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Linda Rodin Talks Unisex Perfumes and Selling Her Business to Estée Lauder

Post-acquisition, Rodin still only wants to create products she would use.
Linda Rodin, at right. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Linda Rodin, at right. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

While her friends are thinking about retirement, longtime stylist Linda Rodin has no intention of slowing down. Though she sold her company Rodin Olio Lusso — the line of beauty products that she started in 2007, out of her own apartment — to Estée Lauder in October, she doesn't plan to scale back her role in the brand's product development. Her latest endeavor: a repackaging of Bis, the fragrance she created to smell like her mother, just in time for Mother's Day. (The bottles, appropriately, are covered in old photos of her mom.) 

We sat down with Rodin, who looked like a positive baller in a gold leather jacket and cropped jeans, to hear about how she recreated the scent of her mother from memory and what she's up to, post-acquisition.

How did you go about creating Bis?

That’s how my mother smelled. I worked with David Moltz of D.S. & Durga, and I explained what she smelled like, which was just peppery and burnt sugary and tobacco and Juicy Fruit gum and all sorts of different smells, and he just figured it out. My parents went out every single Saturday night, and I was always afraid that they would die in a car crash on the way home. So I would wrap myself up in my mother’s coat, which I have a picture of her in, and it smelled like her perfume.

What was her perfume?

I don’t know. That’s why it was not easy to recreate. I couldn’t say my mom wore Chanel. There’s no way to know that. I’m sure she had several perfumes, so it had to be created. But we did. It’s exactly the right scent. The other thing about vintage scents is that they can’t make them anymore, anyway. They can’t use the same ingredients; a lot of things are illegal. It’s evocative, that’s all.

How have people responded to it?

Everybody loves it. It’s called “The New Classic,” because it is very '50s to me. It’s not like these new unisex ones, although there’s a town in France that sells the perfume, and they sell all of these to men.

That's so interesting. What town?

It’s in Rennes. [The shopkeeper] said that it’s her best seller, and she runs a perfume shop with exquisite brands. And she says that 90 percent of the people who buy it are men.

Do you know why that is?

I don’t know. Unisex, I never understand. If you like it, you like it, and maybe it would be too feminine for men to wear a rose perfume, but at the end of the day, it’s how you want to smell. If a man likes a women’s scent [he might wear it], and women now wear men’s scents. I think that whole line has been blurred.

What was your first perfume?

My first perfume was Taboo. They do make it [today], and it’s horrible. I bought it for $11.99 at Duane Reade, and it was horrible.

Had it changed, or had your tastes changed?

Well, that’s the thing, I think it’s both. I used to be addicted to these chocolate chip cookies that they sold at my high school, and my friend and I, when we were going on vacation, would go and buy like 30 bags of these cookies because we couldn’t bear that we’d have a week off from school and not be able to eat these delicious chocolate chip cookies. And I found them in my deli, and I said, "I can’t believe they make these." And they were horrible! I remember them being the best thing. So I don’t know, I think it’s both. Things change and ingredients get synthetic, and you just don’t know what’s going on anymore. A good steak is always a good steak. Bacon will not taste that different. But there are a few things that don’t stay the same, and that perfume, we all wore it and thought it was the best. And it just stank.

You're really involved in your production, checking each batch and tweaking the formula as needed. How many batches of the Olio Lusso do you make a year at this point?

More and more. We can also double the batch now, so if we were making 3,000, we can make 6,000 or 10,000. Every batch is approved by me, but they make it in vats, so it doesn’t matter. If we made 10,000 at some point, it’s always consistent, because it’s measured. [A] tweak [to the formula] is hard, because they might put an eighth of an ounce in a drum this big, but you have to start really small, because you can’t take it out. You can’t go too far, so you go increment by increment. But imagine the tub is an industrial tub, and they add this much, which you wouldn’t even smell on yourself. But it has to be small, so it takes hours, and you have to wait for it to settle in a bit. I’ve been going to the factory since I started making it at home, but the maximum I ever made was 500 in a day [at home].

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That's a lot!

I did three at a time, but I couldn’t up the formula. Once I tried and had to throw it all out because I didn’t really understand how to do it. It’s mathematical, but then it’s tweaky. Then I found a consultant, and she found this wonderful factory that I still work with.

