Since its launch in 1977, FASHION magazine has been giving Canadian readers in-depth reports on the industry’s most influential figures and expert takes on the worlds of fashion, beauty and style. In this series, we explore the depths of our archive to bring you some of the best fashion features we’ve ever published. This story, originally titled “Follow the Lauder” by the late David Livingstone, was originally published in FASHION’s Summer 1981 issue.
Creator of Youth Dew and other lasting scents; Clinique, the first allergy-tested line of skin treatment products; and Aramis products for men, she is enshrined on top of frilly boudoir tables and inside manly medicine chests around the world. For decades, she has been an influence in the ephemeral realms of fragrance and makeup, and for the millions who daily gaze into mirrors and wonder what, in this lifetime, can be done, she has answers.
A visit with Estée Lauder is a plunge through the looking glass, a lesson in enchantment that begins with a chauffeur greeting you at the airport and ends with gifts tied up with bountiful bows. Mrs. Lauder has four residences scattered on both sides of the Atlantic, but even calling on her business headquarters in New York’s General Motors Building, one is received as a guest. “Like looking at a face of perfect makeup” is how New Yorker writer Kennedy Fraser once described what it’s like to visit the three floors of sumptuous offices. Decorated in white and Lauder’s signature blue, the reception room on the 37th floor is, as Fraser declared, “a study in blue eyeshadow,” with windows that offer a spectacular view that makes the city look small and graspable. “The view is truly, I think, one of the most beautiful in New York,” observes publicity director Mrs. Barbara Sadtler, pointing out a penthouse believed to belong to Warren Beatty. And over there is Central Park wherein are located three children’s playgrounds, funded by a charitable foundation established by Mrs. Lauder and her husband, Mr. Joseph Lauder. An outstanding feature of the playgrounds, as Mrs. Sadtler fancifully relates, are “fabulous little treehouses—places to climb up, sit in and overlook your empire.”
In the Lauder offices, Fortuny fabric, French porcelain and period furniture abound. In fact, there is so much finery that one can imagine carrying around a recorded cassette. However, no machine could spread rapture the way Mrs. Sadtler does. Breathing enthusiasm, she takes me on a spree, disguised as a tour. While Mrs. Becky McGreevy, vice-president of public relations, is elsewhere making last minute preparations for my eventual meeting with Mrs. Lauder, we climb to the recently refurbished 39th floor where the hush of monastic corridors is disturbed only by the sound of our eager feet on the tile floor. Hallways intersect at pleasing angles, and everywhere you turn, the eye is entertained by a stunning array of contemporary paintings, sculpture and prints. We pass a receptionist, who says the art gives her food for thought, and descend to 38 as Mrs. Sadtler expounds one of Mrs. Lauder’s favorite theories: “If you are surrounded by beauty then you create beauty.” The point is illustrated again as we see more art arranged in gallery-like settings, and then move down to 37.
Coursing past white desks, meticulous filing systems and hospitable little kitchen areas with high-tech shelves, we arrive at two walls forming a passageway affectionately known as Estée’s Alley and covered with awards in recognition of Mrs. Lauder’s contributions to beauty, fashion and philanthropy. For her support in the restoration of Versailles, she has been honored by the government of France with the Legion of Honor. To commemorate a million dollars worth of Lauder products sold at the Eaton Centre, she was presented with a sketch of the centre. One barely begins to take it all in when Mrs. McGreevy approaches with a distinguished, smiling man whom she introduces as Mr. Leonard Lauder.
The elder of Mrs. Lauder’s two sons, Leonard Lauder replaced his mother as president of the family-run and privately held business in 1973. She became chairman, and his father took the title of executive chairman. His brother, Ronald, is executive vice-president. Both brothers avidly pursue an interest in art. Leonard is a vice-president and director of the Whitney Museum, and Ronald serves the Museum of Modern Art on the board of trustees. Together they are responsible for the panorama of works throughout the premises. When I suggest the displays—including artists like Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and Jim Dine—are worthy of a catalogue, Leonard Lauder laughs and says, “Rather than a catalogue, just pick anything that you’d like and take it with you.”
An introduction to Mr. Joseph Lauder makes it clear that good humor is a Lauder trait. His broad, rectangular head set firmly on his shoulders, he surveys the ebb and flow about him with a cheerful forbearance, as if he finds it amusing to think back to the company’s modest beginnings in 1946, when he and his wife formed a partnership to market skin preparations developed by her uncle, a skin doctor who had come to New York from Vienna. His voice is deep, his manner is almost bashful. Just back from a week of inaugural festivities in Washington, he speaks bemusedly of what “a real merry-go-round” it was. He and Mrs. Lauder were on the go “morning, noon, afternoon, night, afternight.” Asked how many balls they attended, he says with a chuckle, “Who counts?”
