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Aerin Lauder: Building on a Family’s Legacy

Following in the footsteps of her larger-than-life grandmother, Aerin Lauder has become a brand.

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Aerin Lauder

John Aquino

Assorted Aerin-branded items.

Assorted Aerin-branded items.

John Aquino

A brass flower pot from the Home Objet collection.

A brass flower pot from the Home Objet collection.

Courtesy Photo

Following in the footsteps of her larger-than-life grandmother, Aerin Lauder has become a brand.

This story first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That has become obvious in the last nine months as the 43-year-old granddaughter of Estée Lauder crisscrossed North America with side trips to the U.K. to make a half-dozen in-store appearances and press the flesh at beauty adviser breakfasts. All of this was driven by a need to support and promote the first three installments of what will be a sprawling array of merchandise, comprising a lifestyle brand emblazoned with the name Aerin, with different product categories licensed to different companies, ranging from cosmetics to jewelry to shoes to lamps, furniture and rugs.

The Aerin Beauty collection and the home fragrance candles were the first categories launched last fall, followed by the home object collection during the holidays. Footwear, fashion jewelry and sunglasses were unveiled this spring. This fall the brand will be expanded to include furniture, interior lighting, fabrics, trimmings and area rugs, tabletop wear and home and decorative accessories. For good measure, Lauder will also come out in the fall with a book, “Beauty at Home,” published by the Potter Style division of Random House.

Lauder and her Aerin LLC organization declined to break out financial figures, but industry sources speculate that the entire array of product categories could generate more than $100 million combined in retail sales in the third year after the inception of the brand. The breadth of the collection is startling, since it spans continents of merchandising experience from the classic beauty business model with upscale specialty stores to home objects being marketed to interior decorators.

The idea seems to be to decorate the consumer from head to toe and her house from floor to ceiling. It all adds up to roughly 300 stockkeeping units for fall. Many of the merchandise ideas have sprung from Lauder’s life: her lifestyle, her houses (in New York, Wainscott in the Hamptons and Aspen, Colo.) and her travels. That includes a golden deer antler decorative object that sprang from her memories of living in Vienna during 11th grade, when her father, Ronald, was named U.S. ambassador to Austria. Despite how it looked at the time, his daughter now admits it was a great experience.

RELATED STORY: Aerin Lauder’s Inspiration, From Life to Launch >>

Whatever the inspiration, her ideas seem to have struck a chord with the buying public, at least judging from early returns. “It has done extremely well,” said Hazel Wyatt, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics and fragrances at Neiman Marcus. Speaking of the Aerin beauty and home candle collection, she observed, “Customers love the products, they love the packaging and love the lifestyle.” She added that they also love the makeup palette, the simplicity of the brand, its accessibility and ease of use or, as she put it, “weekend aspect.” Wyatt said the lipsticks are popular and the customers “love, love, love” the hand cream.

“The fresh and modern approach to makeup” is the way the brand was described by Deborah Walters, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for cosmetics, fragrances and intimates at Saks Fifth Avenue. She gave Lauder high marks for taking a fresh and classic approach, and said that products due to be added in the fall will make “easy gifts,” thanks in part to the compelling packaging. “I’m pleased with the way it is performing,” Walters said.

Marigay McKee, chief merchant at Harrods in London, said, “When cosmetics are designed by the granddaughter of a world-renowned beauty powerhouse, you know they’re going to be something special; and Aerin Lauder’s much-anticipated collection lives up to the highest of expectations. A pick-me-up in a palette, the new Aerin Holiday Style Collection is a carefully edited line of soft pastel must-haves in pretty shades to create fresh, glowing looks that exude the signature elegant, understated beauty that has so quickly become the brand’s synonymous style.

At Bergdorf Goodman, sales of the Aerin Beauty collection have exceeded expectations after Lauder made an in-store appearance and talked to customers about her vision for the brand. According to Pat Saxby, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics and fragrances, “Our customers find the line appealing due to its simplicity. Aerin created modern products for women on the go, with everything easy to wear and apply.”

