They were in the cosmetic industry, but they were more than that. They were giants of industry. They created an industry. It just so happened it was in the world of powder and paint.
—Shirley Lord, Senior Editor, Vogue
Operating in major cities all over the world, their competing companies defined the business of beauty, making cosmetics both newly respectable and, finally, indispensable. They developed advertising and marketing techniques that became part of the business landscape, and they themselves became household names and cultural icons. When they started their businesses, makeup was used mostly by prostitutes and performers, and businesses were run mostly by men. They changed the way we look at ourselves, built powerful businesses, and became two of the world's wealthiest women.
Elizabeth Arden was born Florence Nightingale Graham and raised in poverty on a farm in rural Ontario. She came to New York in 1907, and began work as a clerk in a beauty shop. By 1910 she had reinvented herself as Elizabeth Arden and opened her own salon. In 1912 she joined a women's suffrage march on Fifth Avenue, and later announced, "every woman has a right to be beautiful."
Helena Rubinstein was born Chaya Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland. As a young woman, she fled to Australia where, in 1906, she opened a shop and began selling pots of face cream. In 1914, having already opened salons in London and Paris, she arrived in New York and began a lifelong competition with Elizabeth Arden.Although they lived and worked only blocks apart in New York for over 50 years, the two women, by design, never met! Their competition drove them both to great creativity and success. Whenever one launched a successful product, the other sought to outdo her rival with a bigger success, and as soon as possible. Rubinstein said of her rival, "With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world."
They both influenced, and were influenced by, the major movements of the day in art and style. When the "close-up" became a staple of motion pictures, makeup became au courant. Women flocked to Madame Rubinstein and Miss Arden. Their salons were showcases of modernist design, and Madame Rubinstein was a leading collector of avant-garde and African art. Miss Arden collected racehorses and opened the first resort health spa in the United States. They helped usher in the "new woman" of the 1920s — young, independent, and in every way equal to men. Throughout their careers they supported women's empowerment and rights.
Coming as I did from a conservative European background, my attitude as an individualist — a girl who preferred to make it on her own rather than stay at home — was all the more unusual.
— Helena Rubinstein
Miss Arden and Madame Rubinstein are wonderful, larger-than-life characters, and the story of their lives, work, and competition is a marvelous one. The film tells the story with a range of fascinating material, including:
- Archival footage and stills
- Movie clips
- An original soundtrack
- Animated sequences using the drawing styles of the times