Meanwhile, another gala round of events resumes, as I am ushered to the dining room just around the corner from Mrs. Lauder’s office. On a sideboard, there are tea and coffee in silver pots and cookies on a silver tray. Whatever space not occupied by fresh spring flowers is taken up with elegant groupings of Mrs. Lauder’s fragrance lines. While we await the arrival of the woman whose extraordinary nose orchestrated Azuree, Alliage, Cinnabar, White Linen et al, we embark on an olfactory time trip. In the beginning, there was Youth Dew, introduced in 1953. Holding a spray dispenser aloft, Mrs. Sadtler lavishes the air with a mist and has me walk through it, as she tells of Mrs. Lauder’s fondness for saying that “wearing Youth Dew is like pulling a wonderful silk sheet around you.” Then there was Estée Super Perfume, introduced in 1968 and about which Lois Long wrote in The New Yorker: “On my skin, it is like a three-stage rocket—goes on rather soft and rosy, then switches to a bright-green sort of scent, and winds up warm and a bit sensual.”
One story concerns the time Mrs. Lauder decided to introduce herself to a taxidriver, in return for appreciative remarks he made about her fragrance. “My name is Estée Lauder,” she said. “Yeah, lady,” said the taxidriver, “and mine’s Cary Grant.”
In tandem, Mrs. Sadtler and Mrs. McGreevy provide a seamless commentary, pausing from time to time to compliment one another on a particular turn of phrase or to encourage each other to relate a favorite anecdote. One story concerns the time Mrs. Lauder decided to introduce herself to a taxidriver, in return for appreciative remarks he made about her fragrance. “My name is Estée Lauder,” she said. “Yeah, lady,” said the taxidriver, “and mine’s Cary Grant.”
Of course, one cannot blame the cabbie for not recognizing the face that belongs to the legendary name. So much of the business of beauty is concerned with visions of perfection that it would be almost presumptuous to guess what physical realities might exist beyond the image. On the other hand, the industry has been distinguished by a history of unique individuals: Elizabeth Arden, a temperamental autocrat with a compulsion for pink; Helena Rubinstein, with her imperial taste in jewelry and her lunch in a brown paper bag; Charles Revson, tightfisted boss and once owner of the world’s third-largest yacht; Mary Kay, with her evangelical pitch, bumble-bee pins and bubble-gum-colored Caddies. As the hour appointed for meeting Mrs. Lauder draws near, anticipations rise. And, as tickled as one is when Mrs. Sadtler demonstrates how a combination of Alliage body lotion and dusting powder makes for a lovely pearlized effect, one can’t wait to come face to face with the woman who conceives of such escapades. Then, just as Mrs. Sadtler is about to show how to beat a puff to get just the right amount of powder, Mrs. McGreevy interrupts to introduce the lovely Mrs. Ronald Lauder and then, her voice now a plush trumpet, announces, “And here’s Mrs. Estée Lauder.”
Mrs. Lauder makes a candid, unceremonious entrance and instantly turns what was already a crazy party into a mad affair. The first thing she says is, “I saw you walking on the street,” with no further word as to where or when. Immediately, you get the impression she is omniscient, unused to having to provide explanations, down-to-earth and possibly, a little shy of formalities. She is wearing a velvet dress by Givenchy, in a rich brown color that is reminiscent of fruitful soil in the same way that her hair makes you think of wheat and her eyes suggest honey. For ornament, there is a large gold brooch, fake, because it’s too dangerous to wear the real thing. Besides, “A woman’s face is her jewel.”
Not one to dawdle, Mrs. Lauder circulates, the perfect hostess making sure that you and her products get properly acquainted. “I want you to try this,” she says in a frankly exuberant voice, “I want you to see that.” As one has been informed by Mrs. McGreevy in advance, Mrs. Lauder does not like to be around tape records, and because her pensées burst forth so whimsically, note-taking is practically impossible. She sets a dizzying pace, one minute modelling an antique chatelaine which served as the inspiration for several compact cases: “I copied everything, and my duplicates look better than the originals.” The next minute, she is giving charitable analysis of my skin and merrily calling for more products. As befits a person whose achievements themselves are arguments on behalf of make-believe, Mrs. Lauder rarely touches upon the biographical. And she takes such glee, child-like and infectious, in parading her wares that to ask questions about her background would be an intrusion, unwanted and unnecessary.
From the very few profiles of Estée Lauder ever published, one gathers that she is of mixed European antecedents, Hungarian, Austrian, French. But the definite and central fact of her life is that she was born in the United States and is as openhearted and American as yellow ribbons tied round old oak trees. Though few specific memories she calls up focus on her friendship with the Duchess of Windsor and the intimate discourse they enjoyed together (“And I said, ‘You know, duchess…’”), her outgoing nature is not only reserved solely for the titled. The Estée and Joseph Lauder Foundation has not only built three adventure playgrounds in Central Park, but has also devoted funds to medical research. And though it may seem that she sometimes gives herself monarchical airs (she wore a gold and diamond crown to the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966), last December when her guests, among them Lee Radziwill and Princess Grace, arrived at the Lauders’ New York mansion for a Christmas dinner party, they were greeted by, as Women’s Wear Daily reported, “a spruced-up Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols.”
