Modern Original People – Lydia Sarfati

Repêchage founder and CEO Lydia Sarfati is the perfect combination of brains and beauty. Whip-smart and fiercely determined, she built her skin care empire through hard work and tenacity, but in 1977 when she went to CitiBank for a loan to finance her own skin care salon and, hopefully, a product line, she was told that the bank wouldn’t lend money to a woman. So, she asked her husband, David (she calls him her banker, then laughs) if he believed in her enough to borrow $30,000 so she could go into business for herself. He did, and she opened Klisar Skin Care Salon in New York City on September 16, 1977. Lydia came to the United States from her native Poland (her parents were Holocaust survivors) on June 16, 1970. She launched Repêchage at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan on July 16, 1980. Starting to see numerological pattern here? Lydia, who believes in destiny, not coincidence, does. One thing’s for certain: If there’s power in numbers, Lydia has harnessed it.

She tells a funny story about how she met her husband, who had come to the United States from Israel with a friend. The plan was to drive across country and see as much of America as they could before going home. Those plans changed when David met the woman who became the love of his life. Ah, destiny. So, Lydia was taking ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in New York where she met an Israeli girl named Helen, who had this friend she wanted Lydia to meet.

“She said, ‘I want to make a blind date for you,’” Lydia recalls. “In my beginner’s English, I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what that was, so I just assumed he was blind.” When David didn’t show up at the Brooklyn disco where they’d agreed to meet, Helen made a phone call. “They were talking in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand, but he wanted to apologize, so I took the phone. He said he was sorry, but that he was playing cards with some friends and couldn’t just leave the game because he was winning and they’d kill him if he left with all their money. Now, I’m laughing hysterically because I realized that he wasn’t blind.” But when David, who had apparently fallen in love with her laugh, asked for a second chance, her response was an emphatic, “No way!” She remembers thinking, “The guy stood me up.”

Still, he persisted, getting her number from Helen and calling her at home. Let’s just say that he called a lot, and then he showed up on her doorstep with flowers. “Today, they’d call that stalking,” says Lydia, and her laugh is hearty and infectious. Still, their attraction was “immediate and magnetic.” As it turns out, David had come to the United States exactly one year before her on June 16, 1969. Coincidence? Lydia thinks not. They married in September, 1972, at “one of the cheesiest wedding halls in Brooklyn.” All of her parents’ friends and relatives were immigrants, and most of them didn’t speak English, and when they saw David walk down the aisle with a huge mustache (it was the ‘70s after all) and a hat and cane like Charlie Chaplin, they were certain that she’d lost her mind. Thinking about it still makes her laugh.

Back at their apartment that night, they counted the cash they’d received as wedding gifts. The amount, $30,000, was a small fortune in 1972. David’s suggestion? “Honey, let’s have a good time.” So, they did, buying first-class tickets to San Francisco and staying at a five-star hotel, ordering champagne and $20 peanuts from room service. From there they went to Las Vegas where they saw Shirley Bassey and Bobby Darin, offering $100 tips to get the best seats in the house.

“We had a blast,” says Lydia, “but we came home totally broke.” Still, she thinks of their behavior, which seemed reckless at the time, as a cleansing. “David was in the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967, I had been deported from my country, and from 1968 to 1969, I lived with my family in one room,” she says. “So, when we had the opportunity to go crazy, we did.”

Back in Manhattan, they buckled down and got to work. David became manager of a large chain of retail stores, while Lydia made a name for herself as an esthetician (she’d studied chemistry and esthetics in Poland). In 1975, she landed an important position at Keane, a skin care salon between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. “We had a full floor with 12 facial rooms and a depilatory area,” says Lydia, who trained and managed all of the estheticians on staff. She also did press and met beauty editors for dinner. In the meantime, she earned her cosmetology degree, which allowed her to work in the United States.

When she finally opened her own salon in 1977, she worked from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. Two of her clients at the time were in public relations, and one of them offered to do PR for her in exchange for free facials. “I consider myself lucky that so many women back then were championing my salon,” says Lydia, who had written a pamphlet called “The Truth About Skin Care,” which she gave to her clients. At the time, no one was educating women about how to care for their skin, and beauty editors took note. In 1978 Voguenamed Lydia the Best Esthetician in the United States. Its first year in business, Klisar provided more than 22,000 treatments and had a waiting list of three to four months.

In those early days, romantic evenings with her husband often consisted of commandeering the 12 washers and dryers in the basement of their apartment building in Bayside, Queens, where they washed all the laundry from the salon. “David would be falling asleep, and I’d be ironing the sheets,” she says. It was exhausting, and Robert Oppenheim, then President of Clairol, suggested that Lydia might want to consider an idea he had. “Kiddo, you’re going to work yourself to death doing what you’re doing,” he told her. “Find a way to teach other people how to duplicate your methods, and you’ll make money.”

She took his advice, and the rest, as they say, is history. On a trip to Israel with David, Lydia discovered that because seaweed was being used as a bio-stimulant and fertilizer, vegetables not only grew but also flourished in the desert. “My wheels started turning,” she remembers, “and I wondered what seaweed, which is a living thing after all, could do for the skin.” To find out, she went to France where seaweed was being harvested, and worked with a team of scientists there to create a “beautiful concept” called the Four Layer Facial, which became the company’s premier anti-aging treatment. It still is.

So how did she come up with the name, Repêchage? Lydia laughs when she remembers how she sat in a beauty editor friend’s living room drinking wine and brainstorming ideas. “I suggested Resurrection,” says Lydia, “because I thought that this facial could be a second chance for your skin, but she said no to that idea. Then she went into her bedroom and came back with a dictionary.” After a lot of hit-and-miss, they came upon the word repêchage, which means “second chance” in French. Bingo!

Today, Repêchage is a global company, and she and her husband, who joined the company in an official capacity in 1996, travel the world together preaching the gospel of seaweed-based skin care. They have two daughters—Ires and Shiri—and four grandchildren, who have very distinct personalities. Her youngest grandson, who is five, has decided to wear a bowtie everywhere, even to the playground. “It’s his thing,” says Lydia, who describes her grandchildren as “simply delicious.”

When she’s in New York, Lydia hosts Shabbat dinners at her apartment on Friday night. She does all the cooking herself. “We are all so busy going in different directions that these dinners give us time to share a meal and share stories.”

So, after 47 years of wedded bliss, what’s her secret. “Separate bathrooms,” she says without hesitation, followed by that contagious laugh of hers. “When we first got married, I told David that we could be poor but that we could never share a bathroom.” She got her wish.