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Chemical Reaction: When Looking Back is Looking Forward

By: Steve Herman
Posted: April 2, 2008, from the April 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

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And the products, too, were developing from fairly simple parts of a regimen. Rubinstein’s early beauty line consisted of cold cream to cleanse the face, astringent to close the pores, and vanishing cream to moisturize and protect the skin. By 1918, both women had established laboratories for product development. Arden’s lab produced Ardena Orange Skin Food, Ardena Astringent Cream, Ardena Healing Cream and Ardena Anti-Wrinkle Cream. Yes, the age-defying products of 2008 have a very long lineage.

There were additional foresights into product trends and development opportunities that may have seemed out of step at the time but have proved to be long-term winners. Stepping off the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a deep tan in 1923, Coco Chanel sparked a craze in sunbathing on the Riviera. Rubinstein recognized an opportunity, and offered the first sun protection products in the 1930s. Both Arden and Rubinstein made further connections when spotting a trend, and married products and treatments. The new bathing suits of the day revealed unwanted flab, and Rubinstein and Arden salons offered eurhythmic exercise classes.

Consumer groups and market research arose in the 1920s, along with experts armed with statistics and product critiques. An exposé published in 1934, Skin Deep by M.C. Philips, attacked product contents, the cost-to-profit ratio and the selling of illusions. A board of doctors insisted that no “allergy-free” claims could be made for cosmetics. This was among the outcries that led to FDA’s Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938. Subsequently, out went Arden’s Orange Skin Food (which really didn’t feed the skin anyway), and Rubinstein’s Valaze Skin Food transformed into Wake Up Cream; both of their lines, along with everyone else’s, were remodeled by these new standards and the industry moved on.

On they went, these two women locked in perpetual competition through the Depression and World War II, right to their passing a year apart in the mid-1960s. Their companies no longer exist as independent enterprises, but their names remain potent. Unilever sold Arden in 2003 to FFI, a New York company that quickly changed its name to Elizabeth Arden. Even Arden’s famous Red Door, always a fixture of her salons, lives on in a signature fragrance. By 1988, L’Oréal had acquired the worldwide rights to Helena Rubinstein’s business.

In an industry with an insatiable craving for innovation, it is sobering to realize how much of what seems new was anticipated a century ago. It is not a criticism of the present, but recognition of the genius possessed by the founders of the beauty business. We see farther because we stand on their shoulders, and it is an achievement of our current science that we have rediscovered the best ideas of these extraordinary individuals.