Tuesday, 17 November 2015

"When I Fell In Love With The Company" - An Exclusive Interview With Estée Lauder's Karyn Khoury [part 1]

After I put away the trappings of my Twenty Blotters game (click here to see what I'm talking about) I continued my conversation with Estée Lauder's highly-respected creative director, Karyn Khoury, by picking up on a statement she made about the importance of giving perfumers recognition for their work. How does she reconcile this policy, I asked her, with the fact that the Lauder PR machine tends to be fairly reticent - if not downright opaque - about the identity of the people who make not just their scents, but also those for the other brands within the company, such as Tom Ford, Michael Kors and DKNY?

Karyn Khoury: You are right, in that our approach is certainly different than some companies', like Jo Malone or Frederic Malle or some of the others that celebrate the perfumers' names. That comes from a couple of things. Number one: when Mrs Estée was alive, she was the creator of the fragrances. The house was built on the vision and the olfactive creativity of Estée. Everybody knew, obviously, that she worked with perfumers. But what built the fragrance DNA of the brand was Estée's vision and creativity. As long as Mrs Lauder was alive, that was the approach. It started to be modified with Pleasures, which was the first time the perfumers really appeared anywhere in print.

We maintain a different approach. We do not just go to a perfumer and say, 'We need a new fragrance. Can you make one?' We go to a perfumer with a vision. We go to a perfumer with a point of view. We go to a perfumer with a direction and a concept in mind. And we work with them every step of the way. So it's not like we say, 'I see pink!' and six months later the fragrance comes back. So we feel that it is important to manage how the perfumer collaboration is presented, to respect the role of the house.

Persolaise: So would you say the perfumers are the technicians realising your vision?

KK: No, much more than that. For me, the perfumers are the partners who bring our vision to life, and enhance it with their own. I'm not saying we don't get additions and refinements to the vision from perfumers. We absolutely do. That's the joy of it. One part comes together with another and all of a sudden it's something totally different by that interaction. Creativity has to be fuelled. And it's most often fuelled by interaction with another creative person.

In the case of Tom Ford, you need to know something that many people don't realise. I've been with the Tom Ford brand since we began it in 2007, so I've spent a lot of time with Tom. There are many different approaches that designers have to their businesses and their licenses. Some designers simply sign off. Some are not involved. Tom is the antithesis. Tom is involved in the conceptualisation and in the development. Until he began making movies, he used to go to the fragrance house with me every time. Tom truly is the visionary. He's very knowledgeable on fragrance. He's a product junkie. He uses 10 products a day. When I'm finishing a fragrance and I'm looking at level concentrations, he wants to do it too. The vision is his. Noir, which is one of our most successful men's fragrances, was Tom's direction, not mine. Tom feels the DNA of his brand is him.

P: Can you remember the first time you met Estée Lauder?

KK: I joined the company as an assistant product manager 32 years ago. When I joined, I worked for 2 women, one who worked on Aramis product development - and that's where I learned how to do shave foams and bath and body products - and the woman who worked with Mrs Estée Lauder on fine fragrance. Eventually that woman moved away and they needed someone new. To me they said, 'Oh no, dear, you're too junior, you're too young.' So they spent 9 months interviewing different people, having Mrs Lauder meet people, and she didn't like any of them. I had been working with Leonard Lauder [Estée's son] on men's products. After all these months, Leonard said, 'Enough. Take Karyn to meet my mother.'

I'll never forget that day. It's like it was yesterday. She had a huge office in the GM building, which is still kept, by the way. It's not used. And her desk was in the corner, so you had to walk the length of this enormous office to see her. She was quite a petite woman. She was sitting behind her desk, and I was terrified. She could be very intimidating. I stood in front of her desk and my hands were shaking, so I put them behind my back. She always had tons of experimental bottles on her desk. She was always working on new ideas. She looked at me and she said, 'My son says you're very good at what you do.' I said, 'Thank you.' And she said, 'Well, here, smell this.' She picked up a bottle and she handed it to me, and it was disgusting. I tell you: disgusting beyond disgusting. I stood there for 30 seconds, and in front of me flashed the career that could have been. And I took a deep breath and I said, 'I think it's terrible.' I told her why. There was silence for a minute. I was figuring out how long it would take to put my belongings in a cardboard box. And she said, 'You're right. I wanted to see if you would tell me the truth. Now sit down and let's get to work.' And that was the first of our times together.

I worked with her for 7 or 8 years. Whenever she was in New York, we met at least once a week. We worked in the office, we worked at her home. Sometimes I'd go to Florida to work. She was an instinctive genius. She wasn't business trained. But the instinct was incredible. She knew people. She's the one who taught me to find my inner voice and be sure. She taught me to have confidence, because you don't argue or disagree with Estée Lauder unless you're very sure of yourself. And by the time a couple of years went past, I would sit there and say to her, 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, but I don't agree.' That took a lot of courage. She and I had times of great creativity working on fragrances. We had times when she wasn't so happy with me or the way the business was going, and that was not too pleasant.

We had times when she could be this little Jewish grandmother. I remember one time I was ill, and I came to work at the house. It was one of the holidays, so they were cooking this special meal. And she had to go upstairs to change, and she said to the cook, 'She's not feeling well. I want you to make a plate for her. And you: you sit down and you eat, and you don't leave until you eat.' Ten minutes later the house phone rang, and I could hear the cook say, 'Yes, Mrs Lauder, she's eating.' It was the most incredible experience. She was a force of nature. And she taught me how to take pride of ownership. Yes, of course it was her own company. But she was brilliant at instilling in the rest of us something approaching what she felt with her name on the bottle, because you did it out of loyalty to her.

