The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Something smells fishy about designer perfumes
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi dismantles every misconception about designer perfumes. Coco Chanel did not create Chanel No. 5. Christian Dior did not devise Eau Sauvage.Updated: Aug 16, 2017 08:55 IST
Are you one of those people who, every time you go to a duty-free store or a perfume shop, allows the sales assistant to take you hostage? “Sir, you must try this!” “Ma’am, what are you looking for?” “This is the very latest fragrance”. And so on.
If so, then you are among the vast majority of fragrance buyers. We rarely shop carefully for perfume. We are at the mercy of shop assistants. We hardly ever know what’s available. And we can’t even try on the fragrances for ourselves because, no sooner do we enter the shop than we are kidnapped by shop assistants who spritz us with rubbish fragrances till our nostrils are exhausted. In most perfume shops, you will be lucky to get a chance to browse or to try fragrances on your own at leisure.
Of all salespeople, perfume shop assistants are the worst. They invade your space with a phoney cheeriness. They push you around. They know nothing about fragrance. Most of them work on a commission basis. And they will always steer you towards the fragrances they have been asked to push or the ones that deliver the largest commissions to them.
Perfume salespeople are usually the enemies of any fragrance lover because they have no interest in educating the customer. And they will often lie. Ask for a perfume they do not stock or one they have not heard of and they will look you in the eye and claim that it has been discontinued and is no longer being manufactured. But why don’t you try this one instead...
So, how is the average fragrance buyer to decide what perfume he or she likes? Some of us rely on friends. We smell something nice on someone we know. We ask for the name. And we buy it for ourselves. But, all too often we are swept away by the power of branding and advertising.
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, say, Giorgio Armani, him of the greige unstructured jackets, forgot about his innovative jacket construction and created 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. No designer ever makes his or her own fragrance. 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 is simple enough. Most of us could never afford, say, a suit by Christian Dior (and few grown men could even fit into one given how ridiculous the cuts are) 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% of the fragrances you are likely to see on the shelves.
If, for instance, Yves Saint Laurent wants to launch a new fragrance, then 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 hell 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 (or a giant corporation like Unilever or P&G steps in and takes over production).
What about the designer? Well, he or she is sometimes given veto rights and a handful of designers may have some creative input (“add a little more rose, I think”) but otherwise the closest the designer gets to the fragrance is when the packaging is being discussed.
So yes, it is nice to believe that old Ralphie designed your fragrance himself or that Tom Ford stopped making faces into the camera for long enough to create your perfume.
But it’s not true. Most designers have damn-all to do with the fragrances that bear their names. It is all just branding and marketing.
Within the fashion business, none of this was ever a secret. 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. 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 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 consider it beneath them to buy perfumes from the big fashion houses and look only for small, lesser-known brands.
Individual perfumers have longed for recognition for their own work and have made relatively uncommercial fragrances for niche houses. Some have branched out on their own.
Ellena started The Different Company for his niche fragrances. When he joined Hermes, his daughter took over at the Different Company. Francis Kurkidijian has created many great mass market perfumes (Le Male for Gaultier or Spice Bomb for Viktor and Rolf) but he also makes small quantities of expensive niche perfumes under his own name (Maison Francis Kurkdjian). Frederic Malle dedicated his brand to asking perfumers to contribute scents that were not commercial enough for the mass market. Ellena created a cologne from Bigarade orange peel, Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower and Malle even dug up and bottled an old formula by the great Edmond Roudnitska (who created the famous Dior fragrances).
So, even though they are unknown to the world at large, perfumers are the celebrities for a new generation of trendy insiders. Niche brands are where it is at. And in the next five years or so as public awareness spreads, nobody will believe that Tom Ford sucked his cheeks in and created Black Orchid all by himself!