Matt Booth, Founder & Creative Director of the ROOM101 family of brands, is a jack of all trades who understands that you earn your stripes.
LS: I’d like to start from the beginning, for you to introduce us to Matt Booth. Who is Matt Booth and how did ROOM101 begin and get to where it is today?
Booth: I think the real genesis for all of this starts before the brand started. Long before the brand was conceptualized, I decided to put somewhat of a delinquent lifestyle behind me. I joined the Marine Corps Infantry when I was 18 years old, which changed my life and afforded me the opportunity to have a future that was very unlike the one that I was headed towards. Through hard times you become annealed. This environment afforded me the time and space to evolve. When I got out, I moved back to Hollywood and I immediately started pursuing a career as a performing musician. I bounced around town for a while, I worked in the private security sector providing protection for some of Los Angeles’ most wealthy and influential individuals. I ended up deciding that I wanted to do my own thing. I had become not only intrigued, but obsessed, with jewelry design. That’s when ROOM101 was born, behind a small jeweler’s bench at 7th and Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles, and on top of my coffee table in my apartment. So over the next few years, I basically apprenticed unofficially in a factory downtown with the idea that we could build this multi-category, multi-class lifestyle collection, not unlike Alfred Dunhill or the other jet-set European lifestyle brands of the 1950s and 1960s. Something that had all the finest appointments for the modern-day gentleman and gentleladies, but done in today’s style, and done in my style. So although the skeletal structure of this brand, if you stripped away all the meat and flesh may look very much like Alfred Dunhill, with his skin suit on it may look nothing like it at all – aesthetically, of course. Building the brand in the bespoke jewelry category brought us to a point where we were ready to evolve into another category in another industry. Over the course of 2008, I worked with some executives in the premium tobacco business to build the framework to become ROOM101 cigars.
LS: What was the inspiration for the jewelry? When you founded ROOM101, what was the inspiration behind everything? Were you working at the time? Were you planning on getting into the business?
Booth: I had multiple jobs [at the time], for example, I did sound and lighting at Whiskey on Sunset, and I worked there off and on for two years part-time. I had a blast working there under my mentor, Leonard Contreras, who taught me the beginnings of sound engineering. But while I was working there, I was getting assaulted by fashion and lifestyle, and artists and people throughout Hollywood were all wearing this crazy big, chunky, aggressive silver style, you know, big skull bracelets. I was obsessed. Like, I was literally obsessed. I would get the courage up to go into the Chrome Hearts showroom knowing very well that I couldn’t afford anything in there and just ogle everything and obsess. At the time there was an up-and-coming clothing and lifestyle brand that had its flagship retail location on Melrose. I used to do the same thing, I used to come into their store and eyeball all the handmade silver products.
I keep a journal by my bed, right? I use it to capture ideas because a great deal of time when I’m just beginning to separate from consciousness, right before I go from being awake to asleep, I start to have these very aggressive visuals of, at the time, ideas for songs, musical expression.
I realized that at that moment I was no longer designing riffs, but I was designing rings. I realized my heart was taking me in that creative direction.
That was running parallel to a very fast and aggressive learning exercise, being next to other creative industries in LA and coming to an understanding very quickly that if I wasn’t going to be doing one specific thing, if I wasn’t going to be writing, playing and performing music, I wanted nothing to do with that industry. In fact, I went as far from it as humanly possible. Simultaneously this was something that I felt that I could shoulder on my own, not necessarily because I had this idea that I just wanted to make a couple of things and see how it turned out. My vision at the time was that I wanted to build a body of work that I could monetize and support myself so that I could be completely independent and free from any schedule from an employer and pursue very freely a career in music. A couple of years into it I found my entire life wrapped around the axle of the 101 brand with no time to do anything else, because before I knew it – and long since before I knew it – I was building a brand. Which takes a life’s investment, especially from ground zero.
LS: How did you end up going from fashion to cigars?
