Nicky Kinnaird: 'I'm obsessed with research – I want to read about everything, learn everything. I was born curious'

Rebecca Gonsalves talks to Space NK founder Nicky Kinnaird

The beauty world has changed exponentially in the past two decades – aesthetically, technologically, but most of all commercially – largely thanks to Nicky Kinnaird, the founder of Space NK. Gone are the customers beholden to the commission-focused, orange-faced harridans that stalked their prey at beauty counters nationwide. In their stead are women who are more educated and informed not only about the options open to them but the science behind said products, and choice is no longer at a premium.

After all, however committed you are to a brand, it's unlikely that every item in your make-up bag will bear its name. In reality, most women prefer to cherry-pick products from a selection of their favourite brands. “I don't believe one brand offers the top-to-toe solution,” says Kinnaird. “It's not in a sales associate on a monobrand counter's interest to refer you to another counter, so you're never getting the best solution there.”

With knowledgeable staff trained across every brand in stock, Space NK, the beauty boutique which now boasts more than 60 locations across the UK, 21 outposts in the US and a dedicated online presence, is known as a go-to destination for beauty junkies. Which isn't a surprise, as Kinnaird herself is one of them, highly active and constantly on the hunt for the next big development, and almost evangelical about her findings. “I'm obsessed with research – I want to read about everything, learn everything,” she says. “I think I was born curious.” Indeed, Kinnaird knows the story behind every brand stocked – impressive for the head of an organisation of this scale – and is “obsessive” about educating staff and customers alike.

Kinnaird grew up in Northern Ireland in the Seventies, but it was her family's annual holidays to Valencia that first got her hooked on the “blindingly obvious” approach that was such a novelty when she eventually brought it home. “We used to go to the local pharmacy, and she'd recommend a variety of different brands that all seemed to work. When you were looking for a fine fragrance, you'd go to the perfumery and she would talk about the history of some of the fragrances and romance of the whole thing because she knew everything about it.”

It is an inescapable fact that the majority of products stocked in Space NK fall into the luxury (read: pricey) sector of the beauty market, but when Kinnaird first set up her business – in a former banana warehouse in Covent Garden – it was a lifestyle store offering designer clothes and a juice bar alongside cult beauty products. After three years, beauty, seen by Kinnaird as a natural extension of fashion, became the focus. Since that time, she has introduced to her customers brands such as By Terry, Laura Mercier, Chantecaille and Eve Lom.

Kinnaird is understandably proud of an approach that puts the customer at the heart of the solution, “It's about really drilling down to meet the customers' needs and also educate at the same time,” she says. “I love it when customers bring their make-up bags in and say 'can you refresh me?' We want to fit in with existing routines rather than tossing the baby out with the bath water.”

An advocate of a holistic approach to beauty, when we meet Kinnaird she raves about one of her latest discoveries – an organic powdered ginger, a creation of the founder of Fiji Water David Gilmore. “He's always been into health, wellbeing, fitness – he's around his early 80s, but when you see him you'll think he's 15 years younger,” she confides. Consumed as a dietary supplement or applied topically, Kinnaird enthuses about the long list of ailments and aches this will rectify. “I'm very much in favour of a 'from within' approach as well as topical application,” she says. “I think that's where the world is moving.” When Kinnaird speaks, understandably many sit up and listen – her seemingly prophetic powers are based on continuous research.

Where the UK once lagged behind its counterparts across the pond, Kinnaird believes that a sea change means the beauty business is no longer considered frivolous and, importantly, full of artifice: “The old formulas – quite frankly you could be dead before you see some visible change in the skin,” she admits. “Taking care of your appearance is important – first impressions do count, and as economic conditions are a little more challenging, when people are going for interviews or relating to others in businesses, people are making judgements on how you are put together and there is an expectation of good grooming as a matter of course.”

Indeed, earlier this month, figures from the trade organisation Cosmetic Executive Women UK put the beauty industry's worth to the UK at £17bn and a million people jobs. However, Kinnaird adds, reassuringly: “I'm not saying we've got to the American obsessiveness. In certain areas, we never will. But it's heading there – if you look at the plethora of nail bars and blow-dry bars that are coming to light here, juice cleansing is coming, alternative forms of exercise, too.”

“It seems like forever since we started, and yesterday at the same time,” she muses. “We're constantly moving forward – it's like years are a number, rather than anything else. We just keep going.” And long may she continue.

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