Lauder than words: An interview with Aerin Lauder
Picture perfect is not the most likely phrase to describe a business mogul, yet it's the first one that comes to mind when I leave Aerin Lauder's Midtown office. The granddaughter of Estée Lauder only refers to this beauty pioneer by her name, never as grandma. Aerin herself is as picture perfect as her office, her products, and her eponymous brand AERIN. Ms. Lauder, who also holds a position as the style and image director for Estée Lauder Inc., created her lifestyle empire based on the modern woman's wish to shop with her eyes closed. This woman would much rather focus on her career, family, and the million other things that need her attention — rather than on finding the right vase or blusher. That should be left to the experts like Aerin Lauder.
"I think it's a simpler way to shop," she says of AERIN, an expertly curated collection of products made to prettify a woman's life. "Women like the idea of an edit. We all agree that we need more time. Women are busier than ever, they are juggling careers, homes, families. They feel like they do it all...they should do it all, but how do you balance it? Shopping a lifestyle brand makes life easier for them."
The idea came when Aerin, armed with years of experience steering Estée Lauder brands and surrounded by the latest beauty innovations, still longed for some warmth and a personal touch. She sees no contradiction: "I thought there was a real void in the marketplace for this type of a modern, feminine lifestyle brand. AERIN is all about storytelling; it's authentic. You know, I'm 45 years old, I have two teenage boys, I definitely live the brand." She asked herself, what products she couldn't live without, and ended up with a foundation, bronzer, lip conditioner and her bestselling Rose Hand & Body Cream. The very first edit.
With Aerin Lauder, authenticity is not just a word. When you smell, apply, wear or touch any of AERIN products, you get a piece of her. The swirled brown marbles and lush green ceramics of her fall collection draw inspiration from Vienna where she lived for almost two years. So is the new limited collection of two lipsticks for the Neue Gallery echoing the shades of Klimt's masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, nicknamed the Woman in Gold. Another place of reference is Southern France, where Aerin used to spend time as a little girl. The vision of the straw chairs on those porches inspired a medley of gardenia and orange blossoms in her Gardenia Rattan fragrance.
After four decades in the industry, she knows what's up. Behind the svelte frame and ash-blond hair is a woman functioning on a monumental scale, even when she talks about lipstick and vanity candy. So does she know the formula for success? "A great product and quality are very important. It has to be the best it can possibly be. Estée always used to say that if it's her name on it, it had to be the best. Now it is my name on these fragrances, on these lights, on accessories, so they have to be the best." And not just that. "Consumers now are savvier than ever. They want products to work, they want skincare to live up to the claims; they are very aware of anti-ageing and skin conditions. I think people are just much more knowledgeable about what they are looking for," she adds.
What they are looking for it turns out are stories — abundant in the world of AERIN the brand. Ikat Jasmine, for instance, is about Aerin's go-to uniform, a pair of jeans and a white shirt. "It's the idea of the timeless, effortless style," she explains. "The idea of white jasmine and orange blossom makes it a very easy fragrance to wear, but it's elegant at the same time." Lilac Path was born when Ms. Lauder was spellbound by a blossoming lilac bush on her Southampton property and she landed right on trend with her fragrance idea. I ask her about Evening Rose, a sensual fragrance topped with a dusty purple cap. That one, as it turns out, marries two types of roses with cognac. It's all a fascinating game. The rules are hers, but we are glad to comply.
Aerin says she is a tough boss — "I have a very good memory, so I find all these little details" — but a team player. And she has a high standard to live up to. "One experience I always wish I had was to be able to work with Estée," she says. According to her first-hand experience, what is now a $10 billion company with 25 brands under its umbrella, started with one inspired and very hardworking woman.
"Estée always brought work home with her; she loved it so much. As long as I can remember there were always fragrance samples on her desks, magazines with little tabs. It was her life," recalls Aerin, who was born when the beauty tycoon was already in her 60s. "You know, she was a genius marketer. She was known to do makeovers on people when they were under a hair dryer, trapped. She was very warm, and she would come in and show them the product, put a body lotion on their hands so they would smell it. Estée invented the gift-with-purchase and the idea of sampling. Everyone wants a little gift, no matter who you are. She was very clever."
What was grandma's biggest lesson? "Estée taught me the importance of style, elegance and consistency. When you look at pictures of her from events or different times in her life, she always had a very consistent sense of style." As for Aerin's own fashion sense, it's quite simple. She loves a jacket, shirt and pants combo and focuses on great accessories. "It's immediate gratification, so I dress quite simply, but my accessories speak volumes." Beauty and fashion always walk hand in hand, just like how AERIN shoes complement her lipsticks.
As we speak sitting in an airy office filled with light, pastel artworks, fluffy chairs, scraps of rich fabrics and dainty tubes, Aerin is truly at home. She lives in a beautiful world perfected by generations of amazing women, where everything makes perfect sense.
What's next for the AERIN empire? "We are exploring designer collaborations. We are coming out with a new collaboration with a handbag designer this Christmas. I can't say more right now, but you will see. I am a strong believer in taking two unexpected, but like-minded brands and collaborating. I think it's fun." If Aerin's flawless strategy calls for some fun, we are all for it.