Booth: I think visually the optics of that transition, even at the time, were difficult for people to accept. You saw them as two very, very different things, opposing categories almost. My point was that they’re not opposing whatsoever. They’re highly complementary because they’re both reflective of ‘the good life.’ They’re part of, in my opinion, any fully-baked lifestyle collection. The landscape is not as it was in the 50s because now we are encumbered by regulation. It makes it far more difficult to offer certain things that effectively share the same brand, when back then it didn’t matter. So it was, and continues every day to be, a creative exercise, not only to design products, but to design products that can live in the world together cohesively, and survive regulatory scrutiny.
LS: What was it that got you into cigars? Were you smoking cigars at the time? What is the story behind the foundation of that aspect of ROOM101?
Booth: Well, to go back to the very beginning, my Uncle Lee introduced me to cigar smoking when I was a teenager, and he was by far the coolest guy in our family. My grandfather smoked a pipe and [Lee] elected to smoke cigars. I saw that as being the way that tobacco was truly enjoyed. Not injected, a cigarette is like an injection, It’s like a syringe. A cigar is a vessel to deliver tobacco in its purest form and to deliver the fullest enjoyment. Fast forward a little bit, if there was another lifestyle brand active in Los Angeles that had anything in their offering that was connected to tobacco it was typically something to embellish a Bic lighter or a cigarette case. There was no focus on cigars whatsoever. I thought, ‘this is ridiculous because this is the most luxurious expression that can be offered in this category. It 100% should be part of my collection, inspired by the introduction from my uncle.’ Over the years I’ve become what I would consider to be an enthusiast. It made sense to me. It didn’t make sense to a lot of people around me, even in my inner circle at the time. But when I put the first box of cigars down on a table in front of them, all the question marks evaporated. When there was a physical realization of that idea in front of them, they understood.
LS: Did you start with cigar accessories or do you start with cigars?
Booth: We started with accessories, which led to cigars.
LS: What do you think was one of the biggest challenges when you started, not only on the fashion side of 101 in the early stages but also the biggest challenge when you got into the cigars?
Booth: I think one of the biggest challenges is across the board in any of these areas, because they’re all what I would refer to as a craft category. Even though we’re operating in fashion and jewelry, we’re operating in kind of a subculture sect of that business with the types of items that we’re offering and coming into a craft universe where there are already established players. In the same breath, I would say with no formal family connectivity, not having any doors opened for us, but having to kick every door in as we as we come in. I think not only achieving placement but earning – and I would emphasize earning – the respect of my peers in the business upon entry. It wasn’t the most challenging to earn their respect once I got in front of them, but I think anyone coming into a craft space like that is going to get a great deal of scrutiny.
LS: You have apparel, you have cigars, and now more recently you’ve added Room 101 Gin. I can see why someone in the cigar industry could want to have some kind of spirit as well, but why did you choose Gin?
Booth: A craft spirit to me was an absolute necessity to round out the brand’s offering the way that I envisioned it. In terms of craft spirit, I was obsessed with making ROOM101 gin. Although I enjoy other spirits, for our brand it had to be gin, and there are several reasons why. I started thinking very seriously about craft spirits in 2015, and in 2017 we realized first proof of concept with the product in the market. I believed at the time that gin was next up in terms of its day in the sun for its own boutique-ification. I knew that gin was hyper-versatile, I knew that you could modify and alter the blend drastically by tinkering with the mixture of botanicals that you applied to it, that it didn’t have to be the stereotypical juniper-dominant personality to be gin. So I set out to make a gin that was as universally loved as humanly possible, both in its stance on the shelf as well as how it effects the palate. This, along with everything else we’ve done with our brand, people couldn’t wrap their heads around. I know that many people hailing from the premium tobacco segment would view gin as the anti-spirit of any cigar-smoking experience. That’s because they have this preconceived notion that all gin is made the same and it’s absolutely not.
