Friday, February 25, 2011

McGregor by Fabergé -- The End of the Line in America

In our last post, we journeyed with the fabled Fabergé name from the royal court of St. Petersburg to the corner drugstore in America.  Yet there is one more chapter to be told of this name finding a home on Main Street, USA.

In 1984, George Barrie sold Fabergé Inc. for $180 million to McGregor Corp.  McGregor, a men's and boys' clothing manufacturer, was controlled by self-made millionaire Meshulam Riklis through his company Rapid America.   Riklis was known for his elegant financial mechanisms used to acquire businesses, often placing investors at risk with his leveraged buyouts using junk bonds.  However, he was most likely better known to the public for his May-December marriage to the much younger singer, Pia Zadora, and his launching of her career through his business connections and ownership of the Riviera casino in Las Vegas. 

In 1985, the company launched a new men’s cologne, McGregor by Fabergé.  Part of the distribution network was Rapid-American owned discount department store chain McCrory’s.  Fabergé and Billy the Kid children’s wear under the same banner, what would Carl Fabergé have thought? 

Unlike Barrie, Riklis did not seem to be interested in promoting Fabergé with celebrities and growing the brand, rather using the venerable name’s cash flow and equity to grow his business empire.  Later that same year, he took the company private and shortly thereafter, transferred the assets from Rapid to the Riklis Family Corp.  This transfer in May, 1986 was virtually cashless as it was paid for by the issuance of non-voting, cumulative preferred stock issued by the newly formed entity.

Mark R. Goldston became President of the new Riklis business and targeted an acquisition, storied American cosmetics brand Elizabeth Arden.  Goldston (who would later be involved in the Revlon turnaround) concluded a deal for $725 million to acquire Arden from pharmaceutical giant Ely Lilly & Co.  Fabergé Inc. was now valued at $1.2 billion.

In 1989, Fabergé Inc. fell into the sights of a multinational consumer-brand Goliath, the Dutch-British firm Unilever, which during that period of time was building its personal care product portfolio. Unilever had just bought the American business Chesebrough-Ponds in 1987, picking up the marks Aqua-Net, Cutex, Pond’s and Vaseline.  Now it paid the Riklis Family Corp. $1.55 billion for Fabergé Inc.  Unilever had a new strategic vision for the brand, looking to restore its luster as a name synonymous with luxury.

This brings to a close the American chapter in the Fabergé story, from the family losing the rights to its own name – and by extension, its history – for $25,000 to what was now a cosmetics powerhouse brand with rather common roots heading back to its royal heritage in Europe.  

Small pieces of the Fabergé legend were to remain in the US, such as the “House of Igor Carl Fabergé” for Franklin Mint; the Forbes Collection of historic Fabergé in New York City; and the development of the Fabergé-style Vivian Alexander line of egg creations.   These will be topics for future posts.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fabergé in America: Cary Grant, Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett

In our previous post, we left off with the Fabergé family saga at the point where this storied name fell into the hands of the American entrepreneur Samuel Rubin to be used for his company’s perfume line.  Beginning in the 1930s and through the Second World War, Rubin had always promoted the brand as up-market.  After his $25,000 settlement with the sons of Carl Fabergé, which secured his rights to the name for his business (as well as the rights for future use for certain jewelry items), Rubin extended his Fabergé line to include cosmetics and toiletries that were available to consumers in department stores.  Rubin created a brand that enjoyed a luxury reputation on par with other famous French names, Guerlain and Coty.

The business grew for more than a decade and in 1964 Rubin sold it for $26 million to George Barrie, who is in own right was twice nominated for the Academy Award Oscar.  Barrie had founded mass-market beauty company Rayette, as well as developing a fragrance called Brut, which was to go on to become one of the most popular men’s cologne of all time. In 1964, firm was reincorporated to Rayette-Fabergé Inc.; then, in 1971, renamed Fabergé Inc.

But by this time, not only had the Faberge family lost the right to use its name, during the ensuing years it lost its own story and legacy.  The American Faberge companies falsely adopted the history of Peter Carl Faberge and his Imperial Eggs for the Czars as its own, liberally using the magical appeal of the historic eggs and the romance of the Romanov Court as part of the brand identity, including the Royal Warrant awarded by Alexander III.

Barrie parlayed his Hollywood connection in molding Faberge into a mass marketing powerhouse.  Legendary actor Cary Grant was hired in 1967 as a creative consultant to the firm and made appearances at sales conventions, as well as dropping by production facilities, during that year.  In 1968 he was elevated to the company board and took on more responsibilities, although never doing outright endorsements or taking part in advertising.  Part of Grant’s compensation package included an apartment in New York City, as the corporate headquarters was located there; and in line with his personal appearance role, an open travel budget plus free use of company’s planes and helicopters.

