A legacy of simplicity in cosmetics company

Style: Woman steers nostalgic, quirky Kiehl's into the 21st century.

January 21, 2001|By Mimi Avins | Mimi Avins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Jami Heidegger looks like a character created by one of the Bronte sisters. With her alabaster complexion, flowing dark hair and regal carriage, she might have just stepped off a fog-shrouded moor.

How fitting that this Southern California woman could pass for a 19th century heroine. Because for Kiehl's, the quirky cosmetic company her grandfather founded and which she heads, affection for the past was mother's milk. The unique character of tiny Kiehl's made its recent sale to L'Oreal a coup for the international cosmetics giant.

Nostalgia for the good old days, when food wasn't chemically enhanced, the neighborhood pharmacist was a trusted friend and wise elders passed on their beauty secrets is as appealing to most Americans as a cozy blanket on a chilly morning. It has been central to the allure of the 149-year-old cosmetics brand, which has managed to combine the values of its founder with an instinct that has made Kiehl's almost accidentally modern.

If Heidegger's image is Brontean, her story veers closer to Judith Krantz territory, where women are fiercely intelligent (she graduated from Harvard) and men are dashing (her father was a World War II fighter pilot, her husband a champion ski racer).

The tale begins, as such sagas often do, with a poor immigrant. Irving

Morse took a job in John Kiehl's New York apothecary, founded in 1851, shortly after he arrived from Russia. He didn't speak English well but was a trained pharmacist and quickly became a favorite of the Greenwich Village neighborhood where the Kiehl's shop still stands. "My grandfather was very sweet," Heidegger says. "He was a quiet, humble man who wanted to take care of his family and do a good job."

Morse bought the store from the Kiehl family in 1921 and began formulating products under the Kiehl's label. Pharmacies at that time specialized in home-brewed elixirs like Money-Drawing Oil and Virility Cream. Morse added herbal remedies and homeopathic cures he'd learned to make in the old country. His son Aaron studied pharmacology and started a laboratory that manufactured a variety of pharmaceuticals. In 1961, the same year Jami was born, Aaron Morse decided to concentrate on cosmetics.

Heidegger's parents separated before she was born, and when she was 11, she moved with her mother to California. Until then, Jami lived in New York. Kiehl's was two blocks from her elementary school, so on the way home, she'd visit her father at the store. It was a little like Santa's workshop -- with employees doing everything by hand.

Morse packaged his potions in plastic containers with as much information as a label could hold. He gave them descriptive names such as "Castille Grapefruit Bath and Shower Soapy Liquid Cleanser." Shampoo, lip balm and Morse's blemish-fighting blue astringent were mixed in a back room. Up front, the shop was crowded with clients ranging from locals to international loyalists for whom Kiehl's was an important destination.

Kiehl's began to reflect Morse's personality. He loved opera, America, his work, his family, skiing and people, but not necessarily in that order. "He'd go out for coffee and have a three-hour discussion with the waitress," Heidegger says. "He always said that making a friend was more important than making a sale. So he wanted people to come into the store and have a great experience. He didn't want them to buy a product unless they were sure they liked it, so he'd test it on them and give them free samples."

Aaron Morse clung to his own vision.

He thought fancy packaging was silly and wasteful. Kiehl's products were created in the pharmacy, where a cellophane-wrapped pink box with a ribbon on it would have been incongruous. When a mania for minimalism surfaced as a reaction to'80s excess, Kiehl's simple packaging looked smartly understated.

Kiehl's had never consciously made unisex products. But when men wanted moisturizers and toners, Kiehl's had some that weren't "girly." Although Kiehl's is sold in Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, over the years Morse rebuffed most department stores, wary that they would pressure him to change his style. (Kiehl's is sold locally at Etches in Mount Washington and in Washington D.C., at Neiman Marcus.) By the time an air of exclusivity and luxury became a selling point, the fact that Kiehl's was not that easy to find added to its mystique.

Heidegger appreciates the ways her father was instinctively right. That didn't prevent some epic battles when she came to work for him full time in 1985. After college, she'd combined experience as an amateur ski racer and exercise teacher to help train the Austrian ski team for the Sarajevo Olympics. Klaus Heidegger, a star with celebrity status, became her student first, then her husband. She was living near Innsbruck when her father, diagnosed with cancer, asked her to come home. He knew he'd have to sell the business unless his only child got involved.

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