NEW YORK — An epoch has ended.
Estée Lauder, the last of the American beauty queens who symbolized and defined the growth of the modern beauty industry, is dead. She was 95 years old, according to New York State Board of Elections records, although some reports say she was two years older, or 97.
She died late Saturday at home in Manhattan due to cardiopulmonary arrest, according to a spokeswoman at the Estée Lauder Cos., the firm that she founded with her husband Joseph in 1946 that went public in 1995. A private internment, attended by the family, was held Sunday. A memorial service is expected, but details have not yet been arranged.
Lauder either invented, developed or established many of the commonly used sales and marketing techniques that serve as today’s mainstay of department store beauty marketing and merchandising. Anecdotes and recollections of Estée Lauder’s rise to power and colorful reign became so plentiful that they provided a folklore for the modern American cosmetics industry.
Lauder went from peddling a handful of products to beauty salons in the New York area to chairing an international beauty powerhouse with a volume of $5.12 billion. She did so with a mix of tenacity and style and an unshakable belief in herself, her products and — perhaps most importantly — her family.
Her son, Leonard A. Lauder, who helped build the company and remains chairman, said, “My mother was passionate about three things: her family, the wonderful company she founded and her mission of bringing beauty into the lives of women everywhere. She was an inspiration to the women she touched through her products and appearances through the years, the employees of the Estée Lauder Companies and, above all, to her family.”
Her other son, Ronald Lauder, chairman of Clinique Laboratories, added, “My mother was not only a rare business woman, but also an extraordinary mother, grandmother and wife. She brought joy, unique vision and determination to all things.”
Philip Miller, a former Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field’s chief executive officer, said that at Saks, the first major store to carry Lauder, “It was always a major happening when she came into the store. She really was one of the originators and founders of the beauty industry as we know it today.” On a more personal note, Miller added, “Estée was so bright, so straightforward and always very direct. She was also a very loving, passionate person, in terms of her family, her friends and her business.”
“Estée was an extraordinary woman who had a vision of her company and of herself as being the best, and she managed to deliver,” said Marvin Traub, a partner of Financo Inc. and former chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s, who has known the Lauders for 40 years. “There was nothing like Estée behind a counter telling a woman how beautiful she was with Estée Lauder products.”
And she was relentless. Traub remembers visiting her in a lavish flower-decked stateroom on an ocean liner as she was about to leave New York on a trip. It was in the mid-Sixties and the company was trying to obtain a good location for a Clinique counter at Bloomingdale’s. Even as the ship was about to sail, Traub remembers Estée making one last last pitch. “I can’t live unless you give us the right location,” she implored. And he did.
The current chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s, Michael Gould, said, “She was an enormously powerful and stylish women with a mind-boggling vision that her son Leonard embraced and took to new dimensions.”
“The scope of today’s industry is a good deal attributable to her,” said Robert Mettler, chairman and ceo of Macy’s West. “She set the stage for development,” he said, describing her legacy as that of an icon imbued with creativity and passion.
“She was an absolute creative genius,” said Fred Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises. “It’s unbelievable to think first about the business she created and what it evolved into over the years.”
Fred Langhammer, Lauder’s president and ceo, said, “I had the privilege to know and work with Mrs. Lauder and witnessed, firsthand, how she was able to bring out the best in both her employees and her customers. I learned a great deal from her.”
“She created a whole new industry,” said George Friedman, an industry leader who was involved in the early development of Clinique and Aramis. “She created the prestige cosmetics and fragrance industry. Before her, it didn’t exist. England has Queen Elizabeth and we have Estée Lauder. She was a woman of extraordinary style and presence, and had incredible energy and originality.”
“Estée changed the whole landscape of the industry,” said Jack Wiswall, president of the Designer Fragrances Division at L’Oréal USA. “She put the bar so high that everybody else had to play catch-up. For so many years, she sort of became the industry. She’s the one who started gift-with-purchase and just elevated the whole bar for everybody else to go over. In the Sixties, her business exploded. Once, there was a sales meeting for the entire field force to introduce the Estée fragrance. She looked out at the whole group and there we were in an array of thin ties. She said, ‘All the ladies look very fashionable, but you gentlemen obviously have no fashion sense.’ We all traipsed over to De Pina. She applauded when we got back. She used that as a reminder that we had to stay up to date.”
