Boutique Perfume: On The Scent Of A Deal

📷 Malle at work.

Independent perfumeries are being snapped up by the big brands. But how sweet is the smell of success?

Frédéric Malle, the dapper and ebullient founder of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, stands in his small red-and-black boutique perfumery just off the rue de Rivoli in Paris. He is presenting his perfumery’s latest fragrance to a group of beauty editors. A sexy, musky cologne called Cologne Indelible, it was created with Dominique Ropion, the perfumer behind Malle’s Carnal Flower, Portrait of a Lady and Vetiver Extraordinaire. An “enormous sea of musk” blended with a more classical eau de cologne base of bergamot, lemon and rosemary, Cologne Indelible was complex to make. “Musk is like mixing clouds,” says Malle. “Some are crisp, some are out of focus. We were in cloud world for over a year and a half.”

Malle’s musings on the new fragrance are the polar opposite to the usual big-brand perfume launch. There’s no irrelevant goody bag; no selfie with a celebrity; and definitely no focus group findings or marketing strategy. Neither will there be a Cologne Indelible Intense arriving in six months — the “flankers” or spin-off fragrances that prop up sales of the original in a mass-market brand.

And yet, technically, Malle, like several boutique perfumeries, is now as big as any of the major brands. Earlier this year, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle was bought by Estée Lauder, which had only recently bought the artisanal French perfumery Le Labo — the latest acquisitions in a trend that has seen numerous independent perfumeries snapped up. Official figures are under wraps, but industry sources estimate Le Labo, with about $20m-$30m annually in retail sales, could have been sold for up to twice that; Malle’s business is estimated at upwards of $16m wholesale. Spanish company Puig (which already owns Nina Ricci and Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance houses) recently bought Penhaligon’s, the British brand founded in 1870, and the French boutique L’Artisan Parfumeur. Shiseido has plans to acquire the trademark for Serge Lutens’ company. And with Aqua di Parma in the hands of LVMH, and Manzanita Capital now owning Diptyque and Byredo, could it be that niche is no longer niche?

“Firstly, I hate the word ‘niche’,” says Malle, who started his company in 2000. “Niche means ‘small’ and I never intended to be small for long, beautiful as it is.” Perhaps not surprisingly for the man whose uncle was the film director Louis Malle, and whose grandfather Serge Heftler Louiche headed up Parfums Christian Dior when it launched in 1947, Malle’s vision was somewhat bigger. “I wanted to have a luxury house, and to be the Guerlain of tomorrow.”

📷 A Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums store.

What he did instead — like Serge Lutens and Jo Malone — was to bring a sense of small back to a fragrance world that had become industrialised. “If you look at the industry’s history, it went from perfumers making and selling perfumes, to mass-market companies renting celebrity names and asking chemical companies to make perfumes that could be sold in duty free,” he explains. “All we did is put the perfumer back.”

Ironically, being bought by Estée Lauder could be the means of ensuring Malle and Le Labo remain distinct in a market that now sees 400 so-called niche fragrances launched each year.

Working in the open market, perfumers are under intense competition from brands which will ask several fragrance houses — IFF, Givaudan and Firmenich for example — to create samples, from which only one will be bought. Very often the “juice” is what comes last — after the bottle design, the marketing campaign, the focus groups. The result? A lot of very depressed perfumers. For most of them, the financial freedom to create perfumes, and to build close-knit, long-term relationships with partners such as Le Labo or Malle is a dream working environment.

📷 Clara Molloy’s Memo.

“Competition is the opposite of creativity,” says Clara Molloy, co-founder of Paris artisanal fragrance brand Memo, the top seller at Harvey Nichols. “You have a team who will decide the winning fragrance. It has to please the MD, the assistant, the president, the president’s wife. It has to please consumers around the world. It becomes a process of seduction, and with fragrance that’s easy — you put in something a bit sweet, a lot of musk, you say ‘peaches are fashionable in China’. But is that really an experience of fragrance?”

“When you create a beautiful baby like ours, it is a huge moment to let it go,” says Fabrice Penot, who sits at the rock-star end of perfumery, having co-founded Le Labo, with its metrosexual, vegan, New York-meets-Grasse take on perfumery with Edouard Roschi in 2006. The brand’s big-hitters, Santal 33 and Rose 31, made by highly regarded perfumers Frank Voelkl and Daphne Bugey respectively, are decanted into bottles in front of the “client” (“We don’t call them customers”).

Like Malle, selling had never been a part of the plan for Penot. “This might sound a little new-agey, but if you start the process of perfume creation with the purpose of becoming a moneymaking company, you will make a perfume that smells of fear. That’s what 99 per cent of the companies are doing now, and that’s why we had such a strong head-start,” he says. “I wanted to make perfumes that would make life more wonderful and that would resonate in the hearts of people — we grew organically based on that. Santal 33 is now a worldwide cult phenomenon, and we launched it just by putting it on the shelf one day.”

📷 Le Labo co-founders Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot.

There are additional benefits to selling to one of the big beauty conglomerates aside from the financial, among them the potential of “expansion into international markets,” says Penot. Malle agrees, likening Lauder to a greenhouse, where smaller companies are “hosted”. “They have so many experts,” he says. “If I want to open in Kazakhstan, they say, ‘Oh there’s this guy there, go see him.’ We get to tap into their resources but they don’t tell us what to do.” Penot also appreciates the “backhouse” services a corporation can provide. His company had grown so fast he and Roschi were increasingly being dragged into finance and human resources. Being backed by Lauder has placed them back at the core of the creative process.

But both Malle and Le Labo are well aware of the dangers, having rejected other offers. Malle describes it as a flattering, often amusing process. “You have fund managers and bankers coming to see you all the time, wanting to buy you out,” he says. “And foreplay is not their thing. You’re sitting having a nice breakfast with them, and suddenly they’re talking about merging your company and telling you what you’re doing wrong.”

📷 Azzi Glasser, who created Bella Freud’s fragrances.

In the end Malle was “seduced” by the fact that Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder Inc, was someone he admired. “Leonard and Fabrizio [Freda, Lauder’s CEO] came to see me. We had long conversations and it confirmed to me we were on the same wavelength. I wasn’t completely against selling, but it had to be to the right person.”

Only time will tell whether brands such as Malle’s and Penot’s can keep their identity. “The success will depend on whether Lauder keeps the founders,” says Azzi Glasser, the perfumer behind Bella Freud’s fragrances, and the Agent Provocateur signature hit of 2000. “If you lose the soul of the people who create the brand, then you lose the brand.”

Luckily for all concerned, Freda has no intention of losing the founders, nor putting them on a production drive, headed for the nearest duty free. “Our founders’ desire for authenticity and the long term are very important to us,” he says. “In luxury it’s not sufficient to ask consumers and just do what they want — it’s about having the creative courage to be unique.”

“There is a movement towards very high end, a demand for luxurious products with a real story, an experience and high-quality ingredients,” says Molloy. Is being bought out part of her vision for Memo? “Not at all,” she says. “I have a dream, but it’s not about being able to afford a Ferrari. My dream is to be published as a poet.”

Sounds like just what Lauder is looking for.

Source: Financial Times

 

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