P: Would you say she's been replaced? Could you ever have someone like Estée Lauder again?

KK: She was quite clever. She and Leonard. There was a very deliberate installation of her spirit in several of us who worked with her. There were a number of us who were deliberately taught, trained, instilled, whatever the right word is. And there are a number of us in all different walks of the business. You can look through the company and you will see pillars of this heritage instilled in the generation that followed her. And we are also trying to do the same thing, because for us, it's part of what sets us apart. It's part of what makes us different from other companies. She and Leonard did that on purpose.

P: I'd like to jog your memories of some of the scents you've worked on by getting you to smell them. Here's a blotter I've sprayed with Beautiful. What comes to your mind as you smell it? 

KK: A beautiful woman. Femininity. Luxury. You know, it took 7 years to make. It was made by Sophia Grojsman, but many people touched it before Sophia finished it. Beautiful is actually a blend of 5 different fragrances. Mrs Lauder always started a project with a vision in her mind. She was usually thinking of a woman. Sometimes it was an emotion. When we started Beautiful, she said, 'I want a fragrance that's going to make a woman feel like she's dressed in a beautiful gown with gorgeous jewels. She's the most beautiful woman in the room and everyone turns to look at her.' That was the brief. And then she would explore different options. Usually she would work on anywhere from 3 to 10 different directions before she figured it out. And she always liked to mix. So when I worked with her, I spent a lot of time on my knees watching her mix, so I could try to figure out how much she was putting in each mixture.

Next to her office in the GM building is what we call the Dining Room. It has a beautiful, exquisite glass table. She would sit there and work. I would kneel at the end, watching, because she would never let us weigh. She'd say, 'If you pay attention, you'll know how much I've used.' If she liked part of one and part of another, she'd mix them. She mixed 5 different fragrances, and then we had to match them, we had to recreate that. And that became Beautiful. The 5 she eventually mixed were predominantly Sophia's, but then Sophia took them and made them a true fragrance.

I remember that when we had finished the fragrance and we were going to present it to the US, it was about 11 o'clock at night, the night before we were presenting. We were rehearsing. Leonard and Evelyn had just flown in, so they were watching us rehearse. And then Mrs Estée Lauder called. The packaging at the time was shades of blue. We had done everything in blue. Packaging. Product displays. Tester units. Beauty adviser uniforms. Estée called and said, 'I'm not feeling the blue. It's not right. I want it pink.' This was the night before we were presenting! Leonard got on the phone to her. And then he said, 'We'll do what she says.' What we then did was the most amazing thing. It was when I fell in love with the company, I think. We woke everybody up. We switched the two days of presentations, so everybody who thought they were presenting in two days' time, was presenting on the next day. And in 24 hours we had everything made in pink. It was a little bit of cut and paste. But it was done. And in two days' time, when the US saw Beautiful, you would never have known that it wasn't going to be pink all along.

Estée was right. Think about when we launched in 1985, think about the colour codes that were on the market then. There was a lot of black, a lot of cream. Nobody was doing colour. Think about what the positions and the messages were. It was about overt sensuality. It was about sexiness. And here you have Estée Lauder coming with this message of romance and commitment and marriage. That was Estee's brilliance.

P: Here's Youth Dew. What do you think when you smell this?

KK: This is independence. These are the type of notes I like and I wear personally. To me, this smells chic. A bit non-gender specific. I would wear this. I could see a man wearing this. I remember Estée used to pour this in her hands and she'd rub her hands together. She took great pleasure out of the fact that Joan Crawford wore it. She took credit for Joan Crawford's last marriage, because she said it was the fact that she wore Youth Dew that got her her husband.

P: Would you say Youth Dew was feeling a bit tired or a bit cliched when you joined the company?

KK: It's an interesting question. It was a bit under-appreciated internally. I would imagine it's like somebody living in an apartment that has a Picasso hanging in it: after a while, you appreciate it slightly less than someone who walks in for the first time. That's why roughly four years after I joined, we re-launched it. That was when we did the Paulina Porizkova ad.

P: Now here's Beyond Paradise. What can you remember about its creation?

KK: When we did Beyond Paradise, Mrs Estée Lauder was not with us anymore. This was Evelyn's, so that was a really big change. Evelyn started with Pleasures, but by the time Beyond Paradise came along, she was fully and completely in charge of the fragrance development. Secondly, the concept was really different. I bought a painting in Paris because I loved its use of colour. The paint colours looked saturated. That became the original idea: the saturation of sensation. Saturated, prismatic colour in fragrance. We worked with Calice Becker on it, who is brilliant. It came from this idea of a different texture and dimension in floralcy. We also wanted to explore more fully and deeply the transformative nature of fragrance, in terms of the ingredients used to mentally transport someone.

I think it's an example of a fragrance that was under-appreciated from the support level. You have to make choices on what you're going to advertise. It was a very big launch. In the first year-and-a-half, it was a 100 million dollar fragrance. It was huge. But you need to keep pushing it.

In the next instalment, Karyn Khoury discusses the changing landscape of perfume retail, her views on her professional legacy and Lauder's purchase of Frederic Malle.


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