Old-Fashioned Attitude Expands to New Digs


Hundreds of bottles stocked the shelves, fresh sea breezes wafted through the doors and clerks strolled in their crisp white lab coats, greeting fans at the newest outpost of Kiehl’s, the venerable 151-year-old New York pharmacy and skin-care company.

Tricky construction regulations caused an 18-day delay of the opening of the Montana Avenue store in Santa Monica, which is no biggie, considering Kiehl’s let the entire 20th century pass without building a second store. With the mail-order and wholesale businesses growing fast, Kiehl’s heiress and company president Jami Morse Heidegger sold the family firm to L’Oreal two years ago, a move that’s helping to expand the business. A San Francisco boutique opened last year, and in July, another opened in Boston.

Local fans could barely stand the wait, though. The scene was almost comic during those early August days as a steady stream of customers arrived, only to be turned away, bereft of joy and Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub. Soon enough, however, the company appeased visitors the same way it’s attracted them for years--by handing out generous free samples of the 111 formulas for adults, babies and even horses.


Kiehl’s has operated since 1851 at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in New York and along the way built a loyal following. Unlike many skin and beauty products that put hope in a jar in the name of science, Kiehl’s hypes its anti-hype approach. Detailed labels on the plain plastic bottles explain the efficacy of each product and its ingredients, whether it’s a $5 lip balm or a $26 water-based moisturizing sunscreen.

“We’re not a glitzy company,” said company spokeswoman Shannon Cooney.

As a result, men--who make up a third of all shoppers--flock to the no-nonsense formulas and packaging. The store decor is as gender-neutral as it is respectful of history. Marble-topped counters, pressed-tin ceilings and apothecary jars mix with modern beakers, brushed steel cabinets and contemporary lighting. Slightly kitsch elements--such as a baby photo wall and a surfboard--connect to the community, and a faux human skeleton represents the old apothecary. The store’s quasi-laboratory environment aims to offer the kind of atmosphere and service that was common in old-fashioned pharmacies like the original Kiehl’s.

Name a beauty or skin problem, and the clerks usually have a product and a regimen ready. They’re not squeamish about discussing the subtleties of your blemishes because they have probably a dozen different ways to treat them.

True to its quirky nature, until this month Kiehl’s didn’t have eye-makeup remover--a sure seller in most skin-care lines--because it hadn’t arrived in a satisfactory formula. As with other items, customer requests led to its introduction.

Though the products are unassuming, they reflect the company’s long and colorful history, and especially that of the Morse family, which has operated Kiehl’s for the last 81 years. In 1921, Irving Morse purchased the business from John Kiehl and expanded it into a full-service pharmacy, one of the first to develop an anti-cavity fluoride treatment. As he and successive generations developed the enterprise, they added products and decor that reflected their interests--from motorcycles to acrobatic stunt planes to race cars.

Second-generation owner Aaron Morse, a motorcycle enthusiast, hired Hells Angels as the East Village store’s security force in the ‘70s. His daughter Jami brought rich creams to aid skin callused by exercise classes. Her husband, world champion skier Klaus Heidegger, inspired a line of sport products, such as a swimmer’s shampoo. Their daughter Nicoletta’s interest in horses led to three equine products. Though they don’t sell dog shampoo, they do offer canines a water fountain and a snack.

Also in the ‘70s, Morse worked with Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills to begin selling the products outside of the New York store for the first time and expanded their reach into Hollywood. An attention-getting service delivered the goods around L.A.: Morse trained his pet chimpanzee to emerge from a white limousine or a red Ferrari, tote packages to the door, and ring the bell.

“We’ll still have delivery in Los Angeles,” Cooney said, “but I wouldn’t expect a monkey to be ringing any bells.”