Tuesday, 24 November 2015

"A Little Italian Girl From Brooklyn" - An Exclusive Interview With Estée Lauder's Karyn Khoury [part 2]

Karyn Khoury and Leonard Lauder
at the 2012 USA FiFi Awards

In last week's instalment of my chat with Estée Lauder's Karyn Khoury (please click here to read it), the esteemed creative director wandered down memory lane and shared stories about her work with Mrs Lauder. Towards the end of our conversation - which marked the first time she had granted an interview to a UK-based blogger - we turned our attention to more recent events and to the future...

Persolaise: What makes an Estée Lauder perfume an Estée Lauder perfume?

Karyn Khoury: Luxury. Signature. Estée Lauder fragrances have a personality. Estée believed fragrance has to say something. It has to convey, evoke and express something. And it has to do it right away, because nobody's going to wait 25 minutes for a message. I don't look at my competition as all the other fragrance companies. I never have. I understand and I appreciate the strength of my competitors. But my competition is anything else that a woman has to give up in order to buy my fragrance. So in today's day and age, if she buys one of my fragrances, chances are maybe she's not buying a blouse for herself, or she's not going out to lunch. What that translates to is: every aspect of that fragrance has to be sensorially and emotionally rewarding to her. So the fragrance has to be an entity that continues to delight her, that continues to make her feel fabulous every time she wears it.

P: Is it a coincidence that so many Lauder scents have been made by women?

KK: It's not intentional. Mrs Lauder worked quite a bit with Bernard Chant, and she worked with Sophia Grojsman and Josephine Catapano. But I will say that Mrs Lauder was passionate about empowering and recognising women. She knew what she had gone through to be understood, appreciated and recognised. But I never remember her saying, 'I would do this with a woman, versus a man.' In fact, we brief projects to a wide range of perfumers, male and female.

P: I think it's fair to say that most shoppers aren't aware that Michael Kors, Aveda, DKNY, Mac, Clinique, Bobbi Brown etc are all part of the Lauder group. That suggests very strongly that those brands have maintained a distinct identity. Is there something in the actual structure of the Lauder company that allows these other brands to maintain their individuality?

KK: Yes, absolutely. First of all, for brands of a certain scale, you have dedicated teams. Even more importantly, the culture of Estée Lauder is that when a brand is brought in or created, at the highest level of management, two things happen. Number one, there is a very deliberate conceptualisation and commitment to what that brand's DNA is going to be. For example, when we began working with Tom, from the beginning, we would sit and talk about what the structure of this brand is going to be, creatively. What will we stand for on fragrance? What is this going to smell like, creatively? The DNA, the message to the consumer, is decided and agreed upon. Secondly, the structure of the company is also such that the senior level of management is involved in ensuring that each brand is given its space. When I go from brand to brand, my approach changes. Often the way I speak and present things changes. If it's a full day, the way I dress changes. We are taught: you must immerse yourself in the brand culture, you must respect and absorb the brand culture if you're going to create for the brand.

P: Would you say that women who are in their 20s and 30s now, in 2015, view perfume as something very different from how similarly-aged women viewed it in the 1980s or 70s? Is perfume a very different sort of commodity for women now? Is it seen as less valuable, more throwaway?

KK: I think that the industry, not just our company, faces a number of challenges because of different consumer perceptions. Some of it is a challenge that can be frustrating, but now there are challenges coming that I'm excited about. The growth of the specialty market - that redefined fragrance as bath and body products - was an opportunity, because it broadened the consumer's palette. But it was a challenge, because it took the whole perception of value and the price relationship to fragrance down. There was a moment in the industry when consumers couldn't understand why they should pay an Estée Lauder price when they could get a fragrance somewhere else for £15. We hadn't yet entered the point of educating the consumer about quality of materials and artistry etc etc. So we faced a proliferation of launches from the industry in general, many of which were created without appropriate personality, so they all smelt alike.

At Estée Lauder we made a decision that we were going to be true to our DNA and we were going to continue to hold to our qualities and to treat fragrance as the precious product that it is. Let me give you an example. When CK One came out, we were under a lot of pressure from our markets to do a unisex fragrance. CK One was a huge hit and it's a well done fragrance. I remember talking about it with Leonard [Lauder, Estée Lauder's son]. And we said, 'Unisex from Calvin Klein makes sense. Unisex from Estée Lauder: not so much.' So we made the decision to pass on a business opportunity that was a significant one at that point, because it was not authoritative for us and true to our DNA.