Wiswall also recalled, “When I met her, her only question was, ‘Can you dance?’ The Lauder Cos. had a party at the penthouse at the Hilton and you were required to dance with the beauty advisers. Not eat, dance. At the end of the evening we sat on the floor and had dinner. There were seven days of parties.”
Carlotta Jacobson, president of Cosmetic Executive Women and former beauty editor at Harper’s Bazaar, remembered, “I don’t think there’s anyone else like her. She was a cross between a tycoon and your grandmother. You’d go out and she’d be all about business, but then if I didn’t finish my lunch she would say to the waiter, ‘Don’t take it away from her.’ She would order her dessert with her main course — just in case they ran out. You’d love to watch the response. And she was the first person to ever go through my purse. She said, ‘What do you have?’ I was happy that I had a Lauder product. It must have been a lipstick. She taught me an important lesson: to always carry the product of the person you’re meeting with. She could turn into a makeup artist in a minute. Her whole saying was ‘You have to have glow.’ And she was very happy when I married my second husband, who was Jewish. Now of course we’re divorced, so she can’t be right about everything.”
“Estée Lauder was the last and greatest entrepreneur of the cosmetics and fragrance industry,” said Eugene Grisanti, a former chairman of International Flavors & Fragrances, which supplied most of Lauder’s fragrances during the company’s formative years. “She had an unerring instinct for the market.”
Lauder was never one to miss an opportunity to promote her products. In 1978, as Yves Saint Laurent launched Opium, Lauder quipped, “When I saw Saint Laurent’s Opium, I nearly passed out,” she said. “Opium is my Youth Dew with a tassle.”
Lauder grabbed hold of the American dream at an early age and refused to let go, rising from the child of middle class European immigrants to one of the richest women in the country, who hobnobbed with royalty, national politicians and society leaders.
Lauder rose to power in the era of the self-made beauty titans. She and her larger-than-life contemporaries and rivals — Revlon founder Charles Revson, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden — established the practices and products that are standard procedure today, from seasonal color promotions to gifts-with-purchase to glamorous advertising. But the company that Lauder built managed to avoid the reversals of fortune that plagued Revlon, Arden and Rubinstein.
Lauder not only outlived the beauty pack, she survived long enough to see her company evolve into one of the largest and most successful beauty companies in the world because of the work of her handpicked successor, her son Leonard.
She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Corona, a working-class section of the borough of Queens, N.Y. The family called her Esty; Lauder’s school teacher changed the spelling and added the French accent. Her exact age is not known, as Lauder preferred to be vague on the subject, calling it the biggest secret since D-Day. The Board of Elections, however, listed her date of birth as July 1, 1908.
Estée Lauder loved doing makeovers on friends and strangers alike, and some say she couldn’t resist performing one on her childhood. In her autobiography, “Estée: A Success Story,” published by Random House in 1985, Lauder described her Czech father, Max Mentzer, as “an elegant, dapper monarchist” who left behind a privileged life when he emigrated to America. Her mother, Rose Schotz, was a Hungarian beauty with six children from a previous marriage and a penchant for skin creams and spas.
In a 1969 interview with WWD, she recalled a comfortable childhood, growing up in a large private house in Flushing, N.Y., with a stable. Her father bought and ran a hardware store while her mother tended to the children. But Lee Israel, in the unauthorized biography “Estée Lauder: Behind the Magic,” described Lauder’s parents as immigrants of modest means.
The Birth of a Billion-Dollar Business
Lauder hated that people thought hers was a rags to riches story. “Too many people think I started my business in my kitchen on West End Avenue with a jar of homemade face cream,” she said.
Instead, she started with some products developed by her uncle, a Viennese chemist named Dr. John Schotz, who moved in with the family during World War I. The Mentzers built a lab for him next to their stable. Skin care products were his specialty, and he taught his young niece all he knew.
