What Has Happened to Clive Christian?

There have been several acquisitions of some of the founding brands of niche perfumery. For the successful brands which have been acquired by the experienced cosmetics companies it has turned out to see expansion of availability and greater visibility. Of the brands acquired over the last few years; Le Labo, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Atelier Cologne, By Kilian among them it has been a positive. I can say I had worries about the brands losing what made them stand out enough to warrant being acquired. So far, the creative teams have remained in place and the biggest change has been finding new points of sale. Three years on from the first of these I would say any concern has been misplaced because they all have continued to be niche while part of a conglomerate.

In hindsight I can say the experience in marketing and distribution a big beauty brand brings to the partnership makes sense. If you want to see what happens when those who know nothing about the beauty sector decide there is money to be made you just have to look at the acquisition of Clive Christian by a consortium of investment houses led by EME Investments. One big difference is that the brand had fallen into debt and needed an infusion of capital to stay afloat. This is when EME came along with three other investors and bought the brand.

Prior to the acquisition Clive Christian was one of the first ultra-luxe perfume brands. Starting in 2001 they positioned themselves at exclusive stores around the world touting the quality of their ingredients as part of the reason they were so highly priced. For many years they had that part of the new niche sector all to themselves. As the years went by there was more competition for what had to be a limited consumer base.

From 2001 until 2014 they released six pairs of perfumes one each for men or women. Overall, they were a collection which stood for a specific aesthetic centered on luxury and exclusivity which made the modest release schedule part of the larger strategy. Within those twelve releases over thirteen years; one of them, C for Men, is one of my all-time favorites.

Now with the new owners Clive Christian has released 26 (!) new releases since June of 2016. I’ll do the math 26 releases over 15 months. At the same ultra-luxe prices for the most part. There is no reputable perfume brand which would ever take that level of release rate if there was an experienced beauty company behind it. I cannot imagine there is more support for an additional 26 Clive Christian perfumes than there was for the prior twelve.

Worse the whole enterprise cheapens the brand. We can argue about the merits of the perfumes but the way they cultivated their exclusivity and quality matched their aspirations. What does 26 new perfumes communicate? Avon released 25 new perfumes over the same time frame for a tenth of the price…or less. It certainly isn’t exclusivity or quality.

There have been several financial people who have convinced themselves that there are profits to be found in the niche sector. They seemingly misunderstand how much part of the brand reputation plays into the desire to own it. You can’t just say, “look luxury and lots of it” the truth must be in the bottle. In the current collection of 26 these are as cynical a group of perfumes as you can imagine. There is not a single one of them I would want on my skin for any extended period of time.

The answer to “what happened to Clive Christian?” is the moneychangers entered the temple armed with spray paint and covered it with graffiti.

Mark Behnke

The Expansion of the Perfumer’s Palette

Over the last year or so I have been fortunate to be given a bit of a crash course in new perfume ingredients. The chemist in me is fascinated with the structure of the molecules and the difference in effect moving bonds and atoms around has on a scent profile. Equally as fascinating is the way natural materials are extracted and then further separated via different physical techniques.

It is fun to meet a perfumer who is using a new raw material as they build a new perfume. There is a palpable enthusiasm at using something different. I wonder if the same kind of enthusiasm was present when new pigments expanded the options for the painters. I suspect any artist when given something new to consider they immediately begin to think of the places this could fit into their current imaginings.

I’ve also begun thinking about this because of the new wave of transparent minimal fragrances being released to appeal to the younger generation of perfume buyers. Since there is seemingly a market for minimalist constructions it provides an outlet for the different isolates of the cornerstones of perfumery to provide a different perspective.

What has been trending particularly this year is to use a particular isolate which is missing a characteristic part of the full-spectrum ingredient. For instance, the sandalwood used by perfumer Nicolas Beaulieu in Comme des Garcons Concrete is missing some of the austere woody character. The white flowers at the heart of Chanel Gabrielle can be dialed to a desired indole level by perfumer Olivier Polge. Daniela Andrier uses a specific less rooty version of iris in Tiffany & Co.

What is interesting is each perfumer adds in what is missing with a different ingredient providing an opaque abstraction of the keynote. M. Beaulieu uses rose oxide and its metallic nature to replace the desiccated wood. M. Polge uses a set of white musks to set off the small amount of indoles present. Mme Andrier lets patchouli provide a different earthiness.

This is what will drive this current generational shift in perfume styles. By having more options, the perfumers can more precisely find a desired effect. It is the definition of modern perfumery to take nature and interpret it through our sense of smell. With the cornucopia of new options, the expansion of the perfumer’s palette promises a creativity that fragrance has not seen before.

