Pia Getty motioned toward a lacquered console out of Clockwork Orange . “This is the fragrance organ,” Ms. Getty said, her voice sweet and intercontinental. As workmen rushed by, my attention turned to the muscular young man hired to greet customers at the threshold of the 8,100-square-foot Sephora store on Broadway and Prince streets; it wasn’t set to open until the next day.
“No, this is the fragrance organ,” she laughed, approaching the futuristic fixture-a round terminal in the center of the store with hundreds of perfume bottles jutting out. “It’s more like a gadget. For instance, when I was in Paris last year, I remembered an amber perfume I once smelled. I hadn’t been able to find it for years,” said Ms. Getty. “But at Sephora I was able to tell the person at the fragrance organ about it, describe it-amber, vanilla, whatever-and she went through all the different scents and came to a fragrance by Rochas. The one I wanted.”
The theory behind Sephora-which launched its first American store July 15 by handing out $100 gift certificates to approximately 600 guests-is a jolly, self-service merchandising approach to shopping. “A candy store for the senses,” is how Ms. Getty, the eldest of the glamourous Miller sisters, who has signed on as Sephora’s creative ambassador, put it. Interactivity. Vast selection. Shopping as entertainment. Nothing pushy. Trained salespeople are there for the asking, each one wearing one black glove so the product appears like some jewel in their hand. But you have to ask.
Since 1993, Sephora has been the top-selling chain of beauty shops in France. On any Saturday night, the Sephora megastore on the Champs-Elysées gives the impression that the cosmetics shop is the new disco. With 57 stores in France and intentions to open hundreds more worldwide over the next five years, Sephora is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. But it was launched by Duty Free Shopping, a conglomerate acquired a couple of years ago by LVMH. At the time of the takeover, one of Duty Free Shopping’s biggest shareholders was Robert Miller, Ms. Getty’s father.
Dodging workmen’s hammers and drills, Ms. Getty, 30, wearing white jeans, a white shirt and a diamond cross at her neck, explained how she was pulled out of motherhood into the service of a flashy cosmetics boutique.
“I always intended to work after I had my children,” said the wife of financier Christopher Getty and mother of three, including a 6-month-old infant. “I always wanted to do something for my father.” She ducked a workman’s ladder. “But we don’t have to talk about that. We’ll talk about things we can touch,” she said softly.
A long red carpet sets a path through the emporium of merchandise. “There’s no risk of a salesperson spraying you with perfume,” Ms. Getty said. “I hate having to go to a department store and talking to a salesperson who has to sell you something. Here they will leave you alone. There’s a freedom to make your own purchases. You can come into the store. See things. Touch them. Feel them. Wander around. Smell. That’s a new concept, isn’t it? But it works. People are more sophisticated now. They’ve traveled. They know what they want to buy.”
“Americans like color,” meaning makeup, “and wellness products, whereas the French are more interested in fragrances,” Ms. Getty explained. “The illusion” fragrance offers. “The transformation.”
“Hope in a jar,” I said, quoting Shirley Lord.
On the long wall to the right of the shop, hundreds of women’s fragrances are arranged in alphabetical order like a library shelf, rather than clustered in displays or locked in counters. Prices appear right under the products. According to Vogue , Americans buy beauty products to the tune of about $29 billion dollars a year. We buy mass or class. Mass is a $5 mascara; class is some grand elixir made with falcon embryos. Sephora covers the waterfront of products, selling Estée Lauder, Clinique, Lancôme, Elizabeth Arden, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Clarins, Shiseido, Yves Saint Laurent, Prescriptives, Urban Decay, Hard Candy and much more, as well as its own line of products, which includes 365 colors of lipsticks. “One for each day,” Ms. Getty said.
The Miller sisters are famous for their beauty, their father’s money, their good marriages, but Pia, especially, has tried to avoid the spotlight. Her parties, like the one she gave recently in Southampton for husband Christopher Getty’s birthday, are not photographed, despite the photo opportunities this particular party presented. Guests were asked to come as either Tarzan or Jane. Nearly every one of the Gettys’ guests, one young thing prettier or more strapping than the next, obliged.
“I didn’t like the attention my sisters and I got at first,” she confided, nearing the bubble bath display. “I had nothing to say. Now I feel I do. Isn’t that a cliché?” she sighed.
Like her sisters, Ms. Getty grew up in Hong Kong, went to schools in Europe and university in the United States. But she said it was growing up in Hong Kong that influenced her most. You might describe her countenance as a sort of Zen madcap, a beautiful, liberated young woman gently bemused.
Our tour concluded at the stacks of men’s products. CNN’s style reporter Elsa Klensch and crew would be next to record Ms. Getty’s debut into the world of commerce.
Sephora’s beauty ambassador was silent. Then smiling, she spoke again over the construction roar.
“Would you like me to do a makeover on you?” she asked ever so kindly.
She was kidding. I think. Billy’s List
1. In the VH1 Fashion Kingdom documentary
about Calvin Klein, the designer asks
repeatedly, “Where’s Raoul?” Who is
a. Raoul Wallenbaum, his lawyer.
b. Raul Martinez, the art director.
c. Rule McDuff, the new male model
hired for Mr. Klein’s ads for
2. What’s up with Vivienne Westwood?
a. She just filmed a cameo in Woody
Allen’s new film.
b. She’s suing Ralph Lauren for
trademark infringement over various
c. She plans to open a store in SoHo in
3. What is Celebrity Skin ?
a. One of Sephora’s best-selling skin-care
b. The title of Hole’s next album, starring
c. A 17-week skin rejuvenation regime
trademarked by skin doctor Patricia Wexler.
Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) b.