Can perfume ever become a luxury again?

Scents have come to rely on fashion brands to propel them into the limelight, but is it possible to bring the perfumers back to prominence in the luxury sector?

Philippe Mihailovich
Philippe Mihailovich

What happened?
When working in the fragrance industry, I was always proud to claim a French fine perfume heritage from my distinguished ancestors. These ancestors were creating perfumes in the little mediæval fortified village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup—famed for its violet—near the mythical village of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, at the the end of the 19th century.
The growing success of perfume at that time expanded the need for fresh plant extracts and Grasse began to move into an industrial phase, by specializing in the raw materials of perfume and adapting the principles of the Industrial Revolution to suit this process. Synthetic substances—original reproductions of natural materials already used in perfume—became available to perfumers at very low prices.
This was considered the golden age of perfumery in Grasse, but for the local producers of aromatic plants, it was the beginning of the end. Today the flavour and fragrance industry is dominated by Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, Symrise, and to a lesser extent, Takasago, all global aroma-chemical giants that tend to employ the world’s leading ‘noses’.

The demise of designer dominance?
In the updated edition of The Luxury Strategy (Kapferer and Bastien), the authors present ‘the perfume business model’ and the importance of ‘the haute couture-luxury perfume coupling.’
They suggest that ‘there are very few great luxury perfume houses that are not linked to haute couture’ and that although luxury perfumes may have wonderful, complex, captivating scents, the dream that they carry is not—in our modern society—supported by the smell, but by the universe created by a great couturier.
This is not to say that they don’t recognize the successes—albeit short-term—of celebrity perfumes. But overall they argue that brands generally do not communicate about the scent or ingredients, but choose instead image or universe—the dream. They suggest the two strategies left for brands today are either to enter into mass distribution or to control distribution by establishing mono-brand retail outlets.
‘“Is the perfume business model doomed in the long-term?’ they ask—and continue to suggest—that perfume has been dethroned by the Ipod as the gift product. With the interbreeding of luxury and premium, perfume houses progressively began to abandon the codes of luxury and that the greats of luxury perfume are no longer perfumers but couturiers.
Perfumes are “launched” like a new fashion or beauty collection, with no time to construct the dream and nurture it. Louis Vuitton they argue, should it ever launch a perfume, could have a real success given that they only sell products in company-owned retail outlets, particularly given the size of their retail network.
Since designers such as Worth, Fath, Chanel et al entered into this category, perfume has become a fashion accessory and Paris soon became the first capital of perfume. But in the modern age, what do fashion designers know about perfume? Yes they add to the image and dream, but so did the elaborate bottles from Baccarat and Lalique.
During the 20th century when advertising ruled, fragrance provided the perfect opportunity to fund the image-building activities of a luxury brand whilst offering an opportunity to the masses to buy into the brand’s aura and universe, but now the world is changing faster than ever.
Already we have seen how Angel perfume suffered when its’ controlling company Clarins shut down Thierry Mugler’s fashion maison. The marketing team at that time seemed to think the brand could manage without the fashion creator and maison. Well, how many babies can a perfume have? Though Nicola Formicetti and Lady Gaga have managed to regenerate the fashion element somewhat (and have since left), to re-enter luxury will be another challenge.

Who nose?
In the ‘Hauteluxe’ series it was suggested that the only sustainable trend in “luxury” is upwards—towards the haute—high, high! Luxury is less about hype and more about showing the best that a human being or brand can make. Thanks to the information age, high-end consumers are becoming more and more knowledgeable, more connoisseur and more discerning.
To them, brands are for those who don’t know any better—brands being for those lacking in knowledge, confidence or culture. The more educated consumers become, the more they tend to seek out the best in a field, and as such, they tend to seek out the great masters—specialists in specific fields.
Should we not therefore be expecting the best perfumers to become the stars of their own creations instead of celebrity fashion creators or entertainment stars? The “timepiece” cognoscenti have long been seeking out winners of haute horologerie awards and we have witnessed the reemergence of the haute joaillerie category with big luxury brands rushing to enter into that higher world where craftsmanship is appreciated as art.
Serge Lutens, the ex-international image creator for Shiseido and former artistic director of Dior who began his career making theatre props and then becoming a outstanding photographer, was one of the first to begin the trend back to haute parfumerie in the ’90s. True, expert maisons such as Guerlain (established 1828) have always enjoyed a specialized legitimacy in this field, but to many was just considered “old” and perhaps already relatively downgraded to premium.
Continuing our focus on trendsetters, in 2003 the talented perfumer Olivia Giacobetti—who had worked for Dior, Robertet and others—launched Iunx, the most beautiful art-gallery-like outlet of personal and home fragrances, backed by Shiseido. In 2006, it closed, mostly because of a bad location—few tourists passing by and no parking for wealthy Parisians living in the west—and now only a limited selection of the fragrances are available at the Hotel Costes fragrance boutique in Paris.
Yet JAR, a little perfume store near Place Vendôme founded by high jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal—whose jewellery costs upwards of $200,000—offers perfumes as affordable accessories, which can only be purchased in person at his jewellery-like boutique. Though his fragrances cost upwards of $200 an ounce, he is without a dedicated perfume background. Maison and location are obviously key factors, but so is his stunning little bottle.
Then came Frédéric Malle with a concept I wish I had thought of—to offer the world’s best perfumers, mostly all employed by the giant aroma-chemical companies, to create the best perfume they can ever make, with no price constraint, that will carry their own names and reputations but under Malle’s brand umbrella concept.
Taking the traditional machinery used to evaluate washing powder fragrances into his stores, it comes across as innovative and futuristic. Sadly, as with other “perfumer” brands, the bottles are all laboratory-looking and lack dream value, perhaps to emphasize the scent as the star. But thanks to these innovators, a new category of “niche” perfumer-as-star-designer-brands were born.
Nowadays, fashion designers are feeling pressure to reveal which nose they have collaborated with to create their latest scent. Perhaps understanding that it is not very sexy to mention an aroma-chemical corporation such as IFF, Gaultier, Ellie Saab and Rick Owens have all decided to collaborate with rising star perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian, who has his own maison near the Place Vendôme. Of course, no press releases mention his day job at Takasago, a company producing chemical flavorants and fragrances.

