With a passionate commitment to both beauty and freedom, Frenchman Dominique Mondonaud launched a cosmetics store in France in the 1980s. At that time, he saw both qualities lacking in the way in which beauty products - especially fragrances - were being sold in his country.

Mondonaud's retail creation, Sephora, now accounts for 22% of the entire beauty business in France. The company opened its first U.S. store in New York's SoHo district in July 1998. The growth has been so explosive since then that Sephora is now opening a store a week.

By year's end there will be 50 U.S. stores, including a three-level, 21,000 sq. ft. flagship in Rockefeller Center opening in October. The average Sephora store is 4,000 to 4,500 sq. ft. The 10,200 sq. ft. Las Vegas store, located in The Venetian Casino Resort, is currently the largest.

"This is the largest beauty market in the world," says Howard Meitiner, president and CEO of Sephora. "It's a market one has to be a major player in. You can't afford to open just one or two stores because you won't mean anything."

Aiming to make a splash, Sephora stores feature a dramatic black, white and red decor that highlights three distinct "worlds": fragrance, beauty and well-being. At the store entrance are the bath and body products, potpourri and scented candles, and stylish empty boxes for creating customized gift packages.

Further into the store is a color palette, including 200 shades of private-label nail lacquers in tiny bottles and 350 shades of private-label lipsticks in sleek cases. Then come the familiar prestige makeup lines, such as Christian Dior. Men's and women's perfumes, displayed in alphabetical order, line opposite walls, leading to an extensive array of skin care products in the brightly lit, clean white space at the back of the shop.

"The whole concept is built around freedom," Meitiner explains. "What we've added here is a sense of discovery."

Every product is out in the open, and every product can be sampled. The Sephora environment encourages customers to browse and play for hours undisturbed, gathering goodies in shallow wire baskets lined with black cloth. "It's like an adult playground," Meitiner says. "We find people stay in the store for very long periods of time because they're having such fun."

Meitiner points to the aggressive selling style of cosmetics sales associates in department stores. "We are a complete contrast," he says. "When we first opened in the United States, the customers thought they were being ignored by our sales associates. They were so used to being pounded away at. None of our people are on commission; they are all there to provide service. This is not a theoretical freedom."

Trained staff members help customers by offering advice and product education, as well as packaging samples and doing makeovers. Dressed in black pants outfits, Sephora associates wear a black glove on one hand to enhance each product as it is displayed while removing smudges from it.

Says Meitiner, "Given the wonderful reaction we've had from customers, even without brand advertising, it's a concept that resonates with the American consumer, who seems to love the whole notion of freedom and beauty. We're offering value, but we're also offering the whole experience."

Contact: Howard Meitiner, president and CEO, Sephora Americas/Asia/Pacific, First Market Tower, 525 Market St., 33rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-2708; (415) 977-4300.