Wyatt at Neiman’s said Lauder’s in-store appearance and merchandise debut has drawn a mixed audience of different ages, including a lot of younger, stylishly dressed women in their 20s and 30s. Wyatt noted how Lauder has immersed herself in the product development. “It’s a beautiful brand,” she said. “She has great style. She is creative and talented.”

Here is an in-depth interview with the creator of the brand:

WWD: You’ve spent your life in basically the narrow confines of prestige beauty. What gave you the idea to launch such a multifaceted brand?
Aerin Lauder: Beauty was always my heritage, but my passion really was lifestyle and home and accessories. When I go back to the editorial that I’ve done, a lot of it was about my homes and about living and style and entertaining and the five items I want for fall accessorywise. So really, it completes that next chapter in the sense that I love beauty and the idea of effortless, edited beauty. There is something really modern, really feminine, really appealing about what we’re doing in the world of beauty, but then taking that concept and translating it to the other categories.

Even though beauty was my day job, traveling, art, culture, entertaining, decorating was very much my life. And if you think about what I did at Estée Lauder, it was designing a counter, picking fabrics, picking the lighting. When we would go to shoots, I would pick all the furniture, the clothing, the environment, the location.

WWD: In your role at Lauder, you became an expert on the history of advertising the brand, which in the Seventies and Eighties was extremely aspirational.
A.L.:
And lifestyle. Estée was one of the first to create these wonderful lifestyle images and sometimes there wasn’t even product in the ads. One of her most famous ads was a woman standing by a piano in a beautiful living room for Private Collection.

We’re creating these lifestyle images for a new generation. If you go to the Web site, it’s the tabletop, it’s a birthday cake with glasses, it’s things on your vanity. There is something really interesting about lifestyle. People of all ages are drawn to that.

WWD: Was there a moment where all this crystallized — when you said to yourself, Enough with the lipsticks, I’m going to pursue my real passion?
A.L.:
After being creative director for many years at Estée Lauder, I felt I was watching consumers, watching their buying trends, understanding what they were looking for and how women shop multicategory. There was such a success with all these different Web sites where you could shop cross-category that was fascinating. When I focus-grouped the concept in the U.S. and China, I was excited and blown away by the results. We saw 82 percent and higher purchase intent across all three categories. China was 98 percent. People really loved the idea of buying home elements, accessories and beauty.

It was very credible because there was a person behind it, a story, authenticity. I’m 43 years old, I have two young boys, I live a busy life, I have a career. I do like to entertain and design my homes and at the same time incorporate the other elements into it. When I went to High Point and presented all of our furniture, lighting and fabrics, the response was extraordinary because there is that element of artistic sensibility and global influence. I’ve lived in Europe, I have traveled quite a bit. Estée was such a wonderful icon because she lived in London a few months of the year, and the south of France, and she really encouraged her family to live that way as well.

Of course, I went kicking and screaming in 11th grade to Vienna, but now I look back and it was a wonderful experience. We traveled every weekend together as a family. We experienced a completely different life and I’m thankful for that because it really opened up my eyes in a different way.

WWD: Was there some kind of event or anniversary or birthday that made the light go on?
A.L.:
Probably my 40th birthday. My children were getting older and my life was changing a little bit. I had been at Estée Lauder for many years and I had always had this side passion for home.

WWD: Was there anybody giving you advice?
A.L.:
People were constantly saying I should do this, people who I really respected within the industry and are geniuses in marketing and branding. Kevin Roberts from Saatchi & Saatchi, Faith Popcorn. I started to explore it and it’s become a reality.

WWD: You’re continuing the entrepreneurial history of the family.
A.L.:
Yes. It’s wonderful because we’re doing it as licensing. That’s a perfect scenario, because something I’ve learned from my uncle [Leonard A. Lauder] is finding the right partners with the right product and the right management. Our partners are extraordinary.

