Thanks to its retail director and buyer, Rita Sayegh, Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary is perhaps one of the only metro Detroit businesses where customers can buy local fragrances, Korean skincare, and candles in the shape of French aristocrats all at the same boutique. Sayegh, who joined Mills in 2010 after working in graphic arts for 17 years, has helped the more than 70-year-old pharmaceutical business transform into a local beauty haven that now operates a flagship location in Birmingham, a store at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and a pop-up in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. Sayegh recently spoke with Hour Detroit about Midwest beauty, her curatorial process for buying, and the retail revolution in Detroit.
Hour Detroit: There’s a perception that beauty doesn’t exist in the Midwest the same way it does on the coasts, so where do you see Mills fitting into the national landscape?
Rita Sayegh: Those stereotypes are based on some sort of reality, because the products that show up in California and New York, do take a while to get to the Midwest. If I just remained here waiting for the products to come to me, I think it would work in the same way. Instead, we’re working to get Mills out to trade shows, to be recognizable, to be a player in the industry. We’re checking to see what’s coming in from Europe, what’s coming in from Japan, and then bringing them back to the Midwest. Our brick-and-mortars are here, but our online presence is everywhere. We get orders from New York and L.A., all of those places where you’d think “They’re pretty set. They don’t need anything from us.”
What is your thought process like when deciding what brands to carry?
You have to follow trends, but then within that, can you do anything that’s different. I really go out of my way to try to find something that the next store isn’t carrying. Individuality is such a big deal to me. People sometimes think that they have to fit into a mold to be accepted, and I think you kind of have to do the exact opposite. The more different you are, the more unique you are, I think that tells a lot about you as a brand. I think the first thing [beauty brands] need to do is look and feel different from everybody else, because that’s what any buyer is judging on.
You also stock a selection of products made in metro Detroit?
For me, cultivating local talent is important because of my background in the arts. People always think “Of course France and Italy and Japan [have great products],” but then when people walk in and see Kerosene Fragrances — that’s the thing they beeline for because they’re packaged so beautifully that they just know it’s this expensive fragrance — and I go “Oh, that’s from Marysville,” and they’re like “what?” They just can’t believe it, or that Sfumato [Fragrances] are from Detroit or Burton and Levy are Cranbrook-designed handmade combs. When there’s somebody who comes in to visit us that isn’t from the Detroit area and we say, “This beauty product is from Detroit” — that for me is extra-gratifying.
What is it about Detroit that makes it an ideal spot for boutiques like Mills to expand?
I think Detroit is a really sophisticated place, we just don’t have any opportunities to kind of showcase that yet. We’re just getting there. I feel like the opportunities are just starting to unfold. The dawn of independent boutiques that exists now — I hope that doesn’t go away like some other cities. That’s what makes it vibrant and special.
What can independent boutiques do to stay relevant as metro Detroit evolves?
If you come to me, and I provide you really great service and a very personal touch, then it’s kind of hard to go anywhere else. Even at the pharmacy, it’s always how we’ve differentiated ourselves. You can go to CVS and get the same exact medicine and have the same prescription, but the only difference is the experience. People will write on our Facebook page, “They have the nicest staff, and they remember me.” It seems cutesy and 1950s [laughs], but that’s the thing that separates us. When you have a brick-and-mortar store, have a unique idea. If you’re selling something that a lot of other people sell, do it well and do it a little differently. How many times have you walked into a store, and nobody even acknowledges that you’re in the store? That’s the least you can do to make somebody feel welcome. It boils down to experience. You’re going into an independent store for a different point of view, for a different curatorial experience, and to find the cool little things that you can pick up and say, “I’ve never seen this before.” You kind of can’t do that at Nike, but we all need tennis shoes eventually [laughs].
Top 5 Beauty Picks
Check out her must-have products, available at Mills Pharmacy and Apothecary this season.
Collosol Eau de Lait
I love a product that does more than one thing. This is a makeup remover, facial cleanser, and milky toner all in one.
Lothantique Tree Brush
We’ve carried this brush for years. It’s a perfectly designed body brush that is great for dry-brushing or for use in the shower. I never get tired of looking at it.
Lubin Paris Eau de Parfum in Grisette
This modern rose, cedar, and amber blend is for the liberated woman. It’s ultra-feminine with distinct personality.
T. LeClerc Pressed Powder Classic Compact in Banane
A bit of “Belle Époque” design in your handbag, this rice powder-based formula in the Banane shade illuminates every skin tone.
Coqui Coqui Room Diffuser in Tabaco
From the beloved Perfumeria in Valladolid, Mexico, this scent is warm, sweet, and stripped back.