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The History Boys: John Demsey, Davis Factor

It’s never business as usual when John Demsey and Davis Factor sit down for a selfie.

John Demsey and Davis Factor
Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 02/07/2014

John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., and Davis Factor, cofounder and now head of global creative for Smashbox Cosmetics, have worked closely together since the former’s company acquired the latter’s back in 2010.

This story first appeared in the February 7, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But their connection goes much deeper than shared business goals. Both are passionate consumers of pop culture with a profound knowledge of iconographic photography, classic Hollywood and beauty in all of its iterations, able to translate style into substance in a way that resonates deeply with consumers.

You both share a passion for photography. Was this how you originally bonded?

John Demsey: I’ve known Davis for nearly 17 years, and was a fan of not only what he established with Smashbox Studios, but of his photography, particularly the work he was doing for Italian L’Uomo Vogue. I am a student of pop culture and have a love of cinematography, fashion, glamour, Hollywood and all of that, and Davis is the intersection of all those things.

Davis Factor: What’s great with John is you go to his house and he has the most amazing photo collection. The first time I went, I couldn’t believe it. The coolest thing is that I actually gave John a bunch of photographs that are on his wall now. I’m honored to be up there.  But the hard thing is that John’s got such great taste that it’s like, when he looks at something, he’ll say, “This reminds me of this,” “this reminds me of that.” He sees it and he nails it. His eye is impeccable. I never feel pressure, ever, and I never get nervous, but sometimes when I send John something, I’m like, I hope he likes it. [Laughs.] And he always does.  

Do you share the same taste in photography?

J.D.: I believe we do. We both have a predisposition and love for Richard Avedon, David Bailey and anything Helmut Newton.

D.F.: Which I would love to have a print of, but they’re so expensive, it’s unbelievable. What’s great about Los Angeles is that when I opened up the studio, a lot of photographers came to L.A. to work mostly on location. There was no studio work. So all these stars, like Helmut Newton, started coming. I was around photographers who were the idols I still love to this day. What I ended up seeing, from [Karl] Lagerfeld putting everybody in a line to shake their hands in the morning and say hello to great images that I’ve watched being made here, it’s magnified my love for photography even more.

Now, with digital, there is a revolution in technology that touches all of us. The process is still the same—you still go into hair and makeup, it still takes as long—you still have to go through the creative process. You realize the camera is just a tool.

J.D.: With social media and the whole advent of the selfie, one needs to look camera ready, ready for your close up, 24/7. In this totally connected world the idea of a photo op or taking a good picture now is not a special occasion, but is part of everyday life, which lends itself to the beauty business. You never know when you need to look your best, because everybody is looking at you 24/7.

D.F.: Whoever thought we’d have iPhones and you can be photographed in one second and a million people are looking at it, which makes it even more important that you look better all the time.

J.D.: At the end of the day, it’s not true that anybody can take a good picture. There’s a difference between when a great photographer takes a selfie versus a normal person.

D.F.: I need to do a lot of them until I get to one I like. I’m so much pickier than most people would be, I think.

John, do you shoot at all?

J.D.: I take pictures of my daughter and my pets. I’m not a frustrated photographer. I’m a consumer of imagery, not a creator of it.

Who’s more plugged in?

J.D.: Davis is.

D.F.: Plugged in to this, here, yes. But John’s really plugged into a lot of stuff. I don’t know how he does it.

J.D.: I’m more focused on being unfocused.

D.F.: When John and I get together we don’t really talk about work. We usually talk about stuff that’s going on, like what we did or where we like to go. We both like to seek out culture and look to see what young, hip things are going on, feel the creative energy. We’re both innovators, and we’re not afraid to take chances. I’ve learned so much from John. What John has done has made it possible for me and my brand to do what it did. If it wasn’t for MAC, we wouldn’t be here. It blazed a trail.

John, did you ever know Max Factor?

J.D.: Yes, I did, but I always get confused because there was more than one. There was Max Factor and his son Max Factor.

D.F.: Max Factor’s son’s real name was Frank, but Frank changed his name to Max. When my great-grandfather died, they decided there needed to be another Max.

J.D.: I met Davis’ grandfather, who used to have a cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the summer.

D.F.: No, that was Max, my uncle. He lived at the hotel forever. There’s Maxine as well, my great-aunt. There was Max Senior, Max Junior and Max the third. 

J.D.: This is all very exciting and confusing because Leonard Lauder can’t remember which Max Factor he met either. But we know Davis Factor and that’s all that matters right now.