Estée Lauder

Founder of the Lauder cosmetics empire
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the founder of the beauty empire named after her, Estée Lauder had become one of the world's richest women by the time of her death on Saturday in Manhattan.

Josephine Esther Mentzer, cosmetics manufacturer: born New York 1 July 1908; married 1930, 1942 Joseph Lauter (later Lauder, died 1982; two sons; marriage dissolved 1939); died New York 24 April 2004.

As the founder of the beauty empire named after her, Estée Lauder had become one of the world's richest women by the time of her death on Saturday in Manhattan.

Lauder would never divulge her age - not even in her autobiography - describing herself instead as ageless. Rather fittingly, no one now knows exactly how old she was, not even within her company. The popular figure and that borne out by the American electoral roll is that she was 96 and born on 1 July 1908. "Time," she once said "is not on your side, but I am."

She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Corona, in the Queens district of New York, the youngest of six children and known as "Esty" by her family. Her father Max Mentzer owned, at various times, a hay and seed shop and a hardware store (in which a young Esty would gift-wrap the merchandise come Christmas time). Her mother Rose inspired in Esty a fascination with "beauty regimes". "The first thing a woman needs to do," she said years later "is to establish a beauty routine and stick to it, morning and night."

One day a teacher at her high school misspelt her name and Estée stuck from then on. Her upbringing was not as glamorous as she would perhaps have liked. She seemed at pains to point out, however, that all was rather lovely at home: her mother was a "Hungarian beauty" who would let her daughter comb her hair and rub cream into her face, and her father was an "elegant and dapper" man, who "carried a cane and gloves on a Sunday". Lauder was later criticised for not always being honest about her Hungarian-Jewish background, once claiming that she was half-Italian. In her modestly titled 1985 autobiography, Estée: a success story, she claimed she had wanted "desperately to be 100 per cent American".

Rose's brother, Dr John Schotz, was a chemist. He would work away in his "New Age Laboratory" in what had once been stables at the back of the Mentzer family house, coming in to cook up lotions and potions on the kitchen stove. As well as face creams he also produced suppositories, embalming fluid and a poultry-lice killer. Estée would help her uncle with marketing - something she remained fantastically good at for the rest of her life. She gave one of his creams the rather un-snappy name "Super-Rich All- Purpose Cream" and would peddle these lotions and potions by taking them to beauty salons and spreading them on the faces of women stranded and bored under the industrial dryers. It was rare for her to come away without making a sale.

She married Joseph Lauter - the name was later changed to Lauder - in 1930. Three years later, the first of their two sons, Leonard (now chairman of the Estée Lauder companies) was born. When Leonard was six years old, they divorced, only to remarry three years later in 1942. "I was married very young," she said. "You think you miss something out of life. But I found out I had the sweetest husband in the world." She remained married to Joseph until his death in 1982. They had a second son, Ronald, in 1944, who is currently chairman of Clinique, one of the Estée Lauder companies launched in 1968.

The company Estée Lauder was founded in 1946 with four products: the All-Purpose Cream, Crème Pack, Cleansing Oil and Skin Lotion. Lauder herself would go on the road selling via concessions in beauty stores. Two years later she got her big break - an order from the department store Saks Fifth Avenue which she despatched in her now-famous packaging, "in between a blue and a green, a colour that whispered elegance", created, so Lauder said, because it would suit any bathroom décor anywhere in the world.

But her big hit came in the 1950s with scent. The young Lauder realised that women needed a little glamour in their lives. Perfume had, until then, been expensive and the sort of luxury women never bought for themselves. In 1954 she launched Youth Dew Bath Oil at $8.50 a bottle, which could also double as a perfume. Women went crazy for it. Sales went from $400 a week to $5,000. When her eldest son joined the company in 1958, sales were at $800,000 a year.

The 1960s saw her launch the Aramis male grooming line in 1964, followed four years later by Clinique - today makers of the world's best- selling moisturiser: one unit is sold every four seconds. In 1979 Prescriptives was added to the family and finally Origins in 1990. In the 1990s the Lauder company started buying up smaller cosmetics companies, which saw them heavily criticised, for creating a monopoly, and the smaller companies, for selling out. Estée Lauder companies now own 17 brands - amongst them Jo Malone, Aveda, Make-up Art Cosmetics (MAC) and Bobbi Brown, as well as having licensing deals with Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan.

That the majority of these acquisitions were made at about the time Lauder herself backed down from having an active role in the company is no surprise. Lauder was quite single-mindedly competitive: she badgered buyers for an appointment and when she couldn't "get in" to the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette she spilt some of her perfume on their carpet until they were so worn down with customer's requests for "that perfume" that they let her in. When she heard that a "warts and all" biography was being published in the mid-1980s ( Estée Lauder: beyond the magic, by Lee Israel, 1985) she counter-attacked with her autobiography.

Part of Lauder's success was that she knew women and what they wanted (she also knew what would hurt them, once describing her competitor Helena Rubinstein's neck-skin as "less than perfect"). Hence she would "groundbait" them with free samples with purchases (a tactic she invented and which is now widely copied). In 1962 she also realised the power that advertising was to have. Before this, products were advertised by various "faceless" models, but Lauder realised that to build brand-loyalty, women need to identify with the "Lauder woman", someone they would aspire to be like; a woman who would have, as Lauder herself put it, "class". (In 1995 the company had to hold firm for a while when the in-house model Liz Hurley's then boyfriend, the actor Hugh Grant, was caught with a prostitute.)

Lauder believed people were more prone to like and believe in you if you were pretty, because "looking fine" made you feel confident. And this was what her career was built on, selling "jars of hope" to women (and men) so that they could eradicate nature's footprints. In so doing, these jars helped her achieve one of her girlhood dreams. "Some day," she said, "I shall have whatever I want." In 2002 the Estée Lauder Co made net sales of $4.7bn - net earnings of $289.4m. In the last 45 years sales only ever went up. I think she fulfilled her dream.

Annalisa Barbieri