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Estée Lauder: The woman behind the brand

Estée Lauder, photographed by Victor Skrebneski. (Source: Estée Lauder)

Estée Lauder's story could have started on the stage.

Before her head was filled with visions of making women beautiful, the woman who would revolutionise the cosmetics industry wanted to be an actress. But, the business of beauty pumped through her veins.

Stage Gem

Estée toyed with becoming an actress, as she believed that “actresses were the epitome of beauty.” She even appeared on stage at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater a few years after she had her first son, Leonard, who would sit in the back of the theater and watch as she rehearsed. But in the end, acting didn’t satisfy her the way whipping up skincare solutions did. “I wanted to see my name in lights, but I was willing to settle for my name on a jar.”


While her father owned a hardware store where Estée would arrange window displays, she was more interested in taking after her uncle John Schotz, a chemist. He had taught her to cleanse her skin with oils rather than harsh soaps, and to mix up batches of his unique, all-around skin cream. “It was a preciously velvety cream, this potion, one that magically made you sweetly scented, made your face feel like spun silk, made any passing imperfections be gone by evening,” Estée recalled, and she soon dubbed it the Super-Rich All Purpose Creme. It was her first glimpse at something that provided “the power to create beauty.”


“I never knew I was a 'nose,'” Estée would say humbly, but in 1953 she discovered a blend of rose, jasmine, vetiver and patchouli that would bring her olfactory fame. She called it Youth-Dew. It wasn’t a perfume, but a bath oil that doubled as a fragrance—just the type of thing a woman could buy for herself without “giving tiresome hints to her husband,” and could wear without waiting for a special occasion.

It took the industry by storm, as did the advertisement, which depicted the risqué, though tastefully blurred, profile of a nude woman. Estée would later sell Youth-Dew by the gallon to fans like Gloria Swanson, Dolores Del Rio, and Joan Crawford, who claimed the intoxicating aroma helped her snare her fourth husband.

(Click or tap on the images to see them in full screen)

(Click or tap on the images to see them in full screen)

(Click or tap on the images to see them in full screen)

(Click or tap on the images to see them in full screen)

Read Her Lips

As her empire grew to include makeup, Estée realized that the success of her lipsticks often came down to their names. “Honest, lucid, graphic descriptions—that’s what I was after,” she’d explain. Early hits included Duchess Crimson, a clear, strong red; All Day Rose, a soft pink that was ideal for working women; and Dancing Red, a “go-out-in-the-evening” shade.

Each bullet was packaged in a golden metal case, a feminine design that became an instant icon of elegance and sophistication. In fact, this striking case, now with an updated fluted shape, is still used today in our Signature lipstick collection.

Three-Minute Beauty

Estée believed “3 minutes is all beauty should ever take.” She created quick routines for makeup and skincare, which she eagerly demonstrated on women—at every store where an Estée Lauder counter opened, while riding on a train or an elevator, or simply walking down the street. She loved nothing more than transforming a woman’s look with her personal touch, and doling out bits of advice along the way.

Globe Trotter

Convinced that European women were as “face-conscious” as they were “fashion-conscious,” Estée launched her brand at Harrods in London in 1960, after years of charming its buyer. Next came Galeries Lafayette in Paris, where Estée famously spilled Youth-Dew on the floor, prompting customers to ask about the intoxicating aroma, and securing her a spot at the counters. “They later said I did it on purpose. I’ll never tell,” she mused.

The brand would expand into the rapidly emerging markets of Moscow in 1981, and Shanghai in 1993. Today, Estée Lauder is sold in over 150 countries across the globe.

Passing The Baton

With numerous honors to her name—including Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French government—Estée formally retired in 1995. “My company is alive with a dauntless spirit of its own, and my children and grandchildren are here to cheer it on…I’ve passed them the baton of my conviction,” she said as she stepped down. That same year, she stood side by side with her sons Leonard and Ronald at the New York Stock Exchange as the company went public. Naturally, every stock trader left with a free sample.

My company is alive with a dauntless spirit of its own, and my children and grandchildren are here to cheer it on." - Estée Lauder

A Lasting Legacy

In May 2004, Estée passed away at the age of 97 leaving behind a family and a company that would carry on her legacy, not to mention countless friends and admirers who took inspiration from her passion and hard work. “She turned ‘No you can’t, into ‘Yes I will," the legendary journalist and TV personality Barbara Walters remarked at her memorial service. An aspiring actress, Estée Lauder wanted to see her name in lights. She made sure it is forever emblazoned on an everlasting monument to beauty.

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