The OGs of Modern Beauty: Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and Bobbi Brown

What’s in a name? Once upon a time, Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and Bobbi Brown were just names of ordinary women who made constant visits to the beauty counter in search of Holy Grail products. Now we recognize these names as multi-million dollar brands that we can rely on for our own search for HGs! 

In celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), we’re retelling the inspiring stories and humble beginnings of the OGs (that’s original gangsters for you!) of beauty. They were among the biggest movers and shakers of the cosmetic industry, and it all started simply enough with women who were also beauty junkies just like you and me.

Image via glamobserver.com

Image via glamobserver.com

Josephine Esther Mentzer, also known as Estée Lauder

Little was known about Estée Lauder’s early life up until 1985. For years, she misled the media into believing that she was a European countess but in reality, she was the daughter of Jewish immigrants. We can't blame this Great Dame of Beauty for spinning a more romantic story though - and we're sure she played the part well enough as she was once an aspiring actress!

But controversy aside, you got to hand it to Estée for having gumption. Early on, while observing her chemist uncle Dr. John Schotz mix homemade creams in their house, Estée told herself that she’d rather see her name in a beauty jar than in a marquee. She started selling her uncle’s Super Rich All-Purpose Cream to her classmates and eventually at the beauty parlor that she frequented. She loved clienteling and engaging with her customers, an Estée trademark that she carried on even after she opened her first beauty counter in an upscale department store.

Estée also had a singular vision of where she wanted her products sold. To give her brand prestige and a perception of high quality, she limited her distribution to only include in upscale department stores such as Saks, Blooming Dales, and Macy’s.

She knew her market and how to market her brand so well. To announce her products' arrival at the famous Saks Fifth Avenue department store, she sent out elegant invitations in white cards with gold lettering to inform her preferred customers that she was offering a free cream-based powder with every purchase, marking the first instance of the gift with purchase concept. It was so effective, Estée sold out over $800 worth of products in two days, a rare feat in 1946. The gift with purchase was even more effective than an advertising campaign that when ad agencies refused to take her on as a client, she re-invested her $50,000 budget on samples and gained thousands of new customers as a result.

If there’s anything that Estée has taught us, it is to love your customers, stick to your image, and be generous with samples!

Image via commons.wikimedia.org

Image via commons.wikimedia.org

Florence Nightingale Graham, also known as Elizabeth Arden

Elizabeth Arden started as a bookkeeper in a pharmaceutical company where her brother worked. While there, she spent hours in the lab learning and researching about skincare. She then briefly worked as a beauty culturist or a “treatment girl”, a job that later helped her hone her interest in the scientific formulation of cosmetics. Her interest in the science of beauty was evident in her early marketing campaigns.

Elizabeth lived during a time when makeup has been largely associated with the lower classes and prostitutes, so for a proper lady to be sporting even a bit of rouge on her lips and cheeks was considered scandalous. We have her to thank for effecting to change that mindset, and she even successfully managed to be one of the first brands to elevate makeup as a proper, appropriate, and even necessary part of a woman’s grooming. 

image via stylefibula.com

image via stylefibula.com

Her passion for makeup became a way for her to advocate women’s rights, too! One of the famous stories about her is that she once marched past her Red Door Salon at the Fifth Avenue along with 15,000 women. All were wearing red lipstick to call for women’s right to vote. During the World War II era, she also developed a cosmetics line for women who served in the military to serve as their literal "war paint". She even made sure that the shades matched their uniforms.

In today's terms, she'd definitely be someone we'd consider as a badass lady! Elizabeth Arden did not just uplift the value of makeup, she also used it to empower women and champion their causes.

Image via lifestyle.sapo.pt

Image via lifestyle.sapo.pt

Bobbi Brown

“Why be someone else when you could be you?” Those words rang so true for Bobbi Brown. Standing at just five feet, Bobbi dreamt of being tall, thin and blonde like the models in the 80s. But she changed her mind when she saw Ali MacGraw in the movie Love Story. In the movie, Ali MacGraw had long black hair and barely there makeup. Bobbi became so inspired by Ali’s look in Love Story that it became the Bobbi Brown standard for beauty that we all know and love--an all-natural look where skin looks like skin and lipsticks look like natural lip colors.

It would be years before Bobbi would build her now thriving beauty empire. For a time, she would transfer from one university to another, trying to figure out what she wanted in life. One day, she told her mother she wanted to drop out. Her mother asked, “Pretend today is your birthday and you could do anything you want. What would you do?” Bobbi answered, “I would love to go to Marshall Field’s and play with makeup!” Now that she had a goal in mind, she transferred to Emerson College and got degree in theatrical makeup.

image via stylelist.com

image via stylelist.com

It wasn’t an easy ride for Bobbi after she graduated. When she arrived in New York as a makeup artist, she hustled her way through shoots: not just doing makeup but sometimes even doing production, too. The beauty standards of the 80s also clashed with her personal beauty philosophy: loud colors, stark contours, and shiny red lips were all the rage. She unloaded her woes to a Kiehl’s pharmacy chemist who kindly offered to make her her dream lipstick. Bobbi’s first lipstick prototype was essentially a my-lips-but-better shade that she made out of taupe eye pencil and a blush. She called it “Brown”, and it is one of her bestsellers to this day!

Bobbi stocked the lippies in her makeup artist kit and brought them along to every shoot she went to where models and creative directors alike fell in love with the natural-looking shades. She challenged the beauty standards of that period and proved that her instinct for natural beauty was right when inquiries and orders came rushing in after seeing her work in shoots.

To date, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics is the number one makeup artist brand founded by a woman. Bobbi has not only pioneered the no-makeup look, she can also be considered the first woman makeup artist who is a celebrity in her own right.

What products are you thankful to these women for? Are there other beauty mavens whose stories you'd like to know more about?

Sources: elizabetharden.com, esteelauder.com, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Arden, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estée_Lauder_(businesswoman), astrumpeople.com/estee-lauder-biographyentrepreneur.com, inc.com, bobbibrowncosmetics.com