In thinking about the characteristics that define a Renaissance Man, inarguably, a broad range of intellectual interests, knowledge and proficiency in more than one field; charm, wit, thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit are among them.
When we sat down with Don Loftus, those very traits came to light as true and fundamental to his nature, and we came away from the interview quite convinced that we had had a remarkable and inspiring conversation with the very model of a modern Renaissance Man.
Tell us about the early years.
They were rough. Dad deserted the family when I was eight. Mom, with only a part-time job in the “marking room” at Sears, had to feed and raise three kids, make the house payment and keep it all going, and she did it without any of us ever seeing the pain or hardship she must have been facing. She was amazing.
It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I realized how bad off we were. One holiday, the Key Club, of which I was a member, was delivering food baskets to “needy” families. As I rang the doorbell of the first house, it hit me…OMG! I remembered the people my mother worked with at Sears brought us a box of food one Christmas. At the time, I thought it was just a nice Sears tradition. I now realized what it really was. We were the family in need!
After my father left, my performance at school dropped significantly. I was at best a “C” student with no interests and a bad attitude. Then, in eighth grade, a teacher introduced me to theatre, recruiting me to be in the school play… “Oliver”. She was also planning to take a group of students to New York City for a field trip during the next Spring Break. The cost was $600.00 per student. It might as well have been $6 million. We didn’t have the money, but the teacher said that if I would help her after school, grading papers, she’d pay for my trip. I did. She did. It was beyond exciting. I’d never been outside of Ohio, and I’d never seen any live theatre production. We saw four Broadway shows and the whole experience changed my life forever. My school performance got much better and I continued to do plays, both at school and at community theatres. I decided then and there…I was going to be an actor. That changed as I got older and wiser.
How did you earn your first dollar?
I always worked. I had a paper route, I shoveled snow and I cut grass. My first real job was as a movie usher at The Variety Theatre where my two best friends were also ushers, and my girlfriend was the candy girl. It’s a pity it only paid $1.00 an hour because for the right money, I’d still be doing it today. When “The French Connection” came, it played for months and months. We watched it endlessly, knew every line and would act it out at the back of the theatre as it was playing on the big screen. Finally, we couldn’t take it anymore. We all had to quit.
What drew you to retail?
My first retail job was as a Santa Claus at the May Company when I was 18. When the Christmas season ended, I traded in my red velvet suit for an apron and became a kitchen assistant in the store’s restaurant. I attended college during the day and worked at night. Eventually, I was promoted to the selling floor, then to a head of stock position, an assistant buyer, a department manager and finally a buyer for girls’ apparel.
To the beauty and fragrance industry?
I then moved to Halle’s…a sort of “Cleveland Bergdorf Goodman”, but owned by Marshall Fields. I went in as a children’s wear buyer, but then something happened to the cosmetics buyer, and management felt that only a man could fill that role because the industry was “so tough”. I hated that position. In the cosmetics industry, unlike children’s wear, the vendor was in control. I was used to running my own show and suddenly I had these big vendors telling me what to do. And they were powerful so I had to listen and obey. It did pay off, however; The Estée Lauder Gift-With-Purchase did more volume in two weeks than my entire children’s wear department did in a season.
Eventually, I did grow to love it, but Halle’s was closing so I went back to May Company who had never been able to convince Lauder, Clinique or Lancôme to sell them because the two “better” stores in town, Halle’s and Higbee’s, carried them and the brands were concerned about being over-distributed. But now that Halle’s was closed, I was able to get those brands to sell us, and all three were up and running, in all doors, within two years of my arrival. I had tripled the cosmetics business nearly over night. My management thought I was a genius. They called me “Boy Wonder”. They gave me awards and trophies and accolades…all of which I accepted graciously…but knowing, of course, that it had nothing to do with my retailing acumen…and everything to do with my timing. Halle’s had closed!
From there, I moved to Boston as New England Field Sales Director for Estée Lauder and, after a few years, Lynne Green, a former Lauder exec, hired me as VP of Sales for Yves Saint Laurent. Fast forward and I became EVP for Sanofi and eventually the U.S. president. From there I moved on to the role of president at Versace Profumi, followed by the same role at YSL Beauté, Escada Beauté, Wella’s Cosmopolitan Cosmetics, P&G Prestige, and finally to Parlux.
Given your vast knowledge of the fragrance industry and the short attention span of today’s consumer, do you think that any new fragrance has the potential to become an all-time, great classic like Chanel N° 5, Joy or Shalimar?
It’s a whole new world. I think the new “collection brands” like Tom Ford, Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Byredo are leading the way into the future. They’re much more expensive than their predecessors but, after a couple of decades of mediocre launches, the artistry of fragrance creation and packaging is being led by those and will eventually trickle down to the more moderately priced brands…and it should lead us all to fewer, bigger, better.
Interestingly, the Paris Hilton fragrances and the Norell fragrance are included in the Parlux portfolio. Who would you say is the customer for Paris Hilton?
Paris has a huge international business. She is particularly adored in Mexico, Latin America and parts of Asia. Her agent told me that she believes this fascination comes in these markets because they see her as the new Marilyn Monroe. She’s rich, blonde, blue-eyed, American and sexy. They are fascinated by her.
Norell is sort of in the Byredo/Tom Ford camp. It’s expensive but worth the money. The fragrance is extraordinary, as is the bottle…particularly the $1,500.00 Baccarat version. It’s for a very specific specialty store customer who knows and appreciates quality and artistry.
