February 9, 2007

Helena Rubinstein

And the woman behind the brand is...
Helena Rubinstein

Of all the places to sow the seeds for a cosmetics empire the hardscrabble outback of Australia would seem to be among the least likely. While visiting relatives on the island continent the Polish-born Helena Rubinstein was shocked by the sun-dried rough skins of Australian women. She suggested local women try her homemade family face cream. After her short supply was exhausted she sent back to Poland for more.

The year was 1902; Rubenstein was thirty years old. After a succession of ordinary jobs of no note she decided to open a salon and manufacture her cream in Melbourne. Rubinstein borrowed $1000 from an English friend she had met on the ship going to Australia. She set up in only one room which rapidly became a six-room salon.

The tiny business thrived but Rubinstein knew she was on the wrong side of the world to satisfy her ambitions. In 1908 she sailed back to Europe leaving her Australian salon in the guardianship of two of her sisters. She headed for London where she could seek the counsel of the finest doctors and dermatologists in preparing her facial creams.

Helena Rubinstein knew what she needed to conquer the sophisticated English beauty market. The formula was simple: a prestigious address and splendid decor would attract well-paying customers. She selected a twenty-room English manor and transformed it into a beauty salon, the Maison de Beaute Velaze, with every luxury. It was an immediate smash and by the time she opened her next salon in Paris the Rubinstein name was all she needed to fill her appointment book.

She used the salons to popularize her cosmetic products. Rubinstein was the first to put color into foundation and face powder. She realized before anyone else that not all skins were the same - some were dry, some oily, and others a mixture of both. She pioneered the use of silk in her make-up.

Rubinstein married an American in 1912 and, with the threat of war rumbling through Europe, turned her sights on a safer United States. To Rubinstein, it was not a pretty sight. Arriving in New York in 1914 she expressed horror at the chapped skins and white face powder of the day. She opened her salon at West 49th Street in New York in February 1915.

The American beauty business was no less lucrative than its European predecessors. Within four years of her arrival Rubinstein had christened salons in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago and Atlantic City. Rubinstein, a Jew, was careful to establish salons in cities where Jew were accepted.

Within months of arriving in America, Rubinstein was in fierce, and often acrimonious, competition with beauty pioneer Elizabeth Arden. Throughout the next decade the two women battled for leadership of the exploding American cosmetic market, their rivalry often played out gleefully in the sensationalistic press of the day.

Then, suddenly, Rubinstein sold two-thirds of her business to Lehman Brothers in 1928. She wanted, she said, to slow down and retire to Europe. The banking concern wanted, they said, to mass-market the Rubinstein line through drugstores. Rubinstein received over $7 million.

But bankers knew nothing of cosmetics and Rubinstein knew nothing of idleness. When the stock market crashed in 1929 she bought back a controlling interest in her company, realizing a reported $6 million profit. She raced around the world, tending to her salons, although she never spoke any language properly and never shed her thick Polish accent.

Along the way she collected some of the world’s most spectacular art and married a Russian prince. She never contemplated retirement again, living until the age of 93 and working daily in her office until two days before her death in 1965.

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