June 24, 2024

What Would Estée Do?

This is the gilded aerie where Estée Lauder created her visions of eternal youth.

Little has changed since Mrs. Lauder died in 2004, at (approximately) age 97. The ornate desk from which she commanded her cosmetics empire is still polished to a glorious sheen. On a side table near the Champagne-colored sofa is a signed photograph from Princess Grace: “To Estée Lauder, with kindest regards and warm appreciation, Grace de Monaco.” The lush carpet is a fragile, pale turquoise known as Lauder blue. Photos trace the arc of a life of splendor and elegance: Mrs. Lauder with the Duchess of Windsor, with Prince Charles and Princess Diana, with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and with Mrs. Lauder’s growing extended family.

It was to this reliquary that a dozen or so beauty consultants made a pilgrimage this month, a reward for their sales of the company’s luxury La Mer skin-care line, whose moisturizing cream costs $135 an ounce. Out came cellphones. Cameras click-click-clicked. For here they were, saleswomen from Shanghai and Dubai and Hong Kong, in the very corner office where “Mrs. Estée” worked her magic.

Almost seven years after her death, Estée Lauder still exerts a powerful hold on the company she founded with her husband, Joseph, in 1946. Two subsequent generations of Lauders, the Kennedys of the beauty world, have made their own marks, not only on her company, but also on the philanthropic and cultural life of New York. Yet her heirs still feel Mrs. Lauder’s presence, and the weight of their legacy — and the tensions between past and future have rarely seemed so acute.

The company today sells 28 high-end brands, from the Estée Lauder of Grace Kelly’s day to the MAC of Lady Gaga. Its products are sold in about 150 countries. The Ladies Who Lunch of yesteryear have yielded to a global, ethnically diverse audience. For the Lauders, who control the company, the challenge is to strike a balance between the heritage of their matriarch and the relentless demands of the global marketplace.

The guardian of this legacy is Mrs. Lauder’s elder son, Leonard A. Lauder. Having served as chief executive and chairman, he is now, at 79, the company’s chairman emeritus, and a quiet power behind the business. His younger brother, Ronald S. Lauder, never rose as high at the company, but he was instrumental in building the Clinique brand into an international powerhouse. (He also served as ambassador to Austria under President Reagan and, in 1989, ran for mayor of New York.) Where Leonard Lauder is a generous patron of the venerable Whitney Museum of American Art, Ronald Lauder is the benefactor of the newer Neue Galerie, for which he bought a radiant portrait by Gustav Klimt for $135 million.

Leonard’s son, William P. Lauder, now 50, was by his own account never happy running the Estée Lauder Companies. After serving as C.E.O. from 2004 to 2009 — a period during which his relationship with a woman not his wife hit the tabloids — he stepped aside and became executive chairman. Today in the wings are two daughters of Ronald Lauder: Aerin, 40, and Jane, 37.

It was into this milieu of Lauder upon Lauder that a debonair Italian named Fabrizio Freda stepped to succeed William Lauder in 2009. To judge by his résumé, Mr. Freda, 53, might seem like a gatecrasher in the rarefied world of high-end beauty. He built his career at Procter Gamble, overseeing a snack business that included Pringles potato chips. The choice was a radical departure for the Lauders, but the family believed that the company needed a professional manager to streamline operations and to lead its global expansion. Mr. Freda has, by all accounts, energized the company.

Leonard Lauder — whose net worth, according to Forbes magazine, is $6 billion — often reminds executives that running Estée Lauder is like driving a car.

“You have to be able to look in the rear-view mirror and see where you have been,” he says, “and look ahead and see where you have to go.”

Yet history looms large inside Estée Lauder, where, on a clear day, the views from Mrs. Lauder’s office extend all the way up to the George Washington Bridge.

“I think a lot of us ask ourselves, ‘What would Leonard do?’ ” says Jane Hertzmark Hudis, global brand president of Estée Lauder, who has worked at the company since 1986. “I also ask myself: ‘What would Estée Lauder do? Am I upholding her values and her vision?’ ”

THE Estée Lauder Companies posted sales of $7.8 billion in the 2010 fiscal year — testament to the transformative promise of high-end lipstick, perfume and wrinkle cream.

It was just that hope in a jar that Estée Lauder herself worked tirelessly to nurture, promising every woman that she could be beautiful — if only she used products bearing the Lauder name.

“Estée had this idea that there were no ugly women,” recalls Aerin Lauder, the senior vice president and creative director of the Estée Lauder brand. “Just lazy women.”

For all the glamour that surrounded her during her lifetime, Estée Lauder had a relatively modest beginning. She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer, in Corona, Queens, the daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe. But Esty, she always said, was the name her parents called her. And the world would come to know her as Estée — pronounced with a French accent and always written with that accent over the middle “e.”

Her father was the proprietor of a hardware store. Her uncle, John Schotz, a chemist from Hungary, cooked up herbal remedies and face creams over the family stove. She began working for her uncle during high school — and, later, his formulas would become the basis for the first products in her Estée Lauder line.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/business/27lauder.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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