I don't think if the competition have
got something wonderful, whomever they may be, that there is anything wrong in looking at
it, and copying it. You know, great copyists or great experts in copying are those that
can create a copy, and for that you have to be smart. On how to create a copy. Does
everybody understand? Is that too hard to understand? It means if you copy something, that
you copy it so well and so differently that nobody recognizes the fact you copied it.
That's creative copy.
-- Charles Revson
It was easy to forget, if you knew Charles Revson, that Revlon was not the
world's largest cosmetics company. In 1975, it trailed Avon, L'Oreal and Shiseido. But
Avon's sales were exclusively door-to-door and thus not directly competitive. To Charles,
Avon barely existed. And neither L'Oreal nor Shiseido was important in the U.S. market.
His real competitors through the years were companies and brands such as Blue Bird,
Chen-Yu, Contoure, Peggy Sage, Hazel Bishop, Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, Max
Factor and -- his arch rival in the last decade of his life -- Estee Lauder.
He felt the same inner rage toward competitors an apartment dweller feels toward a
burglar. They were encroaching on his space. "If you come into my ball
park," he warned Gulf & Western's Charlie Bluhdorn, "I'll kick your
ass." He put tremendous pressure on suppliers not to deal with his competitors; on
jobbers and retailers not to sell or feature their products; and on magazines never to
give their ads a more prominent position than his own. "Of course the other
guy has a right to make a living," he liked to say -- "but let him make it in
some other business."
He made a point of never mentioning his competitors by name. They did likewise. Arden,
a poor Canadian truck driver's daughter made good, called him, simply, "that
man." (To tweak her, he brought out a men's line by the same name.) Rubinstein, a
Polish immigrant-via-Australia, called him "the nail man." He referred to them,
and to Lauder, a social climber whose first rung varies from interview' to interview, only
as "competition." Or, if he wanted to become exceedingly specific, he would say,
"she." When Love cosmetics were big, he banned the word "love" from
all his advertising.
He had a CIA-like intelligence network and -- because he assumed his competitors did,
too -- a fetish for closed doors. All his products were assigned code names prior to
introduction -- "Park Avenue" (Cerissa), "Cosmos" (Charlie),
"Bruckner" (the CHR line). The Ciara fragrance was designated "March,"
its targeted launch date. It was seven months late. "If we don't get the engravings
by July," people were saying, "March won't go out before November." It was
enough to confuse the canniest competitor.
Ingredients at the lab were coded. Only a handful of department heads knew what
"Ritex," "Bankit," "Neville," "Tylex," and
hundreds of others really were. Even Lillian Dunn, a thirty-two-year veteran after whom
"Dunnex," a wax, had been coded, didn't know. Suppliers were instructed to label
their shipments by code name. As far as the factory knew, they were mixing Dunnex with
Neville to make Zarega-or whatever.
From his yacht, Revson was unusually cryptic for fear competitors might be tuned in to
his radio frequency. Nail enamel was "n.e.," lipstick, "l.s." --
pronounced fast, like "any" and "else." Projects and companies were
referred to by code; people, as "what's his name." "Have what's his name
call me about that other matter," he would tell Jay Bennett, fully expecting him to
comply. (And because they had such a close working relationship, Bennett usually could.)
But if Estee Lauder did not have a cadre of ham radio operators scanning the
Mediterranean for trade secrets, she could still find out a thing or two. When Etherea,
Revlon's hypoallergenic line (code name: New Jersey), was being launched to compete with
Lauder's Clinique, a memo was circulated to four trusted employees listing the names to be
used for each item in the line. Top secret stuff. Lauder ran an ad for Clinique in Women's
Wear Daily using every name in the memo as an adjective, and underlining each one lest
there be any doubt in Revson's mind that he'd been stuffed. Etherea was to have an item
called "B.C.O."-biologically correct oils; Lauder's ad said, "our night
cream is biologically correct." And so on.
Revson had a conniption. But all manner of sleuthing by his FBI-trained security chief
failed to reveal the leak. It was then that he instituted mandatory signing in and signing
out, and had photo-I.D, cards issued to everyone. A Revlon marketing man ran into Lauder's
sons, Leonard and Ronald, at a party sometime later. "You know," he said,
"you guys are crazy to spend five thousand dollars just to aggravate us."