Mark Behnke

The Emotion of Perfume Buying

I am always happy to see data support a widely-held belief. The scientist is always skeptical of the anecdotal over the analytical. Which Is why I am always interested in the reports the consumer research company The NPD Group release on fragrance buying habits. The one from June 2017 was titled “Women are More Emotionally Connected to Fragrance than Men”.  The article takes data from their recent “Scentiments” program where they did a deep-dive on fragrance buying habits.

What they found was, “one-third of women see fragrance as a personal treat, or a pick-me-up to enhance their mood. They tend to choose a new scent based on how well it fits with their personality.” This translates to new purchases on the average of once a month from women. When it comes to men they buy, “typically for the purpose of replenishment” and 1-2 times a year.

These findings lead to some recommendations on how to sell fragrance to the genders. It posits women are more willing to try new things and grouping perfumes in categories based on their style offers opportunity for discovery of other brands. On the men’s counter the uber-focused replenishers just want to be able to find their brand therefore keep them grouped together in that way. A couple of other insights were smaller sizes and/or rollerballs have seen an upsurge in sales. Also, women are more likely to gravitate towards fragrance sellers who give out samples.

I have no doubt this applies to the general public. It reflects much of what I see when I take my weekend field trips to the local malls to make my own observation on buying habits. When it comes to the group of people who have become perfume lovers I think all the gender divisions are removed. We are better grouped by our passion for fragrance than our sex. Within this subset we are more like the women described in The NPD Group article.

How many of us, “see fragrance as a personal treat, or a pick-me-up to enhance their mood. They tend to choose a new scent based on how well it fits with their personality.” I would make a wager it is much higher than one-third. I know that sentence has described my personal experience.

Even now when I am buried under hundreds of new perfumes a year; when one connects it is my emotions which are engaged. I almost involuntarily smile. When it’s really good I make noise and roll my eyes upward. Love of perfume is entwined with emotion and I think that is genderless.

Shelves at Scent Bar/Luckyscent in Los Angeles

I also want to mention the suggestion about selling fragrance by grouping them in similar styles as opposed to collecting them into brands. There are two stores I know of which do this and I think it is a more useful way of guiding any consumer to find something new. It gives them the opportunity to find that emotional connection in a style which has had a similar effect previously.

There is probably a more general maxim that all buying is emotional but I believe fragrance is something which has a more primal connection to those who add it to their day. When it is great it makes your mood brighter which is why we keep going back.

Mark Behnke

The Best of Times

In my circle of perfume friends there is a phrase I hear quite a bit, “Everything new is crap.” This could be more politely phrased as, “It is the worst of times.” It is a somewhat easy position to take because of the sheer amount of new perfume released. Most new fragrance is cynical focus group driven designs. Part of the reason I write about this ephemeral art is there is so much more than cynicism on display.

At this point in time we now are in a world where an independent perfumer can make a living. While there are still some pockets of less than forthright design in this area that is the minority. What is here are examples of single-minded aesthetic. If you need any evidence of that take a look at the twenty-two nominees for the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards. These are fragrances which exemplify the vitality of the independent perfume sector. Underneath the list of finalists were over 200 submitted entries which show these are not the few they are the best of the many. If you were to spend the next few months wearing one of these each week you would see there is something happening here.

You might be thinking, “sure that’s independents of course that wasn’t what I meant”. Except some of the stalwarts of niche perfumery have stepped up with new releases that show the best of what these brands represent. Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle released a collaboration with designer Alber Elbaz and perfumer Dominique Ropion. Kilian Hennessy returned to some of the initial influences from the beginning of By Kilian with the new Black Phantom. Yann Vasnier produced the Bloomsbury collection for Jo Malone London. Geza Schoen’s fourth iteration of Molecule 04 and Escentric 04 continue a tradition which can simultaneously educate and thrill perfume lovers. All four of these are brands which defined the parameters of niche perfumery. They represent the longevity of this style of perfume as well as consumers’ acceptance of it.

So now you’re thinking “okay sure those are the experienced what I’m talking about are the new brands” Except there are new brands like Vilhelm Parfumerie and Nomenclature which refute this thought.

Now you’re thinking, “it’s the big brands the ones which only care about money over creativity” Except Hermes Eau des Merveilles Bleue and Cartier Baiser Fou aren’t support for that line of thinking.