WWD: How did you pick the categories?
A.L.:
We wanted to go into home — lighting, fabric, furniture. From there, we started meeting different partners, understanding the distribution, the quality, their management. I have an extraordinary team here who’ve had a tremendous amount of experience in those categories. And accessories, in the sense of jewelry and shoes and sunglasses, because they are the finishing touches of a look, similar to a lipstick. It’s the necklace, it’s the lipstick, it’s the shoe. It’s that idea of head to toe.

RELATED STORY: Aerin Lauder’s Licensees, Interpreting a Vision >>

WWD: Everybody wants to know when ready-to-wear is coming.
A.L.:
Not for a long time. We have a lot going on. I really do love focusing on the accessories and the home. The home idea is kind of interesting. It is like accessories for your home. It’s those beautiful objects, picture frames, gold-dipped birds, sea urchins.

WWD: How do the partnerships work? Who does the designing and the creating?
A.L.:
I do the designing and creating with someone from their team. We conceptualize based on trend, color trend, lifestyle trend, ideas. It can be inspired by anything from a piece of art to a picnic basket. We have a wonderful team of designers on our side and their side and working together.

WWD: When you pick a partner, you’re looking for people that are on your wavelength as far as taste?
A.L.:
Taste, style, distribution, management: All the different elements are really important. It’s not just about getting the product out quickly, it’s getting the right product out to the right stores.

WWD: This is pretty brave, to go off and start your own company. Do you ever worry?
A.L.:
I do, of course, I worry. But it’s exciting. I was ready for another adventure and this has always been a dream. It’s kind of a dream come true.

WWD: You’re going off on your own and basically doing what your grandmother did.
A.L.:
I am basically doing what she did. She had a dream, she followed it, she thought outside the box. This is a new way of distributing product, the idea of going across categories and going into a woman’s vanity or bookshelf and all the elements that make her smile.

WWD: Do you feel the pressure of having to prove something?
A.L.:
It’s not easy. The day is completely full. It’s your name on it, it has to be the best it can possibly be. I have a tremendous amount of pressure, but I do well under pressure. I love what I do. I love coming to the office every day, I love the team that I’ve put together, I love the product. I keep e-mailing [jewelry producer] Erickson Beamon — I want those gold bangles desperately. There’s something really exciting about that. I love that friends are calling me saying they purchased the shoes or they just saw something in a magazine.

WWD: There is also the pressure of proving that you’re a bona-fide businesswoman. This is not a vanity business, not a hobby.
A.L.:
No, this is a real business. I do have a very strong business sense. I come from a very business-oriented family and I understand the importance of the cost of goods and sampling and the return on your investment. We make decisions all day long based on what we should and shouldn’t do.

WWD: I interviewed Ivanka Trump about her fragrance and she started rattling off all of her categories that she produces. There is a group of young professional women who are starting lifestyle businesses for other young professional women. Their mothers are usually socialites and they are creating businesses.
A.L.:
There is definitely a trend in that business.

WWD: Do you see your generation as different from your mother’s generation?
A.L.:
I think it is. My mother has always been very involved with the arts, so I always saw her passionate about what she did. My mother wasn’t the typical mother. She encouraged me to always follow my dreams and work hard and do whatever I do well.

WWD: Let’s talk about the categories you’ve launched so far, starting with beauty. How did the launch go?
A.L.:
It went very, very well. We launched beauty last August with an interesting concept based on the idea of edited, effortless beauty. People loved the idea of beauty made a bit more simple, of not so much choice but the right choice. We had [Beauty] Essentials, which are still in the lineup today, and four [seasonal] collections a year, either based on a lifestyle trend or a fashion trend. Right now, we’re in beach mode so it’s all seashell, beach-inspired color. What’s exciting is that the beach-inspired color also corresponds with the Amalfi Coast turquoise necklace as well as the sunglasses. The makeup bag is in a yellow and white ikat so it becomes a very cohesive beach shell-inspired story, even down to the point that the objects we’re selling are gold-dipped shells. The beauty corresponds to the home which corresponds to the accessories.

