How Margot European Spa is Leaving a Beautiful Legacy

More than 40 years ago, Margot Koehler opened Margot European Spa and set the standard for day spas in Detroit. Today, she and her daughter continue the art of balancing beauty, business, and well-being.
Margot Koehler (left) and daughter Ursula Froehlich run the spa. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

The first thing to know about Margot Koehler is that she is not afraid to let her certified public accountant know how things will go. “I have to go to Japan,” she told him one day. “He said, ‘You cannot go to Japan. It is not good financially.’ Of course, I went to Tokyo.”

While 6,397 miles might seem like quite the distance to travel to learn a traditional acupressure technique for lymphatic drainage, to Koehler, it was more than that — it was part of a voracious commitment to women’s well-being.

“I didn’t come from money, but I came from culture,” Koehler says. “And once you come from culture, you have a vision. You do what you want to do.”

The second thing to know about her, especially when it comes to the business of beauty, is that she believes her treatments should be both therapeutic and transformative.

“I want to impress women,” Koehler says one early autumn morning at her namesake business in Birmingham, one of the most celebrated day spas in metro Detroit. Dressed in a boucle jacket and with hair neatly trimmed into a bob, she describes how she sees clients leaving the spa uplifted.

“They don’t know it,” she says, “but they will know once they are on their own. Because once you treat the skin properly, the brain gives you the gift. Did you know that?”

This gift is a balanced mind-body connection. It arises from a healthy lymphatic system that “communicates” with the skin, which is constantly renewing itself. “We get a new set of skin every month” through natural exfoliation, explains Koehler, who originally hails from Heidelberg, Germany. “We call it in German schuppen.”

This process is supported by mineral-rich skin care ingredients, preferably seaweed found along the shorelines of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France. When formulated into the mud masks and body creams found in the spa’s products, Koehler says these naturally occurring minerals create a reaction in the body that relaxes tight muscles, soothes sensitive skin, and even contours the body.

Located at 101 Townsend St., Margot European Spa has treatment rooms named after classical composers, such as Vivaldi, Puccini, Chopin, and Beethoven. It’s a nod to Koehler’s love of classical music. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

Margot European Spa offers an expansive menu of globally inspired treatments, including botanical-infused skin-plumping facials, a seawater hydrotherapy bath accompanied with a lavender massage, and an exfoliating full-body scrub made with sand imported from Bora Bora.

Every day except Sunday, women from all walks of life and as far away as Illinois and Ohio lounge in plush robes and sip Champagne while shuffling to and from their pampering sessions.

It’s a long way from Koehler’s hometown of Heidelberg. Growing up during World War II, a young Koehler was restricted from listening to the radio and accessing other media. Instead, she accompanied her parents to church and
the opera. They also listened to classical music together, an act so formative it still shows in her support of local music station WRCJ (which plays classical music during the day), the naming of her spa’s treatment rooms (Vivaldi, Puccini, Chopin, and Beethoven), and even her love of Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium, which she says is better than performance venues found in Munich and Heidelberg.

There is little else that Koehler recalls of that time other than moments with family: “All I remember is my uncles would say they hoped that Americans [would] come to Heidelberg.”

By the ’60s, with Heidelberg having become the U.S. Army’s European headquarters, there were many Americans around, including Ronald Froehlich, the student from Michigan whom Koehler would marry. In 1962, the two moved to Ann Arbor.

The culture shock of relocating to the Midwest was almost overwhelming, but having trained as an aesthetician in Germany, France, and England, Koehler found work in the beauty department of Jacobson’s Ann Arbor store. While she could legally perform only manicures without a cosmetology license, her manager was impressed with her education and let Koehler give European facials to customers.

However, she had to take an exam to be state-certified. At the time, aestheticians needed a cosmetology license, which required hairdressing skills.

Koehler on a street in downtown Birmingham. The businesswoman, who grew up in Germany during World War II, moved to the U.S. more than 60 years ago. The spa turns 42 next year. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

“I was devastated,” she says. “The first time, I flunked. The second time, I asked for a lawyer. “I said, ‘If you are a podiatrist and you go to another country and, suddenly, they ask you to do hair, how would you feel?’ He said, ‘That is just ridiculous!’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m going through.’”

Determined to pass, Koehler rented a chair at a salon and studied under the owner. She obtained her cosmetology license on the third try and returned to Jacobson’s.

Eventually, she struck out on her own and began seeing clients in private rooms she rented at three different Birmingham salons, including Heidi’s and a salon owned by Olga Loizon of Olga’s Kitchen. In 1980, she opened her first spa location at 280 N. Old Woodward in Birmingham (it’s now at 101 Townsend St.).

In the early days, Koehler kept it simple. Many of her clients had no skin care routine, so Koehler demonstrated the proper way to cleanse the skin and build a regimen. She also softened her tone once she realized her German upbringing made her more direct than her young American clients were used to.

“American women are so beautiful. They have cars and big homes. It was all new to me,” she recalls thinking to herself while settling into American life. “And then I realized they never took care of their skin. So as a young aesthetician in Ann Arbor, I made a commitment to the industry and to women to help them understand that skin care is not a luxury.”

Ursula Froehlich, Koehler’s daughter and the president of Margot European Spa, nods in agreement. “It is not considered a luxury in Europe. You can purchase high-end creams even at drugstores. The women just incorporate it right into their lifestyle.”

American and German culture have always blended seamlessly for Froehlich, who was raised bilingual and spent the first month of every summer vacation visiting relatives in Germany. Growing up in the ’70s, Froehlich saw firsthand how her mother approached the beauty industry with precision and science. When she was a preteen, she used the private label skin care line Koehler developed with a chemist.

With skin care being such a focus in their household, Froehlich remembers
crying at her first breakout. “I said, ‘You can come for a facial,’” Koehler recalls. “She said, ‘Oh no, I have to go to someone who knows what they’re doing.’”

Photograph by Brad Ziegler

“Teenagers!” Froehlich exclaims. “I don’t remember saying that. But at 13 you say things sometimes.”

In her 20s, Froehlich accompanied Koehler on work trips to Paris and German spa town Baden-Baden, but she planned on being a schoolteacher. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English from Oakland University, she realized the classroom was not for her. Instead, Froehlich gravitated toward experiential learning, something she saw in abundance while traveling with Koehler.

“It was important that Ursula learn [about skin care] from chemists — hands-on,” Koehler says. “Do you know how great that is for a young person?” For Froehlich, the experience was transformative: “Once you have that training, you’re excited to share it.”

For the mother-and-daughter duo, the business is as much about empowerment as it is about legacy. Froehlich, who began working at the spa in 1984, is taking on more leadership responsibilities as Koehler steps back from daily operations to focus on speaking engagements and spa education. She will continue to see clients by special appointment.

“My current goal as successor is to continue to support Margot’s philosophy of educating clients and offering the best spa experience possible,” Froehlich says. “Clients can look forward to long-awaited spa updates and new services.”

Both agree on how grateful they are for their clients and how proud they are of their staff. So proud that Koehler had to let her CPA know once again how things would go one Christmas, when she wanted to host all 34 staff members on the seventh floor of the Detroit Athletic Club.

“My CPA said, ‘You cannot do this,’ and I said, ‘We have to,’ because I wanted them to see how Detroit is so gorgeous, so they can feel how Detroit is coming back.”

This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.