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Robert R. Taylor, Beauty Entrepreneur, Dead at 77

Taylor is credited with making a number of blockbuster moves, including the creation of Softsoap and founding the modern Calvin Klein fragrance business.

A memorial service will be held in November for Robert R. Taylor, the founder of the modern Calvin Klein fragrance business.

This story first appeared in the September 11, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Taylor died Aug. 29 in Newport Beach, Calif., of cancer. He was 77.

Taylor is credited with making a number of blockbuster moves, starting with the creation of Softsoap, the first liquid hand soap with a pump. But his greatest accomplishment started with buying Calvin Klein Cosmetics out of bankruptcy in 1980. He converted what was basically a moribund brand dominated by color cosmetics into a designer fragrance powerhouse.

After a couple of inconclusive years, he recruited as company president a young Robin Burns, who was then in charge of Bloomingdale’s cosmetics division, in mid-1983. After winning over and enlisting Klein’s help, the re-formed team gave birth to the Obsession fragrance, along with its provocative ad campaign, featuring the tag line: “Between love and madness lies obsession.” Klein became the hottest firm in the fragrance industry, with the addition of the equally powerful and enduring Eternity scent. In the process, Klein was one of the first firms to use powerful, mass promotional tools — TV advertising and scented strips in magazines — to ignite and drive prestige market growth.

Burns, who was reached in France at press time, described Taylor’s great entrepreneurial creativity, marketing vision and utter fearlessness. She recalled asking the board for $40 million to support the Obsession launch, an unheard of sum in those days. But she got it, because Taylor was on board. “He thought it was very doable,” she said. “Nobody would have done that.” The funding paid for a saturation TV campaign and three months of scented strip magazine advertising, despite a lack of distribution. As a result, Obsession changed the pace and the manner in which prestige fragrances were launched. Instead of a six-month buildup, a product had to be a hit in two weeks.

“He was a great leader, a great entrepreneur and a creative thinker,” Burns said. She added that he recruited her, even though Burns had no manufacturing experience. He supported her and encouraged risk-taking and inventive thinking.

He always was entrepreneurial. Taylor, born Sept. 1, 1935 in Baltimore, began his career as an intern at Johnson & Johnson and then began to work there. Soon after, Taylor formed his own marketing agency with John Howe, a classmate from Stanford University, where he received his masters in business administration. Taylor wanted to develop and market his own products and, in 1964, at the age of 28, he formed Village Bath Products with a $3,000 investment. Taylor eventually renamed the company Minnetonka Corp., after the suburb of Minneapolis where it was located. The firm, driven by Softsoap and then Calvin Klein, grew into a $200 million, publicly held company. Colgate-Palmolive acquired Minnetonka Corp.’s Village Bath and Softsoap brands in 1987, and two years later, Unilever bought the rest of the company for $376 million, keeping the Calvin Klein brand and selling off the remainder of the business.

After a brief retirement, Taylor reentered the beauty business to help launch Graham Webb International, a line of professional beauty-care products for high-end salons. The company was sold to Wella AG.

He was involved in the fashion business as well, and developed Monterey Bay Clothing Co. More recently, he served as chairman and chief executive officer of Robert Taylor Cos., where he pursued various business and philanthropic ventures.

Taylor was predeceased by his son David. He is survived by his wife Mary Kay; daughters Karen Brandvold and Lori (David) Lawrence, and six grandchildren.

The memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Nov. 24 at The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif.