‘Some day I will have whatever I want.’
For a while, in the early 1960s, Estée Lauder and Charles Revson worked in the same building at 666 Fifth Avenue. Estée was both contemptuous and wary of the nail giant, commenting: ‘I don’t want to get started with him… Right now Charles Revson is my friend. He doesn’t take me seriously… He thinks I’m a cute blonde lady… The moment I put something on the market that competes with him, he’s going to get upset. He’s going to get difficult. And we’re not big enough to fight him.’
Lauder later upset Revson by launching Clinique, forcing him to play ‘me too’ with Etherea in order to catch up with the hypoallergenic trend. This put her on a more even – if hardly equal – footing with him. And she had other ways of irritating him. His company was far larger, but Estée made it clear that she was more sophisticated, more at home in the upper echelons of society.
It was all a show, as Revson well knew. If anything, Lauder’s beginnings were even more humble than his own.
To judge from the facts uncovered by Lee Israel, author of the (1985) book Estée Lauder: Beyond the magic, the beauty queen grew up in a neighbourhood for which the term ‘dump’ was entirely appropriate. It was called Corona and it was in Queens, New York City.
In 1907, a speculator named Michael Degnon had bought a large tract of land there and begun encouraging neighbouring boroughs to use it as a refuse tip, creating a hellish landscape of ashes and garbage. His plan was to level these mountains of trash and use them as the foundation for a new port complex. But the First World War scuppered the project and the area ‘remained an eyesore until 1937’, according to the website Forgotten New York (www.forgotten-ny.com). ‘All this did for Corona was to make the town stink like garbage,’ the site adds. ‘When the residents looked east, all they saw were ugly gray mounds on the horizon.’ Indeed, F Scott Fitzgerald describes this ‘valley of ashes’ in his book The Great Gatsby.
Corona cleaned up its act when the dumps were turned into a park shortly before the 1939–40 World’s Fair. The area was home to many immigrant communities – first European, then Hispanic and Asian – and even experienced a brief flutter of fame thanks to a line in a Paul Simon song: ‘Goodbye Rosie, Queen of Corona. See me and Julio, down by the schoolyard.’
Estée Lauder was not the Queen of Corona. At least, not at first. Josephine Esther Mentzer was born on 1 July 1908 to Rose and Max Mentzer. Rose already had five children from a previous marriage; Estée (Esty, as she was known then) also had a full sister called Grace, two years her senior. They lived in ‘an almost entirely Italian neighbourhood’, writes Lee Israel. ‘When Estée was growing up, the streets were unpaved; most of the Italians settled there had factory jobs; and the place smelled horrifically.’
Estée’s mother was Hungarian, her father Czech. Rose arrived in New York in 1898, at the age of 29, aboard the SS Palatia. Max became a US citizen in 1902. Profession: tailor. By the time Estée was a little girl, he was running a hardware store; the family lived above it.
Little Esther’s early interest in beauty seems to have compensated for the earthiness of her surroundings. In an interview cited by Israel, she says, ‘I loved to make everyone up when I was young. My mother would say, “You brushed my hair twice today.” I was always interested in people being beautiful – the hair, the face… I love to see people just walking or playing tennis, who look like they have a cared-for face.’
Her obituary in the New York Times put it slightly differently. ‘Perfection in the face of a woman consumed Mrs Lauder, and so did a desire to make a lot of money and leave the conditions of her childhood behind her. “Some day I will have whatever I want,” she is said to have predicted many years ago.’ The paper concedes that she was ‘a petite blonde… known for her lovely skin and for her determination to always look good’ (‘Estée Lauder, pioneer of beauty and cosmetics titan, dies at 97’, 26 April 2004).
Her evolution into a purveyor of skin care products comes in both fairytale and prosaic versions. The fairytale was told by Estée herself to the Palm Beach Daily News in April 1965. ‘An uncle of mine… who was a very famous skin specialist in Vienna came to New York because of the World’s Fair… Then the war broke out and he couldn’t go home. So he took a stable – it was an elegant stable – lined it with linoleum and began making skin creams there. I used to help him every chance I had.’
