Meet Karen Oliver

Location: New York, NY
Age: 63
Marital Status: Married
Education: California State University in Hayward – B.A. in Fine Arts and Ethnic Studies

The fabric of FOF Karen Oliver’s life has been woven together with a string of unique experiences—some good, some challenging—a blend that has created an inspiring, energetic and fearless FOF.

Karen climbed the corporate ladder of beauty behemoth, L’Oreal, where she worked as a VP for the Helena Rubenstein cosmetics line. She has a film credit as co-producer on Glengarry Glen Ross, a major motion picture starring Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. She’s also a licensed esthetician, launched her own prospering beauty P.R. company and… she designs and sews her own clothes.

But, she’s faced snags along the way. She and her husband did the “bicoastal shuffle” for years when she moved to New York to relaunch Helena Rubenstein cosmetics and he stayed behind in California. And then, when he became ‘very sick’ with cancer she cared for him until he was well again.

“Maybe the old hippie in me is coming out,” says Karen. “But, I just embrace the challenges that life throws at me, both the good and the bad. I give thanks for my many blessings everyday—a loving husband, family, friends, a job I love—I feel so rich!”

Where did you grow up?

The Bay Area, San Francisco…

Were you creative as a kid?

Oh yes. I bought myself a $30 sewing machine with my babysitting money when I was 13 and started to teach myself how to sew. I loved clothes, but my parents didn’t have a lot of money to buy them for me. Early on they contributed to my strong work ethic by telling me if I wanted a particular dress, “You better find a job.”

Did you?

Yes, I had many jobs. I was super-babysitter. I was very entrepreneurial and creative. I made books that I sold for $10 to the neighbors with coupons for 10 pieces of ironing, one car wash or a few hours of babysitting.

It’s like the precursor to Groupon!

Exactly. And I had carnivals in my backyard. I made booths and gave away junk as prizes and charged people to come in. Sometimes I taught ballet lessons in my garage to little kids for a quarter. When I was 16, my local recreation department paid me to teach crafts in the schools. I was always looking for a way to make a buck.

Where did you go to college?

I went to California State University in Hayward. Working my way through college, I would sew for people. I also worked as a life guard, sold Avon and Fuller hair brushes to surfer boys on the beach—I even made a few wedding gowns.

Did you take any sewing classes or are you self taught?

I’m self taught, but when I got older I took classes in areas I wanted to learn more about such as tailoring or pant-making.

Did you do anything with sewing after college?

My dream when I graduated was to own a boutique that sold fine European sportswear. I wanted it to be different—the ultimate in customer service. We’d serve coffee and it would be in a Victorian house in San Fransisco. I wanted to sell Erno Laszlo cosmetics there. I loved that you had to go through a consultation before purchasing that brand, I thought it would be perfect for my boutique.

Did you end up opening the boutique?

Well, I got up the guts to call the president of Erno Laszlo. I was fearless. I told him my dream and concept and he liked it. He hooked me up with the regional sales person for my area. She convinced me to take a job selling Erno Laszlo cosmetics at I. Magnin, a very upscale department store in San Fransisco. I was quite good at sales, and before I knew it, I was promoted to assistant department manager and then to assistant buyer. I was in my 20s, just a kid, and in charge of buying ‘little’ brands like Lancôme which no one had heard of at the time!

Fabulous! Then what did you do?

At that job, I’d meet with the sales reps for cosmetics companies. One day, Joe Augeri who was the president and regional sales rep for Lancôme (owned by L’Oreal) asked me to come work for them. I said, ‘I don’t know. My dream is to open a boutique.’ I was still stuck on the store thing! But, I ended up working for Lancôme for seven-and-a-half years. I worked on many different beauty brands under the L’Oreal umbrella including Borghese (owned by Revlon), Shiseido and Dior.

How did you end up in New York?

I was moved here in 1997 to launch Helena Rubinstein cosmetics. I was a vice president at L’Oreal by then.

Moving across the country must have been a hard decision…

Yes. I was doing the bicoastal shuffle with my husband. He stayed in our house in L.A. and I moved here. I was worried about accepting the job, but my husband was amazing about it. He said to me, “Karen if you don’t do this, you are going to regret it. This job was made for you. The rest of it will work out.”

How long have you been married?

32 years.

How did you meet?

At a health spa in Mexico—Rancho La Puerta.

Do you have plans to move back to Los Angeles?

I don’t know, we are still trying to figure that out as we grow up. Life changes, my husband got very sick, so we had to deal with that. Finding another place wasn’t a priority. He’s here in New York now. We had no intentions of living in a little apartment like this. Our whole home is still in storage. As I said, life changes.

