NEW YORK —Coty Inc. is one of the most historic and multifaceted companies in the cosmetics business.

It goes back to 1904 when François Coty came to turn-of-the-century Paris to found what we now consider the modern fragrance industry. A century later, the company that bears his name has mushroomed into a beauty conglomerate with products running the gamut from mass to class, touching on every aspect from the fashion looks of Marc Jacobs and Kenneth Cole to the pop stardom of Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion. The company, whose volume hit $1.95 billion for the fiscal year ended June 30, has a complex structure that took its final form in 1996.

The American arm of the firm started by François Coty grew into a mass market fragrance powerhouse before switching gears in the late Nineties as the mood dramatically weakened. It was in that decade that Coty joined with the other elements of its present configuration. In 1992 the company was acquired by consumer products giant Joh. A. Benckiser GmbH of Ludwigshafen, Germany. Two years earlier, Benckiser had purchased the prestige-oriented Lancaster Group from SmithKline Beecham of the U.K. The Chicago-based Quintessence — the mass market successor of Jovan — was acquired in 1994. Also, Benckiser bought the beauty brands of Unilever, including the mass market star Rimmel. The Coty, Quintessence and Rimmel brands provided a mass bulwark as a counterweight to the prestige trademarks of Lancaster, which include European names like Davidoff, Jil Sander, Wolfgang Joop, Vivienne Westwood and Chopard.

This dynamic decade of fusion was orchestrated by Peter Harf, the company’s former chairman and chief executive officer, who also moved the headquarters of the beauty conglomerate from Weisbaden, Germany, to New York. His entrepreneurial streak included forming an alliance with actress and longtime Lancôme face Isabella Rossellini, who joined the company in 1994 as vice president of product development. Five years later, a cosmetics line called Manifesto resulted. Harf also led the company into China by acquiring the business of Yue-Sai Kan. Although it was subsequently sold to L’Oréal, Coty executives said they learned much about the market from the Yue-Sai experience.

While remaining chairman, Harf was succeeded as ceo in 2001 by Bernd Beetz, who arrived with fresh energy and renewed focus. He signed licensing deals with Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion, which reignited Coty’s position in the market and completely revamped industry thinking about celebrity fragrances in general. Beetz also acquired the fragrance licenses of Marc Jacobs and Kenneth Cole as part of his plan to penetrate the U.S. more deeply. These moves, plus the addition of the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen franchise, has the market speculating about what is coming next from Coty. For more, see stories in the following pages.

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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— Pete Born