I want to put up a thought which is different than what many like to propose, “This is the best of times”. On my desk, right now, I have an embarrassment of riches through all of these areas. I am having trouble remembering this many excellent new releases in front of me at the same time. I think across every area of fragrance there has been a slow refining of what each sector appeals to. Therefore I think the fragrance glass is more than half-full.

Mark Behnke

Is Perfume an Aspirational or Signature Purchase?

I read an interesting piece on The NPD Group website called “How the Aspirational Purchase Has Shifted”. The basic thesis of the article is in to the mid-2000’s there was a significant number of consumers who would shell out for a particular set of expensive items in the effort to give off the sense of wealth these brands would impart. The author now hypothesizes that over the last decade or so that has changed. Now it is about finding that great item at a thrift store. The rise of YouTube videos which extol just that shows it to be a particularly enjoyable effort of that Facebook Live group of consumers. The author also believes if you are going to spend you will do it for a “signature item”. These could include an artisanal made leather briefcase or a coat from an obscure designer made to order. They are the pieces which help define the person who has them. They also hope to have them be singular to their circle of friends and family.

As I read through this I could see perfume acting as part of both categories. I still think the popularity of the major design houses in the department store can be ascribed to the aspirational type of consumer. I suspect that the bottle of perfume with Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Cartier, Prada, or Armani on its label is often the only thing from the brand in most homes. It speaks to the power of fragrance to be able to impart the brand aesthetic through scent which the best of these manage to do successfully.

Created by Pressfoto – Freepik.com

I think the signature purchase has also always been there in those who buy perfume. How many words have been written about finding a “signature fragrance”? I also think it is part of what has driven the expansion of the niche perfume market over the same time the author of The NPD Group article describes as when signature began to win out over aspirational. It has allowed a perfume lover to find a perfume that is not going to be as widely available as those typically found at the mall.

The final thing I realized is there is also a fragrance group which combines both. Chanel Les Exclusifs, Dior La Collection Privee, Hermes Hermessences, Cartier Les Heures, Prada Olfactories, and Armani Prive live in both worlds. The perfumes are often sold in upscale department stores or exclusively in the designer boutiques with price tags multiples greater than the mass-market line.

This allows perfume to inhabit that sweet spot where the Venn diagram of aspirational and signature overlap. It also probably allows it to be that affordable luxury which even the younger generation sees as “worth it” to filling whatever aspect they are looking for from their fragrance purchase. It probably means that fragrance will continue to be a significant part of the beauty economy for years to come.

Mark Behnke

The Cost of Being a Colognoisseur

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When I started writing about perfume first at Fragrantica, then CaFleureBon, before starting Colognoisseur I was always focused on the perfume. The bottle can be a selling point but I very rarely comment upon it. Mainly because it has no impact on how I view the perfume. The other part of a perfume that I almost never comment upon is the price. I’ve received some e-mails and a couple of recent comments have mentioned the price of the perfume reviewed. I thought I might go through some of the reasons why I have chosen not to mention price as part of the writing I do on Colognoisseur.

Just as I mentioned above with bottles the price is irrelevant to me when it comes to what I think of a perfume. I think we are in a pretty diverse age with top-notch perfumes available at almost every price point. My focus has always been trying as many new perfumes in each year because that is what I enjoy writing about. If I like it enough to wear it for a couple days I am writing about it, I don’t care how much it costs.

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Yet as I’ve learned price is not irrelevant to some of you. I’ve received communication on both sides. The joy of finding a $10 perfume that you adore. The disappointment on looking up a perfume after reading a review to see a $500+ price tag. While I am understanding of the last scenario there is a semantic issue at play. When I get that e-mail somewhere in there is the phrase “it’s not worth it”. Which for the correspondent is entirely true. But that is a single data point relevant only for that person. In their mind, there is a line below which a perfume is “worth it” and above where it is not. That line is not universal. It is up to each person to decide where they draw it. I have thought if I started commenting on price and whether a perfume is “worth it” I am arbitrarily imposing my concept upon the readers.

This is not to say that I don’t share the concern that perfume brands are applying some aspirational pricing on to their fragrances. The perfume companies also should be wary of how they draw their pricing line. If too many of their consumers fall on the wrong side of the “worth it” line it is difficult to come back from that kind of error. I will admit it is perplexing to me to see the ultra-luxe pricing from a new brand fresh on the market. I presume the business people behind the brand have done their research but there are times when I hit the pricing part of a press release for a new brand and think, “Seriously?” There seems to be more of it over the last year than it appears the market can tolerate. My concern is that those who back new brands might not be so ready to back another if they have a high-priced flame out. The true success of niche brands has been the slow build from both a price and consumer standpoint. Like in most businesses slow and steady yields consistent results if not flashy ones.

