• Deirdre McCrohan

Jean Ann Ford


Jean Ann Ford, who co-founded the global Benefit Cosmetics line with her identical twin sister, Jane, died of cancer Jan. 17 at her Tiburon home. She was 71.

The Ford sisters’ highly successful makeup company, which they sold in 1999 to luxury brands giant Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, got its start in 1976 as the Face Place, operating out of a storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Born Aug. 7, 1947, Ms. Ford grew up on a farm in Indiana. She attended North Central High School and went on to Indiana University, where she was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s in art education.

She and her sister, both dark-haired and measuring 6 feet, 1 inch tall, moved to New York City together after college to pursue modeling. Two years later, they got their big break, landing a Calgon bath-beads campaign.

With the money from that advertising campaign, the sisters, then 29, packed up their old station wagon and drove to San Francisco. A coin toss settled the question of whether they would open a casserole cafe or a makeup store. When they opened the Face Place in 1976, the timing was perfect. Young American women, having shunned makeup for almost a decade during the hippie years, were ready for a change.

One day in 1977, an exotic dancer called Rosie walked into the 455-square-foot store asking for something that would make the rosy color of her nipples more pronounced, for the benefit of the customers at the back of the room where she performed her act.

The Fords had nothing to offer her at that moment, but urged her to come back the next day. That night, they went to work on a concoction. The result, a stain tinted by boiled rose petals, became the company’s first product, Benetint cheek and lip stain. The twins started developing their own product line.

The Face Place also became known for its creativity, with whimsical packaging and product names — including Lemon Aid color-correcting eyelid primer, BADgal mascara and Dr. Feelgood complexion balm — and for a business motto that seemed to tilt at irony: “Laughter is the best cosmetic … so grin and wear it.”

Singer Kylie Minogue, actress Ashley Tisdale and Kim Kardashian numbered among the company’s regular customers, according to Women’s Wear Daily.

In 1990, the Fords renamed the company Benefit Cosmetics and went national, with a Benefit counter at the luxury store Henri Bendel in Manhattan. They opened at the famed Harrod’s department store in London in 1997 and scored a big public-relations coup when Princess Diana made a surprise appearance. Two years later, the Fords sold the controlling interest in their company to Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. They sold the remaining shares in 2012 and exited the company.

Benefit Cosmetics now has more than 5,200 stores, 2,500 brow bars and 85 boutiques in more than 50 countries. It reportedly grosses more than $500 million in sales every year, according to company-provided information. The brand remains headquartered in San Francisco’s Financial District.

A company statement highlighted Ms. Ford’s creativity.

“Her ingenious, creative and passionate contributions to Benefit were fueled by a genuine passion for the consumers,” the statement reads. “It was listening to them that sparked the development of the most iconic and revolutionary products we as a company, and the industry, had ever seen. She was the mastermind in creating fun and vibrant stories for each of our products.”

A Jan. 21 article in Women’s Wear Daily called Ms. Ford “a creative visionary — someone who put customers first, but did things with her own signature twist.”

“In the early years, to drive foot traffic, for example, the Ford twins once drew a chalk outline of a body outside the store, complete with police tape, to get people to come inside and ask what happened. Then they’d start talking to them about makeup,” the article notes.

In the same story, Jean-André Rougeot, chief executive officer of Benefit and soon-to-be chief executive officer of Sephora Americas, said part of what made Ms. Ford and her sister so successful was stubbornness.

“It was refusal to give up,” Rougeot said. “Jane would talk about that quite honestly — the dozen times when they said, ‘It’s over.’ And the fact that they always came back the next day and said, ‘That’s OK, let’s open the doors and see what happens.’”

Rougeot recalled Ms. Ford’s “an incredibly wacky sense of humor.”

“I call it a ‘Monty Python’ sense of humor. She could just throw you off balance completely with what she was saying, but she was a creative genius. She had the ability to think about products, packaging, visuals in a way that frankly — I’ve been in this business a long time — I’ve never seen anybody like that.”

The focus of the Fords’ business, he said, was not runway models or stars, but the girl next door.

Before they retired, the sisters created a wacky 40-minute biopic, “Glamouriety,” that poked fun at fashion documentaries and presented their story in a variety-show format. The film is available on YouTube.

She was a major benefactor of the Indiana University Foundation and created and endowed the Average to Awesome Scholarship at the university. In a donor letter to the university, Ms. Ford noted, “To teach is to anchor the world with bright purpose.”

She was also a major donor to the Alameda chapter of Girls Inc. and enjoyed reading stories to her granddaughters’ preschool classes.

In her early days in San Francisco, Ms. Ford converted a Volkswagen van into a mobile art classroom and drove around the city teaching art to underprivileged children.

“Jean’s love for community, family and friends was seen in everything she did, from spending time and supporting those in need to watching her four grandchildren play in her backyard,” Ms. Ford’s family said in a prepared statement.

The family noted Ms. Ford enjoyed walking her dog, Indy; going out to dinner with friends; and visiting her daughters and grandchildren in San Francisco.

She also liked to play golf, vacation with family, listen to music and watch TV.

“A hopeless romantic, the Hallmark channel was standard fare in her home. Holidays and celebrations were very important to Jean,” the family said. “She made huge posters for her family on their birthdays and created the annual family tradition of going to senior homes before Christmas to sing carols.”

In addition to her sister, Jane Ford Petrin, also of Tiburon, Ms. Ford is survived by two daughters, Maggie Ford Danielson and Ann Ford Danielson, both of San Francisco; two brothers, Lee R. Ford III of Carmel, Ind., and Brad Ford of Innsbrook, Mo.; four grandchildren, James and Dusty Miller and Ruby and Violet Scott; and several nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. March 29 at Grace Cathedral, 100 California St. in San Francisco. Flowers may be sent to Ms. Ford’s daughters via Benefit Cosmetics, 225 Bush St., 20th Floor, San Francisco, CA, 94104.

Deirdre McCrohan has reported on Tiburon local government and community issues for more than 30 years. Reach her at 415-944-4634.


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