Forget Bentley. The new name in prestige is…Ford?

The Robin Report - The New Prestige is "Ford" not BentleyBefore he left the planet, when he wanted to make the point that he considered something seriously chi-chi, Andy Warhol would describe it as “up-there.” And, as I recently scrolled, ever so slowly, through the stunning Tom Ford Beauty website, I couldn’t help repeating the Pop Art God’s ultimate thumbs-up catchphrase: “This stuff is up-there,” I marveled to me, myself and I. “Truly, genuinely up-there.”

Of course, I already knew it was up-there; unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s nearly impossible to miss the collective oohing and aahing over Ford’s niche-luxe scents, and, as of Fall 2011, his 132-sku cosmetics collection and tightly edited – but serious – range of skincare. Launched under the auspices of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., and the stewardship of group president John Demsey, the buzz has been deafening.

In great part, the hoopla over the newish beauty brand – his first Signature fragrance, Black Orchid, hit the market in 2006 – stems from the global obsession with Tom Ford himself. Yes, there are designers of equal fascination and rock star status (Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs topping that list), but none has controlled his image, nor fiercely guarded his commitment to luxury, in quite the way Ford has.

Case in point: In this era of live-streaming fashion shows, instantaneous blog postings and TwitPics from the tents, Ford issued a Fort Knox-tight embargo on images of his first collection of womenswear, which debuted to an elite cadre of Anna Wintour-level media types for the Spring/Summer 2011 season.

Despite the grumblings of press who weren’t invited to the presentation, Ford’s bold move was widely viewed as a game-changer. And it’s in this same wholesale bucking of the prevailing market wisdom – that both a creator and his product need to be everywhere, and at dirt-cheap “masstige” price points – that Ford is pumping much-needed vitality, and maybe even a glimmer of hope, into prestige beauty.

“Tom is incredibly friendly, personable and charming – when he wants you to see him,” says Demsey. “He’s not about all-access, all the time. I know that’s counter to the way the world is going right now, with 24/7 saturated media, and 24/7 saturated celebrity, and 24/7 fast fashion and everything on a street corner, and everything online. But Tom holds it back. And what he chooses to reveal, and when he chooses to reveal it, is incredibly luxurious, high-quality and sexy.”

So let’s take a look at what Ford has chosen to reveal, and when – and where – he’s chosen to reveal it. Bear with me; at first blush, the product assortment and distribution are unorthodox, especially for an industry that doesn’t often break rank with the traditional ways of doing business.

After creating a limited-edition “Tom Ford and Estée Lauder” collection of makeup in 2005, shortly after he signed a licensing agreement with the company, Ford dove into scent creation. His Signature fragrances (in addition to Black Orchid) include Tom Ford for Men, Grey Vetiver, White Patchouli and Violet Blonde, and are sold in roughly 2200 doors in close to 40 countries at price points from $45 to $145. Simultaneously, Ford was crafting his Private Blend scents, a cache of 10+ unisex, artisanal offerings, which retail from $195 to $475 and are confined to just 225 doors.

A Private Blend Lip Color Collection, unveiled in 2010, marked Ford’s solo foray into makeup. Right out of the gate, the highly pigmented, $45 lipstick, which was a hit in its tiny, 100-door distribution, emboldening Team Tom to roll out color, as well as the treatment items, in a much bigger way this year. Well, the collection itself is substantial; the distribution is microscopic. It’s on counter in just 35 doors globally, including Bergdorf Goodman, which sold $52,000 worth during a Ford in-store in early November. Even at price points like $190 for the Daily Moisturizer and $78 for the Traceless Foundation, that’s a hefty number of units.

Without question, the makeup is glamorous. Evoking a glossy, Studio 54, Jerry Hall-at-her-peak vibe, it draws on the principles of facial contouring. Having studied architecture before shifting gears to fashion design, Ford believes in creating symmetry, and emphasizing a woman’s best features. And his skincare, though streamlined, is steeped in Lauder’s world-class R&D.

But it’s the Private Blend fragrances that really speak to the sophistication of Ford’s taste. Each more beautiful than the last, the collection, comprising such heady concoctions as Bois Marocain, Italian Cypress and Azure Lime, is much more in step with the hand-crafted offerings of a Frédéric Malle or a Maison Francis Kurkdjian than any department store blockbuster. And for his efforts, Ford has nabbed several FiFi Awards.

