Lower Manhattan smiles on a makeup market boom

Fashion: SoHo is the place to go if you want hip ambience and cutting-edge cosmetics. The massage from the salesman guy doesn't hurt, either.

August 08, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- Ex-Seinfeld girl Shoshanna Lonstein dashes into SoHo's Helena Rubinstein spa for a quick beauty fix. Across the street at Origins, a client savors a complimentary back massage. Around the corner at Sephora, customers graze on samples, dabbing lipstick on wrists and spritzing on fragrances.

SoHo, an urban utopia throbbing with hip designer stores, A-list eateries and attractive denizens, has added one more alluring reference to its resume: the world's ultimate makeup mecca.

Formerly known for exclusive art galleries, the trend-setting area has witnessed an explosion of freestanding cosmetic stores since the mid-'90s. Helena Rubinstein, which opened earlier this year, is the latest neighbor to move in.

"Everyone wanted to capitalize on the attractiveness of the area. It lends itself to being a mall within the city," says Kristen Perotta, beauty editor at Allure. "When you walk around, it's unbelievable. I don't know of a concentration [of makeup stores] like this anywhere else."

Dozens of boutiques, each with its own sleek, distinctive character, line the loft-filled streets. There's the eco-chic of Origins, the edgy avant-garde of Make Up For Ever, and the calculated glam of M.A.C., to name a few.

Don't forget Shiseido, 5S, Shu Uemura, Aveda, Bliss, FACE Stockholm and the ultimate retail beauty behemoth, Sephora.

In this immense cosmetic superstore, which opened last year, au courant brands like Lorac, Hard Candy and Stila co-exist with old-guard favorites including Christian Dior, Chanel and Lancome.

"Sephora was the icing on the cake," Perotta says. "It was a big statement for them to open up in SoHo."

Margaret Sharkey, U.S. general manager of Helena Rubinstein, said the company decided to open its only U.S. outpost in Soho because "the environment lends itself to beauty and art. ... It's a natural marriage."

These boutiques not only satiate your beauty-product needs, but several of them, including Helena Rubinstein, Aveda and Bliss, also are full-service spas, so you can be as exfoliated, manicured and generally fussed over as you desire.

Walking down the streets of SoHo is like gliding through a pulsing, sleek, urban daydream. Young professionals file into the restaurant Match for early- evening Merlots. Slender trendsters admire the veggie-print skirts in the window of Dolce & Gabbana. Savvy shoppers haggle with street vendors hawking Kate Spade and Prada knockoff bags. There's a buzz on the street about Sandra Bullock -- her latest movie is being filmed outside. Lights, cameras and director's chairs line the sidewalk outside the Merc Bar on Mercer Street.

SoHo is a savvy crossroads between the fashion-forward East and West Villages, and a refreshing break from traditional shopping destinations on Fifth and Madison avenues.

However, some are wary that the increasing cosmetic commerce will dilute the neighborhood's character.

"It's turning into Fifth Avenue," says Nicole Pinto, a makeup artist at FACE Stockholm. "What they're doing to the area is very scary."

Pinto thinks the abundance of nearby modeling agencies, such as Ford, may be part of the expansion. Shannon Frank, an orange-maned makeup artist at Make Up For Ever, an exclusive Paris-based line, thinks the many makeup artists who live in the area also contribute. They are the majority of her shop's clientele.

Another element in the rise of these individual outlets is their use of natural light. This helps business, says Frank.

The artificial light of department stores makes it difficult to predict what colors are going to look like once customers venture outside. Returns often occur when women realize that the new, must-have shade that looked so exquisite in the mirror makes them resemble Jerry Lewis more than Jerry Hall.

The liberation of cosmetics from the commission- and counter-driven culture of department stores is also key to SoHo's beauty domination, says Perotta.

"People are tired of larger department stores. It's a high-pressure situation," says Julie Milliron, a makeup artist who lives in the East Village. She's browsing through Helena Rubinstein, overstuffed shopping bags in hand. "Most of the people are pushing products to make a commission. I don't want to be pushed."

At Aveda, a salesperson tells a customer she doesn't really need the product she's eyeing. At Origins, a similarly straightforward employee advises a woman determined to invest a fortune in the beautification of her feet that either the foot file or the peppermint foot cream is enough; no reason to buy both.

But the stores do have their subtle ways of making the big sell.

"I could get used to this," an Origins customer drawls dreamily during a back massage in one corner of the store. "Do you want to come to my office?" she asks the salesman who doubles as a masseur.

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