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Interview with Aerin Lauder

Aired May 25, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR: She's the unofficial face of a multi-billion dollar beauty empire. Following in the footsteps of her late grandmother and cosmetics pioneer, Estee Lauder, Aerin Lauder is helping keep the family business a household name. While becoming a style icon in her own right.

In the past decade, the mother of two has made her mark as the company's creative director and helped steer it into new, lucrative markets. She's also behind the selection of a Chinese model as one of the brand's global ambassadors. A move that shows the company is keeping a close eye on China's surge in luxury goods sales and the expectation of its surpassing Japan as the world's second-biggest buyer of luxury items.

But the 40-year-old isn't relying on the family name for her continued success. She'll soon be stepping out from under the well-known brand name to launch her own lifestyle label.

This week on TALK ASIA, we meet Aerin Lauder in her home town of New York. Plus, we follow her to Beijing, to find out about Estee Lauder's latest moves into Asia.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aerin Lauder, thank you so much for joining us. It's great to see you. This is the brand your grandmother created with one face cream 65 years ago. It's really exciting, but it must be a little scary, isn't it?

AERIN LAUDER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR AND SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, ESTEE LAUDER: I mean, I think it's very exciting and it also really makes me very proud of what she created. I feel that I still v very much encourage and believe in the values that she did many, many, many years ago.

CHO: Well, let's talk a little bit more about Estee before we talk about Aerin. What do you remember most about her?

LAUDER: Probably her strength and her drive. I mean, I remember going with her to stores when I was very young. She was, you know, touching the product, talking to the beauty advisor, talking to the customers. She loved what she did. And, you know, being in her office, mixing fragrances, and even on vacation, she would always be thinking about work. She would - I remember being in Palm Beach with her and having someone come from IFF mixing fragrances. And I think it was the creation of one of her many successful fragrances, and it was on our Christmas vacation. And I think she was just incredibly passionate.

I mean, it was quite interesting, because to me she was always my grandmother. I mean, yes, we called her "Estee", we didn't call her "Grandma Estee". We always called her "Estee" because she just - that's what she wanted to be called.

And sometimes people ask me what my first memory of her is. And I think I have to say it's really her smell. She would come into a room and I would smell her fragrance, just feel her presence. And, you know, she smelled like powder and lipstick and perfume. And she just really loved beautiful things.

CHO: The products she created?

LAUDER: Definitely.

CHO: So, let's talk a little bit about you, Aerin Lauder. You know, when I first saw the ad of you in the black turtleneck with the hair flowing back, I know the genesis of that. I mean, it wasn't something that you - it wasn't your brainchild, it's not like -

LAUDER: It wasn't. We were sitting in a meeting and we were talking about fragrance and the strategy of fragrance for the brand. And this was at the time when everyone was trying to think of something super unique, super luxurious, super special. And John Demsey, who was the brand president at the time, said, "The answer's in the room".

And we all kind of looked around. And then he said, you know, Aerin would be great to represent this fragrance and maybe to re-launch Private Collection, which is the fragrance that my grandmother launched originally in the 70s. And he was talking about the original Private Collection, which was this wonderful concept that Estee had of creating a fragrance. And she kept it in her private collection until she was ready to launch it.

But I have a great Private Collection story. When I was developing my private collection, the Tuberose Gardenia one, my son had just started school. And he was in kindergarten. And I remember my husband was travelling for one of the parent-teacher conferences. And so, I walked in by myself to talk to the teacher. And she said, "I really need to talk to you about something."

I thought, "Oh, gosh, I'm alone, what could it possibly be?" He's a little bit tough, maybe he hit someone. Maybe he was mean. And she said, "He comes in every day and he smells so good". And she said, "I don't know what it is. It's like a tuberose or something." And he's obviously very boy and very, you know, sporty, and he would be horrified if he knew he smelled like a tuberose.

And she said, "Please tell me what it is. His hair, everything smells like it." So I must have been putting it on and giving him a hug and a kiss goodbye to go to school. And he was basically my first sample. When we launched it, I actually gave it to her and we kind of laughed. And I don't know when I can actually tell him this story, because he'll be mortified.

