Opening up with Richard Christiansen of Flamingo Estate.
Accompanied by his two dogs, we sat down with the man of many talents to discuss humble beginnings, big aspirations, the unintentional evolution of a brand and how Mother Nature has become one of our last great luxuries.
A perfect time to light that heirloom tomato candle, if you haven’t already.
&Open: So you grew up in Australia, and your parents were avid farmers. Do you remember much about the act of harvesting in those early years of your childhood?
Richard: I remember the honesty and the integrity of that life. And the intimacy of it. It was very cause and effect in a way, which is so rare when you think about that today. Just an honest job. You grow something, you harvest something, you make something. So we had a really beautiful childhood. It wasn’t a wealthy childhood, but it was an abundant childhood.
We didn't really watch TV. My brother and I were always outside climbing trees or making pretend worlds out of plants. And I think having that sensory overload all the time was so important for our development — just to smell and taste stuff.
I loved it. I loved it so much. And I truly didn't, as you might expect, appreciate the rarity and the joy of those younger years until very recently.
&Open: How did your upbringing influence your ethos and approach to Flamingo Estate? Because it sounds like there's a lot of overlap, right?
Richard: It's such a full-circle moment. I’m honestly surprised that it took me traveling and living around the world to find my way back home again (metaphorically).
I left Australia when I was 17, moved to London and went to law school. I could not wait to leave rural Outback Australia. Yet funnily enough, I didn't stay in law school very long. All I wanted to do was to work in fashion and design. And looking back, it made sense; I used to love when my mum would get the international magazines once a month, like Vogue and all the interior design ones. It was an escape into this, like, really sophisticated world. And I loved it. So I ran really quickly towards that.
What I didn't know until recently was that those two worlds can exist perfectly together. I’ve said this so many times, but it's almost cliche that Mother Nature is the last great luxury. When I was growing up, people weren't talking about climate change or the extinction of plants and animals. So I think one of the most special things Flamingo Estate’s done is layered in this idea of luxury with this idea of radical pleasure from nature.
&Open: That brings us to the timeline of Flamingo Estate. What was the exact timing of buying the house, which I know has a crazy story, to launching the body care line and so on?
Richard: So, I started Chandelier Creative 15 years ago in New York. And just worked every single day. You know what it's like building a business; it swallowed up half of my twenties, all of my thirties and the first half of my forties. At its “height” we had a hundred employees, and to have that kind of workforce, I just needed to keep hustling to pay everyone. I didn't have business partners, it was all me — and it was a lot. Through that, I think I lost sight of why I was even working, and deep down I was miserably unhappy, drinking too much and not eating well. I was, as they say, married to my job.
One of the few things I did that wasn't work during that time was beekeeping. I had property outside the city and I craved getting my hands in the soil every weekend. I used to give honey to people on every set we were on.
One time, we were doing a commercial here in Los Angeles. I gave everyone some honey and someone on the set said, “You're a beekeeper?” I told her yes. And she then said, “My neighbor has this crazy seven-acre property in the middle of suburbia. He's an older man, maybe 84 or 86. He's lived there 65 years and his lifelong partner just passed. Could you bring some bees over to his place? They’d love his garden.” I told her I’m coming back to LA in a couple of weeks to film something else, and I’ll bring some bees. I brought them over and I met this crazy old man who was almost a modern-day Hugh Heffner. I really liked him. He was weird and funny and we would always just walk through his garden together. I ended up going over there for years to come, but never stepped foot inside the house. He just knew me as the Bee Guy.
&Open: And what year was this?
Richard: This is in 2016.
So we stayed friends. Then one day I said, ”John, you're so old, you can't live here anymore. Someone should restore this house.” Because it had become this crumbling structure on a giant piece of property. He returns with, “Oh my God, you should restore it.”
I said I could never afford it. When he asked how much I could afford, I threw a number in the air, which was really like the cost of a trip to Hawaii. He then says, “You've been really good to me. And if you promise to restore it and the garden, I'll sell it to you for that much. But only if you never flip it, you never sell it and you never ever look inside before you buy it.” So I bought it. When I finally got inside, I discovered it had been a porn studio for 60 years, where hundreds of thousands of films had taken place. So all along, this house had a wild history of pleasure.
I then moved to LA. We opened an office, and at that point I was desperate to figure out how to get out of my life in New York. My parents came to visit, and together we planted 600 trees in the garden. Through that process, we'd met some local growers and farmers. Then COVID hit, and that very first week one of the farmers mentioned the possibility of losing their farm because their vegetables go to restaurants, and restaurants might start closing.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. I told them to bring their veggies over and sell them here. I think she thought we could sell, maybe, a dozen boxes of vegetables. But that first week we sold 300 boxes. The next week, we sold 600. Before we knew it, we had 50 trucks.
It all happened very quickly. We met a guy who had a beautiful olive farm in the mountains outside Los Angeles. And I figured, how hard can it be to make soap? And so that was when we started making stuff that wasn't fresh produce. Bottles of olive oil, candles and so on and so forth. Soon enough we had 110 farms. And many of those people were regeneratively growing ingredients.
That was the turning point. It was interesting because during COVID, my whole life fell apart. My agency completely fell off the cliff, as we’d lost all of our clients, and like most, it felt completely out of my control. And yet, something I could control was giving these farmers and growers second and third revenue streams which they never dreamed they'd have, just by creating personal care products.
Lastly, through all of this, I got back in touch with my body. The safe space of COVID meant I could make pasta, take a hot bath or a great shower, and learn how to cook, eat and smell again. I’d been sleepwalking through life, and reconnecting with these seemingly basic, human rituals that I’d forgotten from my childhood really woke me up again, which was important.