"It was worth it," one of the brothers replied, smiling.
At any given time in Revlon's history there was some one competitor in
particular Revson felt he had to destroy. Blue Bird, the first, was easy: Revlon had a
demonstrably better product. It was that simple. Revson was soon able to demand that
jobbers drop Blue Bird -- and all their other competitive lines -- if they wanted to carry
Revlon. The jobbers didn't like it, or other tough policies that followed, but they had no
choice. By the time the Federal Trade Commission ruled some of Revlon's exclusive
agreements out of order, the company had acquired a lock on the beauty salon market.
When Contoure learned in the late thirties that Revson might launch a lipstick in
competition with their own, they brought out a nail enamel. Revson's friend the jobber
with a hernia the size of a baseball sent him a sample as soon as it came in. Revson was
beside himself. The product was identical to his own. He was apoplectic when he found out
it was being made by his own supplier.
"Why not?" was the supplier's attitude. "We can make nail enamel for
anyone we want."
Reason having failed, Revson got hold of the man at the plant who actually compounded
the lacquer and, according to an executive then, paid him $100 to slip an extra ingredient
into Contoure's brew, with $400 to follow when the mission was accomplished. The extra
ingredient, whatever it was, had an unsettling effect on the quality of the product.
What's more, it caused a marked deterioration in the relationship between Contoure and the
errant supplier, who thenceforth agreed to make Revlon nail enamel only for its biggest
customer -- Revlon.
During the war, Chen-Yu was the brand to beat. One quirk of wartime rationing was that
glass allocations were issued to companies that made the bottles rather than to the
companies, like Revlon or Chen-Yu, that used them. Charles wanted to know what Chen-Yu's
Chicago-based bottler might require to steer Chen-Yu's allocation of bottles his way. Jack
Price arranged to fly the co-owners of this bottling firm to New York. He says he watched
as Charles settled with them for $15,000. Chen-Yu suddenly found itself scrambling for
upwards of half a million bottles. After the war, Revlon offered to replace all the
substandard inventory it had out, such as those cardboard lipstick cases, with new,
quality merchandise. It took money to do that, and Chen-Yu hadn't the resources to match
the offer. Then Revson lured away Chen-Yu's all-important merchandise manager, Burr
Reibel. It was the coup de grace.
Hazel Bishop -- "stays on you, not on him" -- was another dragon to be slain.
This upstart had built a huge lipstick business overnight through the use of television.
Merv Griffin, a young singer, started pitching the nonsmear brand on The Kate Smith
Show in 1952. "People couldn't understand how with only three salesmen we managed
to get such massive distribution," Raymond Spector, who owned the company, says.
(Hazel Bishop herself founded the company in 1950, was forced out two years later,
and in 1975 was working as a cosmetics analyst with the Wall Street firm of Evans &
Company.) "But Revson personally sent a memo around to his salesmen saying, 'Wherever
you go, find out how Hazel Bishop is doing and send the information directly to me.' At
that time we were still in only a few major markets. People started calling us from all
over. They figured that if Revlon was interested, they should be too."
Charles got him in the end, though. The biggest marketing blow was The $64,000
Question. The biggest psychological blow was Spector's discovery that someone -- he
states categorically it was Revson -- had been listening in on his most private
conversations for more than a year. He first grew suspicious when information that could
not possibly have leaked to the trade did. Revlon kept beating him to market with his own
ideas, he says. He then tried planting false tidbits to see if they, too, would come back
to him and they did. Alarmed, he retained the services of two eavesdropping
experts, Charles Gris and Carl Ruh. Ruh was awaiting sentencing on some other wiretapping
work he had done. These were the same two men, as it happened, Bill Heller had engaged to
tap Revlon phones. In fact, Spector testified, while Ruh was off checking the phones for
taps, Gris told him about the Revlon job and offered the same service to him.
Ruh found that several of Spector's phones were indeed tapped, and his office bugged as
well. It may even be that Gris and Ruh had themselves done the tapping they were now being
paid to detect -- a dicey way of having and eating one's own cake if ever there was one.
Revson's market timing was uncanny, Spector alleges, at least in part because he had
advance knowledge of his competitors' plans. Winston Churchill had the same edge on the
Germans. "I think Revson was a prick," he says, simply. Among Revlon
competitors, this was not an uncommon view.