LS: When you came up with the gin, were you thinking of the cigars in mind as pairings?
Booth: 100%. I had to make a gin that would mix well with the smoking experience. That was one of my chief missions when developing the formula for ROOM101 gin. What we came up with is a formula that’s heavily driven by citrus, allspice, and a higher level of proof, which all provide fire. The brown spirit enthusiast that wants to pair brown spirits with smoking is looking for [that fire]. Gin has that fire without having a lot of weight on the tail end because it’s a clear liquid, and we made it work.
LS: Would ROOM101 be considered craft jewelry or boutique jewelry? Would you still consider it craft? You guys are in Nordstrom’s now, correct?
Booth: Here’s the deal, just like in the cigar business the word ‘boutique’ has been applied to a myriad of products so many times over that you don’t even know what it means anymore. I think that boutique and craft, they’re rooted in the idea that there’s an intimate level of production of any product where the production numbers are lower. The focus and attention to detail and quality are escalated. That’s what you’re paying for amongst many other things
LS: What would you consider boutique or craft in these industries?
Booth: Quite frankly, I’d say it’s aesthetics, it’s based on aesthetic and it’s based on brand presence. Off the cuff, I couldn’t name any major league craft beer brands, but there are craft beer brands that are owned by some of the largest companies in the world. Their production volumes are tremendous, but they’re still craft beer. The only reason that they’re craft beer is because of the way they look.
LS: You just did a deal with STG, can you tell me a little bit about that and what it means for ROOM101?
Booth: First and foremost, I know that the sale of ROOM101 cigars to STG secures and solidifies a place for ROOM101 cigars in the industry globally and into perpetuity. I believe that by positioning the brand with such a major player, we’ve put ourselves on the road to becoming the world’s first globally recognized craft brand in that space. It’s super exciting.
LS: Do you believe that the deal with STG could change the heart of ROOM101 or change the product? It’s such a large corporate company, will that mean changes will be coming with this transition?
Booth: As part of the arrangement with them, I have remained as a creative director for the brand specifically. So I will continue to pilot product development, design, and brand direction. Everything that I have always done for this brand I will continue to do. The chief purpose of that is to maintain the brand’s authentic nucleus and grow outward from there in a healthy and responsible manner.
LS: How did this deal come to fruition and what is the deal today? How much can you talk about that and what it means for our readers?
Booth: I think we had an authentic opportunity to test drive partnership as a byproduct of some design projects I was tasked with by their company a few years ago. I worked with one of their key creative guys, Justin Andrews, to rebuild two of their company-owned brand assets – Sancho Panza and Los Statos de Luxe. It was unbeknownst to me and, I think in the beginning, unbeknownst to both of us, this was not only a really fun and provocative set of projects, but it was also a way for us to test drive our relationship and what it would be like with each other as a partner.
LS: How have the critics responded to this? Especially because you have one of the biggest cult followings for ROOM101 cigars. What was the feedback you got from the consumer?
Booth: I think if you’re not receiving some level of static, especially as a brand builder and a market disruptor, you’re not loud enough and you’re not creating enough waves to create that type of static. I think there was a minute amount of turbulence from people that were aware of the market and aware of the move. But our core supporters stood by us. I think that they are assigned to the idea that whatever I’m going to do is in the best interest of the brand. If it’s in the best interest of the brand, it is in their best interests as well.
LS: You are one of the most influential, if not the most influential, market disruptor in these industries. Was that something that was done on purpose or something that just ended up happening?
Booth: I think it’s just a byproduct of my authentic mission. I approached these components of our business and these industries authentically, in every way, shape, and form. It was a byproduct of that type of approach that began to disrupt in the first place. Disruption is just a natural byproduct of what I do.
LS: Tell us about the brand rebuild you’ve been doing.
Booth: As a consultant, I was tasked with reimagining, some might say resuscitating, two of their company-owned brand assets, one is Sancho Panza and the other is a brand called Los Statos de Luxe.
