A rare visit to Estee Lauder's private office

By Janetta Mackay

Viva beauty editor Janetta Mackay makes a rare visit to a cosmetic legend’s inner sanctum

Estee Lauder Mixing Frag-John Peden 1981.
Estee Lauder Mixing Frag-John Peden 1981.

Your home is your castle goes the old saying, but Estee Lauder's private office, the gilded fortress of an indomitable empire- founder, is just as revealing a personal space.

Her steely determination is illustrated by how her desk turns its back on breathtaking views of the New York cityscape, her global connections are displayed on a marble sidetable packed with photographs with world leaders and Hollywood stars. Her feminine sensibilities and discerning eye are shown by a French-style interior; her collections of art and objects, including vintage perfume bottles and compacts housed under a glass-topped table.

It is nearly a decade since she died, aged 97, and nearly two decades since she retired, but the room has remained unchanged since vacated by the woman company employees still refer to as Mrs Estee. This differentiates her from subsequent Lauder generations in what is still a majority family owned public company.

The office is seldom used these days, but with fresh flowers always kept on her desk it feels, not like a museum, but as if she might have just nipped into her own powder-room secreted behind a panel of eau de nil wallpaper decorated with hand-painted birds.

There is an unexpected intimacy about this 40th floor eyrie, whereas her show homes in Palm Beach, Long Island and abroad were well-documented in glossy magazines.

From a young age, the woman born Josephine Esther Mentzer to central European immigrants in working class Queens determined on social progression. She moved to Manhattan in 1930 as the ambitious young newlywed of Joseph Lauder. Armed with skincare recipes from a Hungarian chemist uncle, "Estee" began selling her wares in a hair salon.

Although she was not the first female cosmetics entrepreneur - following in the footsteps of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden - Estee Lauder was the canniest commercial operator.

After World War II she persuaded swanky department store Saks Fifth Avenue to stock her products. There she started a mini retail revolution which eventually saw Time magazine pick her as the only woman on its list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century.

She pioneered gifts with purchase and convinced American women not to wait for presents of perfume but to buy their own with the launch of the dual-purpose Youth Dew bath oil. When sniffy French stores turned their noses up at it, she relied on her favoured technique of creating customer demand by demonstration and word-of-mouth, in this instance deliberately breaking a bottle on the floor of Galleries Lafayette in Paris.

Other firsts included launching the first seasonal makeup colour collection and starting Clinique, a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic-skincare company.

Her corner office is in one of New York's most prestigious commercial addresses, the General Motors Building at 757 Fifth Avenue. It looks out to the eastern corner of Central Park, past two children's playgrounds set up by the Lauders and towards the Metropolitan Museum to which her elder son Leonard this year gifted his $1 billion Cubist art collection, including 33 Picassos.

The Estee Lauder Companies now occupy seven floors of the skyscraper and more offices off-site, but the main corporate lobby is still her domain, with a portrait taking pride of place.

New York is undoubtedly the heart of the empire, but Estee Lauder is now sold in more than 140 countries, with growth strongest in new markets, most notably China where it leads the prestige sector. This is reflected in advertising campaigns with an ethnically diverse hit-list of global supermodels, whereas Mrs Estee's handpicked model choices helped define the all-American ideal of sophisticated blonde beauty that held sway in previous generations. But many of her maxims still guide the company.

"The bad news is that we will grow older," she once said. "The good news is that we can control the signs of ageing. Time is not on your side, but I am."


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