Bobbi Brown Makes It Look Easy
After 25 years in the industry, cosmetics titan Bobbi Brown continues to espouse natural beauty.
September 8, 2016
The name Bobbi Brown is synonymous with effortless beauty. Since she founded her eponymous brand in 1991 with $10,000 and a single nude shade of lipstick, the celebrity makeup artist has sought to empower women to look and feel their best. She must have been doing something right, because four years later the company was acquired by beauty behemoth Estée Lauder for an undisclosed sum, making Bobbi Brown Cosmetics an international powerhouse.
Brown is warm and wickedly funny, and her holistic approach to beauty appeals to women of all ages and ethnicities—throughout more than 70 countries, and in 100 brick-and-mortar stores around the globe. This wide-ranging popularity has led to sales figures that, by some estimates, account for 10 percent of all Estée Lauder revenues.
What began as a reaction to the artificial, excessive, overly contoured makeup that was so popular in the 1980s—think Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and Debbie Harry with bright red lips, heavy eye shadows, and impasto blush—Bobbi Brown grew quickly from 10 lipsticks to a cosmetics empire that includes products like Foundation Sticks, Creamy Concealer Kits, Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner, and Shimmer Bricks. The brand has expanded from makeup and skin care to include fragrances, as well as a range of nail polishes, brushes and tools, and most recently, eyewear. The through line for all of Brown’s products is that they are designed to enhance—rather than to hide—a woman’s best features, and all are conceived with time, efficiency, and ease of use in mind.
Brown’s achievements aren’t limited to the visage: She is the recipient of numerous awards, a bestselling author, and was appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, the United States government’s senior trade advisory panel.
A visit to Bobbi Brown’s SoHo headquarters paints a clear picture of the brand’s success: It is a loft-like, airy environment where people freely share ideas and where you’re likely to see a dog or a child. Brown sat down with Surface to discuss 25 years of makeup and her other pursuits.
What was your path to the realm of makeup?
I have always loved it; the way it can make you feel instantly prettier, more tanned, glowing. I never loved school and I even considered dropping out at one point. My mom asked me, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” to which I responded, “I’d like to go to Marshall Field’s and play with makeup.” She encouraged me to follow my passion and study theatrical makeup, so I found my way to Emerson College in Boston, where they allowed me to design my own major. This was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by like-minded, creative people who were just passionate about whatever they were doing. It was there that I learned that what you put in is what you get out—this is also known as entrepreneurship.
Bobbi Brown in her New York City office.
What was the makeup world like in New York when you were starting out?
I moved to New York in the ’80s and everyone was into contouring, pale skin, and artificial everything, including fuchsia lipsticks and electric blue eye shadow. I was doing shoots featuring models with natural, beautiful, evenly toned skin and I was the only one doing it at the time. This look appealed to photographers like Bruce Weber and Arthur Elgort, who preferred a healthier look. I also worked with photographers like Steven Klein who opted for a more severe look, but this just wasn’t in my comfort zone. I did a Vogue cover with Tatjana Patitz where she appeared strong, but clean and fresh, and this was a breakthrough moment for me.
Are there other breakthrough moments that stand out?
I’ll never forget my first Vogue cover shoot in 1987. It was with Naomi Campbell and Patrick Demarchelier, on a beach at daybreak, and it changed my career. I went on to work with Walter Chin, Victor Skrebneski, and Horst P. Horst, to name but a few.
Brown's loft-like office in SoHo.
Tell me about the brand’s beginnings?
It all started with a nude lipstick. Everything on the market at the time was dry or greasy or smelly, so I asked a chemist who I’d met at Kiehl’s to formulate a lipstick for me using a combination of a taupe eye pencil, a pinkish-blue blush, and lip balm. I wanted a lipstick that looked like lips. From that first lipstick, I went on to create 10 Bobbi Brown Essentials: a targeted, edited collection of the most beautiful lip colors that included Salmon, Beige, Raisin, Brown, Rise, Pink, Orange, Blackberry, Burnt Red, and Red.
It’s astounding that you can rattle those colors off from memory? Where and how did the brand launch?
Initially, my husband, Steven Plofker, and I had two partners, Rosalind and John Landis. We joined forces and launched this brand in 1991, all while keeping our day jobs. Shortly thereafter I met the beauty buyer for Bergdorf Goodman at a cocktail party, and I pitched her then and there. Bergdorf’s took our product, and we thought we’d sell 100 lipsticks in the first month—but we sold 100 on the first day. This led to the launch of lip pencils, eye pencils, eye shadow, and so on.
How did the sale to Estée Lauder Companies come about?
When the brand was four years old, Frédéric Fekkai called me and said “Leonard Lauder wants to meet you.” I said yes, of course, although we weren’t interested in selling the company. I went to a dinner at Leonard and Evelyn’s house. I remember the night well because we sat outside overlooking the park, eating grilled fish, steamed broccoli, and brown rice, with the philharmonic playing in the distance. He had done his research and knew that I loved healthy food and good wine, so this won me over right away. He said that I reminded him of his mother when she started her business, and also that we were beating them in all the stores, so they wanted to buy us. He knew that being a wife and a mother was incredibly important to me, and he assured me that I’d have complete autonomy and the ability to balance those big parts of my life. He has never wavered on this.
