Leonard Lauder, the former CEO of the Estée Lauder Companies, has published his first book at the age of 87. It’s a memoir that chronicles his rise up the ranks of Estée Lauder, the company founded by his mother, Estee Lauder in 1933, the year he was born. I was lucky enough to meet both mother and son in my beauty-writing years, so I was intrigued to read Lauder’s book, The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty.
As the founder of my own beauty company I was especially interested to hear what the early years were like for Estée Lauter, a Hungarian immigrant who grew up in Manhattan, and how her dedication to giving every woman great skin (her signature phrase was “every woman can be beautiful”) turned into the beauty goliath that the Lauder company (Estée changed her surname from ‘Lauter’ to ‘Lauder’ because she felt it sounded softer) became.
Today, the Estée Lauder empire owns 25 brands, including MAC, Bobbi Brown and Clinique, and has 1600 retail stores in 150 countries.
It’s an incredible success story by any estimation: Lauder is worth around £80 million and is one of the most lucrative companies the mid-20th century has produced.
Lauder was famously hands on. Naturally, she made the very first batches of skin cream, which she used to give private facials to clients in much the same way as contemporaries like Countess Csaky and Helena Rubinstein did when they started out with their skincare brands. Lauder’s company was nurtured and scaled up against the backdrop of the Great Depression, and its founder worked like a demon – personally checking its counters in department stores across America and working at relationships with customers that would propel the brand forward. Even now, the brand evokes the style and personality of its founder, and not surprisingly this image been ferociously protected through the years, and this is surely part of its success.
Estée Lauder’s innate understanding of the importance of beauty in a woman’s life – the psychological significance of a bright lipstick or a brilliant foundation – drove her and the company forward. Her ability to sense the shifts in women’s beauty habits was another huge advantage. During the Depression, sales of lipsticks and cosmetics were higher than before the Wall Street Crash in 1929. This trend has recurred throughout history with the beauty industry generally, giving it a famously bulletproof reputation in times of hardship like war and recession, and Leonard coined the phrase ‘the lipstick index’ to describe it.
Lauder knew that the way women respond in uncertain times made beauty products affordable indulgences, and the business ‘recession proof’.
Leonard officially joined Estée Lauder in 1958 and his biggest move was to expand the company into Europe against the advice of associates who saw this continent as ‘a cheap market’ that Lauder was too expensive for. Along with the rise of super premium skincare – as brands like Shiseido and Chanel launched skincare with price tags of over £100 – Lauder brought Re-Nutriv, at the time the most expensive skin cream in the world to Harrods. A bit later, when it arrived at Fortnum & Mason, cards were sent to customers inviting them to the launch and to collect a free compact. In his memoir Lauder writes: ‘a well-dressed lady emerged and presented the card. The staff were all aflutter. The card’s address was “HM Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, London.” The Queen had sent her assistant to get her free compact.’
Beauty is Lauder’s business – the name is synonymous with beauty, just as General Motors is with cars. But there is another phenomenally successful side to the company. Leonard and his brother Ronald have raised millions for research into Alzheimer’s treatment, an illness that affected Estée later in her life. And Leonard’s own wife, Evelyn, launched one of the biggest philanthropic legacies of the Estée Lauder Companies before she died in 2011: the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, which has raised millions globally since 1992.
It’s an incredible and extraordinary tale, all the more special for being a family-driven one. And Leonard’s own journey, woven into the company’s story through his book, is a great way to see into the world of this beauty legend while you’re curled up on the sofa this Christmas.