The spa also has a reputation for sending clients home with a basket filled with products whose high prices often shock the uninitiated. "She has a really great eye," Shea admits, "and stocked the spa with some amazing products, things that women really want." The product line seemed to naturally segue into a catalogue, which has now spawned an Internet business. Altogether the company brought in $11 million in 1998 and is planning to close out 1999 at $20 million in revenue.
As successful as Kilgore was in creating a soul for Bliss, her grander ambitions have been abetted by Thierry Boué, a Mr. Inside to her Ms. Outside. 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. But for Boué, the son of a Parisian nuclear physicist, "the business is Marcia's personality."
Boué had been a friend of Marcia's sister. But the decision to become business partners came only when he finally asked Kilgore to stop calling him for advice on everything from where to find bottles to how one reads a contract from the Home Shopping Network. Now he acts as the counterweight to her obsessive nature (obsessive to the point of having liposuction to remove a tiny build-up of fat on her thighs, already toned from years of work as a personal trainer).
"When we started the catalogue," Boué recollects, "Marcia was still giving facials six days a week. It took some working on her to make her understand her productivity would be much greater if she did it only three days a week. Now we are down to one."
Boué used to be a photographer's agent, and it was his experiences with models and editors that helped him recognize the spa experience as a fashion experience, with Marcia filling the role of designer and taste arbiter. "Marcia has a very intelligent spa," he says. "She comes up with a new collection of services and a new way of seducing your clientele into coming back." If that isn't fashion, nothing is.
And if the spa is something like an exclusive couture line, then the merchandise is her ready-to-wear and licensing business all rolled into one. The catalogue of beauty products -- her two lines and other products she likes -- now goes out six times a year to a list of 1 million, and the Internet business is a thriving extension of it. The catalogue is filled with the same flighty riffs ("the Waterwoo" and "the Girly Glosser") and puns so corny they're cute ("Blissmas") that have propelled so much of the company's growth. Marcia's commitment to mass appeal even extends to marketing low-price bikini wax on QVC, where she appears every month or so. During one summer weekend, she moved over a million dollars' worth of wax.
While pushing ahead on all fronts at once, the business problem now becomes how to grow without losing Marcia's personal touch. Some of the style crowd are already complaining that the SoHo spa is no longer a relaxing place. "It's like a factory in there," says one disillusioned fashion insider.
Boué frets about Bliss's transition from mom-and-pop operation to charts-and-presentations bureaucracy. "If it becomes too corporate, I think it will lose its identity and essence. This is where Marcia must become more of a creative force."
Kilgore, who still trains the staff, agrees. "I am trying to let go of things and not take responsibility for everything," she says one Saturday morning at the spa. An employee laughs in the background. "Shut up, Kate," she says good-naturedly. "And by the way, the speakers are not working in the locker room."
There is no doubt that Bliss could have kept expanding without LVMH's capital, but Arnault's backing will put them into high gear. What might have seemed like a Faustian bargain to Gucci may offer Bliss immortality -- without the misery.
In addition to the beauty-products business, they plan to expand into London and possibly Chicago or "the West Coast." They also claim to be at work on 50-100 service-station-style "nail bars" that could extend the Bliss brand beyond the time-consuming massage-and-facial business. If they pull it off, they'll surely lure more customers to the catalogue and Website.
Arnault's investment in Bliss is clearly no small matter. So when Kilgore mentions Bliss in the same breath as the Gap, it may be worth taking her seriously.