In 1970, actor Roger Moore of James Bond fame joined Grant on the board.  That same year, Brut Productions was established as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Faberge Inc. and produced the film Touch of Class for which  actress Glenda Jackson earned an Oscar in 1973.  Television commercials for the Brut line starred NFL players Joe Namath, Paul Gascoigne and Kevin Keegan.  Another series featured the fighters Henry Cooper and Mohamed Ali, while later spots had actress Kelly LeBrock (best known for her role in the 1984 film The Woman in Red).
With this solid celebrity advertising push and wide distribution through drug stores and other mass outlets, Brut sales rocketed to take the top spot as the best selling cologne in the world.   Brut was joined by Babe in 1976 and that, too, became Fabergé's largest-selling women’s perfume.  The late actress Margaux Hemingway (granddaughter of famed author Ernest Hemingway) signed for $1 million to promote Babe by Fabergé.  Babe was honored with not one but two awards from the Fragrance Foundation:  Most Successful Introduction of a Women's Fragrance in Popular Distribution and Best Advertising Campaign for Women's Fragrance.

Babe was followed in 1977 by the Farrah Fawcett hair care and fragrance lines with the Charlie’s Angels star inking a promotional contract with Fabergé.   This led to one of the most sensational television ads of its era starring “Broadway Joe” Namath being shaved by the wildly popular sex-symbol Fawcett.

Barrie’s success continued and by 1984 the Fabergé Inc. portfolio of brands included fragrances Aphrodisia,  Babe, Brut, Cavale, Farrah Fawcett, Flambeau, Just Wonderful,  Kiku,  Macho, Partage, Tigress, Woodhue, Xanadu and Zizanie.  Personal care lines were Caryl Richards,  Farrah Fawcett, Fabergé Organics, Aqua Net Hair Spray, Fabergé Ceramic Nail Glaze and Tip Top Accessories.

Thus, in this bizarre turn of events, the most famous name of the latter 19th Century – synonymous with opulence and unbridled luxury only attainable by royalty and the merely wealthy of Europe – became a staple of the corner drugstore.

Next post will reveal how the Fabergé tale ends in the US, moving yet again back to Europe.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

American Use of the Fabulous Fabergé Name

The last Imperial Easter Egg by Peter Carl Fabergé was made for the Russian Czar Nicholas II in 1916.  The first egg was commissioned in 1885 and over the next 30 years 50 such magical creations came from the Fabergé workshops. World War I and the Bolshevik  Revolution destroyed that madly opulent era of the last Romanovs, and with it the House of Fabergé. The Fabergé family was scattered across Europe after losing all with the political upheaval in St. Petersburg.   Youngest son Nicholas was safe in England while his brothers were imprisoned in Russia; Carl and his wife made their way to Switzerland where he died in 1920.  But that was not the end of this famous name, in fact a new chapter was beginning.

The American oil tycoon Armand Hammer purchased many Fabergé pieces during his business trips to communist Russia in the 1920’s. Konstantin Akinsha wrote in Art News, June 2004:  “Hammer had been fortunate: in Moscow he had received not only Imperial Easter eggs and other objects but the stamps of the company with which every object made in the workshop had been marked. Thus he was equipped to produce Fabergé forgeries in America. ”  Not to say that Hammer was ever involved in the production of "Fauxberge" but his contact with the art of Carl Fabergé led to a new use of the famous name.

Akinsha continued: “In 1937 Hammer’s friend Samuel Rubin owner of the Spanish Trading Corporation which imported soap and olive oil closed down his company because of the Spanish civil war and established a new enterprise to manufacture perfumes and toiletries. He registered it at Hammer’s suggestion as ‘Fabergé Inc.’”

Thus began the American chapter in the continuing saga of the Fabergé name and family.  Akinsha wrote: “Eugene and Alexander, two Fabergé sons who lived in Paris and ran a small workshop called Fabergé et Cie, learned about the existence of Rubin’s company only after the end of World War II but their attempts to sue Rubin were unsuccessful. According to documents in the Fabergé private archive which is in the care of Tatiana Fabergé [Carl's great-grand-daughter] and research by [Valentin] Skurlov, Eugene and Alexander didn’t have the money to hire American lawyers and agreed to a settlement proposed by Rubin who paid them $25 000 for the right to use the name.”

And that is how for many years, the name of the world's most renowned jeweler was prominently featured on fragrance (such as Brut), cosmetics and toiletries available at the corner drugstore on Main Street, USA! 

Our next post will continue on the evolution of name as it has been used commercially over the last 75 years. A note of thanks to author Andrew Moore as the source of reference materials.

The Steel Military Egg -- the last Imperial Easter Egg