Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good Hardcover – Feb 1 2011
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"Ruth Brandon is that rarest of historians who make a sophisticated and surprising argument and tell a great yarn at the same time."
—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
"Ugly Beauty is a cut above . . . Brandon offers sharp, certain and concise writing, with few wasted words or tangents." —The New York Times
About the Author
RUTH BRANDON is a prominent historian, biographer, and novelist. Her widely acclaimed books include Other People's Daughters: The Lives and Times of the Governess; The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini; Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945; and Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt.See all Product Description
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Helena Rubinstein early in life established her independence by refusing her father's proposed mate - a widower, and left home. She moved to Australia to live with her uncle and his wife. Sun-baked Australians were impressed by Helena's fair and smooth skin, and within three years she was selling face cream as 'her secret,' supposedly derived from a scientists with special herbs, etc. She borrowed about $250,000 to start, a sum she quickly recovered and repaid. The intriguing aspect of Ms. Rubinstein is her intuitive grasp of marketing - finding and taking advantage of the fact that her offerings were received better in the market at higher prices and with limited, high-service availability. She also learned the value of free press coverage, and encouraged this through gifts and knowledge of the various beauty editors' preferences. Further, she initiated an early practice of market segmentation, with distinct offerings to those with oily or dry skin. After leaving Australia, Helena used one of her sisters to manage operations while she returned to Europe.
Helena further realized that her 'science' background wasn't even 'skin deep,' that most products had little advantage over each other, and that success depended on marketing and playing on women's' hopes. Setting up mini-salons in leading department stores became her mechanism of keeping costs down while maintaining a sense of quality and exclusivity; company spas provided additional outlets.
Eventually Ms. Rubinstein sold her U.S. assets to Lehman Brothers (1928) for $7.3 million (about $84 million today). Lehman Bros., however, tainted the brand by trying to mass-market the products; the Great Depression didn't help either. Eventually the Lehman Bros. portion's stock price fell from the original $60 to $3, at which point Helena bought it back.
Meanwhile, chemist Eugene Schueller was busy in the early 1900s working on the world's first safe, artificial hair dye. Success came in 1907. He also successfully ran soap, paint, and a magazine enterprise. A 'Fordist,' Schueller was staunchly anti-union, but also introduced profit-sharing to boost worker wages and incentive. Like Ford, Schueller at least temporarily admired Nazi efficiency, and then went a bit further and tried to take advantage for his businesses.
After Rubinstein's death in 1965 (age 92), her heirs eventually decided to sell to Colgate-Palmolive. That company repeated Lehman's mistake of trying to commoditize the products, using similar sales tactics as for soap and toothpaste. Eventually the firm was put back on the market and acquired by L'Oreal.