&Open: Yeah. That's part of the ethos of Flamingo Estate, that pleasure is a human right. And that comes in many forms. Do you think that your own personal experience at that time was part of why you were passionate about creating products that stimulate the senses?
Richard: Yeah. But I honestly didn't expect it to turn into a proper business. I was just trying to make stuff, self-medicate, learn, taste the best olive oil on a piece of toast or an egg, have the most amazing shower and so on.
Looking back, I felt really shaken, in the best way. All of this was founded on me just trying to wake up and remember what it was like to be alive again. When I look at myself now, I'm a completely unrecognizable person from who I was two years ago. It's so interesting — those simple choices that make all the difference.
&Open: So what can people expect? If they're lighting a Flamingo Estate candle or tasting that olive oil for the first time?
Richard: I guess this sounds cheesy, but simply put: It's really good. It's going to wake the senses up again, and also taste or smell great. Most importantly though, it’s really, really honest.
I didn't know just how terrible the personal care and food industries were in terms of sourcing. For example, there's palm oil in everything. It’s cheap and it bubbles really well, so it's extremely hard to find an alternative. But we did. It’s called babassu oil, and it comes from a plant that grows on the very edge of the Amazon forest in Brazil. Similarly, one of our soaps is made on an island off the coast of Japan, and it comes from 3,000-year-old Cedar trees. So there are some really interesting sourcing stories. And that part gets me excited.
&Open: Have you had a "we made it" moment yet with the brand?
Richard: Not really. I feel like we've been building the plane as it's been flying. So we're nowhere near done yet.
Two moments do stand out, though. The first was when Oprah made us one of her favorite things. She loves our heirloom tomato candle. Apparently it was in her neighbor's bathroom and she said it was the best candle she's ever smelled. We went from selling 15 a day to 2.5k an hour.
The second was when I went on the Ellen show, which was really nice and lovely. There were a couple of moments during that day where I was like, how did my desire for a hot bath and a good meal become a business? I'm so grateful ‘cause I spent 20 years trying to figure out how to be happy every day, and all it took was everything falling apart for things to come back together in the nicest way.
&Open: Okay, dream scenario: You can invite three to five people for a dinner party at your home. Who would be on the list and why?
Richard: Dead or alive?
&Open: They have to be alive.
Richard: Oh wow. Okay. First, Jane Fonda. She’s one of those few people who have combined glamor with activism in the most interesting way. Then Jane Goodall, my existing friend, the environmentalist, who is such an amazing woman. I don’t know whether you've met her or not, but she’s one of those rare people who just makes you feel so warm and welcome. When I turned 40, I climbed Everest and actually took Jane's book, Seeds of Hope , with me. It’s my favorite book.
So there's Jane and Jane.
I'd like to meet the Patagonia founder, especially since he's just given away his money — which I think is so interesting — and built a business supporting that kinda activism in the world.
And then maybe my dogs, too. They should be there. ‘Cause I love them.
&Open: What are their names?
Richard: Freeway and Daylesford.
&Open: Very cute. So getting into gifting… What makes Flamingo Estate such a great gift?
Richard: I think Flamingo Estate is a great gift because it’s so intimate and thoughtful.
My bank recently f*cked up and sent me a gift basket to apologize. It was a giant box of sh*t with cellophane over it filled with, like, stale biscotti and just a bunch of generic, ugly stuff. It was almost an insult on top of an insult to get this terrible gift. I thought to myself, there's no intimacy here. We've forgotten about true hospitality and what it really means to move people’s senses.
So I showed it to my team, and I said, “This is like such a great lesson for us around the importance of taking great care, a handwritten note, an incredibly wrapped gift, and dedicated thought and attention.” And that can all come across in something as simple as a bar of soap.
&Open: Who would you say Flamingo Estate is for? Is it somebody who goes on foraging trips? The person who has an unstoppable green thumb…?
Richard: Years and years ago before when I was running my creative agency, I went and pitched Chanel. And the guy I pitched to asked me a question, which I never forgot. He asked, “Who is Chanel for?”
And I gave him a typical answer about women who love luxury and all that. And he said, “No, it's not, Richard. Chanel is a brand for women who make decisions.” And I thought it was such a clever answer. I asked him what he meant by that, and he responded with, “If you have to make decisions, it means you're empowered and smart and you have to make the right decisions — not the wrong ones.”
In short, you're not gonna buy crap. You're gonna buy something that's important to you. And I never forgot that. So this isn’t exactly the right answer, but I often think Flamingo Estate isn’t for someone who goes foraging or likes to garden. It's for someone who makes smart decisions.
&Open: What is your favorite reason to give someone a gift?
Richard: When they absolutely don't expect one. My friend's going through a divorce and she’s been having a rough time. So I went and sent her an avalanche of flowers with a note saying, “Please don't forget you're sunshine.” And I think at the time that meant the world. So I think not birthdays, not Christmas, but just if someone needs it. That's my favorite time to gift.
&Open: What's the best gift you've ever given?
Richard: A few years ago I introduced someone to someone and that introduction made that person exorbitantly wealthy. As a thank you, she bought me a giant tree. And I put it in the garden. It's still here, and it's my favorite tree. I thought, what a beautiful gift, to give someone a tree.
And so now for my birthday, for Christmas, for whatever, I ask my loved ones to give me trees so I can plant them. That's all I ever want, to fill the garden with trees. I spend so much time out there now, and, this is going to sound cheesy, but I feel like my friends are all around me because their trees are all around me.