What does your husband do?

He’s a film producer. Once, I worked on a movie with him called Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. It was a wonderful experience but I don’t have a passion for film like he does. I have a passion for beauty.

So, what did you do for Helena Rubinstein in New York?

I had the experience they needed to relaunch the brand. I’m a licensed esthetician, have extensive retail experience and even have experience in construction which all came in handy when I took on building the Helena Rubinstein spa in SoHo. But eventually they decided to pull the plug on Helena Rubinstein in the U.S. and at that point, I considered going back to L.A.

That must have been hard. Did they offer you another position?

Yes they offered me a consulting position. I didn’t end up taking it. But, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that a company can hire you back three different times. I don’t have aspirations to go up the food chain and have titles and money. Working hard and giving people their money’s worth has always been my core.

Is that when you opened your own P.R. company?

For three and a half years I worked for my friend Regina’s P.R. company, RPR. At first, I wasn’t so sure about P.R. I told her, ‘I’m not one of those P.R. people, those booby-baby, ‘lets do lunch’ *kiss* *kiss* kind of people.’ And she said Karen, you’ve PR-ed every company you’ve worked with, you just didn’t know it. It was true. I’d go to parties and say ‘Oh my god, Dior has these new eye shadows that don’t crease, they’re amazing.” At RPR, I worked on Aveeno, a company that’s still near and dear to my heart. Then, I started my own company six years ago out of my apartment.

Who were your first clients?

Dr. Jeannette Graf is a dermatologist who we consulted for press initiatives with Aveeno. She wanted to build her name up before she published her first book, Stop Aging and Start Living, which became a best seller. I said, I’d try to help her and would work really hard. She’s still with me today. Now she’s probably one of the most-quoted dermatologists in the country.

What’s unique about your company?

We specialize in beauty and are very selective in choosing our clients, which now include leading upscale brands such as Avène, Dr. Graf, René Futerer, Glytone and Klorane. I turn people away because I set very high standards in determining which brands are the best fit. It’s part of getting older—and wiser. It’s not always about chasing the buck. My objective at this point of my life is to have fun and accomplish something great for people—and, of course, be happy!

What cleanser do you use?

I use all my clients products and that’s the truth. I cleanse with Mild Cream Wash by Glytone. It has a glycolic acid in it, which is exfoliating—and anti-aging—but it’s not drying.

What moisturizer do you use?

For me, less is more. My skin doesn’t like the heavy creams that are supposed to be for older people because I still break out. I like serums. I use the Avène Hydrance with SPF 25 during the day because it’s really light. At night, I use a light, anti-aging lotion, not a cream with a retinoid-type ingredient. My skin doesn’t like a lot because it still breaks out. I use a very light eye cream, and love the Avène Eluage.

Do you use a perfume?

I like the original Bulgari perfume and the classic fragrances from Guerlain. I have L’heure Bleue on, today.

What makeup do you use?

I pretty much use all drugstore makeup like L’Oreal lipsticks, Revlon lipsticks, $2 eye pencils. Isn’t it interesting that I come from prestige cosmetics? It’s not to say I don’t have some nice things mixed in, but I’m not brand driven. I’m hard pressed now to pay $40 for a lipstick these days. I’d rather put $40 in my IRA.

What’s your hair care routine?

All my hair products are either René Futerer or Klorane. They make wonderful shampoos and conditioners, all based on plants and flowers. I always wear my hair back in a chignon. I get it trimmed only once a year at Salon Ishi on 55th St. and Madison Ave. He’s amazing. Whenever I go for a trim though, he says I’m a bad advertisement for him because I always wear it up.

How do you describe your style?

Its eclectic. I go from wearing ethnic looking things to more classic, more Chanel-inspired with a twist. For me, It’s really about spicing things up with accessories.

What inspires your style?

Magazines and I go window shopping all the time. I also go to fabric stores regularly—gorgeous fabric totally inspires me. Or, I’ll buy something I like and copy it.

What’s your personal beauty philosophy?

I’m really a low-maintenance girl even my whole career has pretty much been in beauty. When it comes to aging, I’ve had no injections and I’ve never dyed my hair—I am definitely going the natural route. I’m really happy with getting older and my energy keeps me young. If you’re not happy inside, you are never going to be beautiful on the outside. It’s like icing on a cake. A simple pound cake is super yummy and delicious even without the icing.

{Love Karen’s clothes? Read more about her haute handmade style here.}

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