The phone rings with a shriek in the small converted restaurant that serves as the lab, packing and operational centre of the fledgling cosmetic business known as Estee Lauder. The year is 1937. A petite, pretty young woman answers the phone.

'Estee Lauder, good morning.'

'Yes hello can I have your billing department please.'

'One moment please sir.' Says the lady. She holds the phone to her chest, shakes her head, clears her throat and puts the phone back to her ear. Then in a much deeper voice says, 'Hello, billing department.'

Or so the legend goes.

Today the company employs more than 20 000 people worldwide, and reported earnings of over 7 billion US Dollars this year. They own a vast global range of luxury subsidiary brands ranging from make-up to fragrances to hair care and cosmetics with names like Cinique, Aramis, MAC, Tony&Guy, Bobbi Brown Essentials and Tommy Hilfiger fragrances - among many others. The story of Estee Lauder is a central chapter in America's business folklore. A classic rags to riches tale. She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer to Max and Rose Schotz Mentzer, newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants, in the lower working class neighbourhood of Corona, Queens New York. The year was 1908, allegedly. Some sources say papa owned and operated a hardware store, others say he mainly sold seeds, garden and farming equipment. The point is, from a young age, Josephine Esther, or Esty (Es-tee) as she was called back in the day, gravitated naturally to the world of beauty and glamour, and felt a deep sense of shame for her humble beginnings and her parents poor grasp of the English language and old country ways.

When asked to use one word to describe his mother, without hesitation Leonard Lauder answered: 'Ambition.'

By 1930, aged around 22, Young Estee, now already calling herself Estée (Es-tay, with the accent on the e) was doing the rounds smousing a face cream her Chemist uncle John Schotz had brewed up in his kitchen. Sadly, unlike Estee, uncle John, despite other notable inventions such as fragrances, a mudpack and a poultry lice killer, died poor.

According to Time Magazine biographer, Michele Orecklin, Estee's sales method exposed two of her strongest business characteristics: tenacity and ingenuity. "She traveled tirelessly to local beauty salons, demonstrating the product on women marooned under hair dryers." Many became regular customers.

In the same year she married a garment center businessman named Joseph Lauter, who, in the run-up to World War Two, amidst rising anti-German sentiment, adjusted his name to, 'Lauder'. Estee soon started brewing up her own potions and Joe helped run the back-end of the business. As Estee says in her own autobiography. "During every possible spare moment, I cooked up little pots of cream for faces. I always felt most alive when I was dabbling in the practice cream.'

This is around the time when she was energetically building her business, answering telephones, mixing and perfecting her creams while selling and promoting them in beauty salons and on the street. According to ex-Vogue editor Grace Mirabella. ' No doubt the potions were good- Estée Lauder was a quality fanatic- but the saleslady was better. Much better. And she simply outworked everyone else in the cosmetics industry.'

A keen sense of business acumen and a desire to be greater than her humble working class immigrant roots meant that Estee Lauder also tirelessly pursued high society; both professionally and socially. In the late 1930s - the concept of product placement did not exist, nor was there a split between direct and indirect advertising channels. There was no talk of 'deepening the brand association'. Hell, there was no talk of brands at all. And yet Estee Lauder understood that if the rich, glamorous and famous people used her products, the rest of the nation would follow suit. In 1939 she divorced old hard working, stable, dependable Joe and moved to Florida to pursue the high society.

As Martha Duffy explains in a 1985 Time Magazine article. ' This kind of ambition seems to afflict cosmetic tycoons: Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Charles Revson of Revlon all wooed the rich and especially the titled. Lauder invaded Palm Beach because she realized that swells are more approachable at resorts than on their home ground.'

E x-Vogue editor, Grace Mirabella remarks. "Estee would give her famous friends and acquaintances small samples of her products for their handbags; she wanted her brand in the hands of people who were known for having 'the best.'"

"I don't know her very well, but she keeps sending all these things," said Princess Grace of Monaco in an Associated Press article on Lauder.

After a few years in Florida, Estee soon came to her senses, re-married Joe and moved back to New York.

"I was married very young." She explained. "You think you missed something out of life. But I found out that I had the sweetest husband in the world."

By this stage the brand was well established - specifically amongst the rich and shameless, however it had little public penetration. This was all about to change. Estee, seeing the future of her enterprise lay in the sales counters of the big 5 th Avenue department stores, as Mirabella puts it, 'stalked the bosses of New York City department stores until she got some counter space at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1948. And once in that space, she utilized a personal selling approach that proved as potent as the promise of her skin regimens and perfumes.'

In two days Saks sold out and Estee Lauder was on the map. Once she got a foot in the door of the New York department stores, Estee revolutionised the cosmetic sales approach with two innovations. She introduced the concept of 'gift with purchase' - a gimmick which is now the mainstay of department and cosmetic store sales around the world. And she introduced the concept of 'samples' - now ubiquitous with every new cosmetic launch. For the first time women could go shopping and try the creams and cosmetics without having to buy them first. They were also incentivised to make the purchases by the offer of a free gift.

Estee also introduced a unique approach to selling. Beautiful, well turned out, well trained sales people - operating her cosmetic counters.

