NEW YORK—Liquid emotion is how industry critic and author Michael Edwards describes fragrance.
And there has never been a better time to go shopping for fragrance. Commercial brands that used to make a big splash in the fragrance market have been getting increasing competition from niche luxury brands. The response from beauty giants like L’Oréal, Coty, and Estée Lauder has been simple: If you can’t beat them, buy them up.
What does this all mean to us consumers?
In the world of personal fragrances, we now have greater possibilities of connecting our ever-fleeting feelings with something material that communicates our state of mind to others around us. Emotion is also what marketing companies clamber to tap into so that the algorithms that record our every internet product search can seamlessly provide us with our hearts’ desires.
Now, more then ever, consumers want more—more choices, more information, and a more customized experience when they shop online and in stores.
Celine Barel, perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., whose latest creation, Norell Elixir, will be launched in August, thinks that what is happening in the fragrance industry is a reflection of what is happening in society: “It’s the same trend with movies, with ready-to-wear fashion; everything is going very fast, and consumers are craving to discover something new every single time they are shopping,” she told the Epoch Times in a recent interview.
“The whole of France was smelling like Trésor, or Paris. Those fragrances are iconic, and I think that all the children at the time had moms that smelled of Paris or Trésor,” she said.
According to Michael Edwards, author of “Fragrances of the World,” over 2,000 fragrances were launched last year alone—more than ever before. But unlike movies or fashion, the dilemma of choosing a suitable scent has only been made harder, albeit more exciting.
Only a fraction of new fragrances will be advertised with flashy campaigns that speak to the masses. The ultimate aim of any advertising campaign is to create the craving for something that isn’t essential.
This is how it is meant to work: the music, the colors, gleaming surfaces, fluttery eyelashes, and silky textures that wrap around a famous star who is in ecstatic throes—all because of a spritz of perfume. There can only be one way out of this stampede of emotions: possession.
But niche brands mostly depend on a combination of written language, images of the bottle, and the actual experience of trying on a scent to be successful. They are marketed like vintage wines that the discerning customer will get to know intimately, relishing the time it takes to find the favorites.
Robert Gerstner, co-owner of the luxury fragrance boutique Aedes Perfumery in the West Village, is a kind of sommelier of fine luxury fragrances. He and business partner Karl Bradl opened the store in 1995 at a time when niche was really niche.
Now, almost 60 percent of worldwide fragrances are niche, Gerstner said, quickly adding that he hates the word niche since it has largely lost its meaning.
Big Brands and Niche
Artisanal fragrance brand Le Labo, the cult favorite Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, and most recently By Killian were bought by Estée Lauder Companies, which is also the parent company of Jo Malone London, Tom Ford Beauty, and Clinique among others. Manzanita, the owner of beauty retail chain SpaceNK, owns French fragrance brand Diptyque and Swedish brand Byredo—both fragrance brands having cult status among connoisseurs.
The big companies have come to need access to the consumers who buy niche. And niche brands, such as Byredo, have the need for better distribution. Is it possible to have the best of both worlds without affecting the quality of high-end luxury products?
Online blogs about fragrance, social media, and an increasingly greater web presence have all contributed to the niche luxury fragrance brands acquiring wider following. Gerstner noticed that the clientele has definitely changed and grown over the years; he also sees a strong trend of customers shopping in person rather than just ordering samples online.
“Because it’s human nature—they want to have an experience. They want to see and they want to smell,” he said.
Aedes Perfumery is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the demand for luxury fragrance buyers. For one, it carries 60 brands and continuously curates the collection so as to highlight upcoming perfumers’ best creations and give them visibility. It also has its own line of fragrances called Aedes de Venustas (meaning temple of beauty in Latin), releasing new ones every year.
Big commercial brands cast a wide net with their advertising, but by definition, the wider the net, the less likely it is to succeed in a market where individuals have cottoned to the idea that the internet can quickly cut through the mass hype and allow each of us to curate our own collections of luxury products. This is unprecedented power. And we are surely putting it to use.
When it comes to the internet, words and pictures come in handy. Scent descriptions are nothing if not evocative. They can be nauseatingly nostalgic and, the good ones, poetic.
