IT’S PERSONAL: UP CLOSE WITH LEONARD A. LAUDER
What makes a legend? In Leonard A. Lauder’s case, it’s been generosity, curiosity, and of course, genius business acumen. Working alongside his self-made woman of a mother, the indomitable Estée Lauder, and ultimately taking the reins of the biggest beauty corporation on the planet as CEO from 1982 to 1999, Leonard Lauder has always innately understood that good business begins with good relationships. Since joining Estée Lauder in 1958, he has expanded the definition of a family business to include all of those who work for, and with, the brand—supporting the success of others, and forging lifelong friendships with colleagues, beauty advisors, and fragrance suppliers along the way.
Here, the legendary executive, philanthropist, and art collector sits down with Accords to reflect on his journey at the helm of the cosmetics giant. In the first of a three-part conversation, he looks back on his mother’s game-changing, history-making impact on the fragrance industry as we know it.
What is your first scent memory?
Well, Youth Dew was launched in 1953. It was my mother’s favorite and it attracted a huge following. And what I do remember is that in 1953, I was still at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a junior and I had just gotten a car. It was a brand-new Plymouth, powder blue, and I had a little ceremony where I christened the mud guard with a bottle of Youth Dew, but then wiped it off because I was afraid it would take off the paint. Youth Dew has been with me over these many years. Now, as it turns out, my wife Judy wears it all the time—and when I smell it on her, I smell love.
What did you learn by watching your mother’s approach to beauty when you were growing up?
That you have to love helping people feel beautiful. You have to love people. And you have to never give up. She was persistent, and she kept on selling, selling, selling. She truly felt fragrance. She could see it.
What did Estée teach you about the fragrance business?
Again, never give up. I remember, when I first joined the company, I shared a tiny office with her, and I heard her on the phone with a man from van Ameringen, which was the predecessor to IFF. She wanted to have a Youth Dew spray, and the salesman said to her, “Estée, I’m not going to sell you this, because it’s too strong and women don’t like to smell strong.” She said, “I’ll buy it somewhere else,” and hung up. 15 minutes later, guess what? The phone rang. “Okay, we’ll sell it to you.” It’s about believing in what you believe in, and sticking to your guns.
What do you think Estée understood about women and what they want from fragrance that others did not?
Well, like I said, she loved to make women feel beautiful. Leo Lerman, who was the editor of US Vanity Fair after it launched, was a fellow student of my mother at Newtown High School, and he remembered that she used to love making up her friends and combing their hair. You have to love beauty, and you have to love women, and she did. Which is one of the reasons why Estée Lauder has always been a company that believes in women, as customers and as employees.
There’s so much about Youth Dew that’s legendary—from its introduction as a bath oil to the moment Estée dropped it on the department store floor to draw attention to it to the character of the scent itself. What, in your opinion, was most key in Youth Dew becoming a sensation?
A few things. First of all, it smelled great and it lasted forever. And number two, the techniques of selling it were great. We sampled it and sampled it and sampled it. And when we were tired of doing that, we sampled it some more. I had just started at the company and I was in a little tiny office and I received a cosmetics buyer from Neiman Marcus. He said, “You know, every time we sample your Youth Dew bath oil, people buy it.” So I took all the money we had, which was very little, and bought something like 50,000 samples. We gave it out, and the rest is history. If the product is good, sample it.
There’s a great story about my mother. She got into a taxi to go to the Plaza Hotel for lunch and in those days, taxis didn’t have a screen between the driver and the passengers. So, the man behind the wheel said, “Mmm, you smell wonderful. I think you’re wearing Estée Lauder. All my fashionable passengers wear that.” And as my mother got out of the taxi, she said, “You know, I’m Estée Lauder.” He said, “Yeah, and I’m Cary Grant.”
What perspectives did your father bring to the fragrance side of the business?
He was always the one who helped maintain the quality, and he and my mother were partners. Basically, she was the chief creative officer and he was the chief operating officer. That’s how it worked. He was the calming influence, and he was great at that.
What were Evelyn’s insights on fragrance and why were they so important?
Evelyn had the same skills as my mother did. She dreamt fragrance and she could see fragrance. And when my mother was getting older, she called Evelyn up and said, ” Evy, I’m working on my new fragrance. Can you help me finish it?” And Evelyn went in and spent a lot of time on it, and that became Beautiful.
When you say that they could see it, what do you mean?
I can’t explain it. My mother said, “I can see fragrance” and Evelyn said the same thing. I took them at their word.
Didn’t your mother also invent the idea of the fragrance wardrobe?
Well, as time went on, we had children. I don’t mean actual children, I mean more fragrances. We had Estée and Aliage and White Linen and so on until we had 10 or 12 fragrances. We used to do a huge business at Christmas time with a package of mini versions of all of them, called Small Wonders. But the idea for our fragrance wardrobe came from Mrs. Estée Lauder, my mother. She said, “You have to wear something different at night than what you wear during the day.” Simple, right? She was the first person to say that.