How This Woman Launched a Luxury Skincare Empire with Only $5,000 to Her Name

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Cos Bar
Photo: Cos Bar

Some people splurge on lipstick, while others spend their cash on designer shoes. For Lily Garfield, the founder of prestigious beauty store Cos Bar, the vice has always been luxury skincare. In fact, in 1976 she spent all $5,000 to her name on it. That was the grand total in opening costs for Garfield's very first Cos Bar.

After an impromptu move to Aspen, Colorado, she realized she wasn't able to find any of the pricey beauty products she loved and used regularly. The idea for Cos Bar was born. Today, only some things have changed. Garfield is still obsessed with fancy skincare, but Cos Bar is no longer just one tiny, 200-square-foot location. Twenty stores later, Garfield is considered a luxury beauty retail pioneer whose customers have no qualms about shelling out $750 for an anti-aging cream.

We chatted with Garfield about her start in beauty, what sets Cos Bar apart from the likes of Sephora and Ulta, the skincare brands she loves, and more.

How did you get into beauty?

I grew up in New York City in a first-generation European family. I never saw my mother using soap on her face. She always used a gentle cleanser and some type of moisturizer. From the time I was a little girl, I remember her putting Nivea on my face. To her, beauty was never anything to do with makeup. It was always about nourishing and protecting skin before anything else. I really took that European ideal of beauty with me into my career.

I was getting ready to graduate from Queens College and needed a summer job. A friend of mine told me about a new cosmetics line coming into Bloomingdale’s called Love Cosmetics. It was the '70s and at the time it was the hottest place to land a job. They used to have cattle calls for interviews—150 girls all vying for three or four spots. It was my first corporate interview, and to my surprise, I was picked for the job! Only three weeks passed before the company asked me to work for them at the corporate level, where I became one of the first female Account Executives (they were all men back then). I traveled all around the country with them for three years setting up new department stores before I decided that I needed a change of pace. I was always confident that I could come back to New York anytime and get a job, so that was when I decided to move to Aspen in 1974 "for just one year."

Tell us about how Cos Bar began.

After living in Aspen for a year, any time one of my friends would leave the mountains to go to the city, we’d all put together a list of what beauty products we wanted to be brought back to Aspen for us. At the time, we only had pharmacies in town that didn’t have any luxury skincare that I was using back in New York. You could only buy beauty from drugstores or department stores back then, and I had an idea for something completely different. With five thousand dollars to my name, I took a chance. I found a small little store space in downtown Aspen, less than 200 square feet. I called a few brands and told them about my background and explained my plans and was shocked when they sent me opening orders without even coming to check out the store! They all just loved the idea.

My first winter was a disaster. Not because of the store being new but because Aspen had NO snow. It was blue skies every day. I thought, “Oh my god, what did I do?” Then spring and summer came, and business was good. The following year was a normal winter and all hell broke loose. Cos Bar became unbelievably popular in just a year. We quadrupled sales. Everyone loved it.

It took me ten years to open my second store after Aspen, which was just up the road in Vail. From there, Leonard Lauder himself called me and asked me to open in Santa Fe. Back in the '80s, he always thought the future of cosmetics would be in independent stores like Cos Bar. With the blessing of the Lauders, I knew I could make Cos Bar into something bigger.

What was the first brand that you signed on?

The first brand I ever brought in was Lancôme. I saw what all the European brands were doing in New York and wanted to stay away from American brands. I wanted my customers to understand my beauty philosophy which was really to take care of your skin first before buying makeup. Aspen’s climate is so harsh, whether you’re skiing or hiking, and I knew these types of skincare lines would be hugely successful. Within nine months I got the hottest brand at the time—Clinique. It took a lot of persistence, but once I got one brand, everyone else would join. This industry is tight-knit and based on who you know. After Clinique, the floodgates opened.

What’s next for Cos Bar?

Finally, we have twenty stores! But Cos Bar can still be in a lot more communities around the country. We don’t need to be as big as some of the other beauty retailers out there, but we will continue to offer something they can’t do. Bigger is not always better, and we’ll always keep it friendly and keep it fun. We are continually finding the best new brands, the best Beauty Specialists, and training our staff to give the customer the best of the best products and service.

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How does Cos Bar set itself apart from other beauty retailers?

The uniqueness of Cos Bar is that every Beauty Specialist is trained in every product. I’ve never believed that someone needs to buy everything from one brand. There is nothing wrong with mixing brands, and that makes us different from department stores. We are looking for the best product for the customer, never trying to sell them an entire line if they don’t need it. Even though we sell some serums that are $1,000, we’re always a warm and approachable beauty source to discover new products without feeling pressured.

What’s the best-selling product? Does it depend on location?

That keeps changing! It depends on the time of year and my mood. If I like something, I get it out to all the Beauty Specialists. Some of my favorites that are also top-sellers are AmorePacific’s cushion compact with SPF and Lancôme’s Effacil makeup remover. We also can’t keep Cle de Peau concealer in stock.

Each year, AmorePacific makes a very small batch of its Prime Reserve Crème that retails for $750. The company makes it from a very rare tea in Korea, so there are only a few hundred bottles each year. We sell out of it before it even hits shelves! You can add it to any beauty routine, and it will make your skin look ten years younger.

How do you decide where Cos Bar stores will open?

I was and still am catering to a customer base that loves to ski in the winter and vacation in the summer. We started the company in high-end resort towns around the US, but since those are limited we’re now bringing Cos Bar to our clients where they reside year-round. We have a large base of customers in Dallas where we recently opened, as well as Southern California cities like Newport Beach and Brentwood. We always look for markets where we can be the best source of beauty and skincare expertise for those local communities.

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