The answer is partly Mecca itself, and its US-owned counterpart, Sephora.
Mecca has 90 stores across Australia and New Zealand, Sephora has 17. Mecca is sold in Myer, Sephora in David Jones. Both focus heavily on international brands (neither stock Napoleon Perdis) and insiders say this left the company without the foothold it needed to survive.
Perdis denies this. “It’s a lot of things,” he tells AFR Weekend, pointing to factors as diverse as the banking royal commission, the downturn in the housing market, the surge of Amazon and lack of foot traffic in traditional shopping centres as contributors to the company’s collapse.
His brother Emanuel, the company’s managing director, agrees. “There wasn’t a single smoking gun,” he says. “It was more like heaps of cannons, all at once.”
The US mistake
The biggest factor, Emanuel says, was the company’s failure to thrive in the United States. Launching there in 2006, just before the global financial crisis, was a stroke of extremely bad timing. “We were hit very hard. When it didn’t work, our business suffered.” According to the latest available records with the corporate regulator, Napoleon Perdis’ revenue fell 10.7 per cent to $83.3 million in 2015. The company recorded losses of $154,808 in 2015 and $1.6 million in 2014.
Founded in 1995 with a $30,000 loan from Perdis’ father, the company has long been a family venture. His wife, Soula-Marie, was the chief financial officer for many years, and is now chief operating officer; Emanuel has been managing director from day one. In 2017, Perdis installed his then-17-year-old daughter, Lianna, as creative director of diffusion brand Total Bae.
A runaway success from the beginning, the former make-up artist secured a deal with Myer in 1997 and debuted on the BRW Rich List in 2004 with a worth of $20 million. At one point, Napoleon Perdis products were stocked at Bergdorf Goodman, Dillard’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as Target and Ulta stores across the US. But in 2015 Perdis pulled the plug on his American interests.
Last year, after having concessions inside David Jones and Myer for many years, Perdis signed an exclusive deal with Priceline. He scoffs at the idea this was a mistake. “Someone said, ‘You were in Bergdorf Goodman and now you’re in Priceline.’ Well, why wouldn’t I be in Priceline? If that’s where the customer is, that’s where I am, too.”
Evolution of beauty industry
Former Vogue editor-in-chief Kirstie Clements, who worked closely with Perdis as he grew his brand in the 90s and early 2000s, says she was “sad but not shocked” by the news. “Beauty used to be a very closed-door industry, run by the major international players: Estee Lauder, Coty, L’Oreal. These days there are so many of those smaller independent brands, both here and overseas. The market is positively flooded.” The advent of social media hasn’t just changed the way people buy, it’s also changed the way retail responds, she says. “Customers can see a cult brand on their phone and head in-store to demand it. A month later, it’s on the shelf.”
Social media has led to a fragmented sense of authority for the beauty industry, too. “Once upon a time,” says Clements, “only beauty editors and big brands were seen as legitimate. But now, anyone can be an expert. You have beauty bloggers on YouTube giving tutorials on contouring and suddenly you think, I don’t need to go to a make-up academy, or even go to a department store.”
Perdis himself is disdainful of influencer-led brands, calling himself the “original gangster” of make-up. “I’m not someone who’s come in a year ago calling themselves an expert, I’ve been a make-up artist since I was a kid – not just in the cities but for our girls in Bathurst, Geelong, everywhere. I’m the real deal.”
As for the future, the administrator is searching for a new owner. Stores will remain open though it’s likely some will close. Perdis is hopeful. “My ideal scenario is to be creative director. I want to focus on strategy, not whether the forklift broke down or why a store doesn’t have enough light bulbs … Napoleon Perdis should outlast Napoleon the man. I want it to be around for the next 100 years.”