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Marital Bliss

What does a $23 billion multinational like Bernard Arnault's LVMH see in a small, New York-based beauty company like Bliss Spa? The start of a beautiful relationship.

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LVMH, the infamously acquisitive luxury-goods conglomerate, opens its American headquarters this week with a series of exclusive events at the new jagged-glass tower it built near high-end retailing's ground zero: the intersection of Madison and 57th. Coming so soon after LVMH's new stake in Fendi and Tag Heuer -- and its spectacular failure to acquire Gucci -- the building's opening should be chairman Bernard Arnault's true coming-out party as the corporate titan of late-nineties luxury.

The headquarters is an eye-catching symbol of Arnault's American ambitions and of the triumph of shopping-as-culture. Christian Dior will have a boutique on the ground floor; the penthouse duplex will be the stage for lavish, boldfaced-name parties; and tucked away on the third floor of the tower will be the uptown branch of the fashionable SoHo spa Bliss.

The spa's inclusion in the LVMH mother ship is not a bonus to employees or a perk for Arnault's string of socialite envoys. A homegrown New York success story, Bliss has in three years gone from a modest spa to a multi-million-dollar beauty business. In March, LVMH acquired 70 percent of the company in a complicated transaction tied to projected revenues -- widely reported as a $30 million deal. But the comparatively small purchase appears to be a break with LVMH's previous strategy of pursuing European prestige brands.

Patrick Choël, the president of LVMH's cosmetics division, is adamant that Bliss represents an important new move for the company, even though Bliss, until now, was only a tiny spa with one location. "I insisted we have it in the building," he says. "We were clearly not on the map in the U.S. Strategically, Bliss was the first move toward acquiring some small but promising U.S. brands." Choël calls these brands -- which include the sassy nail-polish-maker Hard Candy and a San Francisco skin-care line called Benefit -- a departure for LVMH because they are young, "fun," and clearly American.

Given LVMH's reputation as a corporate raider, not an incubator of scrappy entrepreneurs, you have to wonder why Bliss would put itself under Arnault's wing. But the flap over Gucci has obscured Arnault's M.O.: LVMH finds inspired people, provides them with investment muscle, and lets them loose on the world.

The least interesting thing about Bliss is that it's a spa. Spas used to be associated with middle-European ladies of an indeterminate age. Anyone remember Rula Lenska? Then they became New Age massage havens. But Bliss, with its six-month waiting list, celebrity clientele, and downtown cachet, operates in Arnault's familiar territory.

Kilgore describes Boué, who is now both her husband and the company's CEO, as "a real hard-ass." High praise when you understand that he negotiated the $30 million LVMH deal.

"Women have been getting facials for hundreds of years -- just ask anyone in Hungary," says Christine Shea, the beauty director at Harper's Bazaar, brimful with admiration. "Bliss gave it a positive, pop-culture spin, making it fun, tongue-in-cheek, and giving it the sex appeal of celebrity. There is nothing more American than what Bliss is doing right now."

The Bliss story is all about Marcia Kilgore, a taut 31-year-old with a blonde bob and bangs. She has the intensity and star quality of a Susan Powter. Or let's say, a hipper Susan Powter.

Kilgore's story starts in the Canadian midwest with a personal problem (bad skin); continues on the floor of her New York apartment where she gives facials and builds a following; and ends with a business based on her down-to-earth personality and an epidemic of good word-of-mouth. "You went there for her sense of humor," says one patron of her first business, Let's Face It, a jewel-box spa for facials where 16-year-old wannabe models with stubborn pimples were sent by their agencies.

Her "in" with the style tribe led to good connections with the women's magazines, and Kilgore worked the beauty editors like a P.R. pro. "You could always count on her for a good quote," confesses Shea. "She got a lot of coverage in the fashion magazines."

Then, in 1996, Kilgore transformed Let's Face It into Bliss. "You felt cool when you went there. It was just such a groovy place," remarks a regular, referring as much to the décor as the crowd. In SoHo, it has a sleek look offset by clever visual jokes: hairy brown lamb's-wool ottomans, a glass wall holding a shower of feathers in suspended animation; and the new quarters on 57th adds elegant, tactile limestone tiles to the mix.


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