Helena Rubinstein: The First Cosmetics Empress


Helena Rubinstein: The First Cosmetics Empress

Women had not yet gained the right to vote in the United States when Helena Rubinstein immigrated to the US from Europe. Our #WeAreImmigrants campaign salutes Rubinstein as a global icon of female entrepreneurship at a time when there were very few female industry leaders. Her global cosmetics brand, Helena Rubinstein, Inc., still lives on, now owned by L’Oreal. We profile her this week as a part of our Women’s History Month profile series.

Rubinstein’s First Move

Helena Rubinstein Official PortraitIn 1902, Rubinstein moved from her family home in Krakow, Poland, to live in Australia with her aunt and uncle. Here, she developed a cold cream which she began selling at a local market. She worked with Hungarian chemist Jacob Lykusky to create the three main products of her company: cold cream to cleanse the skin, vanishing cream to moisturize and protect the skin and astringent to close pores.

After a falling out with her uncle, Rubinstein moved to Melbourne, and found a backer for her Maison de Beauté Valaze salon, and her product Crème Valaze.

She was one of the first to employ pseudoscience in her product promotion, “diagnosing” her customers and then “prescribing” them an adequate ointment or cream. Rubinstein’s pseudoscience is what initially spurred the categorization of skin types.

“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

–Helena Rubinstein

Soon, she had opened shop in Sydney, and decided to move to London to open a salon in Europe. By this point, she had been working so hard that she was able to arrive in London with $100,000 of her own money. Rubinstein’s Salon de Beauté Valaze in London was conceived as an intimate environment in which patrons could exchange ideas.

Europe as a Platform for Growth

In London she met Polish-American journalist Edward William Titus, and they married there in July 1908. The couple would have two sons, Roy born in 1908 and Horace born in 1912.

Her husband supported Rubinstein’s endeavors particularly by helping create advertising campaigns. Rubinstein brought over her sisters to help with the business, and Jacob Lykusky to work on formulas with her for creating more beauty products.

Rubinstein was not a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, she faced obstacles because of her Jewishness – as an Eastern European Jewish woman. It was quite difficult, but she did succeed at creating an identity for herself in places like London and Paris.

Women’s Empowerment

Rubinstein rejected the turn of the century middle class notion that cosmetics were for actresses and prostitutes. Her focus was on empowering women to transform themselves by using her cosmetics. Department stores clamored for her products, where specially-trained salesgirls marketed them to customers.

Helena Rubinstein PortraitThe Rubinstein brand was brought to New York City in 1915. Here, rivalries with the other female fashion icon, Elizabeth Arden, and with the founder of Revlon Charles Revson began. Rubinstein quickly opened up shops in San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and in Toronto, Canada.

While Rubinstein empowered women by accentuating their feelings of physical beauty and self-esteem, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining steam. In August 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving American women full voting rights.

The Height of Rubinstein’s Success

At this time, Rubinstein began teaching Hollywood starlets the art of properly applying makeup. Her business became so profitable that she sold it to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million ($88 million in 2007).

After the 1929 stock market crash, Rubinstein bought back her business for one-fifth of what she had sold it for, and during the Great Depression her business thrived. She had to close some of her salons in Europe due to World War II, but she opened new ones in South America and Asia, thus expanding her cosmetics empire.

She was “the first self-made female millionaire, an accomplishment she owed primarily to publicity savvy.”

–Ruth Graham, The Wall Street Journal.

Rubinstein divorced Edward Titus in 1938, and went on to marry Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, a Russian prince who was 20 years her junior. Some say that Rubinstein engineered the marriage for marketing purposes, as her title now became Helena Princess Gourielli.

Helena Rubinstein with Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia

Her Legacies

In 1953, Rubinstein established the Helena Rubinstein Foundation to give out scholarships and grants to young women to attain a higher education and go into non-traditional career fields. The Foundation, which operated until 2011 and provided almost $130 million, supported education programs to children and adults alike. It also made funds available for the America Israel Cultural Foundation and provided scholarships to Israelis.

In Tel Aviv, Rubinstein founded the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art. The Pavilion houses her collection of room miniatures—tiny rooms with miniature objects of silver, crystal, pewter, mahogany and more.

“Conoisseurs have traveled from many lands to see these miniature rooms, but I enjoy showing them to children most of all.”

–Helena Rubinstein

She was the first to warn against overexposure to sun, and in the 1940s she developed a sun-protecting tanning lotion. Prior to that, she created waterproof mascara. She changed the market in 1958 with her Mascara-Matic, the first mascara tube with a wand inside—the alternative to the pancake mascara of that time.

Rubinstein was known for working into her elder years, even from her sick bed. She died at the age of 92 in New York City, leaving behind the first global cosmetics empire, and a complete revolution in the world of makeup and cosmetics. During Women’s History Month, we’d like to thank this 20th century fashion titan for her contributions towards women’s empowerment.

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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