Though she died in 1966, cosmetics pioneer Elizabeth Arden and the eponymous brand she created before women even had the right to vote have been in the spotlight in recent months thanks to War Paint, a musical about the parallel career tracks of Arden and Helena Rubinstein, who together built the modern beauty industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, it really wasn’t until the show opened on Broadway last summer that the public learned just how remarkable both women were—especially Arden, one of five children born to a farm family in Ontario, Canada, who learned about skin creams while working as a nurse. By 1908, Arden was working as a beautician’s assistant in New York and, two years later, opened her first store on Fifth Avenue. Arden was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, pioneered the in-store makeover and created a company that Revlon acquired last year for a reported $419 million.
A beauty brand could hardly hope for a better founder than that. And while there’s no getting Arden back, the brand has found someone who exemplifies her glamour and achievement. Last week, Arden announced that Reese Witherspoon would be the new face of the brand and its “storyteller in chief.”
While Witherspoon is a good fit for obvious reasons—the Oscar-winning actress has appeared in hits like Legally Blond and Walk the Line and has 9.1 million followers on Instagram—she’s also an entrepreneur who, like Arden herself, is a pioneer in a male-dominated realm. That lesser-known part of the actress’s life was what cinched the deal for the company.
“It was very important to us as a brand to find somebody who would truly embody the story of the brand,” explained Kara Langan, Elizabeth Arden’s svp of global marketing. “We believe in our heritage and who Elizabeth Arden was as a person, and despite the fact that she started her company over 100 years ago, the way she thought about women and beauty is relevant and contemporary. A lot of women don’t know that story anymore. We wanted someone who could embody that heritage of the brand”
“Of course, Reese is gorgeous,” Langan continued, “She has flawless skin, which is amazing for a brand founded in skin care—but as a person, the way she talks about wanting to empower women [and] to tell stories about strong and fascinating women—[that] goes along with who Elizabeth Arden was as a person and therefore who we are.”
Though she’s only 41, Witherspoon already has two Oscars on her mantelpiece, and was named as one of People magazine’s most beautiful women of 2016. But away from the red carpet (and the public spotlight), Witherspoon has fashioned a second career as a tastemaker and cultural messenger.
Five years ago, using her own funds, Witherspoon co-founded production company Pacific Standard, which released David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. In 2013, Witherspoon founded Draper James, a southern-influenced clothing brand named after Witherspoon’s grandparents and based on the “grace and charm that I was raised with growing up in Nashville, Tenn.,” as Witherspoon described it. (The brand sells its casual but upmarket fashions online and in stores in Nashville and Dallas.)
These ventures would be enough to keep someone with Witherspoon’s career busy, but last year, after parting ways with business partner Bruna Papandrea, Witherspoon folded Pacific Standard into a new venture called Hello Sunshine, a multimedia production company devoted to telling women’s stories.
And as Elizabeth Arden’s storyteller in chief, Witherspoon will be entrusted to tell the brand’s story, too. “[We’re] looking for her to be part of [our] creative content, particularly in social media,” Langan said, adding that the brand will “brief” the actress in the messaging it would like to get across “but then really allow her to craft how that message is put out there so that it really comes from her perspective.”
Langan added that down the road, Elizabeth Arden’s partnership may even expand to include Hello Sunshine as well. More immediately, however, ads featuring Witherspoon will appear in May in glossies including Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country and Vanity Fair. Witherspoon will also be taking to social media with messages of beauty, empowerment and presumably a few history lessons on Elizabeth Arden, the person behind the brand.
For her part, Witherspoon appears to view the new partnership as more than just another endorsement check. “One of the first things that drew me to the brand was its rich heritage and history of supporting women,” the actress said in a prepared statement. “As one of the first female entrepreneurs, Elizabeth Arden paved the way for women like me.”