Madame Rubinstein thought the nail man was "heartless." She
was anguished by the way he would copy her products ("only better!"). But he
fascinated her. She couldn't help admiring him. She even bought Revlon stock.
They were not so dissimilar, Madame and the nail man. She, too, was an earthy,
idiosyncratic, impossible, tyrannical Jewish founder/one-man-show. She hired people,
milked them, and fired them. She played one off the other. She burped unabashedly and blew
her nose in her bed sheets. She felt surrounded by ingratitude. She complained bitterly
about having to close the office after John Kennedy's assassination. Unlike Revson,
however, she was not out to prove herself to anyone, she did not live in fear of being
embarrassed, and she was thoroughly-ludicrously-cheap. Yet far better liked than Charles,
for all his lavish entertaining. Her quirks were seen as amusing rather than gauche
or offensive. No one called her ruthless, although she had much the same obsession with
her business that Charles did.
For many years it was not he but "the other one" -- Arden -- whose
competition most irked Madame Rubinstein, Arden once raided virtually the entire
Rubinstein sales staff. Madame retaliated by hiring Arden's ex-husband as her sales
manager. At least the nail man and she were in largely separate fields. He had the
lipstick and nail enamel markets, yes, but Madame was queen of the treatment creams. It
was only in 1962, when Revson launched Eterna 27, the remarkable skin cream, that Madame
felt really threatened. A Rubinstein executive walked into her office that day to find the
window open wide and Madame leaning out, screaming and shaking her fist. Her third-floor
office was directly opposite 666 Fifth Avenue, where Revson ruled the twenty-seventh floor
(hence the name -- Eterna 27). This tiny ninety-year-old woman was screaming up at him in
a very heavy Polish accent, "What are you doing? You're killing me, you rat!
What's the matter with you?" It looked as though she might fall out of the window.
"Don't worry about it, Madame," the Rubinstein executive said, pulling her back
in and hoping to cheer her up, "it's not going to sell. In fact, I think they're
going to change the name to Returna." She looked at him blankly. Like Charles,
she had very little sense of humor about her business. "Why would they want to do
that?" she said. "It's a good name, Eterna."
Later that year Madame met Revson briefly at a fashion gathering. Her comment
afterward: "He has an awful skin."
In 1965, she died. A year and a half later, Arden died as well. That left two: Revson
and Lauder. Most of the other companies had been or soon were merged into conglomerates,
with results that ranged from fair to poor.
Max Factor, swallowed by Norton Simon in 1973, had done better than most since the
death of its founder/namesake decades earlier in 1938. It was Factor that in 1967
challenged Revlon's privileged position in the fashion magazines. Revson had always
demanded that his ads precede those of his competitors. (He also would demand -- and
receive -- advance proofs of fashion stories that were to run, and sometimes have them
changed. But that's another story. ) Chet Firestein, then executive vice president of
Factor, lodged a protest. Bill Fine, then in charge of three Hearst magazines, had to
agree that the policy was unfair. With much apprehension, he told Revson he was sorry, but
Revlon could no longer be first in every issue. "We made our stand," Fine
says, "and Charles said, in simple terms: 'Fuck you. I'll pull my advertising out of
all Hearst magazines.'" Which meant not only Fine's three, Harper's Bazaar, Town
& Country and House Beautiful, but Cosmopolitan and Good
Housekeeping as well. Revlon's annual outlay in these books approached seven figures.
(Patty's abduction was thus in effect the second extortion attempt on the Hearst
There was a period of two or three weeks' impasse. And as word of the confrontation
spread, Fine found himself in a box. He had to win some concession lest other of
his major advertisers revolt. It got so that Fine used to have a man come massage his neck
and arm each time before he went over to see Revson, because he would start to get a
tingle and an ache in his back.
Fine managed to emerge with at least this much: When Revlon had a black and white page,
it would run first. When Revlon had a color page, it would be the first color page -- but
another cosmetics ad, in black and white, could come first. As Revlon was not running
black and white ads at the time, it was what Fine calls "maybe a fifty-one percent
victory -- which is pretty good when you're dealing with Revlon."