His name was John Schotz. He was Hungarian – the younger brother of Estée’s mother – and he had arrived in New York in 1900. He was not a dermatologist, but rather a chemist who had set up a small business called New Way Laboratories in 1924. Here he formulated products like ‘Sixin- One Cold Cream’, ‘Dr Schotz Viennese Cream’ and even ‘Hungarian Mustache Wax’. (He also made poultry lice killer, a cure for mange, suppositories, a cream that was supposed to build muscles, and embalming fluid.) He became Estée’s mentor, and she built up her business selling his creams to beauty salons.
Around the time that she was setting out on this path, Estée met a ‘sweetlooking, curly-haired young man’ called Joseph Lauter (note the ‘t’), supposedly on a golf course. He was a salesman: silk and buttons. They began dating when she was 19 and married three years later. Mrs Lauter gave birth to a boy, Leonard, in 1933. In 1937, the name ‘Estée Lauder’ appeared in the New York telephone directory for the first time. By the end of 1939, the couple were already divorced. Estée wanted more, her biographers imply. She wanted to be richer.
Meanwhile, her confidence was growing. She travelled to Miami, setting up a concession selling her uncle’s products in the Roney Plaza Hotel on Collins Avenue. She worked resorts and beach clubs, where she offered facial massages and creams to the ageing rich. But the real turning point in Estée’s career came when she met her second mentor, a man who became a lifelong friend, Arnold Lewis van Ameringen, a Dutch-born industrialist who would go on to head International Flavors & Fragrances, a formulator of scents for perfume houses
Impressed by Estée’s drive, van Ameringen provided support for her nascent business and, it’s thought, some of the formulas for the products that bore her name. The pair may or may not have been lovers for a time, but the fact was that Estée missed Joe, who was still assiduously courting her. ‘Joe’s a nice man. I don’t know why I broke off with him,’ she confided to a friend. In 1942, they remarried.
Over the next few years, the Estée Lauder brand began to outshine that of Dr Schotz, although many of her creams were still based on his formulas. Her network of concessions grew; she also sold her products to salons nationwide via ‘jobbers’, or agents. A great deal of her success was based on the fact that she would spend time at concessions herself, tirelessly promoting her products to customers. A friend recalled, ‘She stood there in stocking feet and sold… She was a good salesgirl.’
She was warm and beautiful; she would put a dab of cream on the wrist of a potential customer and gently rub it in, so that the customer could admire the silky effect. ‘Touch your customer and you’re halfway there,’ she told her sales people. Although Dr Schotz’s products were undoubtedly effective, Estée’s charisma was the magic ingredient. By now she was also selling lipstick, which probably came from a different supplier. Lee Israel recounts that Estée had managed to get herself on to the public speaking circuit in New York, giving women beauty tips. At the start of one such charity luncheon at the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel, every female guest found an Estée Lauder lipstick with a silvery metallic tube at her place setting – this during wartime when metal cases were rare and expensive. That afternoon, women streamed into Saks department store asking for Lauder lipsticks. The problem was that Estée did not have a concession at Saks. Very soon afterwards, she did.
Estée Lauder officially became a company in 1947. It is not known how she compensated John Schotz; her New York Times obituary merely observes that ‘he died in the 1960s in modest circumstances’. No matter: Estée was finally on her way to becoming a beauty queen, leaving Corona far behind.
One of Estée’s pivotal innovations – which influenced the development of beauty marketing in general – was born of necessity. In the early days, she could not afford to advertise. When she asked the agency BBD&O if they could come up with a campaign for US$50,000, almost her entire capital at the time, she was politely shown the door. And so she decided to approach potential customers directly, by mail. Fortunately, she had an excellent database to hand in the form of the Saks Fifth Avenue mailing list, which the direct mail manager obligingly let her have. (Being a petite blonde had its advantages, Estée often found.) Customers would receive an elegant letter telling them that an additional free gift awaited them at the store if they bought one of her products: the ‘gift with purchase’ strategy now practised by beauty retailers far and wide. As the earlier experiment with the free lipsticks had shown, generosity paid off. ‘If you give, you get,’ she said.
