FROM the dangling skeleton in a white lab coat to the vintage Harley Davidson, the chandeliers and coffee bar, the latest international name to open its doors on George Street is certainly eclectic.
But then Kiehl’s prides itself on its hippy, East Village New York roots. And everywhere it goes it tries to bring that same feeling of laid-back welcome.
At least that’s the aim, according to Victoria Campbell, the brand’s UK general manager – even when the store is the largest one in Europe, making Edinburgh the centre of Kiehl’s’ plans for skincare domination this side of the Atlantic.
“We’ve been looking to open in Edinburgh for a long time but we just needed the right site,” she says. “George Street is a great shopping street, and to be in the newly refurbished Assembly Rooms, with all the history that goes along with that, well it’s just a great synergy.”
Devotees of the brand, which has been made famous by word of mouth only as it never advertises – although those mouths generally include supermodels and Hollywood film stars (Brad Pitt has his own range) – have, until now, had to travel west to a concession in Glasgow’s House of Fraser.
Opening such a large store in Edinburgh, though, shows the brand’s determination to become top dog in an increasingly competitive area of retail.
George Street already boasts stand-alone skincare and beauty stores such as Space NK, Jo Malone and Penhaligons. But, says Campbell, that makes it even more appealing to Kiehl’s.
“Obviously there’s already footfall in George Street for skincare, but we offer something completely different. We wanted to make an impact, to make a statement of intent, which is why we’ve made Edinburgh the flagship. It’s a significant financial investment, and we like to think the jobs we create are an investment in the community.
“We know there’s a significant market for beauty in Edinburgh – and throughout Scotland. And consumers are very well informed.”
She adds: “But we’re very different from other stores. We’re serious skincare – with a wink. We’ve got a lot of credibility from our apothecary roots, plus loads of personality, from Mr Bones the skeleton which harks back to our roots to the Harley Davidson bike. It is eclectic, but we find it makes people feel relaxed.”
Founded in 1851, the owners – the Morse family – sold out to French beauty giant L’Oreal in 2000 and it has taken the brand from its original base in New York to 177 stores and 554 outlets around the world.
It is estimated that Kiehl’s turnover was £121 million in 2010 although L’Oreal, which generated £17 billion sales last year, does not release brand data.
Victoria though says that the premium beauty market grew by six per cent in Europe last year, and there has been no let-up in demand from customers happy to pay above high street prices for beauty brands.
Kiehl’s is, she says, an “accessible luxury” as moisturisers start at £15.
“We had very strong, double digit like-for-like growth last year. We outperformed the skincare market four times in 2011. So for us we have a momentum behind the brand,” she says.
The brand has 300 products – most developed through the years from its botanical and homeopathic roots – and part of its success seems to lie in giving away free samples. Indeed, around 40 million are handed out every year.
“Samples are a very important part of our marketing,” says Victoria. “Nobody leaves the store without one – even if they have to be rugby tackled in the street,” she laughs.
“We like to let people try what we offer, and we find that they come back for more. We also like to pride ourselves on the service that we offer, and that too makes people return.”
And while the new Edinburgh store maintains the old-world apothecary charm of the Kiehl’s in New York, it does offer something completely new: the first men’s shaving bar. Kiehl’s, after all, is a unisex brand.
“I think that shows in our packaging too,” says Victoria. “It’s not overly fussy and ranges like Facial Fuel were designed specifically with men in mind.”
And given its history of being community-orientated, Kiehl’s has already chosen an Edinburgh charity which will benefit from a Shop for a Cause event on July 26.
“It’s a day when we hope to have a lot of celebrities, VIPs and customers along and all proceeds will go to CCLASP (Children with Cancer and Leukaemia, Advice and Support for Parents), a local charity which supports 500 families across the Lothians.
“We hope a lot of people will turn out for that. And that they will come back too,” she laughs.