NEW YORK — As she strides through the downstairs lobby of the Time Warner Center swinging a brown pony skin tote bag, Martina Arfwidson articulates her personal fashion dicta.
“I’m a philosophical vegetarian, but I do like to wear fur,” explains the 37-year-old vice president of indie cosmetics company Face Stockholm as she strokes the front of the espresso-colored sheared-mink sweater she calls one of her “portable pets.” “Studies show that your blood pressure drops if you pet an animal, but I can’t take my big shepherd Okie everywhere with me. So I have to wear clothes that are tactile.”
Being hands-on is what the Swedish beauty company, founded by Arfwidson’s mother Gun Nowak in 1980, is all about. The mother-and-daughter team personally develop their bold color cosmetic lines, scout for store locations and decorate each idiosyncratic Face Stockholm outlet with antique furniture pieces. And lately, the ladies are on a roll, having opened three stores — in downtown Dublin, in southern Norway, and at Manhattan’s Time Warner Center — over the last three months. Five additional boutiques are scheduled to open this year in such diverse cities as Los Angeles, Paris and Oslo.
The “do-it-ourselves” escapades of the mom-and-daughter operation make for often-repeated anecdotes, such as when the pair arrived at the Time Warner store before its opening to find their sign in the wrong spot and the frame of their antique mirror broken. “We went to Gracious Home to buy an electric drill,” says the redheaded Nowak, who is 65. They fixed the mirror and painted all night. “We weren’t supposed to do any of that because we’re not union, but the store wouldn’t have been finished, otherwise.”
No one walking into the 360-square-foot jewel of a store would know there had ever been an interior decorating glitch. Huge gilded ornamental mirrors hang over a cool modern black-and-white tile floor and antique marble-top tables display hundreds of bold lipsticks with names like Scorpio, Baroque and Evita. And then there are the female plaster-of-Paris heads Nowak and Arfwidson affectionately call “The Girls” — antique painted busts that milliners used to display hats in Sweden in the Twenties. Every Face Stockholm boutique has a few of The Girls, each given a “plain old-fashioned Swedish name” like Gretta, Annie, Agnes, Alma, Ruth and Sonya.
“I must have at least 50 of those heads!” exclaims Nowak. “The Girls remind me of those peculiar old ladies with old-fashioned handbags who lived in the southern part of Sweden where I grew up. We want makeup to be playful, so the decor of the store should play a little, too.”
While Nowak oversees the brand’s European expansion, her daughter concentrates on the American market. A few years ago, she moved Face Stockholm’s headquarters to scenic Hudson in upstate New York, and drives to Manhattan several times a month to meet clients or redo displays.
“Right now on Madison, there is a lot of neon yarn hanging from the ceiling with products attached to the ends. Before that, I did a pasta display theme with eye brushes on spaghetti and eye shadows resting on macaroni,” Arfwidson says.
Her eclectic take on decor, of course, also manifests itself in her personal style. “My latest obsession is rubber boots, particularly ones from the Muck Boot Co.,” she adds. “They look great with a nightgown, jeans, a ball gown. I just think rubber boots look excellent with everything!”
— Natasha Singer