Beauty & The Breakfast: FGI Tastemakers Event

How do you get one of the busiest and most important cosmetic company executives to be agree to be interviewed at a breakfast meeting at the 21 Club? FGI President Margaret Hayes has a little something on John Demsey — she was his former boss! Coming up through the ranks, Mr. Demsey, then manager of the Estee Lauder cosmetics counter at Saks, remembers a more formal atmosphere among staff — everyone was referred to as Mr. and Mrs. “I was there for the launch of (Estee Lauder fragrance) ‘Beautiful’ — shorthand for he couldn’t say no,” quipped Hayes, who was then the store’s SVP and General Merchandise Manager. Demsey was interviewed for the “Tastemakers” series by Alina Cho, Editor-at-Large for Ballantine Bantam Dell (imprints of Random House publishing).

Head table from left: Kim Cho, Alexandra Trower, Alina Cho, John Demsey, Ellen Thomas, Marianne Diorio,  Margaret Hayes, Marylou Luther
Photo: Bruce Borner

For the past 10 years Demsey has been in his role as Executive Group President heading creativity and development at The Estee Lauder Companies in charge of new acquisitions for over 12 brands. These include MAC (he is the chairman of MAC’s AIDS initiative raising over $430 million), Tom Ford, Clinique, Bobbi Brown, Le Labo, Glamglow, Jo Malone London, Rodin Olio Lusso, Smashbox, and the company’s most recent acquisition Too Faced (acquired last November) for which they paid a record $1.45 billion.

Photo: Laurel Marcus

Alina Cho, a famous former face at CNN who reported on Hurricane Katrina as well as behind North Korean lines, has known Demsey for many years, attending so many events with him that the unaware assume that they are husband and wife. “I think of John as my slightly older brother and he thinks of me as his slightly younger sister,” she explains. So much so that when she once asked Demsey if she needed Botox, he answered “yes.” Ouch! I’d file that one under never ask a question you don’t want the answer to.

Back to the subject of Two Faced Cosmetics, Demsey shared its 25-year-overnight-success backstory. Co-Founder Jerrod Blondino was working at the Estee Lauder counter at Saks in Southern California while developing his own makeup line until his little secret got out: he was spending his lunch hour selling his line at Nordstrom. I wondered if that explained the origins of the moniker Too Faced — the company’s bio says the name refers to customers going from “sweet to sour” if their favorite lipstick shade was sold out. Sorry, my version is better (lol).

Too Faced went on to become a brand with a “unique whimsical tongue in cheek point of view. They are one of the largest socially engaged brands in the world,” explains Demsey. “Their peach palette is the #1 seller in the US at Ulta and Sephora and Better than Sex Mascara is a top seller too.” Changes are evident in how next gen beauty entrepreneurs rose out of the ranks of the almighty cosmetics counter. “Magazine ads used to be the standard, now it’s social media,” Demsey illustrates by pointing out that almost everyone from models to other influencers are hired based on Instagram followers.

Although he spends many a day with 25-year-old bloggers, “I’m not a digital native; more like an old dog learning new tricks.” He narrows in on those who are the new influence or aspiration — the ones who develop a sense of community and a readymade audience. He admits to falling down the “rabbit hole of the internet” including the Youtube tutorials. “There’s nothing that’s transforming the beauty or makeup business more than that.”

How does Demsey keep his finger on the pulse of cosmetic preferences both here and abroad? He is an avid reader of international editions of all major fashion magazines, celebrity magazines and even local magazines. “I need to know who’s doing what to whom,’ he quipped to an appreciative audience of primarily women. When he arrives at his destination city he has his Uber driver take him “where the bourgeois people live, where the rich people live, to the more urban areas.” He is on the lookout for cues, modes of dress, retail and musical trends. Of importance is an “intuitive ability to understand what you’re seeing and to find out what fashion brands are selling.”

Cho brings up the fact that retail is suffering and Macy’s is closing stores. How is the cosmetics industry doing in the face of all of this? Demsey agrees that there is a shift taking place of people shopping online but says that “stores are not going to go away. Beauty brands are always going to have an experiential component throughout this evolutionary change.” He points out that while the apparel biz has taken a big hit (down about 50%), the beauty biz has accelerated. According to Demsey, makeup is more important than skin care particularly in the Western world because everyone wants instant results. Some items are perhaps harder to classify and count as both: “Is a BB cream or a CC cream a makeup or skin care?” Apparently Asia is still interested in skincare first.

“Millennials and next gen are not as concerned about lines and wrinkles but time has a sense of humor,” he added.  “Eventually the aging out of the population will start.” Insert Cho’s Botox story here.

Shall we talk Tom Ford? Cho insists that Tom Ford Beauty would not exist without John Demsey. She wants to know why TFB is doing so well in a tough market. Demsey has known Ford forever claiming that Ford tried to hire him to run YSL years ago. The Lauders agreed that there was tremendous potential in a collaboration even though fashion designers often don’t translate well to the cosmetic biz. They hired Julia Roitfeld (“no one is more beautiful than Carine’s daughter”) to be their model for the “private blend, old school, artisanal brand.” After the success of the perfume, Ford wanted a luxury makeup line which he got with a heretofore unheard of $53 lipstick. It became a “status symbol” and sold particularly well in Hong Kong and China.”

Risks? Disappointments? “I’ve been too early and I’ve been too late” with some ideas he said adding that “it’s important to be able to scale something up or down depending.” What does he look for when hiring? “Passion, love, creativity, being able to think outside the lines but to understand that it’s not an art project.” A bit about his early background: he came up in Macy’s executive training program under Rose Marie Bravo’s mentorship. “I was hanging up Sergio Valente jeans while all my friends were working at law firms. They were all thinking what kind of sorry life do you have?”

Other mentors include: Margaret Hayes and Leonard Lauder who is part “father figure/big boss/friend/challenger” who is “proactive, emotional and sees things other people don’t see. “When I started working with him I was 35-years-old. He taught me to look around, listen, ask questions and not to formulate any opinions at first.” Other tips for success: “1) Have a persistent, clear view of where you want to go — you’re never going to get there otherwise. 2) Don’t second guess yourself 3) Do what you have a passion for. Downsides of the business: “You’re only as good as your last act…it’s a hard reality.” Greatest life lesson: “Listen to your mother.”

When Cho brings up Demsey’s 8-year-old daughter: “I’m trying to see the world through a little girl’s eyes. I’m super careful not to instill any beauty hang-ups.” The moment he chose to recount about his precious Marie-Helene? Around Christmas time he walked into her room and spied her “giving a hair tutorial. She was flipping the brush, making a high pony tail… I was so proud of her,” he beamed.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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