Strictly Business — Women of Influence
Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Former Beauty Director of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar
As Beauty Director of Vogue in the ’80s and nineties, Shirley Lord Rosenthal is an original tastemaker. During a recent interview, she greets us warmly, but not before warning us that a cable technician might interrupt our conversation at any moment. With a distinctive, delicate sentence structure, she operates with the poise and authority of someone who has earned her place in the world. Here, we dive into a career in fashion and beauty with one of the industry’s leading voices.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a journalist?
I still have in my house a letter that I wrote to myself when I was 11 to be opened at age 21. The opening line was, “I want to be an author” — unfortunately spelled with an ‘er’. Because it was the end of the war when I wrote it, living with The Blitz in London, I also not surprisingly included my will.
From as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer and I was very focused on wanting to write.
So much so, with parental disapproval I turned down a higher paying job to take one at The Daily Mirror sensing opportunities ahead. Writing, you could say, was in my blood. My great grandfather was a tutor from Dublin, and I often thought that’s where it came from.
Did you always have a passion for fashion?
Actually, as far as magazines are concerned, my title for many years was Director of Beauty and Health. Early on, I moonlighted two jobs, working as a woman’s editor of The London Evening Standard — then edited by Anna Wintour’s father [Charles Wintour], a very distinguished editor indeed — as well as becoming Beauty Editor of Harper’s Bazaar. That happened by chance.
At the Evening Standard, I went to a cocktail party promoting a film called The Chalk Garden where England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer’s daughter Caroline Maudling had a small role.
The film’s producer was Hollywood’s Ross Hunter, who came up to me and said, “Oh we’re wearing the same perfume.” In the ’60s, men didn’t talk about wearing perfume! I replied, “Oh really?” and he said, “Yes, clothes back from the dry cleaners.”
This sounds so rude but I found it quite funny, so I wrote about it in my column for The Evening Standard. The next day, I received a call from the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar saying, “I love the way you write, would you consider writing for us about beauty?” Of course, I hadn’t!
Then, beauty was the lowest subject on the editorial totem pole.
Fashion was the most important and advertising producing part of the magazine. But things were changing. By the time I came to America at the invitation of Harper’s Bazaar in the early ’70s, beauty and the coverage of beauty was growing fast and providing necessary advertising dollars — inflation proof and recession resilient — as giant Pharmaceutical companies began buying famous beauty names.
Fashion magazines had had a hard time following the ‘Swinging ’60s,’ when everything changed so radically in fashion, music, art. Instead of children wanting to emulate their parents, the reverse had begun to be true.
How has your perspective on the beauty industry changed since you were Beauty Director of Vogue?
Vogue is more than ever orientated toward spotting trends, before they become current.
I wish we were not “drowning” in fragrance. Today, everyone and their mother and grandmother, and great grandmother have their own fragrance.
So that part of the beauty business has lost a lot of its flavor.
I remember interviewing Robert Ricci, who had created so many wonderful fragrances. He showed me the original formula for L’Air du Temps, which was several pages long. Today, a fragrance’s formula can be one sentence.
When I came to the U.S., Revlon’s founder Charles Revson told me, “Skincare is the weakest part of our business; we’ll never make any money with skincare.” How wrong he was, but makeup was all-important.
Until man went to the moon, federal money had not been spent on the study of normal skin. It was always abnormal skin. Then, with the moon shot, it had to be known whether the astronauts could survive totally encased in their suits, so government money supported major skin research.
How did that change things?
This major investment in research led to much improved skin products. The next step, which we all take for granted today, was the announcement by the FDA that the sun not only causes skin cancer but also premature skin aging. The Skin Protection Factor (SPF) was developed. This was the beginning of a whole new direction in skincare. Brilliant people like Estée Lauder, who I knew well, would use a touch of SPF and call a cream ‘age controlling cream.’
What were the toughest parts of first being the Beauty Director of Harper’s Bazaar and then Vogue?
I was a very lucky person who could say, “I cannot believe I am being paid for what I love to do.”
It was true. It was a very exciting life. From the outside it looks very glamorous — and indeed a lot of it was, attending functions with interesting people — but when it got down to it, you had to do the job, come up with a story that would be approved by the Editor-in-Chief.
When Anna Wintour came on board — she has been Editor-In-Chief for well over 25 years now — she proved to be the most skilled editor there’s ever been.
Today, she’s Creative Director of all Condé Nast magazines, except The New Yorker. Anna has a passion and knowledge of fashion that is extraordinary.
