If you take the line that true luxury is about a refined appeal to the senses and not the mindless pursuit of brand names, then the perfume market represents something of an anomaly. The perfumes you come across most often bear the names of design houses:Givenchy, Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, etc. As none of the designers (and of the ones I have mentioned, only RL still runs his own houses; the rest have either sold out, are dead or both) is a ‘nose’ or a fragrance expert, you begin to wonder why you should buy a perfume that sports the name of a man who made his fortune from men’s underwear or somebody whose chief claim to fame is a polo shirt.
The truth is that most perfumes are no more than profit-centres for fashion houses that trade on the hype surrounding the designers. The theory goes something like this: Everybody associates high fashion with style and luxury and wants to buy into that dream. Unfortunately, haute couture is accessible only to the very rich, even prêt costs too much for ordinary people. So, why not invent a product that is invested with the reputation of the fashion house and seems luxurious, but is relatively affordable and so, can reach a large market?
That’s the basis of the perfume industry. The packaging, the shape of the bottle and the ad campaign are often more important than the fragrance itself. And in most cases, the ‘juice’ (as the trade refers to the perfume) costs a mere 8% or so of the retail price.
A successful perfume is a licence to print money. For decades, even as the clothes faded from public memory, the Givenchy and Christian Dior brands were kept alive by the best-selling fragrances. Even today, most of us have no idea of who Thierry Mugler is. But we recognize the distinctive smell of his Angel, the best-selling fragrance in France.
How does an underwear-maker like Calvin Klein learn how to compose a fragrance? Short answer: he doesn’t. Somebody at the fashion house thinks of a name for the perfume. The marketeers plot its character (“flowery and feminine” or “dark and sexy”) and even think of a basic marketing campaign. This brief is given to chemical companies that specialize in designing fragrances (Quest International or International Flavours and Fragrances are among the best).
The scientists and experts at these houses come up with various formulations that they believe will reflect the qualities contained in the brief. These are then offered to the fashion house, which selects one and launches it as the new perfume.
It is trendy now to laugh at the conglomerates. But many of them employ great perfumers and some of the world’s best-selling fragrances have been invented by them. For instance, Calvin Klein’s Escape was created by Ann Gottlieb, employed by a fragrance multinational.
Some traditional fashion houses frown on this overtly commercial method of creating perfumes. At Chanel, for instance, all fragrances are composed solely by the legendary Jacques Polge. The old-style perfumers laugh at the scientists and say that they use too many synthetic molecules, unlike traditional houses which use only natural ingredients.
This is a predictable position but the perfume world is too complicated for such simplistic posturing. Three years ago, I spent an afternoon with Jacques Polge and was forced to re-examine many of my preconceptions. First of all, he said, he felt no snobbery about the conglomerates. His own son worked for International Flavours and Fragrances, and many great perfumes had come out of the fragrance factories. Secondly, he added, the tradition of a fragrance expert approaching a clothing designer with various formulations is almost as old as the business itself. Ernest Beaux made up various fragrances for Coco Chanel. She chose the fifth bottle and Chanel No. 5 was born.
Thirdly, while Chanel always sources the best natural ingredients, there are some smells that simply cannot be extracted from natural sources. One of Chanel’s most treasured fragrances is called Gardenia. But because nobody has worked out how to bottle the smell of the gardenia flower, it depends on a synthetic approximation of the smell. Similarly, Diorissimo was commissioned by Christian Dior in 1956 to capture the smell of his favourite flower, the lily of the valley. But again, nobody can bottle the real smell. So, all lily of the valley fragrances (including Diorissimo) are made out of synthetic molecules.
About a decade ago, discerning consumers began moving away from what were contemptuously referred to as duty-free shop fragrances and finding boutique perfumers. Some, like Creed, were already well-established. My favourites—L’Artisan Parfumier, Annick Goutal and Serge Lutens—are of more recent origin. Polge had predicted that this would be the future of fragrance.
Three years later, he has acted on that vision. Chanel always had two categories of fragrance. Some, like Chanel No. 5 or Allure, were sold everywhere. Others—like Gardenia— were only available in Chanel boutiques. Now, Polge has invented a whole new set of boutique-only fragrances called Les Exclusifs. The six new perfumes will only be made available at select stores and they represent Chanel’s attempt to crack the boutique market.
Because Polge is a genius, the fragrances are truly exquisite in their complexity. But will they replace the old duty-free shop standbys? I don’t know. I agree that mass-market perfumes can be a scam and mere profit-centres for fashion houses.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes, smell is everything. How else do you explain that my two favourite perfume launches of the last couple of years, (the reformulation of Miss Dior as Cherie and Tom Ford’s Black Orchid) are aimed not at the boutiques but at the mass market?
My view is: never mind the commercial motives. If you like the smell, then that’s all that matters.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org