The New World of Apothecary | Maria Gustafson, Kiehl’s

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From its origins in 1851 as an ‘old world apothecary’ serving New York City’s East Village neighborhood, to the global brand known for high quality products and a cool, vintage feel, Kiehl’s has always been a staple of the beauty and skincare industry.

Kiehl’s started as a family-run company that, even after being acquired by the L’Oreal group in 2000, has been able to stay true to its heritage. The Kiehl’s brand we see today was born from a mixture of pharmaceutical, herbal, and medical knowledge that has been developed, advanced and, in many ways, perfected over a century and a half of business.

MiND had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Gustafson, Senior Vice President of Global Creative and Retail Design at Kiehl’s. Coming from a long line of builders and architects, a passion for designing and creating has always been in her DNA. In her role at Kiehl’s, she is involved in all creative aspects of the company including retail design, graphic design, packaging design and visual merchandising, ensuring these divisions work together “to truly bring the brand to life.”

An avid fan of the brand before she began her role at Kiehl’s, it was an easy fit for Maria. Over the past eight years, she has enjoyed being able to watch the brand grow and evolve with her role as creative lead.


We work very hard to keep Kiehl’s, Kiehl’s but, as you know, you have to stay relevant and adapt, so over time we’ve evolved but we’re very much still Kiehl’s to the core. I’ve always been passionate about the brand and when you work for a brand that you love so much, it’s pretty magical when that happens.”

In regards to store design, the Kiehl’s products cater to both men and women, so the stores reflect a very retro, yet neutral and inviting atmosphere. Kiehl’s also has a firm belief that no two stores are exactly identical. However, they all have the signature trademarks that make them distinctly Kiehl’s, like their vintage motorcycles which symbolize the brand’s “spirit of adventure.”

We are really all about authenticity and reflecting on our own unique apothecary heritage, but of course, there are what I call the non-negotiable items that need to be present in each of our stores. Those are things like: vintage motorcycles, Mr. Bones – our teaching skeleton, our chandelier, our neon signs, just to name a few. You would find these elements in every Kiehl’s store around the world.”

Being not only a legacy brand, but a NYC brand, many people may not know that a lot of the Kiehl’s remedies and formulas can be found in the Smithsonian Museum. There are also a few surprising items (both products and showpieces) that are unexpectedly connected to the brand.

“This year we are celebrating our 165th birthday. We started as an old world apothecary in NYC East Village neighborhood and back in those early days, we would sell things like ‘money drawing oil’ and ‘love oil’ and in fact some of those early remedies can be found in the Smithsonian. Many of these Kiehl’s formulas have been the same throughout the years. We also have some really famous bikes and we have a bike that was ridden by Evil Knievel – that’s hot right?”


Kiehl’s does a great job of combining the old vs. new look in their stores. Their flagship – and home to the first ever Kiehl’s – has been on Third Avenue in New York City since the brand’s inception. The sheer history behind the store exudes a vintage, prohibition-era feel, but Maria and her team made sure to update the look by incorporating new brand elements that keep the store fresh and provide an effortless contrast.

“We work hard to evolve and we also take risks. My creative team is so good at maintaining our traditional aesthetic while staying fresh and contemporary. So even though, as I mentioned, Kiehl’s is 165 years old, it still feels like an insider brand, like a start-up. And I really think that, because we’re always pushing the boundaries but we have to ensure that we’re staying true to our core, the Kiehl’s DNA. We’re disruptive but in a captivating way.

With an eye to the future, Maria talks about the challenges of predicting a constantly changing and evolving beauty industry. At Kiehl’s, her focus is firmly placed on improving the consumer experience. This is evident by the brand’s long standing reputation for giving away countless free samples.

“It’s hard to say where retail’s going to go next, it’s always evolving. We’re always looking at things like omni-channels, and we are very much about providing our customers with that sensorial experience that includes sight, smell, touch – things that you can really only get in the retail store. We’re always changing but no matter what we do to evolve we’re always going to stay true to the core values that make Kiehl’s, Kiehl’s – our ethos, our DNA.”

Many of the challenges faced by retailers today, such as lacking direction or lacking a clear brand story, span all industries from fashion to beauty to technology. Maria notes, “I think a lot of people do it really well, but design mistakes happen when there’s a lack of focus or point of view. Confusing messaging is another big one. If it’s not clear what they’re selling or what they have to offer, it’s hard to have an interest in it or fully understand their story.”

Maria finds inspiration in all facets of life – from walking down the streets of NYC to an everyday conversation with a friend and especially traveling either at home or abroad. Any little thing can be a point of inspiration.

“Our eclectic culture allows us to find inspiration just about anywhere. I always find inspiration walking around NYC’s East Village – but also traveling, exploring cities around the world, museums and galleries, movies, dreaming. We each bring unique sources of inspiration to the table, and it all comes together through super-collaborative brainstorms with our creative team members.”

Maria is clear that her team members are the true secret to success, providing a constant stream of new ideas in discussions and adding high levels of passion and excitement.

“Teams are so important in how we work today, and so the secret to our success really is the team – my team specifically on the creative side. We are more than a creative department, we are more like an in-house creative collective with a highly collaborative approach. I love seeing all of our brain power and passion come to fruition. There’s nothing more satisfying than talking about an idea with the team then seeing it come to life, stores that we’ve designed in the hands of our customers, it’s so rewarding.”

As our interview came to a close, I was interested to hear what pearls of wisdom Maria would have for her younger self who was just starting out at Kiehl’s? When asked if there was anything she would tell her younger self when first starting at Kiehl’s…her response?

“I would say be open to other disciplines – if you truly understand marketing and know how to speak to your audience, you can actually push the creative boundaries. You also need to learn how to not be so attached to your art because things are always changing and there’s no time to take it personally. How to be an amazing editor is key. And finally, never present anything you don’t like or truly believe in because it might get chosen and then you’re stuck with something you regret.”

I couldn’t let her leave without finding out what any avid beauty lover would want to know: what are her personal favorites at Kiehl’s?

“I have so many! Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate is one of my favorites. I like it because it’s lightweight but I can also layer on a moisturizer and I’m good to go. It’s great to use it overnight and wake up with completely smooth, refreshed skin. I love our Turmeric & Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Mask and I also love our Ultimate Strength Hand Salve – it smells so amazing, it’s non-greasy and it feels great!”

We will be keeping a close an eye on all the latest Kiehl’s has to offer both in its products and store design. Look out for MiND at the front of the queue for the next Kiehl’s product launch!

By Brittany Melhado