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Designer Tom Ford Teams With Estee Lauder in A Deal That Makes Scents

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK, April 12 -- See Tom Ford. Wear Tom Ford. Smell Tom Ford.

Fashion's most successful partnership of business acumen and creative bravado was revived Tuesday with the announcement of the new Tom Ford brand.

Tom Ford has joined forces with Estee Lauder's John Demsey, left, and Aerin Lauder for a new fragrance line. (Nick Papananias/pmc -- Copyright Patrick Mcmullan)

Designer Ford and Domenico de Sole, who together transformed Gucci from an unprofitable purveyor of horse-bit loafers into a lucrative symbol of lusty 1990s sex appeal, are partners in the privately held luxury label. Its first products will be licensed sunglasses and fragrances.

The fragrance launch will be in collaboration with cosmetics giant Estee Lauder and will unfold in two parts. First, Ford will create a limited collection of "Tom Ford for Estee Lauder" fragrances and beauty products, which will be in stores in time for the holidays. By fall 2006, Estee Lauder will introduce a stand-alone Tom Ford beauty brand, and the other products will be gradually phased out.

"Everyone has had an Estee Lauder moment," Ford said as he lavished his new partners with praise. His included memories of his grandmother's love for the classic scent Youth Dew and his own inordinate infatuation with Aramis bronzer in the 1970s. Ford was dressed in his usual black suit, white shirt unbuttoned -- but not open to the depths it had plunged during his last days at Gucci, when he, sex and the brand had merged into a miasma of titillation.

The partnership will allow Ford to take advantage of Estee Lauder's expertise in the fragrance business, with its high costs and distinct idiosyncrasies. Estee Lauder will benefit from Ford's cachet, fame and provocative marketing sensibility.

The Estee Lauder Cos., founded in 1946, boasts sales of $5.8 billion and includes the brands Origins, Clinique, Aramis, Jo Malone, M.A.C., Aveda and Bobbi Brown. Last year it launched Flirt! and American Beauty, cosmetic lines sold at Kohl's department stores in an attempt to reach mass-market customers and bargain-hunters. It also introduced Donald Trump: The Fragrance, which is promoted as a scent that embodies "confidence, success and the character of Donald J. Trump." (Surely it also has top notes of pomposity and narcissism.)

But Estee Lauder's flagship brand, with its seafoam packaging and distinctly pink palette, lacks sex appeal and youthful sizzle. There have been attempts to embrace a more diverse customer, adding black model Liya Kebede to its team of signature faces. Still, the original Estee Lauder fails to speak to the growing numbers of women of color with the eloquence of the company's niche product lines.

While creative director of Gucci Group, which owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Ford was influential in jump-starting the careers of several black models, Kebede among them, by featuring them prominently in his runway shows and advertising campaigns.

He practiced a charm offensive within the fashion world and its Hollywood satellite, giving him a higher profile than almost any other designer. And Ford, who sold sex just as surely as he sold jersey evening gowns and peasant blouses, was also adept at stirring up controversy aimed at benefiting the bottom line. He oversaw a YSL fragrance launch party in which nude models spent the evening preening before the guests. And for a Gucci advertising campaign, he shaved a model's pubic hair into the shape of a G. One can only imagine how his presence at Estee Lauder might lead to the reimagining of an advertisement for Youth Dew.

The announcements came Tuesday morning at the Four Seasons restaurant after weeks of speculation about the exact nature of Ford's reentry into the fashion business. Both he and de Sole departed Gucci Group a year ago after they were unable to negotiate new employment contracts with Gucci's parent company, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. Ford never closed the door on the fashion industry, even as he began to pursue an interest in filmmaking.

The fashion industry saw Ford and de Sole's departure as marking the end of a decade of rapid growth within the business. The two not only transformed Gucci, but they also left their mark on the industry, underscoring its global scope and vast financial potential. By the time of their departure, Gucci had grown from a single brand on the verge of insolvency into a luxury conglomerate valued at well over $8 billion. That past success, combined with optimism, gave John Demsey, global brand president of Estee Lauder, every reason to boast: "This is an alliance that will change the way the brand is perceived forever," he said. "We're here today to introduce a new chapter in beauty history."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company