Where’s the factory?

New Jersey. And we’re still with the same factory, even going forward with new products we’re going to use my factory.

So, congratulations on the Estée Lauder acquisition. How has that been so far?

It’s definitely positive because I feel like I can do more things because I have more support and they have access to everything. What to me is more complicated is having to deal with a lot of different people. It’s not direct, but it also offers me possibilities to do this [the re-released packaging] and video. I think it's just more layers that you have to go through now. But I’m still the face of it and the creative director, so nothing will be done without me. It was acquired, but I didn’t give it up.

You didn’t take your money and run.

I’m not going anywhere. When I’m dead they can sell it at K-Mart, I don’t care. As long as I’m here, there’s nothing I won’t approve. I approve every bottle, every wrapping, everything.

How big is your team now?

I would say there’s 10 people that I never had before. There’s a marketing person, there’s a head of the creative venture at Estée Lauder. They bought also Frederic Malle and Le Labo.

I know Fabrice [the co-founder of Le Labo] really well. I was like his first customer on Elizabeth Street, and he came over for a drink maybe eight and a half years ago. I met him and I loved his stuff, and I said, "I’m making this oil, what do you think?" He said, "I think it's great, but I wouldn’t go into the beauty business. What are you crazy? You have a great career." And then the day the acquisition came out, he said, "Thank god you’re stubborn."

The other benefits [of the acquisition] are that I have people who are financially smarter than me and have more money. It was always my money; I never borrowed money or had a partner or anything. I work with a product developer person who can develop things that I never would have been able to develop. It would have been difficult to do certain things, so that’s a plus. She’s so knowledgeable, and she knows things that are happening in Timbuktu that you wouldn’t know. She has her finger on the pulse of everything that’s out there. Not that I’m interested in that, necessarily, but it’s nice to bounce off ideas. 

What other products do you want to do?

I always said that I would make 15 products, before any of this happened. I got up in my head to about 13, but I definitely think there will be more than that. I’m not going to do makeup, [though] I make lipstick. I wouldn’t make anything I don’t use. I do occasionally do kooky colored eye shadow, so I might do that, but [Lauder] has got Bobbi Brown; they’ve got everybody. They certainly don’t need me for [makeup], so that’s good because I don’t want to do that. But we’re continuing with hair products. Bob Recine made my hair oil. He and I were planning on making a shampoo and a conditioner two years ago, and it got complicated and busy, but now we’re going to keep going with that.

Were you designing based on what you wanted, or on what other people wanted?

I never asked a soul. I didn’t give a shit. I made an oil for myself and everybody loved it, and I was shocked. That was like the "aha" moment. I didn’t make it for anybody else, and I care, but I’m not going to make it because people think I should make purple toenail cream or something. Someone else can make that. I would only make things that I would use, which is why I only got to 15. I can’t think of that many more things that I would use.

I only use my own stuff. But I’m working on a new perfume. [The products] could be endless, but I think it has to have a finite amount of stuff. Otherwise you’re just making stuff to sell stuff. But there’s a lot of room for stuff that I’d never considered, because I have the support. That’s why I think [the acquisition] was a good thing to do. I mean, I never planned on it. I made it for me, and I never thought that Estée Lauder or anyone was going to come around. Especially at my age, that’s the thing. Most people are winding down. All my friends are retiring; they’re working two days a week. Everyone I know has just had it. I feel like I’ve just jumped in.

What were your main concerns when you started talking to Estée Lauder?

I’ve been in control of everything my whole life, and when I started my business my accountant said, “Well, you’re not getting a partner,” because I’m kind of stubborn and headstrong. But I think that’s what makes it special. But I’ve been a stylist for a long time, so you always have a team. I think that was a good experience to know that there’s a client you have to make happy, but you have to be happy yourself... but then I realized that [with Olio Lusso], I am the client in this case and the founder. That was what was interesting to me. But also if I were starting this at 30, I don’t know if I would have [sold it]. I can speed up a little and now it’s the perfect timing.

I think you have to know what you’re getting, and people aren’t going to change, so that’s the commitment that you have to be willing to make. And I was very happy to make it.