WWD: What were the bestsellers?
A.L.:
The nude lipsticks. People love the nude lipstick and the lip conditioner, and they also love the hand-and-body cream. It’s this interesting modern, feminine take on beauty. There’s a lot of modern out there and there’s a lot of feminine, but the combination of modern and feminine makes it unique and very appealing to a certain type of consumer.

WWD: You’re going to do additions each season across the categories?
A.L.:
Correct. So the woman who is shopping in our concept store in Southampton, for example, can buy the beach cream, the nude lip gloss, the shell clutch, the makeup bag that looks supersummery and beautiful, a shell object maybe to give to a friend as a hostess gift and a really pretty gold bracelet that can be worn day or night. It all becomes very much a cohesive lifestyle point of view.

For fall, we’re doing New York City color. We’re doing uptown, downtown. The shades are named after streets or museums or buildings. So once again it becomes this cohesive story.

WWD: Across all the categories it’s the same idea, it’s things you need for that season?
A.L.:
Yes, and at the same time, with the home element, it all becomes very focused. It’s that element of muted gold for your home, burled wood, amazing vases, objects, juxtaposed with color that’s kind of urban and understated mixed with the shoes and the jewelry and it all becomes one story. 

WWD: What kind of furniture are you doing?
A.L.:
We’re doing a wide array — sofas, chairs, coffee tables, bookshelves, desks. Furniture is interesting, because it’s very much to the trade and showrooms, and then certain stores, more internationally.

WWD: What is the distribution strategy?
A.L.:
The beauty is distributed in specialty stores and the accessories are also in that world. The shoes are in Saks and Nordstrom and home objects are in specialty stores like Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf’s and Saks. The furniture and lighting is a different business model. It goes more to the trade and is more international. The beauty and accessories are in about 100 stores in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The furniture and lighting is not being sold until the fall and that’s going to be in stores internationally and domestically. We’re still finalizing those doors.

WWD: Meanwhile you still have your job at Estée Lauder as style and image director, so you’re basically…
A.L.:
Running back and forth, back and forth.

WWD: Two sides of yourself.
A.L.:
It is two sides, but it’s two complete sides because the Estée Lauder consumer is very much this consumer as well. It’s about style and luxury and edit and quality and storytelling.

WWD: Who runs the [Aerin] brand at Lauder?

A.L.: Jane [Hertzmark Hudis] and Francesca [Damato], who is head of the beauty and marketing and reports to Jane.

WWD: How does it work?
A.L.:
I am very involved with everything. I just was e-mailing Jane two days ago, we were all in L.A. for an Estée Lauder meeting. She took a red-eye home, I took a late flight home and the next day I was e-mailing her about a tester unit for something that we were doing. I am very, very involved with everything.

WWD: You launched the candles for holiday, and they’ve already won a FiFi Award. Did they sell well?
A.L.:
They did. They’re all flower- and spice-inspired, and we used Lee Jofa fabric. We did it with Nest, who has been a wonderful partner. The packaging is beautiful. It’s a wonderful presentation. It’s the ultimate hostess gift or birthday gift. I love the glass because it’s so simple, modern and feminine. Even when you’re finished with them, you can use them for flowers or pencils. They’re really pretty, you want to keep them.

WWD: Are you thinking about expanding the line or are you going to do the same with this and come out with seasonal candles?
A.L.:
We’re going to do a holiday candle for next year, changing the packaging. I’ve been trained by Estée Lauder and I have a holiday wrap coming out for Aerin Beauty and Aerin the brand and then the candle then will be incorporated into that.

