Cos Bar shows few wrinkles at age 40
Private equity firm behind major expansion
The last time the Republican party faced a potentially contested national convention was 1976, when Gerald R. Ford beat Ronald Reagan on the first ballot before going on to lose the general election to a little known peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter.
During that bicentennial year celebrating the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, KSNO radio was playing in heavy rotation hits like “Sara Smile” by Daryl Hall and Woody Creeker John Oates, which elbowed out Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for 11th on Billboard’s “Hot 100” songs of 1976.
Over in a tiny space on the edge of Wagner Park in downtown Aspen, Lily Horn, a 25-year-old transplant from New York had just opened her “cosmetics boutique” that sold luxury, city-style skin care products to mountain women and tourists. Luxury cosmetics had heretofore been the domain of department stores like Bloomingdale’s, where Horn (now Lily Garfield) worked the previous year; Carl’s Pharmacy’s selection at the time was limited at best.
Armed with $5,000 and contacts with luxury lines like Borghese, Germaine Monteil, Lancome and eventually Clinique, Garfield opened the first Cos Bar (short for “cosmetics bar”), a store that this year celebrates its 40th anniversary in Aspen. There are now 14 stores in the Cos Bar chain, from Vail to Scottsdale and most recently at the Brookfield place in Manhattan.
After taking on private equity company Tengram Capital Partners as an investor in December 2015, Cos Bar became poised for a major expansion to double the number of stores across the country, beginning with a new “flagship” Cos Bar in Los Angeles this fall. All told, 50 Cos Bar stores are planned.
“We’ve been self funding for 40 years. To take it to the next level, you need help,” Garfield said this week from the busy second-floor offices where her son, Oliver, the company’s COO, also works. Oliver plans to relocate this fall to Cos Bar’s new Los Angeles headquarters where he’ll work side-by-side with CEO David Olsen, formerly of the luxury e-commerce site Net a Porter.
Lily Garfield said she isn’t afraid that control over the Cos Bar concept and name would be lost with a private equity partner.
“One of the things they loved about the Cos Bar was that it was really unique, nothing like Sephora or Uta,” two cosmetic boutiques that have made inroads nationally and have arguably changed the way women approach an industry that, by 2018, is forecasted to approach $11 billion for skin care products, according to the trend-following GCI magazine.
While Sephora and Uta offer variety but little in the way of service, Cos Bar prides itself on a trained staff.
Its focus on service and “the luxury space that we occupy” is much in demand, Garfield suggested It was that luxury space of coveted client data bases and stolen trade secrets that was at the heart of a 2015 lawsuit between Cos Bar and a former employee that was dismissed last May by now retired Judge Gail Nichols.
“When I first started, it was all about skin care and to make sure women were protecting their skin in this environment,” Garfield said.
“The original concept of makeup was, what was proper for skiing, for playing golf or for tennis,” she said, citing Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova as early clients who were reflective of the outdoors, healthy style.
Today, “The outdoor fresh look has gone the way of more of a city look,” Garfield added.
Ricki McHugh, owner of McHugh Antiques in the Aspen Square building, said she remembers Garfield’s first business and identified its location, in a mark of true longtime local-dom, as “above the old Aspen State Teachers College.”
“That was where you went to get a face cream,” McHugh recalled. “There were very few places to go. You could get Vasoline at Carl’s back then but if you had fine or fair skin, there really wasn’t anything available,” she said about the 1970s-era Aspen retail landscape.
The years of hands-on experience, followed by a slow initial expansion of properties (Vail, in 1986, was second in the chain) seems to have served the Cos Bar well.
“I think Lily was learning along the way,” said McHugh, whose business has also evolved, to include art and decor. “I think we were all learning,” she added.
The Cos Bar “look” or the idea, of what surrounded the Cos Bar brand, was behind a surprise phone call in 2012 from a representative of the Target chain asking her to curate a store-within-a-store called “The Shops at Target.” Cos Bar’s Target line was limited to nail polish, bath and body items and accessories like makeup pouches.
No makeup or skin care products were part of the promotion that lasted only six weeks in the store but had the longer lasting impact of creating a luxury brand with mass market appeal and staying power. Later in 2012, Garfield was recognized by Women’s Wear Daily as “retailer of the year.”
Pointing to a trophy in her office that represents the Oscars of the beauty industry, Garfield said,”I slept with it that night.”
For new business owners who may feel discouraged by headwinds early in their business, it’s worth noting that Garfield opened the Cos Bar in 1976, on the cusp of the driest ski season in Aspen’s modern history. She survived that year in part by learning an important lesson: Cultivate a local following.
While her new title is founder and chief merchandising officer,Garfield, 67, shows no sign of wanting to retreat from steering the Cos Bar’s future direction.
“They still want me (involved in the operation) because I am the face of Cos Bar. This has been my baby” for the past 40 years, she said.