The Hermès approach
Hermès, the French ‘quality’ brand, has realized that it makes commercial sense to launch accessible perfumes but also understands that to have legitimacy in the field, it should have its own in-house perfumer but not necessarily its own perfume manufacturing facility.
It also understands that it should be protecting its core customers from the aspiring ones, and in the spirit of true hierarchy, the brand segments its perfumes into three key levels based on the luxury maison concept. At the “ground floor window” level, they introduce fashionable trend perfumes supported by TV ads and distributed widely, often through duty-free.
But they also offer single-note, simple-construction Unisex fragrances according to themes, chosen by their perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, for those who appreciate natural scents that are timeless but fit in with the brand codes and universe. These are internally termed as ‘first-floor fragrances’.
The “top-floor” fragrances are only available at Hermès stores and are complex fine fragrances—the best their nose can make—designed to totally encompass all the sacred codes of the brand and enhance its universe. A smart formula, however as customers don’t know about it, gravity tend to pull the whole image down to the ground floor.

The Vuitton vision
To an extent, Kapferer and Bastien are right about Vuitton. It is unimaginable to think that the world’s most famous Parisian luxury brand does not have a fragrance. It should be a no-brainer, but the brand management team are seriously smart and cautious. As much as they need to achieve maximum profitability from the brand, they cannot risk destroying it.
Firstly, they always felt that they needed critical mass in terms of retail outlets to justify introducing a fragrance (isn’t that mass thinking?). Secondly, as Japan has long represented over 60 per cent of their turnover, and the Japanese represent about 2 per cent of the world’s fragrance market, it was not easy to justify. Thirdly, in the ’20s and ’30s Vuitton did introduce fragrances but they were flops. Finally, they would need to win back the respect of the French. Should the brand really risk introducing perfumes again?
If the brand were to follow conventional wisdom, they would surely consider the Hermès approach, coupled with the fact that they have close to 500 boutiques worldwide and thanks to the BRIC countries, Japan now represents a smaller proportion of their turnover. So surely the first step would be to employ an in-house nose to provide roots and legitimacy to their brand in the fragrance sector, for the same reasons that Vuitton employed Marc Jacobs and Lorenz Bäumer to stretch their brand into the fashion and high jewellery sectors respectively. The specialist heads provide the roots of legitimacy.
So Vuitton went on to hire Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, a third-generation perfumer from Grasse (ex-Firmenich) known for his creations for Issey Miyake, YSL, Christian Dior, Gaultier and Stella McCartney. With their retail outlets and star perfumer, does the brand have enough legitimacy to re-enter the fragrance field? To make sure, Louis Vuitton went one step further.
They bought an 18th-century manor house in Grasse known as the Bastide des Fontaines Parfumées that once produced perfume and had since become a Côté d’Azur residence for celebrity visitors. In this “château” they house their perfumer—who may rework their old fragrances as well as introduce new ones—to run a perfume school and invite celebrities to visit and co-create fragrances with them. Overnight, the marque may gain legitimacy in the field and close a 100-year gap of fragrance flops without anyone having noticed. And of course the brand is unlikely to introduce scents, bottles or packaging that are predictable because luxury thrives on surprise! In the meantime however, LVMH has decided to share the space with their Dior Parfums brand.
Other “heritage” perfumeries in Grasse may find themselves exposed as inauthentic tourist traps, as  LVMH works to re-establish Grasse as a perfume capital once again. Wouldn’t it be funny if the luxury brand, Louis Vuitton, that had amongst the least legitimacy in the perfume field finally becomes the leading player in educating the global masses upwards toward haute parfumerie?
But Vuitton itself is not high luxury, it remains a luxury “brand”. The description in itself explains its hybrid positioning between high luxury and premium. Brand is a word attached to cattle all looking the same—industrialization, meaning we own it, or we produced it. High luxury is like art—something that has been created, where any copy won’t be as good as the original.
Personally, I cannot wait for the great perfumers to earn the respect they duly deserve. Of course, I am biased towards them but at what point will they ever manage to do it without the umbrella of a big brand name? Only time will tell, but great artisanal skills without creative vision, a sense of contemporary trends and a strong “dream” universe are never enough.

Philippe MihailovichCan perfume ever become a luxury again?

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