Yet the Lauder brand might have remained an also-ran were it not for an unexpected turn of events in 1953. The company suddenly found itself with a huge hit on its hands – a landmark product that would utterly transform its fortunes. It was not a skin cream, but a bath oil called Youth-Dew. And it probably came about thanks to Estée’s friendship with AL van Ameringen of International Flavors & Fragrances.
According to Lee Israel, Estée had approached IFF with a fragrance in mind. The result was an essence that Estée, true to form, initially gave away in department stores as a sampler. It was, writes Israel, ‘a try-ityou’ll- like-it kind of thing. And they tried it, and they loved it, and they bought it.’ She describes Youth-Dew as ‘something you dumped in the tub and that adhered to the skin because of the high concentration of essential oils’. It answered a market demand for ‘an assertive, tenacious and unsubtle essence’.
Israel also cites one of Lauder’s colleagues, who analyses the product’s success. ‘The fragrance had a lot of punch. It was long-lasting. She gave the American woman a bath oil that substituted for a perfume. They could buy it for US$8.50 and have a perfume that lasted for twenty-four hours. It was a whole new direction, and it was affordable. Middle America felt it was getting its money’s worth.’
Youth-Dew became Estée Lauder’s flagship product. It appeared in many different variations, including as a perfume. Flipping her original strategy on its head, she would give away samples of her skincare products when customers bought the fragrance. Crucially, she did almost no advertising. Instead, she did what might be called ‘sensory branding’ today. ‘Estée… wore her new fragrance everywhere, and spritzed it on friends… Saks was totally suffused with it. She sprayed it in the elevators; the entire area carried the message of Youth-Dew.’
With the success of Youth-Dew, the entire Lauder operation moved up several gears. While the family moved into a large townhouse and Estée began mixing with the fashionable set at Palm Beach – the start of her inexorable ascension of the social ladder – the company’s marketing techniques grew in sophistication. As Revlon had begun to realize (and, to be fair, as Helena Rubinstein had understood years before), skincare products could be sold more effectively if their benefits were explained in the language of science. The advertising copy had to be sly, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was quick to crack down on false claims, but with the right wording purchasers could be convinced that there were scientific reasons why a cream might slow or even reverse the ageing process.
This was the thinking behind Lauder’s Re-Nutriv, ‘a name that said nothing and everything’. It was extremely expensive. To justify its price, Estée accompanied the launch with her very first advertising campaign, in Harper’s Bazaar. A picture of a frostily beautiful blonde – which became the defining Lauder alter ego – was accompanied by copy that combined all the best (or worst) attributes of beauty marketing: snobbery, emotional blackmail, the cult of celebrity, faux continental sophistication and pseudo-science.
‘WHAT MAKES A CREAM WORTH $115?’ read the headline. ‘Re-Nutriv by Estée Lauder. Rare ingredients. Rare formula. But above all the perception of a woman like Estée Lauder who knows almost better than anyone how to keep you looking younger, fresher, lovelier than you ever dreamed possible. She has created what she likes to think of as “a goldmine of beauty” – her Crème of Creams Re-Nutriv.’ Among the list of ingredients were ‘youthgiving agents [that] help rebuild and firm the skin, reflecting the freshness and radiance of a years-younger complexion’.
One of Lauder’s colleagues commented that Estée was ‘ahead of her time for… the vagueness of her claims’.
But the pictures were as important as the words. Lauder used a Chicagoborn photographer called Victor Skrebneski, who had been influenced by French movies in his youth and inhabited the same elegant dream world as Estée. His photos were the purest black and white – which made them cheaper to run in magazines – but their content was opulent. As Lee Israel observes, they showed ‘not only the woman but the way she lived, among Ming vases, chinoiseries, pre-Columbian art, oriental rugs or Picasso ceramics’. Copywriter June Leaman, who worked alongside Skrebneski on the campaigns, added that people who saw the Lauder woman somehow knew that ‘her closets were impeccable, her children well-behaved, her husband devoted and her guests pampered’.
