How Napoleon conquered the cosmetics industry

Faces of success … Napoleon Perdis has built a $100 million cosmetics empire from scratch.

Faces of success … Napoleon Perdis has built a $100 million cosmetics empire from scratch. Photo: Chris Colls

Many months ago, in a Melbourne hotel room, the cosmetics tsar Napoleon Perdis and his brother, Emanuel, sat quietly. Unfurled on the coffee table before them were plans to expand his beauty empire through the Australian department store Myer. That deal is the last piece of a jigsaw that already includes his own stores on two continents and deals with retailers such as Australia's David Jones and the US's Dillard's, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

For the two brothers, and Perdis's wife Soula-Marie, the third business partner in the cosmetics brand which bears the Napoleon name, it was a winning goal kicked at a home-town game. And a gentle but powerful reminder of their tough early years: knocking on doors which did not open and the many, many calls which were never answered.

"We thought a lot about the people who rejected us," says Perdis, 43. "We had a little giggle, like brothers, about what was going to happen and it was a beautiful moment. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we hugged. It's not about drive or ambition, it's really about how Australian women have believed, and invested, in me."

Napoleon complex … Perdis as a toddler in suburban Sydney.

Napoleon complex … Perdis as a toddler in suburban Sydney.

Napoleon Perdis, like his historical namesake, has become emperor of all he surveys. His name has become synonymous with the global billion-dollar cosmetics industry, taking its place in a pantheon inhabited by names such as Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein.

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Our meeting, in his Los Angeles home on one of the city's most famous streets, Mulholland Drive, nestled in the Hollywood Hills, was organised initially through various gatekeepers and consiglieri. In true Napoleonic style, however, all of them were swept aside at the last minute, and he is here, today, alone. He appears, as is so often the case, to be doing it all himself.

The conversation is colourful, as befits the bear in his lair: a cavernous home of conflicting styles which fit neatly together; a splendidly modern mishmash with a dollop of Santorini-esque blues and whites around its swimming pool. It's a space which seems to evoke Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree ..."

Wedding belle … the cosmetics tsar with his wife Soula-Marie.

Wedding belle … the cosmetics tsar with his wife Soula-Marie.

It isn't difficult to discover the man behind the reputation: shrewd, focused, controlling. He knows what he wants, articulates it clearly and makes no apology for it. You can take him. Or you can leave him. He doesn't seem to mind which. But behind the fulmination of art deco, classical Greek and kitsch that co-habit this modern American palazzo; behind the confident and candid manner of a businessman who seems to relish the art of doing business, and the manic force of personality that surrounds him, there is a little Greek boy who is still fighting for acceptance.

Our younger selves never seem too far away, but in Perdis's case, his younger self – awkward, uncertain, struggling to work out where he fits in – seems a little closer than most. Born in Sydney's west to immigrant parents John and Liana Perdis, he admits his childhood was not easy. "I didn't have a lot of friends at school," he says. "I wasn't the sporty soccer Greek boy. I hung out at school where the nerdy kids hung out. I had a lot of girlfriends who were friends of mine, but I was different because I liked other things."

Because his parents owned a takeaway food store in the city, Perdis seemed to spend his youth travelling by train between Parramatta and the central business district, where he would work after school and on weekends. His father, who had a keen interest in politics, also took him along to rallies to listen to unionists, activists and politicians. "Then I would have to go back to Parramatta and be this normal Greek boy. My life wasn't normal. I tell my father now, 'My life was never normal.' I don't know how they ever expected me to be normal."

Politics, he says, taught him confidence. "It taught me how to speak publicly and how to sell on the spot," he says. "I like to remind one of the executives at Neiman Marcus that I hounded her for two years. It was politics that taught me perseverance."

Politics also introduced Perdis to his wife Soula-Marie. "My wife met me – barefoot with blonde streaks and long hair – at Macquarie University, in the political science department," he recalls. "She had a very different point of view. She was much more European. Greek Australian boys were a little cooler and a bit more macho [than Perdis was]. So it was tough."