The changed policy worked to the advantage of Estee Lauder. (Most people, wrongly,
credited her with forcing the confrontation in the first place.) Lauder was running black
and white ads. Revson soon followed. In fact, whatever Lauder did, Charles soon
followed. She offered "gift with purchase"; he offered gift with purchase. She
went to using a single model exclusively; he followed with Lauren Hutton for Ultima -- and
one-upped her by signing Richard Avedon as her exclusive photographer. She went to sepia
ads; he went to sepia. She switched back from sepia; he switched back. She brought out a
"stinky" fragrance (Charles's word); he brought out a stinky fragrance.
She brought out Aramis; he brought out Braggi. She brought out Clinique; he brought out
Etherea. She brought out a fragrance called Estee; he brought out Charlie. To add insult
to unoriginality, he would put copied products in one of his less-than-Ultima lines, to
cheapen the originals by association.
Charles was reviewing a new eye-shadow compact. Suzanne Grayson had brought along
Lauder's version for comparison. In order not to lose the instruction sheet that came with
it, she had scotch-taped it to the mirror inside, Charles picks up the Lauder compact and
thinks: "Look how smart that ---- is. Why don't we think of things like this? The
customer can't miss seeing the instructions, so, in turn, she's going to learn how to use
the product and, in turn, she will like it better. Why the ---- can't we think of
things like this?!" He got so wound up in his grudging enthusiasm for the way Lauder
was taping her instruction sheet inside the compact, even though she wasn't, that there
was no interrupting him. The Revlon compact was modified accordingly. It was one of the
few times Revson copied Lauder without her knowing it.
Stan Kohlenberg, who no longer has a mole the size of a dime (now it's on Michel
Bergerac), runs the Ultima line, Charles's department-store, carriage-trade answer to
Estee Lauder. He keeps Lauder's photograph on a dart board in his office and says he
sometimes thinks she is just Charles in drag.
When Ultima was first put together (before Kohlenberg's time) it was a flop. One ad
showed the most obnoxious-looking, spoiled, chubby kid in shorts and knee socks with his
mother, who looked more uncomfortable than sexy, sitting on an overstuffed ottoman in an
overdone living room . . . the idea apparently was to reach into Park Avenue's poshest
parlor -- and it didn't work. But Charles Revson, we all know by now, was not a man to
give up. The products, packaging, and approach were all reworked, the line doggedly
promoted, until eight years after its initial introduction it finally turned a profit.
In the meantime (September 1968), Lauder had brought out Clinique, her hypoallergenic
line. Kohlenberg provides a fascinating case study of the forces of competition at work.
Charles came back from his August cruise and had a fit, because he had been talking for
a long time in a vague way about bringing out a hypoallergenic line, and now she had
beaten him to it. He called me in and he said: "We have to create a line and
I've been thinking about it for three years and you have to do it. You can handle Ultima
while you do this . . . it's the same kind of line." Charles throws it to you as a
I started working on it in the beginning of October. He comes back two weeks later,
before we even had a name for the line, and he says to me, "I just told Mildred
Custin that we're introducing it April 28 in Bonwit Teller." I said, "How could
you do that? We don't even have a line!" He says, "I told Mildred we
would have it out April 28 and you can't disappoint her." So April 28 is the date.
To put out a full line in seven months -- it is virtually impossible because you are
dealing with the packaging, the names, new products and so on. Nobody tries it. But
Charles didn't want Clinique to have a long time on the market without a strong
competitor. The faster he could get out, the faster he could step on her toes. I made the
first presentation to him in the middle of October. It was a concept for a brand-new line,
to be manufactured under the same conditions as pharmaceuticals: the white room,
everything surgically clean, everybody wearing masks, ultra-violet lights to kill bacteria
. . . we had a negative-pressure door, so that when you opened it the air blew out. They
still use it. And this was going to be in the ads, how the products were made. Clinique
doesn't go through all that trouble. And every item would have a tamper-proof seal to
guarantee sterility. There was a profile created by Brauer [the staff dermatologist] so
you could determine what skin you were. Originally we wanted all the liquids in vials.
We then came up with several names and none of them was acceptable. We didn't want a
French name because it was an American line and Charles is very sensitive about our line
being uniquely American. He doesn't want the phony chic of a French name. He liked the
concept of the line and he agreed to a lot of things, but we had no name. It became a big
problem because you couldn't do any packaging. We didn't come up with the name until
Charles came in one day and said: "Here's the name to go on'. 'Etherea.' It's a
good name because it has kind of a different meaning in it and yet it's not a meaning and
you can pronounce it." We all hated it at first, but he said: "That's the name,
no argument," and it grew on us.
