As he accepted the WWD Beauty Inc Visionary award on Wednesday morning, Leslie H. Wexner was struck by the sense of congeniality among the beauty crowd in attendance.
Wexner, who views himself as a merchant above all else, said, “If [apparel executives] were having an awards ceremony, it would be more like ‘drown and die.’”
Wexner, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of L Brands Inc., has built a $10.4 billion empire by plucking categories out of department stores and creating stand-alone store concepts around them as mighty as Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret and The Limited. He has since sold The Limited, along with several other nameplates, and now presides over five brands, namely Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, Victoria’s Secret Pink, La Senza and Henri Bendel.
“I’m really a retailer. I’ve spent most of my life as a fashion retailer,” Wexner told attendees gathered at The Four Season Restaurant in New York. “I appreciate being honored by an industry that I don’t really feel that I am a member of. Nevertheless, I am happy to be a participant.”
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While Wexner views himself as more of a latecomer to beauty — entering the industry in earnest in 1990 with Victoria’s Secret Beauty and Bath & Body Works — he’s helped to transform the way women shop for personal care by offering a pulsing and exciting alternative to both department stores and drugstores. Asked by Beauty Inc what prompted his move into beauty, Wexner said, “By nature I am very curious, and everybody knows the world is going to change….I began thinking that fashion apparel wasn’t going to be as important in the future as it had been in the past, in terms of defining peoples’ personalities.” He later noted, “Everybody wants to make things in the same place, from the same fabrics….I have one son in college and three kids in high school and they are more concerned about what electronic device they have to express their personality than what clothes they wear.”
Wexner said his inspiration for determining what’s next comes from shoppers. “Just watching customers, I think I can see and sense what they’re interested in and then bring that back to the store.”
Wexner — who on occasion has lobbed zingers about industry competitors, particularly at department stores, which he recently described as “irrelevant” — struck a humble and warm tone on Wednesday at the awards ceremony. He recalled that when he began venturing into beauty territory, he found inspiration and a graciousness from the industry’s most formidable titans, each of whom are fellow Visionary award recipients. They include Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.; L’Oréal’s former honorary chairman Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, and Yoshiharu Fukuhara, the honorary chairman of Shiseido Co. Ltd.
“When I thought about going into the beauty business, and about who I could talk to and learn from, I made a short list and at the top of the list was Leonard Lauder,” Wexner told the crowd, which included the beauty executive. Wexner recalled how generous Lauder had been in showing him what makes the industry tick. As he told Beauty Inc with a laugh, “I thought we were dating.”
Next on Wexner’s list was Owen-Jones, who served as L’Oréal’s ceo for nearly two decades. Wexner recalled that Owen-Jones dropped “pearls” of wisdom in English interspersed between long spurts of French commands directed at employees while zipping around Paris in the back of his BMW limo.
He then wrote to Fukuhara in Japan, and the two developed a friendship that included visits back and forth.
“I would not be here today without them,” said Wexner. But he again gently reminded the crowd of his outsider status, saying, “I take great pride from being a winner from Ohio, a different part of the world completely.”
Wexner has worked to encourage a strong sense of philanthropy across his corporation.
“Our company tries to do good while it does well,” he said, adding that the firm’s employees personally apply that mission across various community efforts.
For instance, over the last 15 years or so, the company has raised nearly $120 million across the organization for the United Way and donated one million hours of service to various causes.
Over the last five years, the company has helped raise approximately $20 million for the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, and each year it amasses the largest team — some 11,000 people — for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, he added.
“If there is a vision that I am proud of, it’s clearly this achievement, but most of it rests in the power and respect and quality of the enterprise,” said Wexner. “I wouldn’t be here today, but for that I am representing and have the privilege of working with literally the best people in the world.”