You don't need to spend too much time in Perdis's company to note his flamboyant manner. He's colourful, noisy and drowns you in chatter. He's opinionated and possesses a sharp wit. A century ago we might have called him a dilettante and left it at that. In a more intrusive time, however, we just question his sexuality.

Growing up in a traditional Greek-Australian family and not quite fitting the Australian masculine archetype was, he says, not easy. "But, you know, I knew who I was. The unfortunate thing is that we are so stereotyping of what it means to be an Australian male. I am an Australian male, and I am a very successful Australian male, and I represent my culture better, or at least the equal of anyone who is as successful as I am.

"I compartmentalised my life really early on to suit me and me only, and today, to suit me and my family," he says. "I am a great compartmentaliser and I am happier than I have been in a long time. I think America has had a lot to do with that."

His marriage, Perdis says, is built on compromise. "Soula-Marie cut my hair and did all the things she wanted to do," he says, "which has been our compromise over 20 years. It's balanced: she knows the man she has, I know the woman she is, and it works."

Perdis seems surrounded by, and influenced by, strong women. He is, by his own admission, devoted to his mother, Liana, who took him and his brother to the Greek boutiques in Sydney's Dulwich Hill and put them in matching safari suits as boys. He cringes at the memory. "She drives me crazy," he says, laughing. "She is a beautiful woman and I was Mummy's boy."

She was also very supportive of a son who liked to play with make-up. On one occasion, young Napoleon was, he concedes now, a little heavy handed with the electric blue mascara. "She looked like a drag queen and a friend of hers said, 'Liana, you have a little heavy make-up.' She replied, 'It's fine, I am just trying something different.' She never said anything. She didn't tell people her son was playing with make-up. She just smiled at me, and nodded that everything was okay."

Lucky she did, otherwise Perdis might not be sitting on a beauty empire with revenues approaching $100 million worldwide.

In some respects, the story of the rise and rise of Napoleon Perdis is a story of success despite the odds. In address-obsessed Sydney, Perdis initially found it impossible to crack the city's impenetrable beauty clique. "I'd been rejected by the agencies. I didn't look like them. I didn't have that inner-city, eastern-suburbs, publishing-media-world thing," he says. "I don't think they really liked me."

Now in his 40s, Perdis says he is changing gears. "I feel as beautiful as I did at 30, I just didn't know it as much," he says. "The 40s are about consolidation."

Both Perdis and his wife want to have more children to add to their existing brood: Lianna, 13, and triplets Athina, Alexia and Angelene, aged 11. "I remember when my grandmother died. We were all around her and I thought that if anything ever happened to me, I would want to be surrounded by people," he says. "I cannot keep being my namesake, Napoleon the conqueror. Otherwise I will have my Waterloo. I need to be Napoleon Perdis."

Indeed Napoleon Bonaparte, the statesman and conqueror, opens a fascinating window into the world of Napoleon Perdis. "He made mistakes," Perdis says a little wryly. "Otherwise he shaped modern France and modern Europe like no other man. But he took on Russia. And you can't fight with climate. Which is why I can't live in New York in the winter. Napoleons are not made to do winter. His second mistake was trying to cross the ocean, which is why I am not going to Europe. I'm happy with Australia and the US."

But the emperor's biggest mistake, Perdis declares, was that he crowned himself. "He should have waited. Because then it's more legitimate." It's a prescient observation, particularly in the context of Myer's forthcoming anointment of Perdis. In that sense, Perdis, a king on the eve of his coronation, seems remarkably calm. "You have to be patient," he says, smiling. "God is good. Sometimes He's just slow."

Lead-in image: styling by Penny McCarthy; hair by Richard Kavanagh; make-up by Napoleon team. Location: The Balmain Hotel, Balmain.

Top right image: styling by Penny McCarthy; hair by Richard Kavanagh; make-up by Napoleon team. Models: Natalia at Chadwick; Margo at Chic; Leah at London. Napoleon wears own clothes throughout. Scanlan & Theodore white dress; Zimmermann black fringed dress; Zimmermann leopard-print jumpsuit; shoes by Jimmy Choo; jewellery by Peter Lang. Thanks to The Balmain Hotel.