CHO: When he's like 20.

LAUDER: But it shows you how fragrance can really resonate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am incredibly thrilled to be able to stand here today and introduce Aerin and her private collection to you and to be here.

LAUDER: It is true that Estee launched her brand and her actual original Private Collection in 1973 in this exact store. It is a very wonderful tribute to her to be doing it again today. And it makes me very proud to be part of this wonderful, wonderful brand. Thank you.


CHO: You probably hate this term, but you are considered a "social swan". You are considered one of the great American beauties.

LAUDER: Thank you.

CHO: What do you think, because you are so well known - what do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

LAUDER: That's a good question. Probably that I'm shy. I actually am. So it's - you know, I think people think, because they see me and they think I go out all the time and do certain things, that I'm very outgoing. And I am with my friends, but at the end of the day, I'm very much like a shy, quieter person than people probably think I am.

CHO: Yes. So, a lot of people might think, because of your last name, that you started in the corner office. But the truth is, you worked your way up to the top, right? You started as an intern.

LAUDER: Sure. I was a summer intern many, many summers. And I loved it. My actual first summer internship was in the design department of Clinique. And it's kind of funny that today, you know, many, many years later, I am very much involved with design. And I really - you know, my uncle was very smart, because he had me work for different people in different areas to really figure out which is the area that I liked.

CHO: But looking back, you know, how did - I mean, is it 17 years that you've been with the company?

LAUDER: About 17.

CHO: And that's - so in looking back at the 17 years that you've been involved now with Estee Lauder - it's a long time.

LAUDER: I know. I can't even -


LAUDER: -- when I think of a woman 40-years-old.

CHO: But 17 years, you know, what do you think you have taken away along the way that you wouldn't have had you just started right up at the top?

LAUDER: I think really the importance of hard work and talent. I think talented people are priceless. And I think people that are knowledgeable and experienced - and I think there's a balance of new talent and experience, which makes, I think, Estee Lauder really special. Because you have many people that have been - you know, my uncle does this wonderful thing where he gives everyone an award if you've been there 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 years. And there's a large number of people that have been there for many, many years.

And, I think, working with Karyn Khoury, who developed fragrances with my grandmother, and she's still there today, very much involved, working on the fragrances with me.

CHO: What does that say to you about the company?

LAUDER: I just think it makes you realize how great the company is. And it is like a family. It's definitely very much a family business in the sense that it has that soul and that love and that passion.

CHO: You know, because you did work your way up to the top, I mean, you know, I think it's smart also in that there's a certain level of respect, then from your colleagues that you might not otherwise get, right?

LAUDER: I think that's really important. I think that, you know, everyone's working hard and everyone's trying to balance their career, their family, their home life - and I think that you have to really work hard and work for it.

CHO: But isn't that something that you must be particularly mindful of? Because of your last name?

LAUDER: I'm definitely - I really am. I mean, I always feel that - you know, I'm always there early, I always leave late. That's very important to me.


RAO: Coming up, embracing Asia. We find out why conquering China is on the top of Aerin Lauder's business agenda.




LIU WEN, BRAND AMBASSADOR, ESTEE LAUDER: I am very excited to meet Aerin. I think Aerin is very much woman and is very pretty. And is very smart. And it is time because Aerin Lauder and other thing for come to China. And we're very happy to stay in China for the shoot at the magazine. And also, she teach me a lot for how to doing the makeup, because I may, in China, still sometime only do eye shadow, the black. But Aerin just teach me you can use a proper color, red actually, the lost (ph) peak (ph).


LAUDER: China was great. It was -

CHO: How long were you there?

LAUDER: We were only there about three or four days.

CHO: Yes.

LAUDER: But those four days were so full and so packed and so extraordinary. We saw so much. But one event that really stood out was - one night we launched Liu Wen. In town for a show to the beauty press. We did a Derek Lam fashion show. And it was very, very emotional. And, actually, everyone from the New York office who was there had tears in their eyes. Because there was something - It really was beauty history.