Through high school and her early days as a newlywed —?she married Joseph Lauder in 1930 — Lauder tinkered with the creams, trying them out on friends and acquaintances. Her big break came from Florence Morris, the owner of House of Ash Blondes, the West 72nd Street salon where Lauder went to get her “blondeness renewed,” as she liked to call it. After Morris asked what Lauder’s skin care secrets were, the budding entrepreneur brought in some cleansing oil, her Creme Pack, her uncle’s Super-Rich All Purpose Creme and a blush-like product she called Glow and tried them on the proprietress. When Morris asked her to run a beauty concession at her new salon at 39 East 60th St., Lauder jumped.
Although obsessed at an early age with helping women look their best physically, Lauder really wanted to be an actress and even secured some small parts at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. Little did she know, she was embarking on a career that would let her combine her love of both beauty and theater and that her name would be not in lights, but on the lips, eyes, cheeks and pulse points of women the world over.
She put her products in black-and-white glass jars and dropped the name her uncle had been using — Floranna, for his wife — in favor of her own.
While women were sitting idly under the dryers, Lauder pounced. She would try her creams on them and make up their faces. What they didn’t buy, she would give them as a sample, even if it was only a sliver of lipstick she shaved off and put in a tiny envelope.
Lauder expanded into other salons in the area and grew the business for several years before attempting to break into department stores. Her first target was Saks Fifth Avenue.
Through her salon business, she sold some products to an assistant buyer at Saks whose face had been scarred in a car accident and to the acne-plagued daughter of a Saks executive. Both of their problems began to clear up.
The word of mouth from this and her existing customer base plus her persistent badgering of Robert Fisk, Saks’ cosmetics buyer, paid off in 1946. Fisk ordered $800 worth of merchandise. To fill the account, Estée and Joseph cooked their creams on a stovetop and sterilized, filled and packed the jars by hand.
Israel wrote in her biography that Lauder’s first department store account was Bonwit Teller; even if it was that store, Lauder showed a lifelong devotion to Saks by frequently introducing new products there.
Lauder’s debut at Saks also marked the major launch of the practice Lauder would become well-known for — gift-with-purchase. She believed women would “walk a mile for a brilliant new lipstick color,” especially a free one.
The Art of Promotion
Today, several major companies routinely depend upon this promotional tool for 30 percent or more of their annual volume. But not all industry executives look upon this Lauder legacy with fondness. Some competitors, especially those who have not mastered the knack of making money with gwp’s, consider this expensive practice the bane of the industry because it encourages customers to wait until promotions to buy their cosmetics and fragrances. Others see such promotional tricks as cheapening the image of a brand. But when done right, gwp’s were the engine of department store selling throughout much of the Nineties.
Ironically, Lauder initially embraced sampling and gwp’s because her young company didn’t have enough money to advertise. There wasn’t an ad agency around interested in Lauder’s meager $50,000 ad budget. Today, the Estée Lauder Cos. is one of the biggest advertisers in the world and reportedly spends close to a billion dollars on advertising and promotions annually.
The company also couldn’t afford a sales staff to service department and drugstores, which is why they concentrated on the prestige outlets. It was a decision that, unbeknownst to the Lauders, would work to the company’s advantage, as the industry would later divide sharply between mass and class, with no companies successfully straddling both. It also helped cement the brand’s image as a provider of prestige products.
In those early lean days, family, friends, lawyers and accountants tried to discourage the young couple, but Joseph and Estée plunged ahead. First-year sales were $50,000. “Expenses ate up just about every dime,’’ Lauder said.
It would be 14 years until Estée Lauder made its first million, but many people knew the company had potential far beyond that amount. In the Fifties, Sam Rubin of Fabergé offered to buy the company for an even $1 million. Lauder turned him down, as she would successive interested parties.
Getting to that $1 million mark was no easy task, as Lauder admitted much later in her career. “I cried more than I ate. There was constant work, constant attention to detail, lost hours of sleep, worries, heartache,” she said.
After Saks, she expanded into other department stores. Lauder herself would travel to each location to train the sales associates, set out the merchandise and meet customers. At the stores, Lauder would befriend the salespeople in other departments and give them samples in the hopes that they would steer customers toward her cosmetics counter. She would also meet with newspaper and magazine editors in the area and give them free samples.
It was Lauder herself who helped the company go international. She wanted the Estée Lauder brand’s first international outlet to be Harrod’s in London, although the cosmetics buyer of the venerable British store didn’t share her vision. But Lauder had a plan of attack. She wooed the city’s beauty editors, hoping their written endorsements would help change the buyer’s mind. The buyer relented after a year.