WWD: Do you think you might add another fragrance?
A.L.:
You’ll see. We are going to add to our Essentials Collection. We’re going to do a lipstick and tinted moisturizer.

WWD: Sort of ease into it.
A.L.:
Yes. What’s extraordinary is that the challenge that we had was how do you grow the Estée Lauder business and how do you bring a new consumer in. The numbers show that at the counters where Aerin Beauty is, sales have increased and brought in a new consumer.

WWD: Switching gears to the home objects category — when did that launch?
A.L.:
The Objet Collection we did for holiday. We did very well with that, which was exciting. It was a focus on gold and gold elements for the home. For spring, our color story is all about a garden in bloom.

WWD: How is the pricing structure for the brand overall?
A.L.:
In terms of beauty, it’s a little higher than Estée Lauder but not as high as Tom Ford. Some of the home is a little bit higher, but we have a variety. Everything we do has different price points, so we have these wonderful wine stoppers that are $75 and a wonderful entry level into the world of home. And then a bowl that is a couple thousand dollars. We have something for everyone.

WWD: In looking through the various levels of inspiration and aspiration, are we talking about the same customer?
A.L.:
I think it is the same customer, because the way women shop today is high and low. People buy something from Target and they buy something from Bergdorf Goodman. That’s the way a modern woman lives and shops, whether it’s for her home, her fashion, her beauty. There is something very real about that. There is always an element to a brand that you wish for. There’s always something you can dream for and there is something very appealing about that.

WWD: So you’re going to have women from head to toe and the house from ceiling to floor?
A.L.:
When you see it all together, don’t you see how it feels very much like one point of view?

WWD: When are we going to see everything with this huge sign that says Aerin hanging from the ceiling?
A.L.:
Our first “world of” store is going to be in Southampton. We’re opening it Memorial Day Weekend. It’s this wonderful jewel box on Main Street, where you’re going to have lighting and furniture and beauty and accessories and the whole experience. We’re going to do a seasonal concept store and keep it up through Christmas and change it for the season. Right now, that’s keeping us quite busy. We have just completed a book with Random House about style and beauty that’s coming out in October-November, in time for the holidays. Simon Upton did the photography, who I worked with [on a story for] Elle Decor. He’s got an amazing sensibility.

RELATED STORY: Aerin Lauder to Open Southampton Store >>

WWD: Are there going to be more concept stores?
A.L.:
We’ll see. We have a couple of ideas that we’re thinking of for the anniversary for the following year. Our dream would be to do a shop within a shop with one retailer to create a world of [Aerin].

WWD: Do you plan to continue doing personal appearances?
A.L.:
I love personal appearances and I’ve done quite a few. I’ll continue to do them with the book launch.

WWD: When you do these in-store appearances, who comes? Are they young women like you or older, with Estée stories?
A.L.:
It’s all different ages. It’s not necessarily about an age group, it’s about a state of mind. It’s an interesting brand because it’s very mother-daughter. There’s neutrals for someone who doesn’t want a lot of color but at the same time there’s a very grown-up point of view about it.

WWD: What have you discovered so far in launching these categories? Were you surprised by anything?
A.L.:
Probably the success of the neutral lipsticks. They were sold out that Sunday morning in that perfect nude. Women love nude lipsticks. They really do. They want to feel like they’re wearing a lipstick and they want to have a finished, polished look, but at the same time they want a very neutral color.

WWD: How are you going to expand that part of the line?
A.L.:
You can have different tones of nude. If you get a lot of women to look at nude lipsticks, everyone has a different point of view. There’s something that’s very that “no makeup makeup,” understated sensibility. It’s that philosophy that people are always looking for. People also love the luxurious packaging. It’s the juxtaposition of the simple gold lipstick case with the perfect nude lipstick inside.

