The Unlikely, Hard-Won Hipness of Elizabeth Arden (Yes, Elizabeth Arden)

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\"ElizabethA pop-up shop in the chicer-than-chic 16th arrondisement in Paris. Multi-page ad layouts in Vogue and Vanity Fair. Alliances with Net-A-Porter and buzzy New York skin doc Dendy Engelman to get the word out about Superstart, its new skincare “booster.”

From the looks of it, creaky old Elizabeth Arden is getting pretty hip on us.

In an era in which many beauty-buying folk (I’m talking to you, Millennials) have zero idea that there was, once upon a time, an actual person named Elizabeth Arden, this publicly traded industry stalwart is embracing change in a fairly ballsy fashion. It takes a lot of discipline – and investor conference call guts of steel — to move the needle on a 105 year-old company.

Not that Arden chairman, president and CEO E. Scott Beattie is turning cartwheels down in Miami, where a good chunk of the corporate ops are based. In the most recent earnings call in August – a review of fiscal 2015 – the picture he painted wasn’t completely pretty. Net sales were down close to 17 percent, with the deepest dive in North America, where it’s off 14 percent vs. 4 percent internationally.

Years in the Making, the Turnaround’s Finally Taking Off

Still, there are solid signs that Beattie’s grand vision to right the ship, a plan he’s been jackhammering away at since 2012, is having an impact. His goal? To push the company’s flagship Elizabeth Arden brand into beauty’s top 10, nestled in nicely with big guns like Clinique and Lancôme.

In July of this year, Beattie made the major move of installing an overlord of the Arden brand, effectively silo-ing off the peskiest part of its corporate folio – a lengthy roster of non-Arden celebrity, designer and “lifestyle” fragrances. With star scents fizzling, and the entire fragrance category in a malaise, Beattie has vowed to streamline costs and trim stock keeping units.

But back to Arden proper, the rising star of our story.

The new czarina of the flagship – JuE Wong, who holds the title of president – comes bearing major skincare chops and a resume chock-full of stints at forward-thinking brands like StriVectin, N.V. Perricone Cosmeceuticals and Murad, which got scooped up by Unilever this past summer.

In appointing Wong, Beattie is clearly playing to Arden’s core strength: skincare. It already has several hefty pillars in place in this category – Prevage, Ceramide and the cult fave Eight Hour Cream – all of which have been leveraged to the max via franchise extensions. To wit, there are 16 iterations of Prevage, 15 riffs on Ceramide, and nine takes on Eight Hour Cream currently available. No one could accuse Arden of not taking a good idea and running with it.

Firing On a Slew of Marketing Cylinders

Superstart Skin Renewal Booster, which falls outside those big pillars, is meant to intensify the effects of any product it’s layered under. And it’s being supported by a major ad blitz starring new Arden global face Karlina Caune. A former winner of the Ford Supermodel of the Year contest, Caune, who is Latvian, has walked for Céline and Stella McCartney but keeps a fairly low profile. (A rarity in this Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, “how many Instagram followers does she have?” moment…)

Which isn’t to say Arden isn’t hedging its social-media bets. In hitching its wagon to 30-something, tech-savvy dermatologist Dendy Engelman, who has been tasked with explaining the products and connecting the science dots for beauty editors, it’s all but guaranteeing press coverage.

As a kid growing up in South Carolina, Engelman lived right down the street from Elizabeth Arden’s summer home – bright red door and all. “I’ve been an admirer of the brand for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I was thrilled when they reached out to me to work together. And now that I’ve developed a close relationship with their team, specifically R&D, I admire what they’re doing even more.”

Yes, there are new launches to get excited about, like Superstart. But Engelman is more than happy to wave the flag for oldies but goodies, too. “Many women don’t realize that Elizabeth Arden is a brand ahead of its time, she notes, especially with a product like Prevage. Launched in 2005, Prevage was the first de-ager to deploy the ingredient Idebenone, a powerful antioxidant, to block the skin-damaging effects of urban life.

“Even today, when pollution and skin damage is a hot topic – Prevage is still the leader in environmental aging solutions,” says Engelman.

Now the flagship just needs to hit it out of the park in color. Historically, makeup is the weak link in the Arden chain. Not that there’s anything wrong with the brand’s straightforward assortment of lip, cheek and eye beautifiers. It just lacks oomph. Impact. Razzle dazzle. And what works for Arden in skincare – the refusal to hop on fly-by-night trends – just might be blocking it from really nailing it in color. Typically an impulse purchase (nobody genuinely needs another eyeshadow), makeup has to catch the mood of the moment.

The famous Red Door salons and spas, which aren’t technically owned outright by Arden, Inc. anymore (but kinda still are – it’s confusing), have the potential to either thwart or support Beattie’s plan to re-invigorate the flagship. There are a lot of them – 29 at last count – some freestanding in mall locations, others attached to major resorts and hotels. And even if they share a common Arden-mandated design and treatment menu, the spa biz is all about service. One bad apple with terrible reviews on Yelp can have a negative impact on the entire bunch.

Perhaps the Paris pop-up shop is giving us clues about the tight image control Arden wants to maintain moving forward. It isn’t a salon, or a spa, so there isn’t the worry of a snarly aesthetician delivering a less-than-stellar facial. No, this tiny 850-square foot jewel on Rue de Passy is simply a white, gleaming ode to commerce. It’s slated to go bye-bye by New Year’s. But something’s telling me we’ll be seeing others of its ilk in the years to come.

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