And is it the case that celebrity and designer fragrances continue to generate interest and sales?
The retailer, not the consumer, has all but killed the celebrity category. The consumer still cares very much about celebrities and their lifestyles. Just look at a drugstore’s magazine rack; it’s a sea of celebrity faces. When we take Rihanna to a store, thousands line up and wait for hours to see her.
Retailers became frustrated when a brand launched, moved into the top ten and then dropped significantly the second year. The celebrity customer is primarily the junior customer who wore that fragrance when she was 16. When she turned 17, she wouldn’t think of wearing it. We’re not building Chanel N° 5 here. The celebrity category has to be treated like a junior classification and needs to be fresh and new each year.
Designer fragrances will continue to be important. After years of education, the customer now realizes that fragrance is the final accessory.
She trusts that the designers will guide her to the right fragrance choices as they do to their ready-to-wear offerings.
Would you comment on the current state of the fragrance industry; is change needed and, if so, what needs to change?
Sadly, the category has been struggling for a couple of decades. The year I got into it, there were only about three new major launches…Oscar de la Renta, Opium and a Jean Patou fragrance. Last year there were over one thousand launches. We need to clean it up. Fewer, bigger and better would be a welcome change to the industry. Again, I think the high-end collection brands are starting this trend.
What would you say are the three qualities that got you where you are today?
Ambition, Drive and Flexibility
One thing you’re exceptionally good at? Bad at?
I think I’m good at getting a team excited about the opportunities ahead.
I think I am unforgiving when someone “betrays” me. I am like an elephant; I never forget. I also have little tolerance for surprises. I even have a sign on my desk which reads, “NO SURPRISES”. I can deal with anything except not knowing.
How do you lead? How do you persuade people to embrace your ideas and directives – especially those who may be hard to convince?
I hope that I lead through collaboration. One of my heroes, Leonard Lauder, once told me, “Hire people who are smarter than you are and then listen to what they have to say.” I really try to follow that advice.
Let’s talk about Fashion Group.
As Chairman of the Board of Directors, as you have been for some years now, what is the importance of the organization and why has it flourished for more than 85 years – a lot longer than many companies we can think of?
The Fashion Group’s greatest strength is its ability to educate and give access to young people coming into the business. I remember attending events when I was a young retailer. I was like a sponge as I learned from the pro’s who had already made it. And the best part is that, through its programs, one never has to stop learning. I find myself quoting from many of the speakers I’ve heard at the various forums and events hosted by the group. Secondly, I have met some amazing people and made some long-lasting friendships as a result of my membership. These are things one cannot put a price tag on.
There’s something else you’re really good at. As a playwright and lyricist, some of your musicals and stage plays have been produced to some success – “Abbey Victoria”, “Apple Annie” and “The Brothers Grin”, among others. Tell us about that and where you see those endeavors headed.
I am always working on a new play or musical, and I belong to several organizations that stimulate that interest. Every Tuesday night I attend a session of The Times Square Playwrights and The Actors Who Act For Them. Each week they read through about 10 minutes of my play (along with the works of about 10 other writers) and then the attendees, actors and writers discuss it. It’s a great development process. I’m also on the boards of The Women’s Project Theatre and The Dramatist Guild Foundation. It’s my real passion and my hope is to retire eventually and try to get some of these projects off the ground. I have had a few theaters around the country produce some of my work as part of new playwrights festivals…but my dream is to take one all the way.
Tell us about your association with the Dramatist Guild Fund
It’s now called the Dramatist Guild Foundation. We fund programs that raise money to support writers, composers and lyricists of the theatre. It is a remarkable group, and I love the work I do with them.
You’re an inveterate theatregoer, do you prefer serious drama or musicals?
I see everything…on and off Broadway. Sometimes several times. I even like the lightest fluff, but my real passion is for true theatre, musicals and straight plays, that change you. I want to be a different person when I leave the theatre.
What, to you, is the most memorable play/show ever?
I love so many, but if I had to pick, it would be the four I saw on my 9th grade trip to NYC. “1776”, “Promises, Promises”, “Mame” and “George M!”. These were not the best plays I’ve ever seen…but this is where my passion started and this is where my life changed.
Favorite playwright? Composer/lyricist?
Tennessee Williams/ Stephen Sondheim/Cole Porter
Finish these sentences:
“I wish I had…” another 60 years left. There is still so much that I want to do.
“Nothing gets on my nerves more than…” people whining about things that are in their power to change.
Finally, aromas, as you would most certainly know, have the transformative power to evoke “remembrances of things past” in the most sudden and startling ways; memories of places and events thought long forgotten; of people out of mind for decades.
What fragrance or aroma has evoked a lost-in-the-mists-of-time memory of yours and what was the memory?
My wife, Holly, and I have been married for 41 years. Even as a youth she had very sophisticated tastes. When her friends were wearing Charlie or Heaven Sent, Holly wore L’Heure Bleue. A couple of years ago, we were in Paris and went to the Guerlain boutique. She bought a bottle and the memories of our youth filled the air.
Tell us something about yourself that no one else knows.
As a vice president at The May Company, I would perform in about 4 shows a years at various community theatres in the Cleveland area. I would choose theatres that were fairly far out of town so that no one that I worked with would know. My fear was that management would think I wasn’t serious about my career if I was wasting my time doing theatre. Meanwhile, that’s where the passion was. It still is…but now as a writer and patron.