WWD: Is that whole nakeds look coming back?
A.L.:
Nakeds are interesting. There is nothing I love more than a fabulous red lip and what you saw for fall with that touch of color in deep rose — drama is always amazing. But you need that contrast with the perfect nude. That’s why they call the lipstick shade Perfect Nude, because it really is perfect. Women like both. What I also was very intrigued by and excited to see is that other people responded so positively to the idea of edit. There’s so many choices in your life. Everything is too much and there’s something really nice about edit. There’s something very luxurious and special about it.

When I was little, I had, like, one or two Barbie dolls. I didn’t have 20 Barbie dolls. Everything has changed and everything has gotten so much. There’s something about edit and focus that is really appealing to a woman, especially a busy woman. No one has enough hours in their day and there is something nice about going to a counter or a Web site and seeing a collection of a few pieces that are really beautiful and really special, whether it is beauty, home or accessories.

WWD: Has this experience changed your life at all?
A.L.:
It’s made it fuller and it’s made it better. I love what I do and I’m so proud of the product that we’re creating. I love when I see someone wearing our shoes or our lipstick or carrying our bag. It makes me smile. I think if it can make people happy and make them feel good about themselves then I have done a good job.

WWD: What’s the best thing it’s done for you?
A.L.:
It’s probably made me happier. I loved being at Estée Lauder and I loved my job there and I was there for many, many years. It’s still such a part of me. Estée was my grandmother, I loved her to death and I still think about her and her role and her presence and her dream. But this is a wonderful next chapter and great for the Estée Lauder brand because it means truly the ultimate beauty story. People love storytelling. You’re brought up on storytelling as a little child and it continues as you get older and there is something wonderful inspired by living in Europe. There’s a fragrance that we’re doing that’s inspired by a lilac bush that Estée planted that I still have in my house. People love authenticity. They’re aware when a brand is authentic or not.

WWD: Does this inspire you to travel more to find more things?
A.L.:
I need to travel more. I do. I have to find the time, but definitely that is my next New Year’s resolution. I would love to go to Istanbul and Mexico. What’s coming out of Mexico is fascinating — the architecture, the unexpected color combinations.

WWD: What’s the worst thing this has done to you?
A.L.:
I check my Blackberry all night long. I do. I used to always focus just on beauty and now I am focusing on so many different things.

WWD: When do you think it will be that you can say to yourself that you succeeded, that you’ve finally made it, that you can sleep a little more?
A.L.:
Success comes with happiness. If you feel that you love the product and you’re proud of what you’ve created and you’ve made people happy and you’ve changed their lives, to me, that’s success.

WWD: The more prosaic thing is when you get into the black?
A.L.: 
Yes, of course that defines success as well. But for right now, just the anniversary of the first year — when something is sold out and a friend e-mails me that she went on our Web site to buy a shoe and they were sold out and she went to Nordstrom and they were sold out and can I please try to find her a pair, that to me is success, that you create something that people want.

WWD: The licensees all seem to come from different cultures.
A.L.:
They are, but they are the best of the best and that’s something that I think is really important, that I have always been looking for excellence. And I think that’s something that my grandmother always taught me — the most excellent photographer, quality of product.

Jimlar is extraordinary at what they do [shoes]. EJ Victor is extraordinary at what they do [furniture]. The Lee Jofa people [fabrics, trimmings and area rugs], Stephen Elrod [executive vice president and chief creative director at Lee Jofa], Lisa Kravet [executive vice president at Lee Jofa], who I’ve worked very closely with, they are all extraordinary. They are proud of their product; they care about the quality and distribution and execution.

WWD: Do you find yourself dealing with different cultures from one merchandise category to another?
A.L.:
Definitely a retailer meeting with a shoe buyer is very different than a cosmetic buyer or a home buyer. It’s a complete learning experience for me but I always like it.

WWD: What markets are you rolling out to?
A.L.:
[For beauty] it’s the U.S., the U.K. and Canada for right now. In the world of home and accessories, we’re going into Asia in the spring; probably the fall for home and spring for accessories.

 

 

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