Last October, a who's-who of New York’s fashion and society set turned up to the Golden Heart Awards gala in Manhattan to toast the men and women whose support continues to drive God’s Love We Deliver, a charity devoted to delivering meals to those who are too sick to cook or shop for themselves.
Among the evening’s honorees was Estée Lauder's Style and Image Director, Aerin Lauder, who was presented with the Golden Heart Award for Lifetime Achievement by the one and only Iman. The 70's-catwalking-queen-turned activist and beauty mogul was particularly humbled by the task at hand, telling the crowd that she had always wanted to be “the black Estée Lauder”—a dream she has essentially made a reality.
I always wanted to be the black Estée Lauder
As the founder of IMAN Cosmetics, Mrs. David Bowie (they married in 1992) has created a beauty platform for women of color that is aimed at empowerment through makeup. “I totally identified with, and admired how Estée Lauder saw this possibility,” she explains of the initial motivation behind her namesake brand. Here, the Somali-born supermodel sits down with Aerin Lauder to talk about her own legacy, the challenges and rewards of being a businesswoman, and a little Bowie for good measure.
AL: What did you love about modeling in the 70's and 80's, and why did you ultimately decide to give it up?
IMAN: The whole scene was sexy, glamorous, decadent, outrageous and very collaborative. But after 16 years, I believed I accomplished everything there was to accomplish in modeling. I was no longer the 18-year-old I was when I started, and my focus was changing from who I was, to who I was becoming. I was ready for my second act—I was ready for change! Change helps you find your calling, your legacy, and discover God's divine plan for your life.
AL: You’ve had successful turns in film and television, as well as making a big impact as a charity worker. But your legacy just may be your own cosmetics line. Why did you decide to go into beauty?
IMAN: I wanted to create a new language for beauty that was inclusive. So I created IMAN Cosmetics because, let’s face it: women of every race, nationality, and background want the same thing: to look radiant, and feel beautiful in their own skin.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, let the beholder be you. You have to own it.
AL: One of the major tenets of Estée’s business model was the idea that “every woman can be beautiful.” As an entrepreneur, did that resonate with you when you were starting your own line?
IMAN: Estée’s brand was an extension of herself. It represented enduring tradition, and lasting legacy, perseverance and tenacity—and let's not forget impeccable taste—and I have these same values. My whole philosophy when I created IMAN Cosmetics was the idea that if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, let the beholder be you. You have to own it.
AL: What were some of the initial challenges and rewards you faced as a fledgling business owner?
IMAN: Not being taken seriously as a businessperson, partly because I was a model and also because I am a woman. It was also difficult to change people’s perceptions about what constitutes beauty. Once you get people to think differently about that, you open up a world of possibilities and empower women to feel beautiful in their own skin. That was a breakthrough.
AL: If you could give aspiring entrepreneurs any advice, what would it be?
IMAN: Identify your brand and passion; do your research diligently; make your product unique; network and ask for advice; and be prepared to work harder, and aim higher.
AL: Do you have any personal beauty icons?
IMAN: My mom. She was very untraditional. She was Muslim, but she worked as a nurse and an activist. She was beautiful and full of life and didn't do what the other mothers in my country did. She was an equal to my father, and made us girls believe that we could accomplish as much as the boys could.
AL: As a mother of two, what are some of the beauty ideals you hope to pass down to your daughters?
IMAN: Don't ever cheat yourself by accepting less than you know you're worth. This advice is not about beauty, but will take my daughters much further than any “promise in a jar.”
AL: As a model, and now as a brand, you’ve been on countless photo sets with some of the best makeup artists in the business. Have you picked up any pro tips along the way?
IMAN: Too many to mention—some absurd, and some gems! The best was from the late makeup artist Way Bandy who said, "You should look like a better version of you, but always you."
AL: You’ve played muse for some of the industry’s most famous names – Saint Laurent, Mugler, Calvin Klein, Valentino. Who are your favorite designers these days?
IMAN: Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, to mention a few—and always [Azzedine] Alaia! My wardrobe staples are tuxedos, great tailored suits, and most of all anything with color and print—and j'adore caftans!
AL: I have to ask: what is your favorite David Bowie song?
IMAN: That has to be one of the most difficult questions, as I’ve always loved his music—even before I married him! But the answer is probably Heroes.
For more, visit Desination Iman.