Far from being a royalist, Estée Lauder appears to be a loyal Republican. Last December, she told a reporter from the French magazine Elle that she liked Richard Nixon very much and that he had once wanted her to be an ambassador. When she shows a picture of herself and Ronald Reagan, inscribed, “With appreciation for your fine support, Ron,” she radiates. Her own rise to prominence, from running what was essentially a mom-and-pop enterprise to heading a giant international corporation, is itself a symbol of the American pioneer spirit. It was apt, in a sense, that Women’s Wear’s coverage of Reagan’s inaugural balls included a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Lauder elbow-to-elbow with Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. Even her products reflect the political mood, and the makeup colors she featured this spring and summer were patriotically called “Colors of the Great American Desert.” “For now, it’s a wholesome American look,” she says. “We don’t want a fancy French look.”
The very idea that fashions in makeup change with the seasons is one that Estée Lauder has pioneered. Other marketing strategies for which she has set the example are gift-with purchase and using a single model exclusively, as she has done with Karen Graham since 1970. Always in tune with the times, she has reacted to the accelerated technological pace of the ’80s, and the accompanying fact that post-war babies are aging quickly, by recently launching the Performance Skincare Program and Lauder Prescriptives, a line of treatment and cosmetic preparations billed as “A major triumph over age signs.” Combining the appeal of paint box and chemistry set, the Prescriptives line is so irresistibly scientific that when it went on sale in Toronto last February, there were lineups at the demonstration counters in Eaton’s and Holt Renfrew.
Unquestionably, part of the appeal of Prescriptives has to do with the fact that there are few attractively designed products on the market. Thoroughness is a trademark of Mrs. Lauder’s packaging and presentation. Just as she personally selects the ingredients of the fragrances that are sold under her name, she keeps in close contact with all phases of the business, exercising the right of final approval. Her advertisements, shot by Victor Skrebneski, reflect her sensitivity to matters of tone and her refusal to scrimp. Capable of distinguishing the nuances of lilies and ‘mums (lilies look classier), Skrebneski arranged sets that are resonant of monied elegance and well-suited as backdrops for Karen Graham’s toney beauty and arched nostrils. And while local citizens may feel deprived that Clinique Skin Supplies for men are not yet available in Canada, anyone who has seen American publications carrying ads for these products must marvel at the boldness of the Irving Penn photograph depicting practically life-sized bathroom shelves, complete with Pepto Bismol. Bradford Gorman, director of the Canadian Centre of Photography, describes any company that would make such adventurous use of photographic arts as “foresightful.
“There’s a part of my soul and part of my heart in all my products,” avows Mrs. Lauder. “I avail myself to the best the world has to offer.” As important as her insistence on quality is her willingness to invest time and money. Highly visible as a giver of lavish parties, she is also a daily worker with a talent for eliciting the optimum results from the people around her. An article in Vogue in 1973 described her, as she planned a social gathering, phoning the grocer to make sure the carrots were the right size and saying, “You get what you pay for.” Mrs. McGreevy confirms that, on the job, Mrs. Lauder displays the same skill in knowing how to order. Because her business is completely privately held, Mrs. Lauder does not have to submit her will to the decisions of shareholders or a board of directors, and spends money as she sees fit. Nor has she been made nervous by the severity of the current economic climate. Talking about the budget for special Christmas promotions, a Lauder executive told Women’s Wear last December, “We’ve kind of thrown caution to the wind.”
In times as anxious as these, it might be merely rational for a cosmetics company to place its emphasis on satisfying a public desire to be diverted and soothed. As Elizabeth Arden remarked during this century’s previous depression, “The more they chew their fingernails, wrinkle their brows and pull their hair, the more they need us.” But the go-ahead of business practices of the Estée Lauder Corporation also seem to owe much to the character of the woman who owns it. While attentive to detail and strategy, it’s an enterprising company that has often set a freewheeling example for others to follow. Likewise, in person, Mrs. Lauder is a delightfully effective blend of calculation and surprise. Obviously, she gets what she wants, but more than that, she derives pleasure in giving the world a taste of what it’s like to live with abundance. No doubt, even the thin, sweet biscuits are piled in mounds by design. But no matter what other messages they may be meant to convey, the cookies are there to be eaten. And when Mrs. Lauder partakes of the sweets, she does so with relish, insisting that you follow her lead and have some too.
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The post From the <em>FASHION</em> Archives: Estée Lauder’s Candid Enthusiasm from the Summer 1981 Issue appeared first on FASHION Magazine.
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