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May 7, 2004

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Estee Lauder:Titan of beauty

Robin Givhan

Estee Lauder believed that beauty was an attitude.
There were no unattractive women, she said, only ladies who either didn't care about their appearance or who remained stubbornly unconvinced of their own beauty.
That philosophy was good for business. Lauder, with the help of her offspring, transformed a kitchen production of creams and potions and a relentless belief in their beautifying power into a global cosmetics business worth more than $5 billion.

Lauder, whom history will judge as one of the world's great entrepreneurs, died Saturday of cardiopulmonary arrest at her home in New York. Her family said she was 97, although she has been variously described as both 95 and 96. Who wouldn't forgive a cosmetics queen for fudging about her age?

Lauder was among the first of the great beauty titans, men and women such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Revlon's Charles Revson, who trafficked in hope. Lauder began her career in 1946 at a time when women spoke openly and earnestly about appearance without fearing the wrath of feminists, intellectuals and spoilsports who would accuse them of being shallow and narcissistic. Great beauties were celebrated without irony or dismissiveness back then. Lauder tapped into the desires of the average woman to look her best and to be pampered.

Lauder promised to share beauty "secrets" with her clients. She accosted them on Fifth Avenue, dabbing creams on their faces or rubbing lotion into their arms. One of her first and greatest successes was the introduction of the scent Youth-Dew in 1953. Positioned as an affordable luxury for the average woman, Youth-Dew is considered one of the beauty industry's great fragrances.

A relentless saleswoman, Lauder was an early advocate and adopter of celebrity marketing. She envisioned her product in the hands of the world's most prestigious women, and so Lauder was profligate in sending samples of her products to prominent women, such as the Duchess of Windsor. She wanted her goods sold in the most expensive department stores of the day, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. And now, Estee Lauder -- which includes Clinique, Prescriptives, MAC, Origins, Bobbi Brown and other department store brands -- is considered the world's largest producer of prestige cosmetics.

Lauder used signature models to personify the company and helped to transform the beauty business from one that was simply a blend of luxurious creams, science and hucksterism into one that also incorporated romance, sex appeal and fantasies.

Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Queens, she was the daughter of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. She married Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder) in 1930. As a young woman, Lauder wanted desperately to shed her Old World ways and be perceived as wholly American. And as a businesswoman, she was astute at recognising the power inherent in any promise of transformation -- even one as tenuous as a lotion's claim to reduce the appearance of fine lines. The process of assimilation, after all, is also about appearance, about looking as though one belongs.

As Lauder's company grew, her children and grandchildren became executives in the corporation. Her grandson William Lauder will become chief executive of Estee Lauder Cos. in July. The company went public in 1995, although the family retains control.

Over the years, Estee Lauder saw the brand she created grow stodgy and dusty; it became too closely associated with the gray-haired swells whom she had once courted so aggressively. While MAC, Bobbi Brown and Prescriptives addressed a more diverse range of women, the corporation's flagship remained inextricably linked to the past. With its pale sea-blue packaging that recalled grandmother's dressing table and the brand's reliance solely on white models such as Elizabeth Hurley and Carolyn Murphy, Estee Lauder seemed old-fashioned and out of touch.

Two years ago, the brand began its own makeover in an attempt to become more contemporary, more inviting to a broader mix of women, less dominated by a colour palette of sweet pink. In March 2003, the company added the Ethiopian model Liya Kebede to its roster of signature faces -- the first time a black model had been hired.

The entire beauty business has changed significantly since Lauder began concocting skin creams in her kitchen with the help of an uncle who was a chemist. Indulging in beauty products and attempting to stave off the signs of aging have become flashpoints for social commentary. As a businesswoman, Lauder proved what determination and savvy can build, but she also helped to set the groundwork for a culture obsessed with a narrow range of beauty -- often to the detriment of the individual.

But if history is to be fair to her, it will remember that Lauder believed every woman could be beautiful. She left it to everyone else to define thatů

The article was Published by The Washington Post



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