It doesn't advertise in slick mags--or anywhere else, for that matter. Its primary packaging consists of plain plastic bottles with ultra-basic black-and-white labels. And the product names--"Drawing Paste with Azulene," "Herbal Toner for the Scalp, "Klaus Heidegger's All-Sport Muscle Rub"--sound more like Victorian surgical salves than 21st-century cosmetics. Yet the Kiehl's line of efficacious skin, hair-care and beauty products has captured the hearts--and medicine cabinets--of millions worldwide. When Kiehl's opens its new retail store (only the seventh nationwide) on Northwest 23rd Avenue on July 18, Portlanders should be busting down the doors.
But will they?
Our Portland has a notorious distrust of "luxury retail," not to mention chain stores in general. But Kiehl's, now owned by cosmetic giant L'Oreal, arrival in P-town is part of a recent changing of the guard on the notoriously labeled "Trendy-Third" as, one by one, local merchants are displaced by retailers with roots far from Oregon. Some fear that the street's invasion by Pottery Barn, Starbucks and Restoration Hardware (not to mention incoming tenants like Lucky), will eviscerate whatever character remains in Nob Hill. But if that's a reason to hate Kiehl's, there are many, many more reasons to love it (and it's not just because they gave me a bunch of swag). Here are just four:
Kiehl's makes good stuff. Low on scents, preservatives and other inessential goo but high in quality ingredients, Kiehl's puts its money where its moisturizer is. Though you'll never see a Kiehl's ad splashed across Vogue's back cover, you will find the products praised in editorial: in a piece on what's-in-Kate-Moss'-beach-bag, say, or in a 10-products-Winona-Ryder-can't-resist story. Sure, celebrity endorsements are barely worth the glossy they're printed on, but think of it this way: "Kitty" and "Nonie" can put whatever they want on their skin--from Pond's cold cream to pulverized mother of pearl. They choose Kiehl's.
If it isn't broke, they don't fix it. One third of Kiehl's customers are...men. That's unheard of in the cosmetics biz. That could be due in large part to the manly packaging, the simple, non-irritating formulations, and the fact that their favorite shaving lotion will always, always be there. "Most cosmetic companies are launching and discontinuing products all the time," said Kiehl's spokeswoman Gracia Walker, who recently visited Portland prior to the store opening. "Some current Kiehl's products have been around in the same basic formula since the '20s."
Kiehl's has a very liberal sample policy. The business began as a family-owned apothecary and has a long history of nurturing customers and responding to their needs. To that end, Kiehl's will furnish you with samples of any product in the store, trusting that you'll like it enough to return and purchase it later. If you don't like something, bring it back. "You could return a nearly empty container of something and tell us it doesn't work for you, and we'll refund your money," explained Walker. Try telling that to Clinique.
Kiehl's chose Portland. For locations, the company looks for the outside-of-New-York alternatives to the East Village. Kiehl's studied up on P-town and liked its reputation as an environmentally minded, outdoorsy-hip city. The company has already scouted local charities it plans to support and aspires to knit itself into the community in a lasting and level-headed way. That, and we get a store before Seattle does (theirs doesn't open until late August).
Kiehl's Since 1851
712 NW 23rd Ave., 223-7676. Opens July 18.
(800) KIEHLS -1, www.kiehls.com .