When it came to beauty, she always thought about it in a strikingly visual way. One example: there was a major breakthrough when Johnson & Johnson produced the first real wrinkle reducer, Renova®. I managed to get hold of the story early on and learned about the naturally wrinkled mice used in the research.
I brought the mouse in a cage into Anna’s office to tell her the news. There were a lot of shrieks, not from her but from others who saw it.
Anna immediately wanted this wrinkled mouse to be photographed by Irving Penn to illustrate our “skin” scoop.
In those days, I felt there should’ve been a controlled delivery system for Renova® because unfortunately the old adage ‘a little is good, more must be better’ didn’t apply here. Women went overboard using too much which peeled off their skin and caused redness, because really very little was needed.
How do you think trends in the fashion and beauty industries start?
There’s a lot of discussion about that. It used to be a major color trend in the cosmetic industry started with the leather industry, which influenced the fabric industry and the fabric industry influenced the designers.
When you look at a designer’s wall, you often see a multitude of fabric and suede swatches that tell a story and from that many makeup artists get their ideas.
What advice do you have for young girls who might feel insecure for not measuring up to mainstream beauty standards?
The go-see girls who go endlessly seeking one job to another shouldn’t try to copy looks. All women — no matter what age — should concentrate on what they think is their best feature: hair, brows, mouth, waist, ankles. Magazines are using many different looks now. For example, I was just looking through an issue of W and the models look like regular girls. Kate Moss has endured so long, yet if you would pass her on the street, you wouldn’t stop and stare at all. Top models ‘in real life’ aren’t necessarily head-turners.
It’s very often what the camera does for someone. That’s why so often you wouldn’t even turn to look at the models. And that’s not to their detriment. It’s the camera that captures something. This is what the editors in the fashion department are trained to do — they see something the camera (in the hands of a top photographer) can transmit. And posture is incredibly important.
Having worked in the industry, do you feel that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?
Oh, distinctly. I mean everything that I just said: distinctly it’s in the eyes of the beholder — or perhaps the nose!
He spent a fortune, and created a perfume called ‘Pheromone.’ You know we have all met people who for some reason we don’t particular care for. I’m not talking about bad breath or anything like that and it’s nothing that they’ve said or done.
Research still goes on in the fragrance industry to find that subliminal attractant — just like two moths flying in opposite directions will sniff the air and turn to collide and make love because the scent is there for them.
Cosmopolitan magazine has recently decided to pursue a more global, serious focus for some of its articles. What do you think of the magazine’s decision to evolve in this way?
Joanna Coles, Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines, is on the right track. She’s very smart and I don’t think she’s lost the sexuality in Cosmo! Focusing on major issues — for example, why young people are attracted to join ISIS — is a vital subject that should be covered.
I lived in Ireland years ago, and met President Éamon de Valera. He said very sadly, “It all begins in the cradle.” I think young people today are very aware of political agendas, and want to understand them.
It’s sad that there is no such thing as “geography” and “history” in curriculums anymore. Now it’s social studies or something similar. So I think Joanna is doing a good job opening up the magazine to world affairs.
A recent book by an artist called Norman Sunshine features a whole variety of women called Dames ‘Of A Certain Age’. A few he featured objected to the name. I didn’t because that’s what it’s about. He chose older women, photographed them, digitized it and painted the subject.
I was one of the lucky ones, then we were asked to write answers to his questions. The first one was about waking up in the morning and what one thought about one’s life. I wrote, ‘To feel relevant in the city of relevance,’ to be involved — to work. Helena Rubinstein said to me when she was in her 80s and I was 18, “Work is the only excitement that lasts.” I used to think, “Poor old girl doesn’t know any better!”
As time went on, I realized that she was absolutely right. Work is the excitement that lasts. That’s what gets you up every morning and makes one have a full, rich and focused life. It’s the advice I still follow.
What is one piece of career advice you would like to offer our teens?
Using my own experience, I can only say stay focused, don’t get side tracked.
If there is something in your life that you really want, don’t let anyone sway you from it.
You have to forge ahead; you have to keep on. Estée Lauder would say to me (and my late husband Abe Rosenthal said as well, but in a different way), “Never complain, never explain.”
Estée said it in another way too, “Nobody likes a loser.”
People that complain — it’s not helpful. As much as you would like to yell and scream, just do it in the privacy of your own room.
I wish you all good luck. In life, we need luck. Sometimes it means taking risks, but it’s important to grab that risk and go for it.