Byline: Pete Born

NEW YORK — The tony, sedate little world of high-priced luxury skin care is about to shed its white gloves and learn to boogie.
La Prairie Switzerland was a pioneer of the luxury treatment category in U.S. department stores when its placenta-based products — later switched to a bio-engineered plateau — came out of a Swiss clinic in 1978. Now it is about to embark on its most high-profile and aggressive campaign to lure new customers to its counters.
At the heart of the effort lies the launch in September of a collection of six de-aging serums, priced $150 for each 1-oz. bottle.
In addition to the product launch, La Prairie will launch an ambitious $10 million magazine ad campaign and introduce its new spokesmodel, Cornelia Guest, the socialite, philanthropist and horsewoman who will serve as the company’s ambassador.
As part of its new drive, La Prairie previously moved its office around the corner to Fifth Avenue and doubled its space to 12,000 square feet. New testers have been created, not only for the serum line but also the color cosmetics range, and the Web site has been redesigned.
The company plans to bring the entire offensive to a head the weekend of May 11, when the company will host a group of beauty editors at the Delano hotel in Miami. La Prairie will take over the hotel’s spa for a day of pampering, then stage a private concert by Philip Glass. Guest is expected to give a press conference during the weekend.
Lynne Florio, the worldwide president of La Prairie, said she felt it was time to step on the gas, since the economy is slowing down and the future looks tougher.
“A year ago, we realized the economy was going to become tougher,” she said. “It’s time to take advantage of the opportunities at a time when other people may be holding back.”
The economic climate is cooling at a time when the competition within the luxury skin category has been heating up. Florio describes La Prairie’s positioning within the category as holding the highest price points. But the company is not alone by far. It has long competed with the venerable and aristocratic Sisley, a family-owned French firm. And Estee Lauder Cos. entered the fray in 1995 by acquiring Creme de la Mer. Since then the La Mer brand has been on an aggressive growth track.
“Season after season, they have produced exceptional results,” said Deborah Walters, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics and fragrances at Saks Fifth Avenue, referring to La Prairie. Walters credited La Prairie with pioneering the luxury category in the U.S. and attributed the company’s success in part to the “superior science and technology” reflected in a history of “dynamic, innovative product launches.”
However, Walters pinpointed the key to the company’s success as La Prairie’s ability to “individualize products and programs to address customer needs.”
She added that this ability to individualize transcends the business because executives routinely translate and tailor programs, like direct mail promotions, to individual branches of chains like Saks.
Speaking of Florio’s currently aggressive stance, Walters said, ” I applaud her bullishness in the face of what everyone is predicting as a soft year.”
She acknowledged that La Prairie’s campaign comes at a time when the category is heating up. “There’s tremendous activity,” Walters said, “and they are all competing.”
She said that La Prairie ranks in the top five in the purely skin care category.
At Bloomingdale’s, “our La Prairie business is excellent,” said Nancy Feldman, vice president and divisional merchandise manager. “In a somewhat challenging month of March, we picked up 9 percent.”
She attributed the brands success “first and foremost to tremendous products at the high end.” And even though Bloomingdale’s is famous for its well-heeled clientele, the store doesn’t stock a lot of high-end creams. It doesn’t carry Sisley or La Mer, both of which stick to specialty stores.
In addition to the products, there are the programs, Feldman noted, like the direct mail promotions that allow the brand to talk to its customers “on an ongoing basis.” An example is a postcard mailed to highly targeted customers, inviting them to the counter.
“The beauty advisers are good,” she added, “and the relationship is strong.”
Leslie A. Faust, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus, agrees, “It’s a wonderful brand. It’s a quality luxury product and we do very well with it. They also are wonderful to work with; they are so creative and cooperative.”
With a U.S. distribution of 300 doors, mostly specialty stores, and a worldwide network of no more than 4,500 doors, La Prairie is a case study in exclusivity.
And the brand has been flying high, according to Florio, who said its U.S. growth trajectory has been in no less than the double digits. Last year, the worldwide growth rate was 18 percent up from 16 percent the prior year. For the first quarter of this year, the worldwide total was 16 percent.
Florio would not talk numbers, but the sources estimate that La Prairie does more than $50 million at retail in the U.S. and nearly $300 million worldwide. The serums will be launched internationally three or four months after the U.S. debut.
Considering that the U.S. business has been moving ahead at a steady double-digit clip, those sources also estimate that the new serum, once it is in full worldwide distribution, could generate a first-year wholesale volume of $30 million to $45 million globally. The brand is distributed in 82 countries.
The serum line consists of two new items added to four existing serums and reformatted into a new collection.
The lineup includes a skin retexturizer, a hydrator, a vitamin C energy boost, a retinol and Q 10 night time antiwrinkle product, a normalizing serum and a de-sensitizing product.
La Prairie originally made its mark with flashy products like its 1987 Skin Caviar Cream, priced $125 for 1.7 ounces, and Luxe Cream, launched in 1998 at $300 for the same size. A caviar cream for the body followed last September.
One of La Prairie’s staples is its $95 eye cream, which does 8 percent of the worldwide volume in dollars, or nearly $30 million at retail.
Overall, La Prairie does 85 percent of its volume in skin care, 13 percent in color cosmetics and 2 percent in fragrance, which Florio describes as an “accessory.”
The ad campaign, created by Neil Kraft and Manning Abelow, will be in three parts, each consisting of a four-page insert for the serums, the caviar products and the eye cream.
“The competition spurs you on,” Florio noted, pointing out that there are “more women out there willing to spend more on their skin care.”