The model who came to define the Estée Lauder look was Karen Graham. Svelte and graceful, with cool clear eyes, she first appeared in one of the company’s ads in 1970, but captured its image so effectively that she became its exclusive model from 1973 until the early 1980s. Her name was never publicized, and many people thought she was Estée Lauder. This was quite deliberate. In fact she was a projection – Estée’s avatar. (Ironically, for a woman who became the symbol of urban sophistication, Mississippi-born Graham turns out to be an earthy, outdoorsy type, with a passion for fly fishing and horse-riding.)
By 1965, Estée Lauder was making US$14 million. The company was still nowhere within firing range of Revlon – which at that point was in 15,000 stores as opposed to Lauder’s 1,200 – but it was beginning to get noticed. And then it launched the Clinique range, a concoction of pure branding genius.
Clinique and beyond
In image and conception, Clinique seemed diametrically opposed to Estée Lauder. But that was the secret of its success, and proof of the company’s clarity of vision. Leonard Lauder – who was by now deeply involved in his mother’s business – later explained: ‘The most formidable competition you can conjure up is yourselves and something you dream up yourself… The reason we launched Clinique is that I felt that if we were going to go into business against Estée Lauder this is exactly how I would do it.’
The genesis of Clinique dates back to a 1967 article in the US edition of Vogue headlined ‘Can great skin be created?’ It was written by beauty editor Carol Phillips and based on an interview with the dermatologist Dr Norman Orentreich. The answer was ‘yes’. The doctor felt that cleaning with soap and water was a good start, but this needed to be followed by an astringent for exfoliation, and then a moisturizing lotion. His theory was that, while the upper layer of skin thins, it might be induced to retain water with the application of moisturizing cream. This would in turn prevent the lower layer from losing moisture, providing better support and ‘plumping up skin’. According to Clinique, ‘Orentreich was tapped by the Estée Lauder Company to work with Carol Phillips to create Clinique, the first dermatology-tested, fragrance-free cosmetic brand.’ Orentreich remains associated with the brand as its ‘guiding dermatologist’ along with his son David and daughter Catherine (www.cliniquetv.com.au/heritage).
Inspired by the original article, Clinique was based on a three-step process: wash, exfoliate, moisturize.
With its minimalist pale green packaging – the kind of colour you might find in a hospital ward – and neutral positioning, Clinique answered a growing need for a pragmatic, ‘scientific’ solution to skincare. The number of articles about allergens in cosmetics had been increasing, along with awareness that the chemical content of beauty products might not have been entirely healthy. Clinique looked clean, antiseptic and reassuringly… well, clinical.
But some interesting decisions lay behind its key claims ‘allergy tested and 100% fragrance free’. The more familiar term is ‘hypoallergenic’, a word that the US Food and Drug Administration dislikes and has been trying to ban for years. It nearly managed in 1975, when it proposed regulations insisting that products could carry the term only if they had been scientifically tested on human subjects. But the proposal was overruled in 1978 after being challenged in court by Almay… and Clinique.
The current situation is this, as stated on the FDA website (www.fda.gov):
There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to the FDA. The term ‘hypoallergenic’ may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.
With all the controversy around ‘hypoallergenic’, it’s perhaps not surprising that Clinique went with the safer ‘allergy tested’. On its website, it states that its products are formulated ‘without allergens’ and ‘tested 12 times on 600 people’.
So what about ‘fragrance free’? That is a semantic minefield too. Clinique declined to comment on the matter, but as far as the FDA is concerned the term is almost as meaningless as ‘hypoallergenic’. In fact, a neutral odour is generally achieved by using a chemical masking agent to keep odours at bay.
Clinique established some smart visual triggers too. As Lee Israel explains: ‘The FDA was… able to prevent Clinique from making medical-sounding claims. But there was no law on earth that prevented them from looking as medical as they bloody well pleased. The salespeople… are referred to as “consultants”. They are done up in white lab coats.’ The consultants would ask customers leading questions about their skin type and submit the answers to a ‘Clinique computer’, which would then spew out a list of recommended products. This was all very new and science-fictional, perfect for an era forged in the white heat of technology.