“If you look at the way the business has evolved, we’ve stayed true to the unique, prestige, new-luxury paradigm of being super-selective with our Private Blend fragrances,” says Demsey. “We are basically selling one of the most expensive fragrance collections in the world – in the best stores, with a high-service component as well as a branded Tom Ford environment. And what we were able to establish, almost immediately, was a brand presence and position for Tom Ford in the beauty space, and true credibility in fragrance as a tastemaker, and an arbiter of overall style.”

In a sense, Ford has married the craft of perfume-making – and $45 lip glosses – with the potential for explosive global growth. Currently, estimated worldwide sales are $150 million, but that figure is expected to climb to $400 million within five years. “It’s very interesting,” says Demsey, “that it took Tom Ford, a guy not in the beauty business, a guy not even perceived as being in the beauty business, to bring the prestige back to prestige.”

Still, not every industry veteran views Tom Ford Beauty, or at least the makeup, as the second coming. One prominent prestige retailer told me that she doesn’t at all consider it her “dream get,” and has a lengthy list of brands she’d prefer to add to her lineup first.

There is, of course, every chance that my retailer pal is reacting to the less than stellar track record of the designer makeup category. Although it would seem like an automatic slam dunk – color attached to a thriving fashion house – it’s a category riddled with flops. To wit, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are just a few of the marquee names who couldn’t make makeup work.

He admits he’s biased, but Demsey is convinced that the Tom Ford brand can, with a continued influx of coveted product and a meticulous roll-out to hyper-selective distribution, stand alongside the two unequivocal hits in luxury designer beauty – Chanel and Dior.

Not everyone could pull off this level of luxury in beauty in such a selective distribution, the likes of which haven’t been seen in three or four decades. The exclusivity and control owe much to the intriguing persona or Tom Ford himself, and that can’t be easily replicated. But it’s also in many ways a very modern approach, a new paradigm driven by fashion-loving clients coming from all over the global, filtering in through London, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Moscow, etc. And, of course, they can also buy online, which makes the ultra-exclusivity a bit of a mirage.

“I think that, inherently, what Tom’s doing is good for beauty because he’s bringing the role of aspiration, and selectivity, and point of view, back into our business,” says Demsey, “It’s really a good story. We didn’t even realize how good a story it was until we were three-quarters of the way through it. We knew the work was amazing, but it’s not like we sat down and said, ‘This is the master plan.’ It truly came out of Tom’s instinct, and a solitary vision in the face of everything else that was going on in the world. The excitement is back in beauty now.”
THE TAKEAWAYS

Back the right horse: One can only assume how many designers approach Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. for licensing deals. But in signing Ford before he’d even launched his namesake women’s fashion line – and sticking with his ultra-selective ethos throughout the economic collapse and explosion of fast-fashion – Lauder took a risk that paid off.

Go global straight out of the gate: Building a made-in-America brand? There’s no reason why it has to have its strongest foothold in the States. Even though Tom Ford hails from Texas, his lengthy tenure at Gucci Group, and the fact that he lives in London, means his appeal is international. Accordingly, Lauder has sprinkled a few doors here, there and everywhere.

Mix up the mandate: While the thread of intense luxury is woven through every Tom Ford Beauty sku, there are sub-collections that are ultra-niche (i.e., the Private Blend fragrances) and those that are more commercial (e.g., the makeup and the Signature scents). As long as the inherent codes are there, brand lovers will respond.

Fear not hefty price tags: It took guts and prescience to read the luxury tea leaves. But from Dubai to Mumbai, there are monied consumers all over the world, and they can’t get enough of their favorite brands.

Rein it in, message-wise: A constant Twitter feed? Facebook page with 10 zillion fans? That’s so 2011. The pendulum is officially swinging in the other direction. And at the end of the day, beauty is about aspiration, glamour and a little bit of mystique, not meaningless 24/7 communication.

Dana Wood About Dana Wood

A beauty journalist for 20+ years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for BRIDES, Cookie and W magazines, has written for numerous national publications, and is an author and a blogger. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products Division of L’Oreal, as AVP Strategic Development. She recently relocated to Florida, and is embracing high-speed, expressway driving.