Alright, gem gals, my Women of Influence series (for Women’s History Month) continues with the amazing Helena Rubenstein. She originally came to my attention because she was an avid collector of beautiful, fine jewelry. In every single picture of her that exists, she is always wearing LOTS of exquisite jewelry!
In fact, she had so much jewelry that she kept it all in a big filing cabinet. Gems were sorted alphabetically – “A” for amethysts, “B” for beryls, “D” for diamonds.
Helena started the makeup company now known as L’Oreal. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?! LOL!!! Besides being an amazing jewelry collector, she was a visionary businesswoman for her time.
There are all sorts of interesting about Helena besides her jewelry collection and her famous cosmetics company. Because I’m a list fanatic, I put together 7 cool factoids about her. Check it out!
1. Lifelong patron of the arts
Helena wasn’t just a fabulous jewelry collector! Oh no! She had huge collections of art, which people said she bought by the truckload. Whether or not that’s true, she had so much stuff that an entire museum exhibit was created around all of it. She had more than 200 paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Renoir, and others. Clothing designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Paul Poiret. Furniture in vivid colors and unique designs. She considered herself someone who had exquisite taste. She invited artists and designers over for dinner, and frequently socialized with them.
2. It started with Valaze
Even though Helena was a Jewish woman from Poland, her business actually started in Australia. She fled after arguing with her father about a boy. And she brought along 12 little containers of her mother’s homemade beauty cream. Helena used her own gorgeous, clear skin, to promote her cream. She named it Valaze. It was made from lanolin, herbs, almonds, and Carpathian fir tree extract. The women of Australia, not used to the harsh climate, bought so much Helena could barely keep up with the demand. After working out of her kitchen, she was able to open her own salon in 1903.
Her business flourished. Soon she had orders from all over Australia. So Helena expanded, adding more products. Before long, she had over 50 creams and over 70 powders. As well as perfumes, lotions, lipsticks, soaps, rogues and eyeshadows.
3. A different kind of beauty salon
Helena didn’t see herself just as an entrepreneur or someone who sold face cream. She viewed herself as an educator, a mentor. She wanted her beauty salons to be places where women could learn. Not just about skin care, but about art, taste, and style. Helena wanted women to be able to understand design and color, so they could express their creativity and personality through their looks. She believed anyone could be beautiful, with the proper training.
There are no ugly women. Only lazy ones. – Helena Rubinstein
She decorated her salons with her own paintings and furniture. She challenged people’s assumptions about what art was beautiful. In Helena, people did have a mentor – a modern, successful woman who connected the concepts of color and art to interior design and fashion.
4. Madame Helena
Less than 5 feet tall, Helena was a force to be reckoned with. Her ideas came a mile a minute, and she thrived on chaos. Intensely ambitious, loyal, and confident, she insisted people call her Madame.
And so they did.
…Rubinstein was the quintessential self-made woman, effortlessly navigating the intersection between culture and commerce…
5. A rivalry
Helena did business during the same time period as Elizabeth Arden. Although the rumor is that they were bitter rivals, I’m not sure I believe that. Perhaps they were, but what I’ve discovered is that the media loves stories about female rivalries. They were both ambitious and driven, absolutely, but motivated and influenced by different things. The important thing to me is how amazing successful they both were.
6. Love & the stock market
Helena’s devotion to her business meant that she put off love. But not forever. At 38 years old, she married American newspaperman Edward William Titus. He knew of her commitment to her business, and even helped her write advertisements. However, poor Ed always seemed to play second fiddle, and after a while he confessed to Helena that he was in love with another woman.
Devastated, she sold her entire company to Lehman Brothers to show him he was more important. But it didn’t work.
In the end, Helena had the last laugh. The stock market crash allowed her to buy her own company back for pennies.
6. Helena the innovator
During World War I, Ed and her moved to New York City. She opened her first American salon in 1916. More followed in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto.
A worldwide success, she was responsible for so many things that are now standard in cosmetics. Way beyond moisturizing cream. Helena was the first one to come up with different skin types, and market different products for them. And while we take mascara for granted now, Helena invented it. In fact, the “vamp” look was popularized when she taught movie stars of the 1920’s about mascara. Oh, and waterproof mascara. That was her too. Anti-aging products. Treatments using Vitamin C. Lifting cream. And so on.
Keep in mind that when Helena started out, cosmetics were only for prostitutes and looked down upon by society.
Helena was also someone who promoted a healthy lifestyle. She encouraged women to exercise, eat healthy, pursue happiness, and stay away from drinking and smoking.
Helena lived a long life, dying of natural causes at 94. Her cosmetics empire was worth over $50 million, with salons in 14 countries.
Want to read more about Helena Rubinstein? Read her biography!
This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on October 17, 2015.