One of the things that we as a company are particularly excited about is that we feel the outcome of what I've just described to you has been that there is a real quest for authenticity, quality. Consumers want the quality, they want the heritage, they want to know that a perfume has been created by people who care, by artists. It plays right into our strengths. It speaks to everything that we are and everything that we've always been.

P: So are you saying the next generation of women will see perfume as something more valuable?

KK: Totally. I think that the interesting challenge going forward will be the success of the niche and luxury markets, and the focus on it. But it's going to take a great deal of strategy - which we're doing - to answer that consumer interest by protecting integrity, so that you don't follow that pattern of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, so to speak. We think about that a great deal. When we see a consumer response, we spend a lot of time understanding the why - what is it that's speaking to them? - and then protecting that.

P: I've been told that when the news of Lauder's acquisition of Frederic Malle was announced, the reaction in the UK was pessimistic, whereas the reaction in the USA was mainly enthusiastic. Did you notice this divide in views?

KK: No, actually, I have to say, I haven't seen an Atlantic divide. By that I mean, I've heard both reactions, on both sides of the pond. There are always going to be people who see negativity in certain events. I'm not working with Frederic, but I've long been an admirer of his. And what I know from his time since he's been part of our company is that he is loving the resources and the support that we can give him. We have a philosophy: you don't purchase a company and then proceed to remake it in the image of what you already are. You are purchasing creativity, entrepreneurship. Frederic Malle is the heart and soul of that brand.

P: For how long will he get to keep creative autonomy?

KK: Well, let me put it this way. Look at Tom Ford. If you are under any impression that Tom Ford is not running the creative elements of Tom Ford Beauty, you're very wrong. And that's been since 2007.

P: How would you respond to the people saying that Malle's perfumes will now be ruined and watered down?

KK: I would say, with all due respect, that they're not terribly well informed. The factual and historical track record of our corporation does not support that view. If you look at the Estée Lauder fragrances - if you've been around long enough to know the original fragrances - you'll know that now, they're far from watered down. Look at Tom Ford Beauty. Tom Ford has gone from strength to strength since 2007. Do you think Black Orchid's been watered down since 2007?

P: You've been involved with the creation of so many perfumes. What feelings go through your mind when you sit back and consider all your work?

KK: Pride. Gratitude, because Estée and Leonard believed in me and gave me a chance. A bit of disbelief, because my background is a little Italian girl from Brooklyn. So to think that I've travelled the world and been given the chance to do some of this work, there are some times that I don't quite believe that it's me. But primarily, it's pride and gratitude. Gratitude to the Lauder family, but also gratitude to the perfumers I've worked with. They have been amazingly generous with me over the years, in teaching me, in being patient with me. Without the perfumers, it's a vision unrealised.

P: When the House Of Estée range was launched earlier this year, I must admit that I was very sorry to see that we were no longer going to have the original bottles for the likes of Beyond Paradise and Cinnabar. Why did you feel you had to change the bottles?

KK: As a company, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fragrance. We have a very large portfolio. The reality is, in today's market, they don't get their exposure. Where you don't have your own counter, you don't get that space, you don't get the consumer to see each and every bottle. We wanted to find a way to deal with the realities of current retail. Forget about a perfumery or a travel retail space, even with our own counters, when you are a three-category brand, space can be limited. We wanted to find a way to reintroduce, if you will, these gems. You have to do something different to get people to look at it differently. So we created a package that, again, takes cues from our DNA. And the feeling was that if we could do this, no matter how limited the space, we could have a visual cue of a 'house' of fragrance, and it would allow us to continue to support the olfactive gems that we have. Believe me, it wasn't an easy discussion. It went all the way up to Leonard.

P: Why have you stayed at Lauder for as long as you have?

KK: Through the brilliance of Leonard and the company, I've had multiple jobs, careers and experiences without ever leaving. I joined doing the assistant product manager work. I had never done a press interview. Never done education. Now I've been from Russia to China to South Africa - all over - talking about our company and our fragrances. So it's like having had multiple jobs. Every time I started to get bored, somehow, they'd sense it, and they would add another dimension to my job - always centred around fragrance - that kept it interesting, fresh and challenging. That's why I've stayed.



  1. I loved your two-part interview with Karyn Khoury of Estée Lauder. She has stated clearly that my own hopes and beliefs about how EL would handle these mergers (Malle et al) was actually the basis of their business plan. Ms Khoury sounds like a true adherent of the American entrepreneurial spirit at every level of business that she's had at EL. Thank you, Persolaise.

    1. Princess Tonk, thanks so much for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the interviews. Yes, her words on the acquisitions were very encouraging.


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