Lauder faced a similar barrier when trying to enter France. After being spurned by Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Lauder couldn’t resist spilling her Youth Dew fragrance on the floor, knowing customers would ask where they could buy the scent. The ploy worked.
One of Lauder’s selling tools was the personal appearance, where she would meet and greet customers, sign autographs and do makeovers. She made her first official appearance at the Frost Brothers Department Store in San Antonio, Tex.
In fact, Lauder conducted herself as a roving ambassador for the brand and seemed to view life as one permanent personal appearance. She couldn’t resist trying to convert strangers into customers, whether on an elevator or a train. More than a few beauty editors remember Lauder coming at them, blush and brush in hand.
On the way to a store opening in Utah, Lauder met a Salvation Army worker with skin “as dry as the Arizona desert” and pounced on the girl with moisturizer, Honey Glow powder and turquoise eye shadow. “Just because you’re in the service of the Lord,” Lauder said, “doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful.” Lauder and the young woman remained pen pals for years.
Overall, Lauder thought well of her customers. Perhaps one of the secrets to her success is that she felt they had the same likes and dislikes as herself. “My very special brand of customers appreciated quality and wouldn’t accept second best,” she said. “They were willing to pay for the best even if they weren’t wealthy. They would do without before they bought an inferior product. In short, my customers had good taste.”
As Lauder worked to build her company, she struggled with the working mother dilemma — decades before it became a popular issue. “Perhaps I missed some small part of my sons’ growing up,” she said of her two boys, Leonard, born in 1933, and Ronald, born in 1944. “Perhaps I was not there at one or two crucial moments, but I was building something for all of us.”
Although she earned a reputation as an iron fist in a velvet glove, Lauder certainly had her tender, motherly moments. Leonard remembered her dropping Hershey’s Kisses into his glasses of milk to make sure he drank them.
When it came to business, she also had her steely side. Miller remembers when he was a divisional merchandise manager of Filene’s in Boston in the late Sixties, his cosmetics buyer had dropped Lauder over a dispute. “He threw the line out of the store,” Miller recalled. “So I spent my entire tenure as a divisional trying to get the line back. With Maurice Lazarus and Harold Krensky [the two top executives of the store back then], we made monthly trips to New York to visit the Lauders. We were on our hands and knees begging Leonard and Estée to sell us again and they never did, at least through my tenure. She had a very good memory and a reasonably sized ego, and it was insulting for her to get dropped.”
Lauder’s transition from one of many beauty companies to an industry force came with the 1953 debut of Youth Dew, a bath oil that doubled as a perfume, with a high concentration of essential oils. At that time, women didn’t buy perfume for themselves, but they did buy bath oil. “It was unthinkable, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and even decadent to treat yourself to fragrance,’’ Lauder wrote in her autobiography.
Youth Dew was a huge hit with everyone from New York cabbies who bought it for their wives to celebrities like Joan Crawford and Dolores Del Rio who told interviewers they wore the scent. The ad for the fragrance, which was racy for its day, featured a soft-focus shot of a nude woman and copy that read “How to Have a Younger Body. Youth-Dew Bath Oil…so very French it doubles as a delicious, lingering perfume.”
In its first year, $50,000 worth of Youth Dew was sold; that number grew to $150 million by 1984. The Estée Lauder fragrance lineup grew to include Aliage, Azuree, Estée, Cinnabar, White Linen, Lauder for Men, Metropolis, Private Collection, Beautiful, Pleasures for women and men, Dazzling Gold and Dazzling Silver, Spellbound, Tuscany per Donna, Intuition for women and men and the fall 2003, entry Beyond Paradise.
Expanding the Assortment
In 1964, the men’s fragrance line Aramis was introduced. It didn’t sell well, so it was relaunched two years later with an entire line of men’s treatment products. Aramis went on to pioneer the concept of a prestige-priced men’s fragrance at a time when most colognes were mass-market products, like Brut, pitched by celebrity athletes. It became a thriving business before being eclipsed by designer men’s scents in the Eighties and Nineties. A successful men’s skin care brand, later spun off with its own identity, helped bolster the division that now includes a number of Tommy Hilfiger fragrances. Superstar Beyoncé signed on to be the face of the latest Hilfiger scent, due out in the fall.