And to see Liu Wen come out, absolutely exquisite, in a white dress with the most incredible makeup, done by Tom, to this incredible music. And it had a very Chinese feel to it. And it just made me very proud to be a part of it.



CHO: Let's talk about Liu Wen. Because a Chinese-born model - the first time a Western - this is the first time a major Western brand has signed a Chinese-born face to be the global face.


CHO: Why was that important to Estee Lauder to do that?

LAUDER: I think it's important because I think we are a global brand. We're about global beauty. And I think it really sends a very good message, a very important message. Because that's really who we are. We've always been a brand about appealing to everyone and to the idea of beauty could be from anywhere.

And I think there was something, you know, it was really - I remember at that shoot, it was actually a very emotional shoot. Because she was - it was a test shoot, we were testing Liu Wen and Constance. And they were so excited and they were so proud to be doing it. And, you know, it was the first shot we did with her, and that was beautiful.

CHO: It was beautiful, it was beautiful.

LAUDER: And she's extraordinary. She really, I think, is the modern Estee Lauder woman.



LAUDER: I just was in Beijing with her. And she was so proud to kind of take me through her city and show -

CHO: What was that like, to be there with her?

LAUDER: It was kind of - I felt like I was in New York. It was very strange. Because she seems, you know, she seems so traditional Chinese in some ways, but then, at the same time, she's been living in New York and traveling all over and being very involved with fashion. And she showed up in leggings and boots and a Derek Lam jacket and a Firenza handbag. It just looked so -

CHO: Modern.

LAUDER: Like modern. Like the girl - the typical beautiful model from downtown New York. And I think there's something that that shows you - that, you know, beauty is global.

CHO: Well, I mean, what was your take away from that trip to China?

LAUDER: It was, I thought - I mean, I had been to China many, many years before. But this was the first time coming back to this at this level. And I was just so blown away. I think the energy, the hard work, the passion, the dedication - you know, they love skin care and they were so excited to see all the new Pure Color lipsticks and eye shadows that Tom Pecheux had developed.

We developed a color story just for them with Liu Wen that we shot when we were in LA last - a couple months ago. And I just think you just feel the energy. It kind of reminded me of my grandmother. It was like this incredible passion, drive, and energy that was just amazing.

CHO: Well, what I find extraordinary is that it's the fastest-growing market. It's a $300 million annually, right now. In five years, it will be on par with the United States.

LAUDER: I know.

CHO: Billion dollars a year in sales for Estee Lauder - that is extraordinary.

LAUDER: It is extraordinary.

CHO: How important is China, and how important is Asia to Estee Lauder?

LAUDER: It's very important. It's - I mean, there's not a meeting that goes by when we don't discuss it.

CHO: And what comes up? I mean, without giving away trade secrets.

LAUDER: Well, you know, just that the strategy is, you know, China is a huge important part of the business. And, you know, we signed Liu Wen and the response has been extraordinary. The business is strong, it's healthy, it's growing. And, you know, we're trying to - you know, the whole idea of relevant to local areas is really important. And we created a color story just for them. We've done shades just for them. And there's more to come.

CHO: The Estee Lauder brand does so well in Asia. And it has historically. I mean, I remember, as a child, going to Korea with my family and the first thing my mother would do when we planned the trip is -

LAUDER: Buy compact.

CHO: -- go to the department store and she'd buy 30 compacts - Estee Lauder compacts - as gifts, because that was what the Asian woman wanted to wear.

You know, what is it about Estee Lauder that you think resonates so much with the Asian market?

LAUDER: I think it's aspirational. I know - I know it's aspirational. I know that it really defines luxury. It is something special. It's beautiful. It's feminine. The idea that there's gold - that's very much a core part of the brand's DNA is something that I think is very appealing in China. And I think that's it's just that beautiful - as Estee always said, it's the compact, it's the lipstick in your hand. You want to be proud of it when you put it on at the table or in your dressing area - you feel proud of what you're putting on.

CHO: She also says that you always have to touch the customer.

LAUDER: That was her whole thing. And I think that's something that we still teach today - the idea of really interacting with the consumer and don't stand behind the counter - come to the front of it, put your hand out, touch them. And I think that it really does resonate with them.


