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BY DESIGN : The Faces of Success : Oats. Apple juice. Powdered milk. Using raw ingredients like these, three L.A. skin care chefs have cooked up products that are winning fans.

October 13, 1994|LAURIE DRAKE / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the beauty business, a woman's place is in the kitchen (that being just another word for lab). In the first half of this century, the grande dames of cosmetics--Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder--started out behind the stove, cooking up batches of face cream from scratch. The results--Creme Valaze, Venetian Cream and Super Rich All Purpose Creme, respectively--launched cosmetic empires.

That tradition continues, with a new generation of skin-care chefs concocting what they hope will be the ubiquitous creams of tomorrow. Using such ingredients from the larder as oats, cucumbers, apple juice and nonfat dry milk, these local entrepreneurs have more in common with their famous forebears than do such cosmetics upstarts as Donna Karan, who introduced a skin-care line this year with the help of a dermatologist--and a reported $4-million advertising budget. The only form of promotion these Los Angeles women can afford is word of mouth. Here are three who are making people talk.

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Call it the Eastern European connection. Helena Rubinstein, who was born in Poland, admitted to a biographer that "lots of Romanians and Hungarians--clever with skin--taught me masses."

A native of Romania, Mariana Chicet studied cosmetic chemistry and skin care for two years at a Bucharest college, then immigrated to Los Angeles in 1979 at age 27. Tucked among her belongings was a 100-year-old formula for what would become Bone Marrow Cream, an "anti-wrinkle" emollient that is now her bestseller.

Chicet started her career here by giving facials and invested those earnings into electric mixers, she says. "One gallon, then five gallon, then 10." Her signature product line was born.

Today, the bottles line the window of her small eponymous store on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles, where three full-time aestheticians perform 85 facials a week. Chicet is too busy doing skin consultations and visiting her lab near Cal State L.A. to do much hands-on work these days.

Chicet is candid about her "secret" ingredients. A local meat packer supplies the beef bones ("they have to be fresh") from which workers extract the oil for Bone Marrow Cream. The seaweed in her Fresh Sea Plant Mask is imported from Japan and crushed gently in a special mixer. Moisturizers such as collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid come from a Swiss pharmaceuticals firm. Prices range from $7.50 for Emollient Cleanser to $25.50 for Day and Night Revitalizing Concentrate.

Every couple of months, Chicet and her husband, who oversees the lab, order small production runs--350 jars of Bone Marrow Cream, 600 bottles of Nutrient Milk Cleanser--to fill demand. Although they could expand the business through outside investors and boost their $200,000 in annual sales, "investors cut corners," Chicet says. "They would say, 'Why do you use so much collagen, 33%, in your Day and Night Concentrate?' "

So she does it her way. With a celebrity clientele that includes Linda Evangelista, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Nicole Kidman, Judy Davis, Stephanie Zimbalist and Lara Flynn Boyle, she must be doing something right.

Mariana Chicet/Natural European Skin Care Products and Treatments; (213) 651-0979 or (213) 651-0291.

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Just as Estee Lauder's Hungarian uncle provided her with the original formula for Super Rich All Purpose Creme, Arcona Devan's Scandinavian grandmother handed down the recipes that would form the backbone of her company.

Born in what was East Germany, Arcona, who goes by her first name only, studied premed and worked as a medical technician in Munich before moving to Los Angeles 20 years ago. She found a job at a hospital in the Valley but had less success finding the right night cream.

"I've always had the most problematic skin," she says, "because it's sensitive, thin and oily--the most difficult skin to treat. Especially in Southern California, with the smog and the heat. Then I remembered my grandmother. Once a week she'd make a very powerful sugar solution and put it on her face. Sometimes she'd use white wine. Of course, both are natural acids. She had the most beautiful skin."

Grandma also left a legacy of cornmeal scrubs, yogurt packs, egg yolk (or egg white) facials and vinegar- or lemon-juice-based toners.

Arcona began giving "holistic" facials out of her house in 1986 using her homemade products, then hooked up with a chemist who added "scientific substances" to the formulas. The Arcona Skin and Beauty Therapy line was launched in 1989 and is produced today in a local lab, with names that evoke an earlier era: Golden Grain Gommage (an exfoliator containing lemon peel, oats and cornmeal), Toner Tea Bar (green tea extract), Desert Mist (with mucin) and Magic Green Ice (the mystery ingredient is shark cartilage). Prices range from $25 for Glissando Body Lotion to $45 for the Solution, featuring glycolic acid.

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