Do you know which is the one product in the luxury sector that you rarely get to choose on your own?
Yes, unless you’re in a duty-free shop where nobody cares what you’re buying, you’re always at the mercy of sales assistants at the perfume counter who take you hostage from the moment you enter the department and only pushes products that they’re getting the best commission on.
I consider perfume salespeople the enemies of any fragrance lover because they have no interest in educating the customer. We hardly ever know what’s available, and we can’t even try on the fragrances for ourselves because these shop assistants have made us sniff enough scent sampling cards and to exhaust our noses into submission. And talked up such a persuasive sales pitch that we’re now hesitant to ask to try something else.
So, how is the average fragrance buyer to decide what perfume he or she actually likes? Well, here’s the thing. You’re not supposed to make complicated choices like that on your own. You’re merely supposed to be swept away by the power of branding and advertising that luxury perfume brands are spending millions of dollars to cultivate.
When you are told that a perfume is made by, say, Ralph Lauren, do you believe that dear old Ralphie took a break from salvaging the fortunes of his troubled company and sat down with various bottles of fragrance and mixed and mixed till he created the one that they are trying to sell you? Do you believe that, Giorgio Armani forgot about his unstructured jacket construction long enough to make Code or some such perfume so that you, the Armani customer, could smell the great man’s fragrance creation?
I am guessing you have never thought about it. Because if you did, you might be surprised to know that no designer ever makes his or her own fragrance. And historically, this has always been the case.
Coco Chanel did not create Chanel No. 5. A man called Ernest Beaux did. Christian Dior did not devise Eau Sauvage, the classic men’s fragrance that is still the benchmark for fragrances in its genre. A perfumer called Edmond Roudnitska did.
If you have never heard of Beaux or Roudnitska, do not be surprised. The perfume business works that way. You are intended to associate the fragrance with famous fashion designers.
The logic for this is simple enough. Most of us could never afford, say, a suit by Christian Dior or a dress by Giorgio Armani. But we can all treat ourselves to a bottle of fragrance and buy into the myth of designer fashion.
So who really makes the fragrances?
Well, that might astonish you. There are only a handful of large perfume companies (with names like International Flavours and Fragrances) and they make over 80 per cent of the fragrances you are likely to see on the shelves.
If, for instance, Yves Saint Laurent wants to launch a new fragrance, the company will circulate a brief to the big perfume companies. The brief will not usually say something as categorical as “a woody scent with a hint of musk” or be at all fragrance-focused. Instead it will be marketing-oriented: “We are aiming for males between 30 to 45 with an outdoorsy lifestyle.” That sort of thing.
The big perfume companies will then send in samples. The house of Saint Laurent (or whoever the client is) will smell the samples, shortlist those they like and then focus group the heck out of them. Whichever fragrance passes the marketing tests gets selected and the perfume company that created it gets to make and bottle the scent.
Role of the designer in all this?
The closest any designer usually gets to the fragrance that will be sold in his or her name is when the packaging is being discussed. Otherwise, it’s all just branding and marketing.
None of this has ever been a secret within the fashion business. But a pact was reached between the designers and the perfume companies: all marketing would focus only on the fashion label and the actual perfumer would not be publicly named.
Of course, there were exceptions to this unwritten rule. There were the non-fashion perfume companies like Guerlain which put the perfumers out front. And Chanel stubbornly refused to go to the big perfume companies and hired its own in-house perfumer who was accorded the highest degree of respect within the house.
For many years, the head perfumer at Chanel was Jacques Polge. Now his son Olivier has taken over and Chanel is happy to say that the Polges (and not Karl Lagerfeld who designs the clothes) create all the perfumes.
But because perfumers were kept in the background and rarely introduced to the general public, a certain `insider set’ of luxury consumers made a point of finding out who these perfumers were. They judged a fragrance on the basis of each individual perfumer’s style and not by the name on the label.
For instance, the most famous perfumer of our time is Jean Claude Ellena. If you consider the fragrances he has created, from Declaration to Eau de Thé Vert to Voyage, you can see his style evolving. But to the general public all this is hard to understand. Declaration is a Cartier fragrance. Eau de Thé Vert is Bvlgari. And Voyage is Hermes. Yet they were all created by the same man.
Over the last two decades as the internet has helped break the stranglehold on information that the big fashion companies had imposed, fragrance-buffs have begun to revere the real creators of each fragrance. Many have become rock stars and celebrities in this circuit.
And some perfume companies have gone out of their way to acknowledge their perfumers as Chanel did with Polge. Hermes, for instance, made much of Ellena during the period when he revamped their perfume division, reinventing old fragrances and creating such big-sellers as Terre d’Hermes.
But inevitably, the rise in public awareness of perfumers and their creations has led to a backlash against the big fashion companies. A new niche perfume industry, dedicated to the creations of talented perfumers has grown up.
Many fragrance junkies these days, consider it beneath them to buy perfumes from the big fashion houses and look only for small, lesser-known, boutique brands.
So, even though they are unknown to the world at large, perfumers are fast becoming celebrities for a new generation of trendy insiders who pride themselves for knowing much more about perfumes than average luxury consumers from the past.
And thanks to their curiosity, the credit for iconic fragrances is finally going to the artistes who actually created them.
10 BOUTIQUE PERFUME BRANDS THAT ALL PERFUME SNOBS HAVE TO KNOW
1. Annick Goutal (Price range: $110-$310)
2. Creed (Price Range: $165-$1,995)
3. The Different Company (Price Range: $95-$375)
4. diptyque (Price Range: $95-$140)
5. Le Labo (Price Range: $130-$160)
6. Penhaligan’s (Price Range: $125-$150)
7. Joy Studio (Price Range: $112-$750)
8. Frederic Malle (Price Range: $145-$350)
9. Arquiste (Price Range: $165-$185)