Bobbi Brown's empire leads her to NZ shores

By Janetta Mackay

Makeup mistress Bobbi Brown opens her first flagship store in Australasia this weekend.

Bobbi Brown can’t make it to New Zealand for the opening of her flagship store in Auckland, so Viva caught up with her in New York.
Bobbi Brown can’t make it to New Zealand for the opening of her flagship store in Auckland, so Viva caught up with her in New York.

"It's hard work," says Bobbi Brown explaining that living and looking the way she wants at age 55 isn't always easy. For someone who became a multi-millionaire from selling lipsticks, it is refreshing to hear her candour. "I work really hard on my eating, my exercise, my hair colour, everything."

So there's no quick fix, even in Bobbi-land. Despite having penned seven books about making the most of makeup and turning herself into a virtual lifestyle guru, this petite powerhouse who has built herself into a global brand isn't trying to wave the magic wand. She does have a little mantra that goes "looking pretty makes a woman pretty powerful", but her real-ness isn't caked on.

There's something about her message and her natural-looking "you but better" cosmetics that have struck a chord with women worldwide.

But on a bad day she reluctantly drags herself out of bed like the rest of us and even if she doesn't like what she sees in the mirror first thing, she gets on with it.

"I go for a run, I have a juice, I drink water, I try to hydrate myself, you know, it's attitude change."

Though she doesn't have the recognition factor here that regular television appearances on the Today show give her in America, the commercial response is enough for Auckland to next week become the latest city in line for a Bobbi Brown flagship store. It is the first in Australasia.

The closest Brown has come to New Zealand is having had a Kiwi penpal when she was growing up in Chicago. "I don't know why I remember, but his name was Charles Bradford. In third grade we had to write letters all year. He sent me a Christmas present, he sent me a bottle of Jurgens [body] lotion, I guess he thought it was very American. That's all I know about New Zealand, but to this day I still remember Charles Bradford."

There's no gushing promise to visit (China calls first). "It's [New Zealand] on the list, I haven't been to Australia either," Brown tells me during a rapid-response interview in her company's industrial chic headquarters in downtown Manhattan. The airy open-plan Soho loft space is punctuated by distressed metal filing cabinets and populated by perky little PR girls. Her adjoining office has a softer touch with grey carpet and personal mementos grouped neatly across her desk and on shelves against an exposed brick wall.

It's New York Fashion Week, she's just announced Katie Holmes will be the brand's first celebrity face and she's tired.

At work backstage at the shows in preceding days, I'd watched Brown the makeup artist in action, but she also came across as Brown the soccer mom she is and the den mother she has become. Models seek her advice and she willingly gives it. "What do I do about dark circles," asks one? "Drink lots of water," says Brown, then, with a ring of beauty media in earshot, she adds "use my corrector and concealer".

She sets an impossibly leggy young Jamaican model, a first-timer to fashion week, at ease and then asks an angular porcelain-skinned Chinese model for her card. All the while she is working out how to match their makeup by custom blending colours in a palette. "The aim is to get all the models with the same lip colour even if we use different colours to get it."

She's warm and capable and dressed for comfort in a uniform of black separates made of silk and cotton. One day it's a sensible knee-length black skirt, another belted boy-leg jeans. She makes a colourful stand in turquoise Vans, but even on the day she dons canvas platform wedges, the towering company makes it hard to believe she reaches her declared height of 5ft. Her dark hair is drawn back in a swinging ponytail, her nails are unvarnished and her makeup minimal. She asks for opinions and jokes with staff while she scrutinises their work, asking for a tweak here and there.

One-on-one she's equally engaging and engaged, but unlike in her books where she has developed a touch of folksy new-age affirmation, in person she's no-nonsense direct.

She's one smart on-message cookie and therefore it is almost a relief when well into our amicable, but controlled, interview she lets down her guard, just a little. The first time it's a deserved touche when I ask a pro-forma question hoping to get a fresh answer in her own words. With time ticking on, she obliges, but observes that "everyone knows the story" of how she wanted to drop out of college but her mother insisted she find something she was passionate about studying and so began her career because "playing around with makeup" was what she most wanted to do.

The second time there is an off-message flicker is when we are talking about ageing and whether she feels any pressure to look a certain way. In the past she has talked about battling with her self-image as an awkward teenager and coming to terms as a young mother with being surrounded by stick-thin models. Now the challenge is about ageing. She admits to sometimes struggling with it, especially with a life half-lived in the public eye.