One component missing from the company’s fragrance holdings until the Nineties was a designer name. Lauder had a contract with Emanuel Ungaro, but Lauder’s strong competitive streak got in the way. The contract was dissolved in 1970, as Leonard came to realize that the company didn’t need a second real name that could potentially rival his mother’s.
But Lauder’s competitors went on to profit mightily from designer names like Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, which no doubt inspired the company to sign licensing agreements with Hilfiger and Donna Karan, in 1993 and 1997 respectively, as well as with Kate Spade in 1999 (the products bowed in early 2002). The company also acquired the Michael Kors beauty license from LVMH last year.
One area where Lauder was not threatened was in cosmetics. She didn’t mind owning brands that could present a challenge to her signature line. In 1967, the company began work on a hypoallergenic line of products for women with sensitive skin. Such cosmetics already existed, but they smelled medicinal and were sold in drugstores. The decision was made to market the line under its own name rather than the Estée Lauder name to avoid customer confusion.
Carol Phillips, the managing editor of Vogue at the time, and Dr. Norman Orentreich, who ran a popular skin clinic, were brought on board to work on the project. The code name was Miss Lauder.
In September 1968, the line known as Clinique was launched at Saks Fifth Avenue. It would be several years before it was considered a success, but today Clinique represents approximately $2 billion globally in retail sales.
In 1979, the company introduced Prescriptives, which spoke to a younger, more fashion-conscious consumer. With the exception of Origins, which the Lauder Cos. introduced in 1990, the company strategy shifted from building brands from scratch to acquisitions, which included several makeup artist brands, two salon brands, and several upscale skin care companies, including Creme de la Mer, Darphin and Rodan & Fields.
The company acquired a majority equity interest in MAC Cosmetics, a top makeup artist brand, in 1994, completing the acquisition in 1998. Makeup artist brand Bobbi Brown was acquired in 1995. In 1997, the company acquired Sassaby, Inc., owner of the color cosmetics brand Jane, and subsequently sold it this year. Aveda, a leader in the U.S. prestige hair care industry, also was acquired by the firm in 1997.
In 1999, the company added Stila Cosmetics, the Los Angeles-based prestige makeup artist brand, and Jo Malone, the London-based marketer of prestige skin care and fragrance products. In 2000, the company acquired a majority equity interest in New York-based Bumble and bumble LLC, a premiere hair salon, and Bumble and bumble Products LLC, a developer, marketer and distributor of hair care products. In 2003, the company also picked up two more skin care brands, Darphin and Rodan & Fields. The Estée Lauder Companies is also the global licensee for fragrances and cosmetics for the Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan New York, DKNY, Kate Spade and Michael Kors brands.
Today, the Lauder brand’s cosmetics, fragrances, skin care products and hair care items are sold in more than 130 countries and territories and together represent the backbone of prestige beauty departments.
The Rivalry Game
One thing missing from today’s company is a full-blown rivalry. Lauder’s battles with Charles Revson became industry legend. The two were locked in a game of one upmanship. Revson would host a party aboard his massive yacht, the Ultima II, and Lauder would strike back with a party for the Duchess of Windsor. Lauder introduced Clinique, then Revlon quickly followed with his own hypoallergenic line, the ill-fated Etherea. Lauder went into the men’s fragrance business with Aramis, Revlon introduced Braggi. Lauder introduced a fragrance named for herself and Revlon countered with Charlie. Lauder had a deal with Bill Blass “98 percent wrapped up,” recalled Leonard Lauder, when Revlon swooped in with a better deal.
The two sides even conducted their little battle — called the Second War of the Roses by WWD — from the same camp, the General Motors Building at 767 Fifth Ave. It was nicknamed the General Odors Building for its famous occupants and their equally famous fragrances.
“At this point,” Estée Lauder said in 1969, “I wish people would stop copying what we do. They even copy the instructions on the packaging. There is enough room for everyone. I wish people would recognize their own individuality and leave mine alone.”