“First bitter, then sweet, it’s absinthe of course. As green as wormwood is gray, these two ideas tussle inside me … only to kiss and make up on the skin,” is how perfumer Serge Lutens describes his creation Douce Amère.
Here, the words fall far short of the experience.
“The exceptional Aventus was inspired by the dramatic life of a historic emperor, celebrating strength, power and success. … its iconic name derived from a (“from”) ventus (“the wind”), illustrating the Aventus man as destined to live a driven life, ever galloping with the wind at his back toward success. Aventus is a sophisticated blend for individuals who savor a life well-lived,” is the more poetic part of the description on the brand’s website. The classification? Fruity/Rich.
I may not have fared much better when I first tried it a few years ago and decided it can only be described as fruity but also with a pleasant savory element, like freshly baked bread or slightly burned toast—rich and mysterious. In terms of personality, what it conjured up for me was Alan Alda meets Carmen Miranda, with a dash of Magellan. Apparently, it was Napoleon who served as inspiration—close enough.
Fragrance and the Truth
There are a lot of people with a lot of money trying to get into perfumery, hence a new brand every single day, according to Gerstner. But 99 percent of them are always missing one of the three key ingredients of success, he says.
“First of all, it has to be out of this world. It has to be ‘wow.’ Then, there’s the packaging—very, very important. Thirdly, there has to be a story, or history, or legitimacy behind the brand,” he said.
For example, with En Passant by Frédéric Malle, Gerstner asked its creator, Olivia Giacobetti, what she had in mind when she created the fragrance. “She said: ‘The first day of spring in Paris, walking on [the banks of] the Seine, that was my inspiration.’ So then, the customer can connect,” said Gerstner.
It might not smell like the actual banks of the river, but it does conjure up the lightness and joy of spring in Paris.
For Barel, who interned at Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton on the marketing side of fragrances, she learned about the link between the visual appeal of marketing a fragrance and the brand’s message.
As a perfumer, she puts this knowledge to use when she’s searching for ideas.
“I’m imagining what would be the shape of the fragrance, the color, the name, the user, where the fragrance should take me onto a journey. What is important is what kind of emotion do you want to give to your final consumer,” said Barel. She counts Norell New York, Diana Vreeland’s Perfectly Marvelous, Coach’s Poppy, and Jo Malone’s Vanilla Anise among her wins in the industry.
The Beguilement of Top Notes
With the excitement of experiencing fragrances firsthand comes the overwhelming olfactory onslaught of top notes. They are like the trumpets that announce the entrance of a monarch, equally beguiling as they are ephemeral, since they disappear within minutes.
Barel doesn’t like the connotation of the word beguiling. It comes down to the construction of the architecture of a fragrance, and “the top note is the start of the whole harmony of the fragrance,” she said.
Typically, the top note is made up of very volatile notes such as citrus, green notes, and floral notes, and they are designed to disappear. Knowledgeable customers will spend more time trying the fragrance on their skin.
“It’s only in the heart [the middle note] where you’re going to have the bloom, and finally in the dry-down where you’re going to have the long-lasting signature—the addiction—and you will decide if you’re going to love the perfume,” said Barel.
She added that it is also in the heart and the dry-down that one will be able to leave an olfactory print, or a memory in other people’s minds.
The magic happens when the scent sinks into the skin and mingles with the body’s natural oils. The results can be either divine redolence or cloying reek. The perfumer’s construction can go either way, and it all comes down to the not-so-glamorous subject of skin pH.
It is for this reason that online discussions about the fragrances can vary so wildly. Debates can get downright violent.
But in the search for personal fragrance, it helps to remember that it isn’t world politics that we’re debating. And one man’s or woman’s manna is another person’s nausea.
Time will tell whether Norell Elixir will be added to Celine Barel’s list of wins, and if Aventus for Her recently released by Creed will have the blockbuster qualities of the original Aventus of 2010. Liquid emotion merchants at Aedes Perfumery have their own new releases in the fall.
Beyond the talk of trends and blogs, and the pH of one’s skin, we all vote with cold hard cash—the truest, not necessarily fairest, measure of success. Ironically, the smell of dollar notes has also been captured in a scent. The intriguing miasma is not among Aedes Perfumery’s best sellers, but there must be customers for whom it is a veritable treasure.