Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 04/29/2016

Jami Morse Heidegger has always combined approachability with introspection — and a killer instinct for beauty. Now, 16 years after selling Kiehl’s to L’Oréal, she’s back in the beauty game.

This story first appeared in the April 29, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

An interview with Jami Morse Heidegger is part bare-all therapy session, part expert business commentary. At 55, she’s endured more personal and professional swings than most people have in a few lifetimes. A fitness trainer when she met her husband, Austrian ski champion Klaus Heidegger, she went on to run a hotel and restaurant, before following in her father’s footsteps to oversee the family business, Kiehl’s Since 1851. After selling the brand to L’Oréal, she published and edited equestrian magazines, dove into philanthropic endeavors and settled into motherhood. Today, she’s taken up what is arguably her most difficult role: building a new skin-care business that’s distinct from Kiehl’s while adding to her deep beauty legacy.

Were you nervous about getting back into the beauty industry?
I wasn’t really nervous. I just didn’t want to do it.

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Why not?
First of all, I don’t like people looking at me. I’ve always been insecure about my looks and uncomfortable with myself physically. When I was at Kiehl’s, it was hard for me to go out there and promote it. If I didn’t like doing it in my 20s and 30s, it certainly was more uncomfortable to do in my mid-50s. I said to Klaus, “I want you to be the front person.” [But] it turned out that people want to talk to me. At first, I didn’t really do interviews except on the phone. I realized at a certain point that if we want the business to grow, I have to be a part of that. Secondly, I’m very much a helicopter mom. For me, time with my kids was really precious, and I didn’t want to be always on the phone.

What has helped you overcome your insecurities?
A lot of therapy. I have done a lot of work on myself, so I could be a role model for my daughters to feel strong and empowered. In fact, our older daughter is a sex therapist from Stanford. I look at her and say, “Wow, I could never do that.” It was important to me to help my kids be something I wasn’t. For example, I would always say when I was younger, “Oh, I feel so fat. I look fat in my jeans.” My kids would hear this all the time, and I didn’t realize what seeds I was planting in young girls. That’s something I learned to change.

You followed in the footsteps of your father and grandfather at Kiehl’s. Is it important for your children to follow you into Retrouvé?
Originally, very much so. My daughter Nicoletta, the sex therapist, barely has forgiven me for selling Kiehl’s. Just as I was indoctrinated into Kiehl’s when I was very young—I was working there, I was behind the counter, I was blending essences—she helped us, too, until we sold Kiehl’s when she was about seven. She was very conscious of what Kiehl’s was. My son is interested in studying business, so we thought he could be a part of this and get valuable experience. It is important to me that at least the opportunity be available. They don’t have to come in.

Do you have any regrets about selling Kiehl’s?
I don’t after all these years, but it was a very bittersweet choice. I decided to sell because I thought it was best for Kiehl’s in the long run. It was not best for me personally or for my family. I felt that my responsibility was to help seal the Kiehl’s legacy for the future. I was convinced that the best way for Kiehl’s to grow as needed was with L’Oréal, a company that had tentacles all over the world and was able to do things that we weren’t. I really admire how they have tried to be very protective of its heritage, and yet grow and bring in new products. They have done a good job of that, but, at the beginning, it was a big sacrifice. It was so much a part of my family and my identity.

What advice do you have for others who are considering selling a company?
You have to be really clear about why you are selling it and go into it with your eyes wide open. If someone is intending to sell just to get an infusion of money and they expect to still run it and have it be the same way it was, they are probably mistaken and should probably look for investors rather than selling it. When someone pays you, it is theirs and they get to do what they want with it. If you are looking to make yourself bigger as part of a large company, it doesn’t always work that way. You are never quite in the same position as you were. Even if you think you know best, you don’t call the shots as you did before.

Retrouvé has high concentrations of active ingredients. What product was
particularly difficult to formulate?
The Intensive Replenishing Facial Moisturizer and the Revitalizing Eye Concentrate. They have a very high quantity of squalene, and vitamin E, A and oligopeptides. Making sure we can manufacture them with enough preservative for a sustained shelf life, but not overcoming the positive action of the ingredients, forced us to look for different kinds of packaging.

What was the thinking behind Retrouvé’s black packaging?
Being a lifetime New Yorker, black’s the only color as far as I’m concerned. When we were first talking about coming back into the industry, everything was lab this and lab that. It was almost Kiehl’s on steroids. I thought, “We are losing the romance of taking care of ourselves.” I thought back to the wonderful paintings of the 18th century with ladies in their boudoirs putting themselves together. I wanted to return to that feeling through the packaging.

How do you see the brand evolving?
We are growing the line, but gradually. It is very much a niche line. I choose to make and bring out products that I really make for myself because I can’t find them in the market. We don’t want to make something for the sake of having more products or a larger counter or a bigger presence at a department store. So far, we have funded everything ourselves. If we were to expand much further, though, we would consider bringing on an investor or partner—not like in Kiehl’s where we turned it over and sold it, but where they are giving an injection of capital to help the company grow.

There are so many options for skin care these days. How does the luxury customer approach skin care?
My world is Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, New York and now Paris. So, that’s a little different from maybe what the whole world is doing. Botox has become a staple for a lot of people. I did my nose when I was younger, but I don’t have facelifts. I’m not averse to any of that. What’s really helpful now is these mini medical spas where in 10 minutes or a half hour, you can have a terrific treatment that is noninvasive with little to no downtime. It was only maybe eight years ago when, to have any of these treatments, you had to go to a dermatologist. They had heavy-duty machines, and you are talking $2,000 a pop. What’s cool now is they are at all price points.

How is the older skin-care customer different from the customer of your
mom’s generation?
Back in the day, even if a product was geared toward 50-year-olds, it was promulgated with models who were 20 showing their beautiful skin. Everybody wanted to try to be 20, and you didn’t want to admit to being 40-plus. Something that has always been a big taboo is people being comfortable to share their age. I’m not ashamed to say I’m in my 50s, and I want to do something that a 50-year-old needs to do. It’s only been within the last three to four years that that has become more acceptable.

Has your definition of beauty changed as you’ve gotten older?
In our society now and, especially as one grows older, we have more freedom to define beauty for ourselves. There is less of trying to be like everyone else. I’m much more comfortable embracing who I am. When I was growing up, it was all about Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley. I was tall, dark-haired and had a big nose. I just did not fit in with that vision of beauty. Now, we live in a society that accepts so much more diversity. People are becoming more self-confident about making choices for themselves about what they think is beautiful.