February 9, 2007

Estee Lauder

And the woman behind the brand is...
Estee Lauder

Josephine Esther Mentzer was born in Queens, the youngest child of Hungarian immigrants. Her father had led a privileged life in his homeland but possessed few marketable skills in early 20th century America. He opened a small hardware store above which the family lived. At school a teacher decided to "add a little Romantic French" to her harsh-sounding name and called her Estee Mentzer.

One day her Uncle John Schotz came to New York to visit. He was a skin specialist and set up a makeshift lab in the basement. Estee would watch with fascination as he mixed his secret magic cream potions that made her face feel "like spun silk." Soon she was creating her own creams and testing them on high school friends.

Estee Mentzer married Joseph Lauter in her early twenties in 1930. His name had been "Lauder" in Austria but was mangled by immigration officials. The couple changed it back. After her marriage Estee spent every spare moment cooking up "little pots of cream for faces" which she sold to local beauty shops.

She began giving free demonstrations at resort hotels in the summer and wealthy homes in the winter. Soon she was running a beauty concession on the fashionable Upper East Side. As her social contacts expanded so did her business. Estee's single-minded approach to business strained her marriage and the couple divorced in 1939. Estee Lauder went to Miami Beach to sell cream to vacationers.

An illness to their eldest son reunited the Lauders who remarried in 1942 and began selling the creams as a family business. In 1946 Estee Lauder, Inc. was formed with Joseph and Estee Lauder as the only employees and a line of four basic skin care products. Estee finally convinced Saks Fifth Avenue to place a big order. They converted a restaurant into a factory, boiling and sterilizing the creams on the old stoves and managed to fill the orders. The creams sold out in two days.

Other major cosmetic giants sold in drugstores and beauty salons where turnover was high. The Lauders didn't have a sales force so they sold exclusively to department stores, giving the Estee Lauder line a status. She travelled the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s promoting her cosmetics while her husband managed the plant.

At every store she selected and trained the sales staff herself. These were the people who would be walking ads for her products. Customers always received small samples with every Estee Lauder purchase, a trademark that would be widely copied. By 1953 Estee Lauder counters were in prestigious stores across the country.

She now introduced her first fragrance which she named Youth Dew. Up to that time perfume was a classic gift for men to give to women. Lauder called her fragrance Youth Dew so women would buy it themselves. Priced at $8.95 Youth Dew soon accounted for 80% of Lauder's business at Saks and was still selling well 30 years later.

In 1967 Lauder pioneered men's toiletries with Aramis and was quickly the leader in mens' trade. She turned over a great deal of the operations to her son Leonard in 1973 but continued to develop new scents, building on her reputation as "one of the best noses in the business."

Lauder turned to the social whirl with royalty and celebrities as she promoted herself and her products through the society pages. Sales grew to over one billion dollars. Today more than one of every three department store cosmetics and fragrances are Estee Lauder products.

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