Ding dong! There's a whole new Avon calling

Even American `Vogue' admits that it's shed its naff image. Former Avon lady CAYTE WILLIAMS waves goodbye to fly-spray scent

Cayte Williams
Saturday 10 April 1999 23:02

It was the Crimplene of the cosmetic world, the suburban housewife's choice and the market leader in naff packaging. Its perfumes were always eye-wateringly strong, its lipsticks an oil-slick of crimson. Only its nail varnish was desirable (great colours which clung to your fingernails like industrial glue). Once you knew where you were with Avon.

Now, if it has its way, we won't be associating Avon with net curtains and crocheted loo-roll holders for much longer. Rather we'll think of Fifth Avenue. The first Avon Centre has opened at Trump Tower in New York and American Vogue has devoted five beauty pages to this incongruity, waxing lyrical over its wood-panelled VIP rooms and sun-drenched studios.

Barbara Barry, interior designer to Hollywood stars, planned the rooms, while Natasha Richardson and Donald Trump's ex Marla Maples are among the celebrities to grace its portals. Rather than sitting down with a mumsy gal poring over brochures, such luminaries get treated to facials, massage, manicures, pedicures and all-over-body treatments.

Meanwhile, in good old Blighty, Avon is set to celebrate 40 years of Avon Ladies with a champagne launch at The Hempel, London's coolest minimalist hotel. Where beauty hacks will be expecting chintz and dried flowers, they'll get Feng Shui and Zen minimalism.

As a brand, Avon is more radical than you might think. OK, so you don't get politics with your panstick but when Avon launched in the States at the end of the last century, they employed a female workforce at a time when jobs for women were virtually unheard of. In the US today, 86 per cent of Avon managers are women, the highest number out of any other Fortune 500 company (the top 500 companies in the US).

Over here, their patron saint would be Ann Widdecombe (it's that "I'm here and I'm not leaving" quality) and we still blame them for flogging our mums fly spray in plastic perfume bottles. But over 40 million women in Britain have been Avon Ladies at some time - that's one in six. Even now there are 160,000 of them, trotting around with plastic briefcases full of tester-sized lipsticks.

They've got a track record that would make a Jehovah's Witness blush. Avon Ladies have been religiously knocking on doors since 1886 and virtually invented direct-selling. They've knocked on doors in 135 countries, turned up in the Amazon, the Easter Islands and remote corners of China. They flogged $5.8 billion of grease and paint in the US last year and the UK is the company's fifth healthiest market (behind the US, Brazil, Canada and Germany).

Last year, we bought over pounds 180 million worth of products so somebody must be buying it. And 10 years ago I did my part in the great Avon conquest. It was a drop in the ocean really, because all I pushed were four lipsticks, two bath oils and an earring-and- necklace set.

It was a lonely job, wandering down my allotted suburban street, leaving brochures, knocking on doors. Unfortunately, my personal style at the time was heavily borrowed from The Cure's Robert Smith, so most of my time was spent frightening little old ladies. If anyone even remotely cool answered the doorbell, I'd be mortified. How would you feel standing there looking at Surbiton's answer to Morrissey with a plastic briefcase under your arm? One nice middle-aged customer took pity on me and ordered a month's supply of make-up. The only snag was that I had to sit through two hours of her life story before she would sign the order forms.

But flogging Avon these days should be easier. Surprisingly, it's got a respectable track record in skincare. It was the first company to use alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) and introduced the antioxidant properties of vitamin C. And the sales brochure, relaunched this month, might still look like an Argos catalogue, but at least they show willing.

The models are more Kate than Claudia. There's even a covergirl (this month it's "Amy who's wearing Shimmering Bronze Arabian Glow"), and some slickly packaged skincare ranges that would give Clarins a run for its money. Apart from the slap, they're selling tattoo transfers, sunglasses, accessories, lingerie and swimming costumes.

The Avon range undoubtedly has some way to go before it makes it head to head with the likes of Estee Lauder (the Avon ladies haven't, for example, discovered their version of Liz Hurley). But it's worth giving it the benefit of the doubt. Avon ladies might not be hip yet- but they're not hip replacement either.

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