So now we had the name and ninety days to do everything. We had to cut across every
procedure in the company. Forget the paper work, the ordering, the purchasing -- we
ordered our own bottles and worked with the lab ourselves and alienated everybody in the
company. Alec Faberman threatened to hit me with an ashtray one day. We worked seven days
a week, twenty-four hours a day, from February through April. It was things like writing
package copy for an entire line, 125 items with shades. We were going to come in with just
a narrow treatment line. We'd go to Charles and he'd say: "You've got to have
lipstick." So we added twenty shades of lipstick. Next time: "Where's the eye
shadow?" I said, "I can't have eye shadow, Charles." He says,
"How can you have a line without eye shadow?" Eye shadow goes in. By the time he
finished with me I had a full line. It meant going back to the lab and getting more
formulas. Meanwhile, the rest of the company had to keep running. We were always late with
everything to begin with, and here I am sticking this whole new thing in.
We were sure we wouldn't make it -- the bottles weren't ready, the dates we were
getting for delivery were way beyond April 28, everything had to be tested, and we were
living day by day on the premise that we were going to fail. Fortunately, we had formulas
from other lines to establish a base, but we had to find a product difference for each
one. It meant taking a product and putting a twist in it. If we already had a cleanser
that tissued off, we had to find one that tissued and washed off, because this was
a special line. This was all from October to the week before April 28, in some cases.
We get down to two weeks before the promotion and nothing is in. There are no bottles
in the plant to fill, some of the boxes are just coming off the press. I asked them to
change the date to September and they said they couldn't. So we set up a press party at
Bonwit's to introduce the line and I have no product to show. Nothing is filled. I told
Tom Dulick, my assistant.' "Run out to the plant, get every dummy you can, everything
that's come in and is unfilled. At least we can set it up; if the people just look and
don't touch it will look nice."
The beauty editors of all the magazines and newspapers were invited, and we had it set
up so we could do a profile of all the faces, tell them what kind of skin they had. We
told them as soon as the line is complete, then we'll send a complete set. Charles walks
in and I'm quaking. He's been approving things as we went along but he hasn't seen it in
its finished form. He walks over to the alcove and stands there by himself looking at the
line. He had seen the cartons in artwork, but he hadn't seen the finished product. We
didn't have the time. He stood there quietly for a few minutes and then he looked around.
I was watching him out of the corner of my eye and so was everybody else. He went over to
Jane Canne of Vogue and started talking about the line. She loved it. He knew the
premise of the line, the story behind it, which was his with a few embellishments, so he
was able to talk about the line and each of the beauty editors would tell him how nice it
was. He was becoming visibly more assured about how well the line was going to do. Finally
he got up and made a speech to everybody about how he had been working on this line for
three years . . . which he had, he had had the concept for three years . . . and how this
was the culmination of what he wanted to do and how pleased he was with it. And everybody
Charles walks over to me, away from everybody else, and he puts his hand on my cheek
and starts giving me a clip as if he's saying "Nice boy." Everybody's watching.
As he does this to me he says, "You know what?" I said, "What?"
He says, "Schmuck, the cartons are fading."
I said: "I know, Charles, they're only dummies." We are smiling at
each other as we are talking. He's having a fit because the cartons are fading under the
lights. He's still holding my cheek and he turns to Dulick, who he knew had worked with me
on the project, and he says to me, "Does he know the cartons are fading?" I
said, "Yes, Charles, he knows. But we fixed it, Charles." And he said, "You
know, you guys are ruining my business." And he walks away. Somebody came over to me
and asked what he said to me. I said, "He said, 'Schmuck, the cartons
In the meantime the stores had sent out their mailers, we had hired all the girls --
but we had no merchandise. Components had just come into the plant. By Thursday we are
hysterical because there is no product and we are supposed to break Monday at
Bonwit's-Manhattan, Manhasset, Short Hills, Scarsdale, and Philadelphia. If it doesn't
happen by Monday, we're all dead . . . the mailers are out, the women are coming into the
store. I said to Tom: "I think we better go to the factory and see what's
happening.'' They were