By Dianne Stannish

Estée Lauder, beauty revolutionary, mother of two, and one of the most successful business women in history, died on April 24th in her Manhattan home. Some reports say Lauder was 95, others 97. One thing is certain, all her life she remained elusive about her exact date of birth. This mischievous biographical detail suggests something of another time – classic, charming, but also powerful and strong. All of these describe the story of Lauder, the empire she built, and the woman herself.

She was born in Queens, New York to Max and Rose Mentzer, and lived to exemplify the American dream. Her company, Estée Lauder, which includes Clinique, Prescriptives, Aramis, Lauder For Men, and Origins, is currently worth approximately $5.4 billion. About her success, Lauder said, “I didn’t get here by thinking about it or dreaming it. I got here by doing it.”

Indeed, Lauder spent her life going after what she wanted – often doing work as a one-woman show to ensure it was done well. Rather than dream of designing her skincare, the young Lauder learned from her uncle, a chemist, how to mix creams. Later, she modified what she had learned into the formulation of her own beauty products. Her packaging design – pale blue-green, to match any bathroom décor – came also from her own ingenuity.

Lauder sold her products on the street, and in beauty salons – notoriously applying creams to women trapped under hairdryers. In the 1930s she began courting the larger cosmetic world with her line. She went against the odds, and the words of her financial advisors, seeking only high-end department stores. She fully believed her products were an investment women would be willing to make, and cleverly considered only markets which allowed credit card purchases.

As for advertising, in the early days Lauder couldn’t afford it. So she created the first gift-with-purchase – now a beauty industry standard – and found that these gave her products all the ad space they needed. In a time when cosmetics were sold without product samples, Lauder pioneered the three-minute counter makeover, encouraging women to use the products at no charge, and see for themselves. Her marketing strategy was simple, “Put the product in the customer’s hands.”

Estée Lauder cosmetics were ordered first by Saks Fifth Avenue, then Neiman Marcus, and over time sold in department stores nationwide. Lauder personally trained the saleswomen who would be handling her products.

Women adored Estée Lauder, and clamored to buy her skincare. Lauder promoted the idea of luxury for the everywoman, making customers out of previously excluded women who now felt admitted to a glamorous world. The introduction of her first fragrance, “Youth Dew,” was so well-received, it is said to have sparked a wave of general perfume sales around the country.

Lauder believed all women were beautiful, and created an empire to support that belief.

“Why are all brides beautiful?” she once mused. “Because on their wedding day, they care about how they look.”

Estee Lauder’s public memorial service will be held in May.

Originally published May 2004
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