Speaking of work/life balance, you’re a pro. Teach me.
I learned balance from my husband, Steven. He chose to be a real estate developer so that he could be home at night and have dinner with his kids. We have always supported each other in our work and in our family life. A perfect example of this was early in my career, when I was booked to do a cover shoot with Nikki Taylor in Florida. It was during the kids’ school vacation, and so Steven offered to fly down with them, but someone got an ear infection and couldn’t get on the plane. Instead he took the overnight train so that we could all be together. For both of us, family has always come first, and when I am with them I try to be completely present.
(Above and below) Scenes from the office.
I’d like to think we could all have that kind of discipline. Has this sacred balance led to any missed opportunities?
There were moments early in my career that tested my priorities. When Bruce Weber asked me to do a three-week shoot for Ralph Lauren in Tahiti and I passed, or when I opted to skip a dinner with Francesco Scavullo and Jean-Paul Gaultier in favor of meeting my husband and young son, Dylan, for a planned dinner in SoHo. In these cases, however, when one door closed, another one opened and led to a new product line or an idea for a book.
For a brief time the company was located at Estée Lauder’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Now you’re in SoHo. Why?
Post-acquisition, our sales flattened. I told the CEO at the time that I felt stuck in an uncreative box and that I wanted to move downtown, and have an open-plan work environment, with music, a healthy kitchen, and people wearing jeans. I need to be able to open the windows. They supported me wholeheartedly and our sales went back up.
Just like that? Wow. Let’s talk about advice. What’s the best nugget you’ve ever received in business?
Leonard Lauder told me, “Never ask for permission; ask for forgiveness” and this is how I operate. Mickey Drexler of J. Crew is another role model, and he always says “Just keep doing what you think you should be doing,” instead of focusing on other people or fleeting trends.
Now you. What beauty advice can you offer me?
Healthy looks beautiful, and it comes from the inside. Eating well, getting enough sleep, wearing sunscreen, drinking water, and exercising are all important. Use moisturizer, as it’s the fountain of youth, and resist doing things like seeing the dermatologist too much when you’re having a down moment. At difficult times, put your hair up and don’t look in the mirror—this is when mistakes are made. Also, choose to look your age, and don’t try to erase all of the lines and imperfections.
OK, let’s pivot into broad strokes. What are the best things about your success?
I’ve been exposed to so many incredible things: I’ve seen the world, and I get to help so many different kinds of women feel better about themselves. Then there are the perks: I’ve been to a state dinner at the White House, I’ve danced with [rapper] Flo Rida, spent time with Mick Jagger, I’ve traveled with my family all over the world. I also get to be surrounded by an incredible team at work, and my life is better and fuller because of them.
The company has been around for 25 years now. Is this a major milestone for you?
When I started my business I never imagined that it would grow to be what it is today, and I’m proud that our brand philosophy remains the same as it was 25 years ago. Our products are driven by the needs of our consumers, and we are committed to empowering women. I plan to continue to develop effective products that meet the needs of all different kinds of women.
Are you going to celebrate?
Yes, we are celebrating the brand’s original mission with the launch of our “Be Who You Are” campaign that highlights the individuality of women across different ages and ethnicities and celebrates my lifelong beauty secret: to be who you are. We’ve had so many great moments, but what really stands out to me are the countless women I’ve met over the years who have inspired me with their stories. Beyond makeup, we’ve talked about life-altering events; everything from the joy of being a new mom to dealing with homelessness and divorce.
Brown's office has large windows and an open plan.
Now let’s try a little Proust questionnaire. What does the future of beauty look like?
I think it will be a combination of health and wellness—and it will be about beauty from the inside. There will be an emphasis on foods that boost health, and help nourish the skin and nails. I think you’ll see makeup that gives a natural glow—gel bronzers, cream blush—that’s very sheer, light, and clean. A glowing look versus a more matte skin finish will be popular, and good moisturizer will be key.
What’s a little-known fact about you?
I got my Today show guest beauty editor gig—one that I did for 16 years—because I met Jeff Zucker’s grandmother at a party and we hit it off. She recommended me to him, and the rest is history.
Where do you like to spend your down time?
With my kids. Whether that’s in the mountains in Telluride, or on the beach in Bayhead, on the Jersey Shore, or at home in Montclair, I love spending time with my three boys, my husband, and my dog, Biggie.
If you weren’t in the beauty business, what would you like to be doing?
I’m a big believer in foods that heal and in eating things that come from the earth. If I weren’t running this business, I’d like to own wellness cafes and provide nutritional coaching. While I’m not a great cook, I love good food and think it’s tightly tied to beauty. I also love editorial work—I was the editor-in-chief of Yahoo Beauty—and would enjoy being involved in magazine publishing.
You’re a famously healthy, clean eater. What’s your kryptonite?
Casa Dragones tequila, followed by the occasional French fry off of a friend’s plate.