Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in 1908, Estee Lauder was brought up in the uninspiring area of Corona, Queens, to a Hungarian mother and Czech father who had both immigrated to New York.
In 1924, at the age of sixteen, Lauder began working for her uncle, a chemist, making skincare products and selling them to beauty salons. She eventually began experimenting with her own recipes.27 From the beginning, she had a clear vision and it was classy. In the 1930s, she decided to focus on creating luxurious packaging for her products. She also changed her name to Estee Lauder, suggestive of a European identity sound familiar? although the official line is that the name Estee was a variation on her family nickname, Esty, and that Lauder was a variation on the name of her first husband, Joseph Lauter. It wasn’t until 1946 that she launched Estee Lauder Cosmetics.29
Lauder had a well-founded wariness of Charles Revson. A New York Times article describes how, when she was developing Clinique, all meetings about the launch took place in a windowless room and the project was code-named Miss Lauder, to disguise it as a teenage division. When the launch came, it infuriated Revson, as Lauder had known it would. He quickly retaliated with his Etherea line, a clear imitation. But Estee Lauder had one more trick up her sleeve and just before Revlon’s range hit stores, Clinique ran ads using the unannounced names of Etherea’s products as adjectives to describe Clinique.28
Her retail strategy was to sell in high-end department stores, which matched her view of the brand’s customer: a refined woman who wanted high-quality products and packaging. Like her rival Charles Revson, Estee was a real face-to-face saleswoman and put in the work to make her products take off, visiting the stores and handselling herself. She put great stock in touching the customer, applying cream to their hand or wrist, and hooking them. Later on, even when the company had exploded, she would often insist on training her own staff to work in department store concessions. Estee Lauder’s advertising fit in with her vision unlike Revlon’s all-singing, all-shouting color campaigns, she employed a sense of sophistication with black-and-white photography, and by using the same elegant blond model, Karen Graham, over many years.
With her experience as a chemist, and an eye for sophisticated and sumptuous packaging, Lauder proved herself to be a formidable and forward-thinking businesswoman.
In 1953, Estee Lauder had its first really successful product with Youth Dew, a bath oil that acted like a long-lasting perfume due to its high concentration of essential oils, which lingered on the skin. It became instantly popular, partly as it was seen as a good value. But it was the launch of Clinique in 1968, the first dermatologist-tested, fragrance-free cosmetic brand that changed everything for Estee Lauder. Based on a three-step skincare routine (wash, exfoliate, moisturize), Clinique was groundbreaking in its pared back, scientific approach to skincare. It also employed a novel advertising campaign, using elegant still-life photos of the products an approach it maintains to this day. In 1976 the company introduced Clinique Skin Supplies for Men, the first men’s range to come from a women’s brand.
Lauder died in 2004, having outlived all her rivals. She even reportedly attended Elizabeth Arden’s funeral. Not only a formidable woman in her own right, the company is still hugely successful financially, and a major beauty presence across the world, but it continues to be majority owned by the Lauder company a rare feat. The Estee Lauder Company owns more than twenty-five brands, among them are giants such as MAC Cosmetics, Bobbi Brown, Aveda, Smashbox, and Tom Ford Beauty.
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