"That's the one thing I'm working on," she tells me after a brief pause, noticeable mainly because her other answers have been so quick and assured. "I'm either tougher on my appearance because I have photographs so much, so I either like it or I don't, and I'm working very hard on not taking it too serious."

The pressure, she says, is self-inflicted. "I don't feel pressure by the industry, I feel more pressure that I put on myself."

Do you feel you have to look a particular way? - "I don't have to, I want to," she fires back.

What do you want to look like? - "My best, I wanna look my best. There's times when I'm really really happy, my hair looks great and there's other times when I just don't feel my best."

What to you is your best? - "Usually when I just feel rested and good. More of a balance."

We'd talked earlier about what Brown reworded to "life-work balance". She reckons she has it in spades and with her close family, financial security and a job she has structured to suit herself it sure sounds like it. "I'm pretty clear about what I choose to do and not do and when I do it."

She spends Tuesdays and Thursdays in back-to-back meetings in Soho and uses the hour or more chauffeured car's journey from her home in the historic leafy town of Montclair, New Jersey, to catch up on emails or write in the backseat. Three days a week she works remotely, sometimes from home, but mostly from a nearby studio space. This means she has always been able to be a hands-on mother to her three sons. Duke, 14, is still at school, the older two are at college. Dakota, 20, is studying kinesiology - "he's on the golf team and want to be a coach to a pro-golfer" - and Dylan, 22, is majoring in economics and public policy.

The house remains very much a boys' zone, with the business allowing Brown to help two nephews through school. Before they came to stay she hosted exchange students.

Her attorney-turned-property developer husband Steven Plofker is very much the sounding board. "I don't do anything without his opinion. I really depend on him for solidity. When I'm kind of going like this," she says flapping her hands, "he brings me back down."

The couple got together some cash back in 1991 to launch her then ground-breaking range of 10 brown-based lipsticks. These took off and four years later they accepted a substantial undisclosed sum for the business from the Estee Lauder group which allowed her to remain its driving force. "I don't really need a title, my name is on the packet."

She describes her official job description of chief creative officer thus: "I see myself as an entrepreneur, entrepreneurs are creative, I think they're marketing, they're PR and they're also with the business.

"For me everything is about 'I think this will really sell' and "oh, that one bronzer does $2 million dollars a year why don't we just make another one, another colour'. Things like that. It's common sense."

To get the goodies she thinks will sell by the truckload involves staying hands-on with product development and promotion. That's where fashion week comes in. She has been doing it for 25 years, but says as well as keeping her hand in as an artist, it's a chance to experiment with formulas and talk to the press.

"It's really great to show the brand is of the moment and is on the frontline. We usually take what we are doing for fashion week and we make it a trend and then we teach women in store how to naturally put it on."

The brand's newest lipstick came out of a show for designer Rachel Roy last February. "We took a regular lipstick and I mixed it with some lip balm and then blotted it and that became our creamy matte lipstick."

The only hitch in the steady growth of the Bobbi Brown empire came in its early days under Lauder when it departed from promoting its "wearable" cosmetics in favour of more colourful ones. To better ensure the brand ethos thrived within a wider corporate structure a decision was made to move out of the main office and set up shop in Soho.

"We were in the GM building which is where all the other brands were and it was not our best time. We were not doing as well as we are doing now because it was a mixed message to who we were.

"You couldn't be on certain floors unless you had a suit and tie on, so I couldn't even have my employees wear jeans. Here it's much more creative, it's open, with a little more of an editorial feel."

It has been 10 years since the shift to Soho and Brown says the partnership with Lauder is a great fit, the parent company has not changed its mind about giving her autonomy "because it's always worked".

For the future she intends to keep up the balancing act of working hard, staying healthy and being with family. The 50s may be a bit of hard slog at times, but Brown is reconciling herself to all that brings and says staying fighting fit and looking good is a lifelong journey. "It's make it or break it."

"Every once in a while it gets thrown off, like this week [fashion week], other times are what I call recharging and you know my battery runs out and I get to spend the week with my family at the beach ... I'm about due for one."

Retirement or an autobiography any time soon is not on the cards. "I don't think so, it would not be that interesting. I'm very normal, simple. I think people should do that when they're in their 70s."

She says she is grateful for what she has and when I ask what she gets from what she does, she replies: "I'm part of helping [women] feel as good as they can feel and that's a great feeling."

* Bobbi Brown's new flagship store opens at Britomart on Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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