The Family History Behind Clairol

Bruce Gelb was three years old when his parents took him to Paris in 1930. “I remember it extremely well,” says Gelb, who has a photo of himself with the captain of the SS Paris. The family had gone to France in hopes of finding a business opportunity—perhaps importing a novelty cosmetic or perfume—that would prove lucrative enough to recoup the losses they’d suffered during the Depression. “My father was a man of infinite imagination,” says Gelb, but it was his mother who stumbled across a product that not only secured their financial future, but also triggered a paradigm shift in professional beauty. That product was Clairol.

“We lived in Paris for nine months, and my mother liked to walk on the Champs-Elysées where she noticed that the women looked a lot younger than they did back home,” says Gelb. Then an acquaintance, the senior sales person for Inecto, a major hair color company, revealed their secret. “Most of them are using our product,” he told her. There was something else on the market though, a hair coloring preparation produced by a small company called Mury, and he suggested that she take a few samples home with her to see if there was a market for them. Instead of using liquid peroxide to bleach the hair, Clairol used solid peroxide in a tablet no bigger than an aspirin. “The original product was called Kleinol, and it was invented by a German chemist named Dr. Klein, who had a sense of the future and collaborated with the French to see how much work could be done outside of Germany,” Gelb explains. The name change was a stroke of genius since clair means light in French.

Joan Gelb was one smart cookie, and she definitely had a head for business. Back in the United States, she began shopping Clairol around. Her first stop: the beauty salon at Abraham & Straus Department Store in Brooklyn, NY, which was owned by Seligman Latz. “They opened salons in the best department stores in the country,” says Gelb. Jimmy Gleason was the manager there, and she agreed to try a few samples. “The next day she called my mother and asked if she could get more of the product.” With that, the Gelbs were off and running. Initially they signed a contract that gave them the rights to sell Clairol in the U.S. and Canada, but by 1938, fearing a wartime blockade, they bought the formula outright for $25,000 and began manufacturing the product themselves.

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Gelb describes Iris Segal, the Vice President of Merchandising for Seligman Latz, as the “most powerful woman in terms of understanding what you had to do to succeed in business.” What she gave his parents, he says, was a “little toe-hold in a lot of cities in the U.S.” Joan Gelb, who adopted the pseudonym Joan Clair, was named President of the Clairol company, and business grew exponentially, from zero in 1931 to a million dollars by 1938. One of her coups was to convince the legendary Parisian hairdresser Antoine to color several wigs with Clairol and have them displayed in the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Not many women were president of anything then,” says Gelb. “She was written up in magazines and was as big of a name as Helena Rubenstein or Elizabeth Arden.” With all that publicity going to her head, Joan began socializing with what her son describes as “theatre people and Hollywood stars.” Then she met a “man in uniform,” and after obtaining a quickie divorce in Reno, she married him. “Six months later she realized what a blunder she had made,” said Gelb. 

Suddenly Joan was out and Lawrence was in as chairman of Clairol. When he became interested in a product made in California called Light and Bright—12 shades from Topaz to Black Velvet plus Ermine and Starlight, two mixing shades that were used as drabbers—he showed it to Segal, who named it Miss Clairol. The first one-step hair color product, which was aggressively marketed to professional hairdressers, was introduced at the annual beauty show (now IBS NY) at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City in 1949. “People made them bring out buckets of water and shampoo the hair onstage because they couldn’t believe that you could lift and deposit color in one step,” says Gelb, who calls Miss Clairol a “near-perfect product” because you could mix an ounce of one shade with, say, a half ounce of another, creating an endless combination of shades. Because the product was applied directly from a bottle and not with a brush, it was called a “hair color bath.” The word dye, says Gelb, was strictly verboten.

Within two years, Miss Clairol was the “biggest thing in hair color.” Gelb, who started working for Clairol right after graduating from Yale, learned the business from the ground up, going on the road with jobbers to see how they sold the product and eventually calling on salons in the Binghamton, NY area. When one salon owner turned him away—“Don’t waste your time. We only use Roux here,” she told him—he asked if he could have a manicure, hoping to convince her to buy six bottles of Miss Clairol in the 30 minutes or so it would take to finish the service. When she nicked his cuticle, she took out a bottle with a sailboat on it. “It’s an antiseptic,” she explained, dabbing some onto the affected area. The product was Sea Breeze. “When we learned that the owners of the company wanted to sell, we bought it,” says Gelb. “We introduced it to Japan and made one million dollars the first year.” Talk about the Midas touch. Apparently the Gelb family had it in spades.

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