Lauder also tangled with other rivals. In her early years in the business, she was bold enough to suggest to Helena Rubinstein that her Creme Pack could smooth away the wrinkles on the aging dowager’s neck. And Elizabeth Arden, furious that Lauder had stolen one of her public relations executives, kicked Lauder out of her Paris salon. Lauder, her hair still wet, got up, paid her bill and left.
There was one area in which Lauder had no interest in competing with Revlon: the stock market. Revson took his company public in 1955, but Lauder was adamant about staying privately held despite years of wooing by Wall Street suitors.
But things would eventually change. Leonard Lauder took the company public in 1995. The catalyst was said to be an unfavorable tax ruling regarding his late father’s estate. Joseph Lauder died in 1983.
The stock has done very well since its initial public offering, rising from $26 to Friday’s closing price of $43.72.
The Family in the Family Business
What Lauder seemed to want most of all was to preserve the company as a family-run firm. The matriarch actually wanted the whole company to be one big, happy family, so she hosted company picnics and dances. Factory workers received crates of citrus fruit each holiday season.
Joseph Lauder quit his import-export business to help run the Estée Lauder company full-time. He handled finance and operations, while his wife took care of sales and marketing.
The couple met formally at the Rock Hill Lodge in Peekskill where Lauder’s family had a vacation home. They married in 1930. Joseph’s last name was originally Lauter, but the newlyweds decided to change it back to the original Austrian spelling. They divorced in 1939 because, as Lauder admitted, she “did not know how to be Mrs. Joseph Lauder and Estée Lauder at the same time.”
After four years of single life, they remarried. Shortly after, Lauder gave birth to Ronald.
Joseph passed away in 1983, the same year that the company introduced the J.H.L. fragrance in tribute to him. Lauder dedicated her autobiography to her late husband, calling him “my love, my light, my perfect balance.’’
Leonard had worked for his parents every day after school, but when he graduated from college, he announced that he wanted to work for a retail business. “My heart sank,” wrote his mother in her autobiography.
He eventually changed his mind and officially joined the business upon his discharge from the Navy in 1958, when the company had sales of $850,000 and five employees. His mother was thrilled, as she had been grooming him to take over the company for some time, even sending him duplicate copies of all Estée Lauder paperwork and correspondence while he was away at school.
Originally, Estée and Joseph thought it would be wonderful for the company if Leonard became a chemist. Fortunately for the Lauders, Leonard showed an interest in business and headed to the Wharton School. Although his mother started the company from nothing, it was Leonard who built it up, embarking on an aggressive acquisition path and making a fortune for the family in the process.
In 1974, Leonard became president of the company, Lauder took the title of chairman and Joseph became executive chairman. For the most part, Leonard was in charge of business, but to the public Estée Lauder was running the show.
Leonard became ceo in 1982. When the company went public in 1995, Estée Lauder resigned all her positions, including chairman of the board, and was named founding chairman, an honorary post. She ceased playing an active role. Leonard succeeded his mother as chairman.
Ronald Lauder, the younger son, worked for the company for 17 years. He joined the Lauder Cos. in 1965, working in the manufacturing plant in Oevel, Belgium. He helped launch Clinique, of which he was general manager for four years, and he headed Prescriptives.
Ronald’s real interest was in politics. He was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New York in 1989 and he served as the American Ambassador to Austria during the Reagan administration. Years earlier, then-President Richard Nixon had talked to Lauder about appointing her ambassador to the tiny European country Luxembourg.
“I was so excited,” she wrote. “Just imagine, little Estée from Queens — an ambassador.’’
She entertained the idea until her husband expressed his displeasure, but she was able to see one Lauder hold the title of ambassador.
Even her sons’ wives got involved in the business. Jo Carole, Ronald’s wife, worked behind an Estée Lauder counter at Bloomingdale’s and helped create the Clinique lipstick tower that is still in use today.
Evelyn, Leonard’s wife, has played a very active role in the company. She went from setting up beauty adviser training schools to becoming senior corporate vice president of the Estée Lauder Cos., as well as the founder of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and a major force in its current operations. In many ways, Evelyn has served as the company’s cultural and social representative since Estée withdrew from public view.
