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Vogue Beauty (from Vogue, June 1998)

French Class- Paris beauty emporium Sephora, a phenomenon in Europe, is out to change the way Americans shop. Vicki Woods wonders how it will translate.

You many not have heard of Sephora before you turned to this page, which makes two of us, but it is currently the leading chain of perfume and cosmetics stores in France (responsible for 8 percent of the country's sales) and the second largest in Europe. Now it has its sights set on America, and it has Pia Getty, one of the fabled Miller sisters and mother of three (including a brand-new baby), as its creative ambassador. And all that is a saga that is for more complicated than you might first realize.

So here I am, halfway down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, being irresistibly drawn into Sephora's flagship. The entrance is wide and red-carpeted, like the entrance to a theater or a large, modern art gallery. There are no doors. The space is a hundred yards long, decorated in black, white, and red, and laid out like a People's Palace. Men in black smilingly welcome me, the way security guards escort celebrities into a nightclub's VIP area. Delicious smells drift through the air. Young women in long black dresses float serenely by with one hand bare, the other encased in a black glove. On this sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of people are swirling around the store (though it doesn't feel crowded). Everybody's picking stuff up and putting it down; testing fragrances; putting together their own boxes of soaps and seaweeds and bath salts; picking out lipsticks from 365 colors graduated so delicately you can barely tell browny pink from rosy brown; rubbing foundations on the back of their hands. There are dozens of brands to choose from: Sephora's own (ecological in its minimal packaging), plus all the big beauty names.

Yet it doesn't look like the beauty department in Saks. It's the kind of crowd you'd find in NikeTown, or at the Denver airport during ski season. Many of them are deep into beauty purchases. Some are not: They are buying books at the "Cultural Gallery," or checking their email at the (free) computer terminals. One girl was sending "My Paris Diary" to California. A hefty Swede was e-mailing Oslo with a fistful of K's and slashed O's; a man seemed to be writing a lengthy term paper in Latin (it was Romanian). It's hard to remember I'm in a store at all, until I notice the cash registers pealing like bells.

This place is selling, all right, and they're about to go global. Sephora is opening its first American stores in July, in New York's SoHo and Miami's South Beach and Coconut Grove. And then they're moving on to Honolulu, San Francisco, and L.A, with a second Manhattan store planned for later this year. What they're hoping to do is change the way America buys beauty.

Aside from shopping in a few specialty boutiques (M.A.C., Kiehl's), America buys beauty ($29 billion a year) in one of two ways: mass or class. Mass is the $5 mascara you scoop up at a supermarket; class is the Teint Mat Parfait you make a special trip to the gleaming counters of the department stores for. Now, thanks to the relentless energy of the world's king of luxury brands, Bernard Arnault, we will have a third way.

I walked round the Champs-Elysees with the president of Sephora in France, Daniel Richard, a Frenchman of about 50 whose serene smile, black Nehru suit and ponytail epitomize the spiritual (not to say hippie-dippy) aspects of Sephora's ambience. So do some of his pronouncements: "Sephora is a temple for beauty… Commerce is not only to deliver products, it's to educate, to deliver pleasure… Beauty is like a religion… You see everywhere the symbols, the hedonistic language… The assistants are all in black, like priestesses of beauty. All wear one black to make it something precious…"

But there's a tough commercialism behind the transcendentalism. He tells me there's a mass of people in a back-store office "orchestrasting the coverage of each cash register on computers." How often do they check the sales flow? "Every minute." He explains how Sephora turns the modern marketing concept upside down: "In marketing today, you work to create a brand. Sephora is the opposite. In a department store, the brands have control. Here, the customer has control. We refuse to let the brands advertise, to create a special shop inside the store." Nevertheless, he says, "the big brand makes more turnover than the small brand here. The best brands remain the best."

Three questions spring to mind. 1- Will it work in America? 2- What's Bernard Arnault got to do with it? 3- What about Pia Getty? The answer to the second (as with so much the world of luxury goods), Bernard Arnault has everything to do with it. The suave, brilliant, unassuming M. Arnault, chairman of the luxury-goods producer LVMH (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Moet & Chandon, Guerlain, Lacroix, etc.), wanted a chain of global shops in which to retail those luxury goods. He chose the colossal Duty-Free Shoppers chain.

But the acquisition wasn't easy. One of DFS's largest shareholders was Robert Miller, the flamboyant billionaire known as a shrewd operator who built his duty-free fortune from nothing. But he is also known (to Vogue readers) as the legendary three-time Father of the Bride-the enviably beautiful Miller sisters. While marrying off his lovely daughters, Mr. Miller tenaciously fought off a relentless buyout of the DFS Group by the suave M. Arnault. But according to everything I've read about M. Arnault, nothing and nobody would stop him from getting what he wanted.

So DFS is no longer Robert Miller's baby. But there's a heart-warming finale. LVMH, which also bought Sephora, has now asked Pia Getty (lovely as a rose, even after just having given birth, and most interesting, the eldest daughter of Robert Miller), to be its creative ambassador in America. Which answers the third question.

Finally, will it work? I might hedge my answer. Clearly it will if Sephora can persuade the prestige brands to stand naked on a shelf. But if they do, the big beauty names risk alienating the department stores. Myself, I think Saks, Macy's, and Bloomingdale's will give Sephora a pretty good fight.

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