the artists, get to know them and help them curate the most interesting, creative and thought-provoking project.
With the focus of a collaboration on the artistic nature of a book, a scent or a film, how do you balance the company’s need to simultaneously be a commercial success?
There are continuous battles that need to and do occur in order for a collaboration to be financially viable. You want the artist to be as creative and as true to themselves as possible but it still has to sell. We set out creative parameters at the beginning of a project that balance the artist’s identity along with the consumer’s interests. It takes a customer just three seconds to look at a book and decide if they like it and wish to buy it. So, it’s in our collective interests to create a piece of work that gains an audience because after such work and effort, the last thing you want is for a book to lie unread in a dusty library.
In relation to future collaborations, can you divulge anything just yet?
One of the most exciting parts of my job is discovering the next collaboration. We have just signed with the Maria Callas Archive and in the near future, we will be releasing a book on her exceptional life. I spent some time in Venice exploring various documents and footage about her life. It’s exciting!
What has been the most rewarding and challenging day so far at ROADS?
The announcement in Florence. Definitely. [laughs] On the back of that launch though, just two hours later, we were signed to Barneys. I can clearly remember our agent in New York calling to tell me that Barneys had agreed to stock ROADS fragrances and having already been so excited about launching in Florence, I really, really couldn’t believe it. Watching the growth of the business in those first few months was just so thrilling, particularly the fragrances. We’re now in 124 stores internationally.
ROADS is available in so many countries, but you are based in Dublin, which is not your busiest market – are you ever tempted to relocate elsewhere?
Dublin is my home, I absolutely love it here and ROADS is an unusual concept – we expected that Dublin would not be our largest market. It sells very well in Brown Thomas but we are a small national and a smaller city but it is important to me personally and professionally that our base is in the city I call home.
Does it suit you that ROADS has a sense of mystery and has not saturated your home market?
Yes, very much so. We have been extremely careful not to saturate any market and have offered exclusives with various stockists which is the opposite approach most mass market brands have when launching a new product.
I think that very much fits with the ROADS brand, though. You want people to know of you but maybe not know everything about you.
Exactly. We have connected ourselves with key partners and we trust them to imbue our brand and codes of practice to their customers.
Handing over that power must be challenging.
It is but it’s the right thing to do. The success of our business lies in patience. Although we’re in Barneys, within the entire US, we are only in ten stores and perhaps you could chase other stores and platforms to try and attain further sales but that’s not what it’s about for us. We are very careful with our brand and we are playing the long game. Our brand is not seasonal, it is not dated and we are exceptionally careful about the decisions we make.
Speaking of making decisions for the future, what do aspire to do, either professionally or personally, within the next decade?
I have a very, very long list of goals and objectives which I want to achieve but I like to keep my dreams close to my chest, just in case I scare people off with how big and slightly unrealistic they might be. Personally, I have two children and whilst they’re still young, I would love to travel with them as much as possible but I would also like for ROADS to find a rhythm where it needs me less and less, so that I can find a bit more simplicity with them.
Thank you to Danielle and Kate for their time and help in organising this interview. For more on ROADS, you can follow the brand on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Danielle Ryan is also on Twitter and ROADS Entertainment’s film Being AP lands in Irish cinemas on November 27th.
Interview originally published Oct 15, 2015