The print advertising was new, too. In fact, it is widely regarded as among the best beauty advertising of all time. It owed much to the artistry of Irving Penn, a photographer so skilled at composition and the manipulation of light that he was able to give objects personalities. And that’s all the ads showed: objects. The first still life, which ran in the New York Times in 1974, simply showed a toothbrush in a glass and the words ‘Twice a day’, the pristine image emphasizing the necessity of the Clinique regime. Later versions featured Clinique products, all imbued with a severe elegance thanks to Penn’s lens. More than skincare potions and cosmetics, they were streamlined fashion accessories.
When Irving Penn died, in October 2009, Clinique ran an ad in Vogue in homage to him. It read: ‘Irving Penn gave us the truth and made it so inviting that we never needed the fantasy. He transformed beauty for us, and for the world.’
Nobody knows quite how the partnership came about – it seems likely that Penn worked with Carol Phillips at Vogue – but it was the perfect fusion of brand image and advertising creativity. The campaign is still running and remains unique.
Clinique was such a ground-breaking product that it lost money at first, but Estée Lauder persisted and by the 1980s fashion had caught up with the company’s foresight. This happened several times. In the early 1970s, Lauder had tentatively introduced a men’s fragrance, Aramis, in the form of after-shave and cologne. By 1978, Aramis was one of the most successful men’s lines around, encapsulating a whole range of grooming products, from scented soap to hairspray. This expertise encouraged the company to launch Clinique Skin Supplies for Men in 1976, the first time a women’s beauty brand had been extended into a second line for men
As we’ve seen, the creation of successful beauty products is as much about copywriting as it is about formulation and packaging. Take Estée Lauder’s successful Night Repair, launched in 1983. This was, as its name suggests, a cream that worked only at night. Think about that for a moment. In fact, don’t think about it – read the advertising copy:
Night Repair is a biological breakthrough that uses the night, the time your body is resting, to help speed up the natural repair of cells that have been damaged during the day by the ultraviolet light all around us (which incidentally occurs all year long, winter as well as summer). Night Repair also greatly increases the skin’s ability to hold moisture.
Like Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder was skilled at the art of using poetic language spiced with science to suggest that the hands of time could be stilled.
She was equally adept at creating the perfect frame for her products, fighting for every inch of branded space in department stores. She opened her first beauty spa in Bloomingdale’s as early as 1965, personally planning the counters and decreeing that each would be ‘a tiny shining spa’. The colour she chose was ‘in between a blue and a green’ that ‘whispered elegance, aristocracy and complemented bathroom wallpapers’. Throughout her career, she kept a hawk-like watch on these spaces, often insisting on training her own sales staff to work in them. She knew that, however fancy your advertising language might be, sales came down to the interaction between the customer, the sales assistant and the product.
When Estée Lauder Companies went public in 1995, it was worth about US$5 billion. Estée was given the title of founding chairwoman. She had outlived all her rivals. She’d even shown up at Elizabeth Arden’s funeral. One report has it that she was noticed by Monica Smythe, Arden’s British press secretary, who told her: ‘Thank you so much for coming today.’ Estée shot back: ‘She wouldn’t have said that if she knew I was here.’
She had been dismissive about Helena Rubinstein (‘the skin on her neck was less than perfect’) and, as for Charles Revson, he had remained her ‘arch and implacable enemy’ until his passing.
Now Estée was the ruling monarch of beauty. Her skilled networking in Palm Springs and beyond, the glittering soirées she had attended and organized, had reaped friendships that included Princess Grace of Monaco, the Begum Aga Khan, Nancy Reagan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She actually lived in the world that her early advertisements had fabricated.
By the time of Estée’s death, in 2004, the value of the company had soared to US$10 billion. It had 21,500 employees and was present in more than 130 countries. At the time of writing, it owns a total of 27 brands and is still majority-owned by the Lauder family.
No matter what one might think of the strategies that led to her success, Estée seems to have genuinely believed in the utility of her products. ‘The pursuit of beauty is honourable,’ she stated. Right from those early days in Corona, she felt she had a purpose in life. The company’s website quotes her advice to staff: ‘I didn’t get there by wishing for it or hoping for it, but by working for it.’