This is a beauty junkie's paradise," marveled ABC's The View cohost Lisa Ling, a guest at the Oct. 13 opening bash for Sephora's new flagship store in Manhattan. Indeed, the three-story, 21,300-sq.-ft. cosmetics-and-perfume emporium offers something for every girlie girl, including 600 fragrances and 365 shades of lipstick. "That's a little scary," attendee Kyra Sedgwick conceded, "but I'm up for the challenge."

Millions more women will be too, predicts Chafik, the 37-year-old Algerian-born artistic director who has played a major role in Sephora's first blush of success in the U.S. "The idea of Sephora is to create a universe of beauty," says Chafik, who dropped his last name, Gasmi, when he entered the design world 15 years ago. "When you come here, the place is enticing and a delight to the senses." Make that an assault on the senses: Sephora's dizzying collection of 300 different brands from Hard Candy to Christian Dior, plus its own line, makes it the Barnes & Noble of beauty retailers. Instead of hiding the goodies behind the counter as most competitors do, Sephora puts everything on open display, tempting customers to spritz, paint and blend at will. "People like the entertainment environment," says Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, a leading industry association. "It's the wave of the future."

That wave began in France, where Sephora was formed in 1993 by retailer Dominique Mandonnaud. It now operates 182 stores in Europe and will ring up $500 million in worldwide sales this year. Folded into the luxury conglomerate LVMH in '97, the chain has set its sights on America, where it has opened 39 stores from Seattle to Atlanta, with 175 more planned by 2002.

But the clearest sign that Sephora has made its beauty mark may be the fact that it has filed suit in San Francisco against Macy's, charging that the department store's standalone Souson boutiques copy Sephora's concept and look. (Macy's declined to comment.) Such purported imitators, declares Sephora USA president and CEO Howard Meitiner, "put a premium on someone like Chafik, who has the ability to keep us current, keep us ahead."

Chafik's descriptions of his work—"I spend my time sharing my impressions"—may sound as ephemeral as a spray of eau de toilette. But in fact he's responsible for virtually all Sephora's aesthetic details, from the novel circular fragrance-testing stations to the mix of world music that plays in the stores.

Some of these ideas can be traced to Chafik's diverse background. The oldest of the five children of factory owner-turned-builder Omar Gasmi, 58, and homemaker Ferrudja, 56, Chafik arrived in France with his family in 1977. On the math and technical track in high school, he was studying architecture in college when he met Ulrike Feldmann, now 38, an economics student from Germany whom he married in 1991. (While their new Paris loft is being renovated, she stays home in a rented apartment, caring for daughters Lea, 7, and Noa, 3.)

Chafik flourished as a furniture-design consultant, but when he met Dominique Mandonnaud in 1996, he dropped everything to help create the main Sephora shop on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. "He's unbearable! He's a pain!" says Mandonnaud, 52, laughing. "Once he gets hold of an idea he won't let go."

Chafik has a vision, for instance, about how Sephora can achieve globalization. Never mind the hard sell. Given Sephora's sensual ambience, he says, "it's a concept of seduction."

Julie K.L Dam
Cathy Nolan in Paris, Leslie Berestein in Los Angeles and Diane Clehane in New York

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Nolan,
  • Leslie Berestein,
  • Diane Clehane.