One of Australia's most passionate family businesses is taking the cosmetics world by storm.
This is the story of how a creative personality built a brand, pitched it against the might of the US$450 billion global cosmetic industry, and won. Napoleon Perdis is the striking name behind that big personality. He’s a working class boy from Sydney who has turned his talent for making women feel beautiful into a global make-up brand.
Napoleon was raised by proud Greek parents in Sydney’s western suburbs, earning his keep in the family’s hot food snack bar before heading out for a night of dancing. He was 13 when he first helped his mother with her make-up, fascinated by the array of brushes, products and the intricate rituals of conjuring beauty.
He recalls using a heavy hand with the make-up brush even then. Today it’s his signature style: flamboyant, theatrical, out-there.
Napoleon honed his talents doing bridal make-up on weekends while his younger brother Emanuel dreamed up business ideas. Not long after Napoleon met his now wife Soula-Marie – an economics student at Macquarie University when he was doing arts/law – he and his brother decided to turn Napoleon’s talent into a business. In 1995, with a A$30,000 loan from their father, the entrepreneurial Perdis brothers and Soula-Marie launched Napoleon Perdis Cosmetics on Sydney’s trendy Oxford Street.
Two decades on, the gold and black Napoleon Perdis name badges one of Australia’s most successful beauty brands. It turns over more than A$80 million a year and expanded to the United States in 2006. It now has 78 outlets, including its flagship store on Hollywood Boulevard, and 3200 point-of-sale counters across the US, Australia and New Zealand.
The biggest challenge has always been the size of the competition. Forget delicate mannered duels between the blushers; the global make-up business is one endless brawl between corporate giants such as Nestlé, LVMH, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, all struggling for the favour of the retail buyers who control the all-important counter-space.
Kate Peck and Napoleon Perdis
Its more budget-conscious NP Set diffusion range, available in Target and other stores, fulfils Napoleon’s long-held pledge to democratise make-up. And now the business is preparing for its next venture – rolling out nine stores across the Middle East, Paris and London.
The firm’s strategy has centred not just on a product but on a person: that flamboyant Greek boy from western Sydney, Napoleon Perdis. His eye-catching style has driven the business’s marketing, its deal-making and even its approach to ownership.
Napoleon, Emanuel and Soula-Marie Perdis are not easily intimidated. They have a good product and they know it. Their job is to convince the retail buyers that an independent cosmetic house is different enough, and desirable enough, to carve out a few square metres of territory among the L’Oréals and Lancômes.
It’s Napoleon himself – as co-founder, CEO and chief make-up artist – that differentiates the Napoleon Perdis brand. Napoleon had long stood out in the Australian fashion scene: the name, the colourful make-up, the theatrical clothes and glamorous homes. Soula-Marie says it was Napoleon’s style and personality that eventually – after years of buyer meetings and follow-ups – got the brand into high-end US department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
“When they finally got to meet him properly and saw the product, they got to see an independent brand,” she says.
“To have a CEO who is also creative director, the founder, the make-up director all in one, to be able to speak to him, for him to do personal appearances in stores, is very rare."
Emanuel says the label’s independence has allowed Napoleon’s creativity and innovation to flow.
“There’s no censorship to our colour, to our spectrum, to how we decide to express ourselves. In no way is it rebuked by stiff-suited boardroom executives,” explains Sydney-based Emanuel, who is managing director of the business.
"If you really look, there aren’t that many independent brands left, especially in the US landscape. Most of the multinationals own everybody so the flavour is not there.” – Soula-Marie Perdis
“Everyone loves the theatre, the flamboyance and loves the dynamism with which we do things. Retailers love us and while they can find us frustrating in that we’re not as neatly structured as the corporates and they struggle with the fluidity of the brand, by the same token they love it. They think it’s refreshing. At the end of the day they see it’s something that can add value to their business.”
He says there have been several takeover discussions over the past five or six years, but the big players’ vision for the Napoleon Perdis brand did not match their own.
“That level of rationalisation we felt diluted and undermined the ethos of the brand, and we just weren’t prepared at this point in time to do that,” says Emanuel.
“We still very much love what we do and we’ve seen what happens often to the founders of strong brands that thrive and were a point of difference in the market – they’re often put out to pasture.”
The Perdis team has been strategic about what they bring to market. Their use of art and colour in Napoleon Perdis packaging and accessories is a big point of difference.
Napoleon says he is inspired by Hollywood, fashion, interior design, music and art. For the brand’s Valentine’s Day campaign last year he worked with Australian artist Felicia Aroney and her painting “Lovebirds” to design a new limited edition make-up bag. The product was so successful he then used “Poolside Glamour”, an image captured by US photographer Slim Aarons in Palm Springs in 1970 that now hangs in Napoleon’s Sydney home, for a second collection of make-up bags later in the year.
Napoleon is now a regular make-up artist at the US and Australian fashion weeks and he is a popular choice among A-listers including models Miranda Kerr and Jessica Gomes and actor Debra Messing. The brand is the official make-up partner for the Primetime Emmy Awards and has partnered with The Australian Ballet for three years. Napoleon has written a book, Forever Flawless, and done television shows.
Location has also played a critical role. The family moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 2006.
“If we’d been in Australia for the past 10 years we wouldn’t have been what we are today,” says Soula-Marie, who is chief operating officer for the business and lived with Napoleon and their four daughters in LA until a recent move to New York, en route to set up a new home in Greece.
“It was like an MBA in retail markets. The US is one of the most sophisticated markets in the world. It’s very hard to penetrate, and very few brands, Australian or otherwise, have been able to break in here.”
Product excellence is another strand in the brand’s success. Soula-Marie oversees a rigorous testing regime and tries every product herself. If it doesn’t work for her, it doesn’t get made. Similarly, if it’s a wonderful product but will cost too much to manufacture and cost too much to purchase, it doesn’t get made.
And then there’s the team – Napoleon Perdis cosmetics is a tightly run family business that’s punching above its weight on two, soon to be three, continents. They are a formidable force in the make-up marketplace anchored by Napoleon’s creativity, Emanuel’s entrepreneurial zeal and Soula-Marie’s relentless push for excellence and exacting business standards.
This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.