Three of Lauder’s four grandchildren work for the company. William Lauder, Leonard’s son, has been named the next ceo, effective July 1; he was also the founding president of Origins. Aerin Lauder, Ronald’s daughter, is vice president of global advertising in the Lauder division and her sister Jane is vice president of Beauty Bank.
Aerin has been called the Lauder most like Estée because of her enthusiasm for the product side of the business. The most glamorous of the grandkids, Aerin — with her natural good looks and designer wardrobe — has been anointed the public face of Estée Lauder by the press.
Lauder’s other grandson, Gary, is managing director of Lauder Partners LLC.
It no doubt thrilled Lauder that two generations of her family followed in her footsteps. When looking back on companies like Max Factor, Helena Rubinstein, Revlon and Elizabeth Arden, where family members had failed to take over the reins after the founders had passed away, she commented that “the personal love and involvement are gone” from them.
“They’re companies now, not a family’s heart and soul,” she said. “It won’t happen to Estée Lauder.”
Lauder slowly began to withdraw from the scene after she triumphantly hosted Raisa Gorbachev, the former first lady of the former Soviet Union, at the company’s Fifth Avenue headquarters in December 1988. Lauder kept a picture in her office of the two powerful women standing side by side, their hands locked and their arms upraised. It was Lauder who grabbed Gorbachev’s hand and thrust their arms upward.
One of her last public appearances was in 1991 when she arrived at Saks in New York to promote her new SpellBound fragrance. She strode into the store, as if leading her own victory parade, while sales associates and customers crowded both sides of the aisle cheering.
She knew firsthand the power makeup had to help a woman look her best and she used it to her advantage. In fact, she believed all women were potential beauties. One of her favorite maxims was that “there are no homely women, only careless ones.” And by careless, she meant women who couldn’t be bothered to wear makeup — an affront not only to her sensibilities, but to her livelihood.
As much as she loved the cosmetics industry, Lauder equally enjoyed living well. She once said that along with the best things in life that are free, she loved “the best things in life that come dear.” She had extravagantly decorated homes in New York, Long Island, London, Palm Beach and the South of France. In the Sixties, she bought an Upper East Side town house with a circular marble foyer and winding marble staircases. The staff that ran the household included a Viennese chef, a housekeeper-cook, a butler, an assistant butler and two general maids.
She loved hobnobbing with royalty, getting the best table at La Cote Basque and the original Le Cirque and hosting elaborate dinner parties in her extravagantly decorated homes.
Her feelings about beauty, glamour and the good life certainly have been reflected in the advertising for the Estée Lauder line, which for several decades have featured gorgeous models with a patrician air to them, dressed in designer clothing and posed in luxurious settings.
The Lauder ads have also been notable for featuring a string of models who were signed to represent the line on an exclusive basis. Starting with Phyllis Connors in the Fifties, the model lineup included Shaun Casey; Willow Bay, who is now a reporter on CNN; Paulina Porizkova; Elizabeth Hurley; Carolyn Murphy, and the brand’s newest face, Liya Kebede.
Lauder, who disliked the idea of using sex to sell cosmetics, wanted her models to look classic. She blasted her competitors for posing models like suggestive “sex kittens” who were trying to convince women that if they used the product at hand they would “be popular, happy, gorgeous and very active in the bedroom.”
Underneath her petite, pretty, perfumed, hazel-eyed facade, Lauder was a tough executive who demanded perfection from her employees and from herself.
“You’re allowed to make a mistake,” she wrote. “Once.”
She called herself “a stern taskmaster” and prided herself on hiring the top people in the industry and paying the highest salaries.
The salaries meant being at Lauder’s beck and call. In her autobiography, Lauder bragged about tracking down one employee who was climbing the Himalayan mountains.
When a reporter asked her if she had any weaknesses, Lauder said she had none. “I don’t have time to have weaknesses. I work harder than any woman I know,” she answered.
But in 1984, when she was well-established as an industry force, Lauder admitted that even she could be plagued by self-doubt. “If you think [the business] is easy, you’re wrong. I don’t feel I’m successful. I always worry.”
Others certainly didn’t agree with Lauder’s self-assessment. During her lifetime, she received dozens of awards, but she singled out the Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French Government, the Gold Medal of the City of Paris and the Crystal Apple from the Association for a Better New York as those of which she was most proud.