The Nail Man
Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden may have loathed each other from a distance, but they could agree on one thing: They both hated Charles Revson. In their eyes he was an upstart (not unlike themselves, then) who was selling something that they still considered to be a bit vulgar. Rubinstein called him the nail man and Arden simply, that man. It’s said that Revson brought out a men’s fragrance called That Man just to annoy her.22 In 1947, Revlon moved into glamorous offices on Fifth Avenue that were nearby to both women’s offices. This is said to have enraged Helena Rubinstein although not as much as when Revlon introduced its first face cream in 1962. However, while the three are often grouped together as rivals, it’s said that Revson always saw Estee Lauder as his real rival and it’s true that they spent years playing a tit-for-tat game of competing with each other’s new products. Though they both came from similar backgrounds, Revson resented the way Lauder had climbed the social ladder and mixed with an aristocratic sophisticated set, while he didn’t. Still, the two grandes dames obviously rankled him, as after Rubinstein’s death, Revson bought her Park Avenue apartment
and spent two years redecorating it in a style that she would have hated!
Revlon was the first company to introduce the idea of matching your lipstick to your nail polish.
The strategic, if somewhat dishonest, advertising was indicative of Revson’s strategy for success. There were nasty rumors of competitors’ color charts going missing and lids being left unloosened so that the polish would dry up. One Revlon salesman recalls Revson saying, You let the competitors do the groundwork and make the mistakes. And when they hit with something good, you make it better, package it better, advertise it better, and bury them.23
Some of his business practices may have been seemingly underhanded, his crushing of competitors ruthless, and his obsessive and overbearing tendencies the cause of rifts with employees and family members (and two wives), but there’s no doubting that Charles Revson was totally dedicated to his company, and had a remarkably strong work ethic. He meticulously tested his own products, including painting his nails before going to bed to check the polish’s durability, and painting them in a variety of shades before going to sales meetings with beauty salons to hand-sell his product, so he could show them his company’s range. This was cheaper than printing a color chart, but it also had strong novelty value. Above all, he knew how to sell. And it worked: Revlon polishes were available in drugstores, beauty salons, and department stores.
During the Second World War, Revlon received many government contracts, producing first aid kits and many other things, which helped to ensure that they could continue selling their makeup even with the shortages. In 1940, Revlon began to sell lipsticks that matched their nail polish colors, an inspired decision that more than doubled their annual profits,24 and soon after, they moved into rouge. By 1960, Revlon was the biggest seller of nail polishes, makeup, and hair spray.25
Taking a cheeky dig at Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, Revlon named his men’s grooming line, That Man.
Although the film didn’t appear in cinemas until 1963, Revson sensed the public’s anticipation driven by the endless stream of paparazzi photos of Liz on set and released his Cleopatra inspired lipstick holder in 1962.