Shopping at the Original Kiehl’s

Michael Turek

The original New York apothecary, Kiehl’s, in Manhattan’s East Village, is more than a store to the brand’s devotees. It’s a destination.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and Kiehl’s, on Third Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, has just opened its doors. Already three customers have lined up at the register loaded with products. A Truman Capote look-alike asks for a basket before he drops the five or so bottles he’s grasping. And a woman in floppy hat and fishnets screams “Nooo!” when told the shop is out of Vital Sun Protection SPF 40. “Can you make me a sample and call another store for it? I’ll be back in the afternoon.” Meanwhile, two women visiting from London wander around as if in a museum, which the atrium to this flagship actually is—highlighting the brand’s 159-year history, from surviving the Great Depression to having 107 of its products inducted into the permanent archives of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Recently the company spent over a million dollars refurbishing the store while trying to keep intact much of the original hardware and fixtures. Though there are 439 places in the world to buy Kiehl’s, Third Avenue is where it all began, as a pharmacy founded by John Kiehl.

New Organic Line

In September Kiehl’s launched its first organic skincare line, the Açai Damage-Repairing collection ($25–$46). Its key ingredient, açai berry extract from the Brazilian Amazon, contains antioxidants that help restore the skin’s tone and texture while protecting it against free radicals that contribute to aging. Lavender and rosemary essential oils, orange fruit water, and aloe vera juice are also part of the all-natural formula that makes up a cleanser, toning mist, serum, and moisturizer. In addition to going organic, the brand has gone green with a recycling program launched last April: For every three empty Kiehl’s bottles customers bring in, they get a free tube of Lip Balm #1; five empties equal a travel-size product; and ten equal a full-size bottle worth up to $25.

Free Samples!

Sampling started with John Kiehl himself when he mixed his original elixirs and herbal remedies in front of his customers. His apprentice, Irving Morse, took over the pharmacy when Kiehl retired and brought the tradition of handing out samples to another level, making sure customers had enough product to last for three days. The company’s motto became “Try before you buy!” and it still holds true at all the 33 freestanding stores and 211 retail outlets across the United States. Hand-packed samples of any of the approximately 200 formulas for face, body, and hair are available in small jars with sticker labels. There are, of course, prepackaged freebies, but it’s the ones that are made upon request that give customers a feeling of getting something special and customized.

A Gifting Station

The simple brown bags with the black script logo that are instantly recognizable worldwide have been a symbol of the no-frills packaging that lets Kiehl’s spend its budget on quality ingredients instead. The exception has been the flagship’s own cream-colored shopping bags—and now cream gift boxes tied with black ribbon and filled with potpourri for cushioning. During a recent renovation, a gifting station was built to allow customers the opportunity to create their own gift-set combinations, adding that personal touch and letting the recipient know it came from the original shop in New York’s East Village. A limited-edition apparel collection designed in collaboration with graffiti artist Tats Cru was unveiled in November and is another flagship exclusive.

The Men’s Collection

When Morse took over after Kiehl retired, the shop spanned the block between 13th and 14th streets on Third Avenue. That much space was necessary for not only the basement laboratory but for displaying Morse’s vast array of cars and motorcycles as well, even a biplane (a replica now hangs in the store). Morse had noticed that the men who accompanied their wives or girlfriends looked bored, so he decided to put his collection in the store to serve as conversation pieces. Smart move: The men eventually became shoppers as well. For more than 35 years, the men’s product line has had a strong and loyal following. The latest treatment, the Facial Fuel Eye De-Puffer ($18.50), targets the common male concern of tired, puffy eyes with a cooling formula in a compact stick.