Gager mixes art, commerce to boost M.A.C. sales, image

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as early as 10 years old, James Gager knew he wanted to have an artistic influence on the world. The force that drove him to teach art classes out of neighborhood garages as a child is now focused on driving the image of Estee Lauder Cos.' fast-growing Make-Up Art Cosmetics unit, the creative vision for which Mr. Gager is responsible.

Since Mr. Gager joined M.A.C. in 1999 from a 20-year career with Lauder's Prescriptives, sales have risen 26% for the edgy fashion-driven makeup brand initially created for makeup artists.

He is modest about his success, citing the company's earlier progressive thinking to use Ru Paul as a spokesman and tie in with AIDS in the early days before his arrival. "M.A.C. has the heart and soul of no other company, but it just needed to be re-looked at and dusted off a little bit, to move a shade toward the trend and fashion frontier," Mr. Gager said.

With his industrial design degree and his skills in drawing beauty out of everyday experiences, Mr. Gager helps build between 15 and 20 trend-setting color makeup collections annually as well as the imagery that supports them in both merchandising and advertising. For this fall, Mr. Gager worked with legendary Japanese photographer Hiro to shoot "an amazing face using red makeup," which he is banking on being the next big color trend. And if it's not, it won't be for lack of trying.

In addition to following what he sees on the runways in New York, London and Milan (in this case, "couture reds"), he said, "M.A.C. is successful enough that we can create trends at our discretion ... we can make it happen."

setting fashion

Bill Steele, cosmetics analyst for Banc of America Securities agreed that M.A.C. "almost sets the fashion in some respects." He said that the prestige color brand has done well for Estee Lauder, reaching out to a younger, trendier demographic than the base Estee Lauder brand, because "they keep their finger on the pulse of their consumer." Big in the `80s, M.A.C. suffered a downturn in the late `90s, but now, Mr. Steele said, "It seems to be back as big as ever." The challenge is to continue to execute based on what consumers are looking for. "If you're setting fashion, there is always the risk people won't follow," Mr. Steele said.

M.A.C. President John Demsey credits his worldwide creative director with having an uncanny ability to foresee trends that seem cutting edge but at the same time offer much-needed commercial potential. "James is an integral part of everything M.A.C. stands for ... and his creativity, vision and unique sensibility have helped take M.A.C. to unparalleled new heights," Mr. Demsey said.

Mr. Gager recently added a series of new artists to the list of past celebrity endorser's for M.A.C.'s AIDS-fundraising lipstick VIVA GLAM, the only product the company advertises. In the shots featuring A-listers Chloe Sevigny, Boy George, Linda Evangelista, Missy Elliott and Christina Aguilera, the VIVA GLAM V T-shirts they're wearing are styled to reflect the personality of the particular star, a seemingly small detail that stands out because of the larger message it offers about the company.

"We believe in individuality at M.A.C.," Mr. Gager said, "and we tried to let the individuals' style come through." (Already, consumer requests have been made to buy the T-shirts and M.A.C. plans to sell them online.) The ad placements in this month's magazines are likewise personalized, with Boy George appearing in Out, Missy Elliott in Vibe, Linda Evangelista in Vogue.

Often, Mr. Gager is inspired by images in his own life. Early on in his time at M.A.C., Mr. Gager's standard poodle, Violet, was given her "15 seconds of fame" in an ad campaign for a Valentine's day collection dubbed Puppy Love. Similary, Mr. Gager has developed collections on the basis of a delicious dim sum experience (a line called Cuisine) or hot chocolate (Tasti).

He is the first to spread credit around, offering that, though he is "the man behind the color collections" he is fortunate to work with a great product development team.


Name: James Gager

Age: 59

Title: Senior VP-creative director worldwide, M.A.C. Cosmetics

Who: A longtime executive for parent Estee Lauder unit Prescriptives, Mr. Gager looks to life for ideas, turning to his poodle, dim sum and even hot chocolate for inspiration in creating new M.A.C. products..

Challenge: Keep things interesting, in touch with the times and relevant for fickle customers who want "new " but don't know "new" until they see it.

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