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The Philosophy of Beauty

NEW YORK — You could say that Cristina Carlino is in the business of Philosophy — both the beauty brand of the same name and discovering, through trial and error, what it takes to run a successful indie company. <br><br>It’s been a...

NEW YORK — You could say that Cristina Carlino is in the business of Philosophy — both the beauty brand of the same name and discovering, through trial and error, what it takes to run a successful indie company.

It’s been a little over six years since Carlino founded the Phoenix-based Philosophy, although she was an early leader in the dermocosmetics field. She founded BioMedic in 1990 as a firm specializing in nonprescription skin-care and clinical-procedure products designed for use by plastic surgeons and dermatologists and ran it with her former business partner, David Watson, until they sold it to L’Oréal in May 2001.

BioMedic was then about a $13 million brand distributed in 25 countries, with North America accounting for roughly 80 percent of those sales. BioMedic is now a part of L’Oréal’s Active Cosmetics Division, alongside such brands as Le Roche-Posay — although Carlino continues to consult for the brand. She feels no pangs: “They’re doing a spectacular job with it,” she said, “and they are lovely people to work with.”

Carlino’s focus these days is on her Philosophy brand, launched in 1996. “The company is alive and well, despite a tough economy,” she said of the cult brand, which offers skin care, body care and cosmetics. The products blend essential oils, plant extracts and herbal infusions and feature spare, black-typed packaging that identifies the name of the product and a Carlino-penned philosophy. Take Hope in a Jar, one of the brand’s bestsellers: “Science can give us better skin. Only humanity can give us better days.”

While the brand is cautiously releasing new products —?five new stockkeeping units bowed in June, one in July and seven are planned through the end of the year —?Carlino frankly admits that launching new items will be a cautious process moving forward.

“At our largest point, we had 400 sku’s, and now, we probably have about 70, not counting the gift sets and the kits,” she said, adding that individual color cosmetics sku’s represent much of what has been phased out. “There is a point at which you can have too much. For instance, about 30 products right now — like Hope in a Jar and our Grace line — do amazing business. Our gift sets, particularly in the fourth quarter, do great business for us. But just to add a new lip tint or a mask for the sake of having a new product doesn’t make sense for us. While we’ve spent more time lately discontinuing products, we are cautiously going back and seeing where there are opportunities to add things.” She does plan to unveil a new element to the brand next spring, but is keeping mum on the details. “It will represent out-of-the-box thinking,” she said.

Going forward, Carlino said, she wants to focus on treatment. “Our customer is concerned about simple, authoritative skin care,” she said. “She’s time-starved, she’s not afraid of price points — in fact, ours have gone up rather than down. I want to be a player in treatment and bring a new thought process to the skin care market.”

Introductions this year largely build on Philosophy’s best-selling franchises — Hope in a Jar, Amazing Grace and the kits. Some straddle more than one category, like the Hope Survival Kit, which bowed in June, and the Amazing Grace Gift Set, also out in June. The USA set, out in July, features three products that do triple duty, as shampoo, facial cleanser and body cleanser. In red, white and blue, one says U, another S, another A, and each references a service organization: the Peace Corps, the Freedom Corps and the Senior Corps, respectively.

Coming in October are Pumpkin Pie, a 16-oz. shower gel that will retail for $16; Unforgettable, a $20 shampoo/bath and shower gel whose proceeds will be donated to breast cancer research; the $25 Foot Kit, which will include Soul Owner, an exfoliating foot cream, along with Footnotes, a foot scrub, and a foot scrubber; The Gingerbread Man, a $25 hot salt scrub, and The Snowman, a $22 water-based spray moisturizer. Following in November are The Alchemist, a $25 essential oil kit, and the $38 Everyday Is a Holiday kit, which includes Heaven on Earth body scrub, The Greatest Love hydrating scrub, Time On Your Hands exfoliating hand cream, Soul Owner, Footnotes and a pumice bar/nail brush.

Carlino’s cautious launch approach also applies to her door count. “We’ve probably spent more time closing doors this year than opening them, fine-tuning our approach and closing doors that didn’t work for us, but we’ve grown 29 percent in that time,” she said, adding that the brand’s best-performing doors include West Coast and Midwestern Nordstrom doors and Sephora. Carlino wouldn’t quantify those percentages with numbers, but industry sources estimated that the brand currently does in the neighborhood of $20 million at retail.

“Everything is based on profitability,” she continued. “In the beginning, we had too much product and too many doors. My goal isn’t to be the biggest, but to do what’s right for us.” Future plans include expanding internationally, including Japan and the U.K., as well as adding department store distribution in the U.S.

The most focused door is arguably the one freestanding Philosophy store, which Carlino opened in September 2000 near Arizona State University in Tempe. The spare, blond-wood store offers every item in the line and was a family affair: “We did everything ourselves, for about $20,000,” Carlino admitted, adding that her mother, Patricia, can often be found working the cash register.

While Carlino would like to add more stores, she noted that it’s not in her immediate plans: “It will happen someday, but right now, I’m concentrating on what I already have. If I’ve learned anything in the past six years, it’s to find the right time for everything. And I’ll find it.”