The year is 1953. A 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II is crowned. The Oscars are broadcast on television for the first time. And a bath oil called Youth-Dew is brought to market by a budding beauty entrepreneur named Estée Lauder.
The rest of the story goes a little something like this: While most women only wore perfume on special occasions, they started going through bottles and bottles of the jasmine- and patchouli-spiked bath oil because they loved its lingering scent. This sparked a shift in consumer behavior, and soon enough, a spritz of perfume was considered part of a woman’s everyday beauty routine. Following the success of Youth-Dew (which eventually spawned a fragrance spray by the same name), Lauder went on to create 11 more scents during her lifetime, catapulting her namesake cosmetics business to multimillion-dollar success.
Lauder, who passed away in 2004, was not a “nose” — that is to say, she did not study the art of fragrance in Grasse — but she was really good at putting her finger on what women want in a perfume. The same can be said of Frédéric Malle, the self-proclaimed fragrance “publisher” who has worked hand-in-hand with perfumers to create some of the most highly-regarded scents of the past two decades, including Carnal Flower (a Best of Beauty winner packed with tuberose) and Portrait of a Lady (with rose and sandalwood).
Serendipitously, in 2015, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle was acquired by the Estée Lauder Companies. “The minute I sold my company to Estée Lauder, I said that I wanted to do this,” says Malle. The “this” he’s referring to is the reinvention of five of the scents originally developed by the woman herself — and the reason why I recently found myself inside Estée’s meticulously-preserved office at company headquarters in New York City.
“This is where she tortured perfumers,” Malle says with a laugh, gesturing around the ornately-decorated, jewel box-like space. (The view of Central Park is so breathtaking, one has to wonder if visitors ever found it distracting during meetings.) Malle is, of course, not being literal, but referring to Lauder’s famously high standards for fragrance. For example, Beautiful, a blend of orange flower, mandarin, and rose that launched in 1985 and went on to become one of the brand’s bestsellers, was the result of “many, many months” of Lauder mixing iterations at the very same desk that sits in the corner of her office today, says Malle.