LAUDER: What we've done, is we sometimes work with Swarovski, Jay Strongwater - this is a very iconic compact from Estee Lauder, the Gold Crocodile. And sometimes we bring back the traditional ones, which we always have in the line, like the Gold Crocodile and this one we call "After Hours", which is great, because you can monogram it.

And these are another element of the Estee Lauder kind of compact collection that we're known for. We call them "solid fragrances". And, inside them, we do these beautiful -

CHO: Right.

LAUDER: -- solid fragrances. Which is great now -

CHO: You've done this for a long time, right?

LAUDER: We've done this for many, many years. And, actually, people collect them.

CHO: How long have you had this, would you say?

LAUDER: I would say since the '50s.

CHO: I was going to say, because I feel like -

LAUDER: I mean, a really, really long time.

CHO: -- like having a flashback to my childhood.

LAUDER: It's a total flashback, but that is done by Jay Strongwater, and it looks really modern - it's great, I give them as gifts to friends.


RAO: Coming up, remembering a matriarch. Aerin Lauder shares some personal stories of her famous grandmother.



CHO: And then this is nice.

LAUDER: This is a great story behind the picture. I re-issued the book, "Five Beautiful Women" a few years ago that Victor Skrebneski had done of these beautiful, beautiful portraits. And he said he has this wonderful photograph of Estee. It was rolled up and it was in his kind of back area of his office. And he asked if I wanted it. And then, when I saw the size of it and the feeling, this really inspired that first private collection shot. We were very much intrigued by how modern the photograph looked and almost timeless.

CHO: I know, it was 1974.

LAUDER: 1974. And just the simple - one piece of , you know, beautiful pair of pearls, simple black top -

CHO: So elegant.

LAUDER: So elegant. So, that's one of my favorite shots of her.

CHO: Oh, it's a gorgeous shot.

How does she react when you used to go on and try on her clothes and her jewelry?

LAUDER: She loved it. I mean, in the pictures you'll see. She absolutely - she was so warm and she obviously loved her children and her grandchildren. We were very close, because she only had two sons, and they each had, you know, two children - we were very much - we still are a very close family.

CHO: Well, because that's so warm and so close, that you had no idea who she was, for a long time.

LAUDER: Really, you know, for so long, I just knew her as Estee. And I think it really wasn't until, as I said, I went to the department stores with her. And even more, when I was a little bit older and all my friends started getting into makeup. And I would bring lip-glosses to school. We would all try them on.

CHO: And you were the coolest girl in school.

LAUDER: I wasn't the coolest girl, I definitely had the lip-glosses. But the, you know, it's just - that's when I started realizing. And, I think, the one regret I have is not working with her. Because you see how hard it is to launch a product or to do an advertising campaign. But the fact that she did so much of that on her own in 1946 as a woman was kind of extraordinary. And, I think, an opportunity to work with her would have been amazing.


CHO: And when you think back 65 years, 1946, she created, with the help of her uncle, a face cream, right?

LAUDER: Exactly.

CHO: And she had the guts to go to a department store and say, "Hey".

LAUDER: I mean, she was the most persistent woman. Even in the end, you know, when - she really came to the office every day until she was in her mid-80s. And even after that, when she couldn't get to the office any more, there was nothing she loved more than getting in a car and going to see store windows at Christmastime and trying to go to the counter. I mean, she was passionate about the business.

CHO: What do you think it was about her personality that made her have that drive and be like that? I mean, it's not often that you find somebody who is like that. And that determined.

LAUDER: I know, strong. Especially at that time. You know, 1946, many women weren't starting businesses, let alone, you know, completely working every day trying so hard to create something. And I think it was really - it really was her drive and her hunger. And she also loved what she did. You know, she used to always say, "Whatever you do, do it well and work hard at it. With hard work will come success". I mean, she was incredible. She is a real role model.

CHO: You tell this great story about how you really didn't know how famous she was until you walked into a department store with her around Christmas time or something. Was it like that?

LAUDER: Exactly. And then everyone really came up to her and I kind of put it all together. And it made me very proud of what she was.