As Estee says in her auto-biography, "When you stop talking, you've lost your customer. When you turn your back, you've lost her."

It's important to remember that in the late 40s and 50s American industry was finally turning on to the buying power represented by women. Estee Lauder rode the wave of the post World War 2 boom, and slotted in nicely alongside the mainstream rise of Hollywood glamour and the increasing sentiment of women's lib - manifest in their recent economic participation - hardened capitalists would say 'emancipation'.

Back in the day cosmetic use was frowned upon. Only Jezebels, harlots and prostitutes used make-up in the 1800s. Queen Victoria publicly declared make-up to be improper, vulgar, and acceptable for use by actors, only. And just before the war, old Adolf Hitler, across the sea in Germany was often quoted as telling German women women that face painting was for clowns and not for the women of the Master Race!

But in 1950s New York, things had changed - and Estee Lauder was on the cutting edge. As her son Leonard Lauder puts it, "She liked to think about beauty and was determined to give women the opportunity to feel beautiful."

"Beauty is an attitude." Said Estee. "There's no secret. Why are all brides beautiful? Because on their wedding day they care about how they look. There are no ugly women - only women who don't care or who don't believe they're attractive."

Despite the fact that most of the big department stores were carrying Estee's cosmetics, her big break arrived in the form of a fragrance known as Youth Dew. According to Time's Martha Duffy. "Lauder inched along in business 20 years before she brought out Youth-Dew, a pungent bath oil that doubled as perfume. Unsubtle, tenaciously clinging, it had the kind of across-the-board success in the '50s and '60s that Giorgio has enjoyed in the '80s. The fragrance carried the entire line to the privileged position in the world's department stores that Lauder had been fighting for.'

At the time Youth Dew was an innovation. Most perfumes and fragrances came from Paris or Cologne, were daubed delicately behind the ear and remained the preserve of the upper crust, who could afford them. Estee Lauder's Youth Dew brought fragrance to the mainstream, in a sexy, innovative and exciting new medium.

By 1960 the company went international. Its first international account was in the London department store Harrods. The following year, Estee Lauder opened an office in Hong Kong.

Youth Dew launched Estee Lauder into the big time - a position Estee carefully consolidated with new, innovative products marketed directly towards the mainstream. Grace Mirabella picks up the narrative.

"Beautiful didn't necessarily mean fashionable. Having edited two leading women's magazines over the past 25 years, I am hard pressed to think of a trend that Lauder started. The company never made any effort to be the makeup choice in the fashion shows. What you had with Estée Lauder was the quality of her view, of her demand for an ultrafeminine portrayal of the product. Every woman in every ad was the essence of femininity. Is that the kind of women we are talking about now? I'm not sure, but women know who Lauder is. Hers is a product with a focus - it's not MTV."

Finally Estee gained access to the high society she had so tirelessly canvassed. For years, as Time's Martha Duffy puts it, "Estee beguiled the press with tales of a gently bred Hungarian-Viennese mother, a Czech father with imperial connections, a childhood spent on an estate in Flushing, NY."

Until a young upstart biographer named Lee Israel started researching an unauthorised biography, forcing Estee to rush her autobiography "Estee: A Success Story" into stores in 1985.

"Now she tells most of the essential truth" Says Duffy. "Her parents were poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and she grew up in the shabby Corona section of Queens.

In her autobiography Estee herself notes. "Pat Buckley was wearing Estee when Nancy Reagan came to visit. Nancy admired the fragrance, and Pat promptly gave Mrs. Reagan her own bottle ... I like knowing that Estee is present at places that are a long way from Corona."

"This sentence helps explain why one indulges Lauder's social greed." Says Duffy. "Candor and zest count for a lot, and so does unintentional humor. By contrast, Israel's narrative trails off into inconsequence. Though she credits her subject's business skill, she focuses on the puffed-up past, the social climbing, the friends dropped. As a result, the biography lacks a very important ingredient found in the autobiography: a larger-than-life, likable main character."

Estee and Joe's son, Leonard Lauder took over the running of the business in 1982 and nearly quadrupled annual sales by 1995. Today Estee's grandson William P Lauder fills the shoes of President and CEO of Estee Lauder COS and the family still controls around 90% (or $8 billion) of the company's stock.

Estee passed away from a heart attack on the 26 April 2004, aged at least 95 (because there was a little confusion about her exact date of birth, naturally).

The future of cosmetics looks pretty bright - in the United States alone there are 76 million Baby Boomers now entering late middle-age. Estee Lauder - along with all the other cosmetic houses has developed a new range of products snappily named 'cosmeceuticals'. The unholy alliance of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. More potent than cosmetics, but not so potent that they need to be regulated. One such product is Estee Lauder's Creme de la Mer originally invented Max Huber in the 1960s to treat his own rocket-fuel burns. Idealist another of Estee Lauder's 'cosmeceuticals' plays on the insecurities of the late-20s crowd and is a pre-anti aging cream, of sorts.

Interestingly enough for us Africans, it took Estee Lauder 57 years to finally choose a black model to represent their brand. Liya Kebede signed a multi-million dollar contract to represent Estee Lauder in 2003. And they were one of the first big cosmetic houses to do so.

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