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Making It

Makeup Idea Proved to Be a Real Beauty

Entrepreneur: Bobbi Brown turned a $5,000 investment in her line of natural cosmetics into a reported $100 million in four years.

September 10, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Keep it simple" is Bobbi Brown's motto for life, work and makeup.

The high-profile cosmetics maven is happiest in casual clothes, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. And though she's a top makeup artist and creator of the Bobbi Brown Essentials cosmetics line, you're likely to find her made up "lite."

Brown, 43, hit upon the idea of creating natural-looking makeup nearly a decade ago, when she was searching for ways to simplify her life. At the time, after 10 years of struggle, she'd become a hot-in-demand makeup artist, working with "A-list" fashion designers and photographers and landing top magazine jobs, including a Vogue cover.

It was a glamorous life, but a tough one, complicated by the fact that Brown had married and had her first child. Family had become an important priority, and she was determined to make time for her husband and baby.

A turning point came when Brown was asked to participate in a photo shoot for a Ralph Lauren ad campaign, Brown said. It was a job she wanted, but it would require her to be away from her family for two weeks.

"I remember having a big struggle," Brown said. "This was what I'd always wanted, what I'd been working toward. But I turned it down."

Though Brown continued working as a makeup artist, she began to feel an entrepreneurial itch. For years, she'd been frustrated with the commercial makeup products that she'd been using personally and for her professional jobs.

"I couldn't find a lipstick that wasn't smelly, dry or greasy," Brown said. "I couldn't find one that looked like my lips. I had to mix eye pencil, blush, gloss or buy theater [cosmetics] or makeup from overseas."

Brown believed that, from her experience as a makeup artist, she could create a lipstick that would look more natural than any product commercially available at that time.

First, she made a brown-toned lipstick for herself. It drew raves from friends and models, Brown said. Emboldened, she sought a chemist's help to develop a line of 10 lipsticks in shades that matched a variety of skin tones.

It seemed like such a simple idea, Brown wondered, so why hadn't anyone already capitalized on it?

In 1990, Brown and a publicist friend, Rosalind Landis, each ponied up $5,000 to manufacture Brown's new lipsticks.

"For us, it was a huge amount of money at the time," Brown said. "My husband was in law school, and we'd just had our first kid."

They placed an ad for the line in Glamour. Brown, the creator, identified herself as a professional makeup artist. Her phone began ringing with orders. Heartened, Brown marched into Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan and persuaded buyers there to stock her lipsticks. She figured she might sell 100 units in a month. But that amount sold the first day.

"I learned the importance of 'buzz,' " Brown said. "Many of those lipsticks were sold to men in suits from other cosmetic companies. They wanted to see what I was up to."

The buzz grew louder. Soon, other stores, including Saks, Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, picked up Brown's line. And officers of large cosmetic companies (whose lines Brown was outselling) began circling like earnest suitors, attempting to woo Brown with buyout offers.

At first, she wasn't interested.

But then Leonard Lauder, chief executive of Estee Lauder Cos., approached her with an offer: If Brown sold her company to Estee Lauder, she'd be able to make use of Lauder's global distribution network, retain her position at her firm's helm and continue to develop her Essentials line as she envisioned it.

"There was nothing we wanted to change," Lauder said. "I was extremely impressed with her quiet ambition and her almost religious desire to make women look pretty. It was very obvious that she had what women wanted."

Just four years after Brown had risked $5,000 on her natural makeup line, she sold Bobbi Brown Essentials to Estee Lauder for a reported $100 million. Today, Brown said she remains intimately involved in her line's development. She's expanded it to include blush, bronzers, eye shadow, foundation, lip gloss, mascara, skin-care products and other accouterments.

"I don't feel it's work," Brown said. "I'm so in love with what I do, it's a passion."

Has there been a secret formula to her success (besides what she and the chemist concocted years ago)?

Brown ascribes her quick rise in the makeup industry to common sense. "I've never taken a marketing or business course," Brown said. "My gut instinct is the most important thing I have."

This is also how she chooses staff. "I have to adore the people I work with," she said.

In a few months, Brown & Co. will be moving to what she describes as an "alternative space" in Manhattan's SoHo area. She envisions the new office as "something almost like a home, with comfy furniture, where people don't have to wear suits." In other words, a simple, natural-looking work habitat.

"I just don't think people can be creative sitting in cubbyholes, under horrible lighting," she said.

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