LS: How exciting is it for you to work within the STG family on other brands as a creative director?
Booth: It was a lot of fun. I have a great time, that’s one of the things that I do best. I perform that type of function very organically and have a lot of fun doing it. For me, this is not the end-all-be-all, but it is nice to be able to apply what I do with my own brand outwardly with other brand projects and to watch that touch and that care produce results in the market, it’s been a lot of fun for me.
LS: Who are some of the key players at STG right now that you’re working hand-in-hand with?
Booth: I work with all the guys in the marketing department on a regular basis, Steve and Ed as well as Justin “Fuzzy Wuzzy” Andrews, as well as cigar industry legend Chris Tarr, vice president of marketing.
LS: Where do you see the future of ROOM101 as a brand? Are there any other categories you want to expand into?
Booth: For now, we have our hands full with these three main categories, the pillars of the ROOM101 offering. There are definitely things that I have my sights set on for the future, but we’re going to have to wait to see how that all plays out. In terms of my vision for ROOM101 in the near future, It’s very simple. It’s for us to continue to take our place on the global stage as a recognized and respected underground luxury lifestyle brand.
LS: Do you feel that you’ll still be able to hold the same craft with the companies that you are merging with?
Booth: Well, Lincoln, you’re speaking with one of, if not the most stubborn person you have ever encountered in your life. If there was one person that could make that a reality, it would be me. But we’ll see, we’re going to give it our best shot.
LS: Is there anything else that you want to add or touch on that we haven’t spoken about?
Booth: I think my major focus was to highlight the idea that at the hood ornament of all of this branded effort is actually myself. The idea that my ability to create design disrupt transcends category. I’m pretty confident that we covered that, to be honest with you.
LS: You’re very much an artist. Am I wrong?
Booth: Look, I have the blessing and the curse of having both the right and left lobes functioning as cohesively as they can. So you could say I’m an artist and a business person.
LS: Which one do you feel you identify with more?
Booth: It fluctuates. It fluctuates because there are days that are super left-brain heavy for me, and then there are other days that are completely right-brain dominant. I think if I was going to have to choose one, I would definitely pick artist because I would chart my way back to my roots in music. That’s what started this whole thing, but I can hold my own at the boardroom table.
LS: Which one do you think is more important for the brands?
Booth: They’re both critical. Without one, the other one is lost. If you’re only a savage business guy, you have to go out and seek out creatives to help you fulfill that side of your business and round out the picture. If you’re completely an artist, many times you are lost without a business partner.
LS: There’s a credo that I live by that I’ve learned through my years, it’s called the hustler, the entrepreneur, and the businessman. I say that you have to be all three of these things in order to be well-balanced because if you’re a hustler, you’re usually thinking short-term. You want that quick cash, you’re trying to make things quick. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re usually more artistic, you’re about the art of it and the vision of it. If you’re a businessman, you’re about the numbers and you’re about the projections and you’re about the forecasting…But you have to have a percentage of that hustle, you’ve got to get things done and you got to move quick. You have to have that entrepreneurial vision and the foresight of a businessperson to see that we do need to have systems, we do need to have projections, and it all creates this well-balanced person. I think people are in different stages. Do you feel that you started as an entrepreneur, a businessman, or more of a hustler?
Booth: I think I started as a hybridized animal, an entrepreneur and a hustler. But the hustler can never lose that dilithium crystal that powers them. That’s the insatiable appetite for progress and for forward upward momentum. The entrepreneur brings in some heart-driven, more artisanally sculpted planning, maybe some passion project-level stuff. I get what you’re saying and I agree. That’s also giving the entrepreneur the nod as the creative in the trio too.
LS: I believe that most people start off as hustlers and entrepreneurs and then develop into business people, and that’s based on the times you get slapped around in life, that businessman grows and is always growing.
Booth: You earn your stripes.