NEW YORK — Estée Lauder is about to get its own shot of hip-hop Viagra.
The reference to the popular potency drug came from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs just after the entertainment mogul signed a beauty licensing deal with the Estée Lauder Cos. Thursday afternoon for the launch of a yet-to-be-developed men’s fragrance set for fall 2005. In an ensuing interview, Combs likened his red-hot fashion brand to the drug. “Sean John is synonymous with Viagra — we’re on fire,” he said exuberantly, noting the brand’s popularity has even spread to men in their 40s and 50s. He added, “They buy the clothes at Macy’s, then head to the pharmacy for the Viagra.”
The deal also could give a boost to Lauder’s accountants and shareholders. William Lauder, the chief operating officer of Lauder who will step up to the chief executive role July 1, has said previously that the company will only entertain new brands with the potential to ultimately reach a volume of at least $100 million. When asked if this project fits that measure, he said, “I think $100 million is at the low end of our ambition [for this brand].”
The terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Lauder executives do not discuss financial particulars. But industry sources estimated the deal carries a 5 percent royalty for Combs.
The deal confirms a WWD report on Oct. 16.
The signing ceremony took place in a sunlit, 41st floor conference room at Lauder’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue. Befitting the occasion, the cosmetics company accompanied the signing with Tiffany pens, still in their blue boxes. A jovial Combs asked, “Do we get to keep these?”
Earlier, when Lauder put out the welcome mat by distributing flutes of champagne, a helpful Combs offered, “I’ve got some in my trunk if you need it.”
After signing, Combs, who, throughout the meeting, appeared respectful and humble, promised the room that “this will be a great partnership. We have loyal, hardworking people at Sean John. We will make you look better and be sexier.”
He then let out a victorious war whoop.
After leaving the room, Combs commented, “We’ve made [our customers] look good. Now we have to make them smell good.”
At first blush, Combs and Lauder might seem an unlikely pairing. But Lauder, outfitted head to toe in Sean John apparel, disagreed. “In everything we do, we want to be the best — to sign the best designers, the best brand names, to have the best quality. Sean, the person and the brand, represents a unique vision of lifestyle and tradition.” He added that few other designers have grasped the market in the same way, calling Combs a rare “Renaissance man.”
While others were quick to call the deal a venture into the urban market, Combs took exception with the label, saying his vision represented “the new America.”
“Urban is a label that some people put on us,” he said. “It’s really more about fashion and lifestyle. It’s like when Ralph Lauren was coming up and everyone wanted to wear his clothes. We make everyone look good.”
The Combs deal follows a January announcement by Lauder’s Aramis and Designer Fragrances division that it had signed a deal with singer Beyoncé Knowles to help market a new fragrance, True Star, under the company’s Tommy Hilfiger license. True Star will be on the market in the U.S. in September and globally in October.
While it hasn’t been determined which division will distribute the Sean John line, the project will be spearheaded by John Demsey, president of MAC Cosmetics, who will continue to juggle his MAC role with his new responsibilities.
Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, the group president at Lauder who oversees MAC, as well as the Aramis and Designer Fragrances and Estée Lauder-branded divisions, said, “There’s a perfect cultural fit between [MAC and Sean John]. Sean John is a rule-breaker in apparel and MAC is a rule-breaker in beauty.”
As Demsey said: “Today was the beginning of the new world order in terms of fragrance, particularly in terms of men’s fragrance. At 2:45 p.m., we were hitched. At 2:47, I was on the phone trying to put together a product team under the auspices of MAC. Over the next six weeks, we’ll be putting together a team.”
When asked what the parameters of development are, Demsey replied, “To create the biggest fragrance launch of fall 2005. The parameters know no boundaries.”
Combs agreed, saying the business could grow to include a women’s fragrance and even color cosmetics and skin care. He quickly cautioned, however, that the men’s fragrance had to sell first before others followed.
Rumors have abounded for months about other beauty companies vying to sign Combs to a deal, with Elizabeth Arden said to be among the most ardent suitors. Combs noted that, while he’s been approached with other beauty licensing deals, the only offer he seriously considered came from Lauder.
“I’m generally a little antilicense, but when I started getting offers, I knew who I wanted to be with,” he said, comparing Lauder to the New York Yankees. “Just like A-Rod knew which team he wanted to play for, I wanted a partnership with the best. Lauder has always been the best [in beauty]. Also, I am a big fan of John [Demsey’s]; he has great insight in this business. As a young designer, it is encouraging to work with a team that has a great deal of experience and wisdom as we continue to break new ground.”
Jeffrey Tweedy, executive vice president of Sean John, echoed Combs’ praise of Lauder. “When Sean Combs and I started the company, our long-term vision was to establish a lifestyle brand,” he said. “Partnering with Estée Lauder is the next logical step in the development of a global lifestyle brand.”
In addition to playing in Broadway’s revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Combs is having a blockbuster run in the fashion business. His six-year-old Sean John apparel label — said to have done upward of $350 million at retail in the U.S. last year — got some major-league backing last September, when California billionaire Ron Burkle made a $100 million investment in the firm. Combs said at the time the cash infusion would allow him to roll out a women’s line and grow his men’s sportswear collection, as well as open retail stores and expand his international reach. Combs’ fashion line has been nominated for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Menswear Award three times, including this year, and its Perry Ellis Menswear Award, two times.
During his interview Thursday, Combs promised that his long-awaited women’s line would soon hit stores, noting a capsule collection would be introduced first at his new store, set to open at the end of August at 41st Street and Fifth Avenue. A full-blown women’s apparel collection is planned for 2005. “We were clearly missed,” he said of his belated entry into the women’s market, adding that he will show a women’s line during the February 2005 ready-to-wear collections.
Also, as reported, Combs formed a joint venture earlier this year with designer Zac Posen, making an undisclosed investment in Posen’s three-year-old business, Outspoke LLC. Outspoke and Sean John Clothing are equal partners in the venture, which Posen has said will allow him to build infrastructure and expand his collections.
Combs is also the ceo and founder of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, and in addition to releasing four of his own albums, has overseen the careers of a number of hip-hop and rap artists.
And if his successes have been kaleidoscopic, his celebrity has been larger than life, ranging from a romance with Jennifer Lopez to a scrape with the law, resulting in an acquittal on a weapons charge.
Combs acknowledged having “a lot of up and down years,” but attributed his recent successes on Broadway and elsewhere to the pain he endured in running the New York City marathon last fall to raise money for charity.
“That’s the way God works,” he said, adding the marathon was a watershed moment for him. It was then that he moved from being, as he put it, “a big kid in a man’s body” to being a man.
— With contributions from Julee Greenberg