CHO: Well, what did you think at the time? Do you remember?

LAUDER: I remember just the excitement everyone had when they saw her and, like, how she changed from a grandmother to a businesswoman. And she walked in and started doing people's makeup and selling product and talking to the consumer. And it was a side of her that I had never seen, because, obviously, she really didn't do that as much at home, especially with her grandchildren.

CHO: Not as a grandmother, I'm sure.

LAUDER: Not as a grandmother. I mean, she was very warm. She was - you know, there's so many great stories about her. I mean, she had this love of chocolate. And, you know, she's probably one of the few people that has ever said to me, "Take more than one, take two, take three". She would have a refrigerator in her dressing area of just chocolate. With a little refrigerator just boxes and boxes. And it was kind of a dream or the fantasy.

CHO: Like you always said, Estee was ahead of her time, right?

LAUDER: She really was. I mean, she was - I mean, her first add she ever did for Youth Dew was a nude woman. I mean, Tom Ford is doing that now. You know what I mean? People, you know, don't realize that she was one of the first people to do many things. And it's that whole beauty lifestyle, not even putting the product in the ad And showing a room -

CHO: At the time, did she shock a lot of people, do you think?

LAUDER: She did. I'm sure she did. I mean, I think her generation, you know, was already shocked that she was building a business, working, and kind of traveling. And she was amazing. 1946.

And one of the things I love when you go into the archive is reading her letters between her and Princess Grace, her and Nancy Reagan, her with the head of Harrods. And just to see the dialogue and to see - even in her letters, you could see her passion and her drive.

CHO: Well, in fact, Private Collection, the fragrance brand that now has your name on it, was inspired by the original private collection that Estee created -

LAUDER: Just for her friends.

CHO: For a few of her friends, including Grace Kelly.

LAUDER: And I have her house in the country, and we have a living room that's very much in the spirit of Estee. It's all blue and white and we cannot ever change it. And I won't ever change it. But we have this wonderful table just full of all her favorite photographs. And they are pictures of Princess Grace with a note to her, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan - and it's kind of just incredible.

CHO: How did she inspire you to get involved with the company?

LAUDER: Well, I really did love the idea of, you know, fashion, beauty. And it's interesting, the area that I'm very, very passionate about, really, is the advertising and the packaging because it is the element of fashion. It is the element of trend.


LAUDER: So, this is basically the Spring campaign.

CHO: It's beautiful.

LAUDER: So, this is the collection that we did just for China.

CHO: Oh, she looks beautiful.

LAUDER: And that's what we were launching in Beijing when we were there, which was absolutely beautiful. With all like, you know, they like lots of pinks and kind of really soft, pretty colors. We have Hilary Rhoda -

CHO: The all-American girl.

LAUDER: Who is kind of the modern Brooke Shields. And it's quite interesting, because in Asia, she's considered perfection. She has blue eyes, white, white skin, dark hair. So she resonates very well there as well as, obviously, everywhere else.

And the brief for this was the woman on the go. We wanted her to be in the trench with the Rolex and the messy kind of bun and, little did you know, this was actually in East Hampton in the pouring rain. That's how you can tell the level of photography is so extraordinary.

CHO: Is that your house?

LAUDER: That's not my house. It's around the corner. But Craig did an extraordinary job. And this is our new Pleasure Bag (ph).

CHO: Is this Constance (ph)?

LAUDER: This is Constance. And this is the fragrance that was launched many years ago about the simple pleasures in life and the importance of alone time and just kind of being happy in nature. And there's always been an element of puppy and flowers. And some countries like the puppy and some countries don't like the puppy. So, a lot of the European countries don't want the puppy. The UK likes it, because they love dogs. A lot of other countries sometimes don't, so we do variations.


CHO: And what's the greatest part about being Aerin Lauder?

LAUDER: Oh, gosh. Free Advanced Night Repair. I don't know.


Probably just having a wonderful role model from my grandmother, who really inspired me.

CHO: Yes. Aerin Lauder, thank you so much.

LAUDER: Thank you.

CHO: It's been fun spending time with you today.

LAUDER: Thank you so much.