Despite the understanding of what the cost of a perfume plays in how one views it for themselves I am still going to continue writing my reviews without mentioning it. Thankfully we live in an age where the answer to that question for whom it is important is a but a few seconds, and a search engine, away. For me the cost of being a Colognoisseur has nothing to do with the price tag.

Mark Behnke

The Thousandth Cut

There is a quote from the American writer Robert Breault which goes like this, “So often the end of a love affair is death by a thousand cuts, so often its survival is life by a thousand stitches.” I was reminded of this as I received the latest release from Guerlain, Neroli Outrenoir. I have spent every day since I received it looking for something which reminded me why I love Guerlain. I fear it is the thousandth cut.

Guerlain was the first perfume brand I ever knew; because my mother exclusively wore Mitsouko and Shalimar. The bottles were staples on her vanity. I have a hard time wearing either perfume myself because they are so ingrained as what my mother smelled like.

As I began to appreciate perfume I sought out Guerlain and discovered Vetiver and Habit Rouge. I could easily have followed my mother’s lead and happily used those two for the rest of my life. Except the genie was well out of the bottle and there were other brands to explore. I was never going to be a two bottle kind of guy.

Which was great because it made more room for all of the other Guerlain fragrances out there to find a home; which they have. Part of my founding Colognoisseur was the opportunity to write about those earlier perfumes from this Grand Maison de Parfum.

thousand-cuts-robert-breault

Except that brings us to the present day. In the last ten years Guerlain has released 154 perfumes. Some of them are re-issues of older perfumes. Some of them are re-packaging of a perfume with a different name as La Petite Robe Noire 2 turned into Mademoiselle Guerlain. Way too many of them are flankers of the great pillars of the brand. Rarely are there standout perfumes which would stand up to what had come previously.

I have to say when I did the search and saw this roster of mediocrity over this short time span my heart sank. Right in front of my face was the cynical belief that the brand was all-important.

Even so within those 154 there were some which managed to remind me of what Guerlain means to me. Habit Rouge Sport is one of the very few flankers of any brand of which I own a bottle. Arsene Lupin Voyou is another exploration of spices, woods, and rose which Guerlain does so well. Two years ago Terracotta Le Parfum actually called forth the echoes of greatness. It was certainly the best of the last ten years.

Guerlain has been not on a downward spiral but a holding pattern at 20,000 feet. Circling endlessly right in the middle. Seemingly afraid to soar. Churning out massive amounts of product all meant to be bought by that consumer dazzled by the name over the perfume.

Which brings me to Neroli Outrenoir. If there has been any spark of the Guerlain ingenuity it has flared up most often in the Exclusives collection of which this is a part of. In a year which has seem some brilliant neroli perfumes released Neroli Outrenoir is not one of them. It is as if they were trying but it goes all wrong in the heart as the smoky black tea upsets the balance as it crushes the neroli. Myrrh does little to save this. I so wanted to like this I wanted to believe it was going to be the beginning of something new. Instead it was the thousandth cut.

I am hopeful that somewhere in the future the beginning of the thousand stitches to bring it back to life is forthcoming.

Mark Behnke

The Importance of Branding

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There has been another round of acquisition of niche perfume lines by the big cosmetics companies. By Kilian was purchased by Estee Lauder followed by the recent Atelier Cologne sale to L’Oreal. While there is plenty to talk about in whether these are good for the niche/independent perfume business that is not what has struck me about all of the sales of the last two years. What I realized is every one of these had a strong identifiable brand to go with their perfumes.

When I was at Cosmoprof most of the beauty products I saw were very conscious of creating a brand. In that sector it is what separates you from others essentially doing the same thing. In perfume it is easier as the products usually at the very least smell different. That doesn’t mean that a perfume should not consider that a distinct brand can provide a consumer a particular guidance.

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This has been true since the earliest days of perfumery. Chanel and Guerlain have used their brands for almost a century. When I write about the new releases I very often say how closely it tracks to what I consider the brand identity.

For the independent brands the same has been true. Of the four niche brands which have been acquired; Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Le Labo, By Kilian, and Atelier Cologne. All of those have distinctive identities which come from the top down. The creative directors for each of those perfume lines kept true to the vision that was in place on day one. These are as identifiable by aesthetic as Chanel or Guerlain.

The other part of all of this is a recognizable package. All of these six brands I’ve mentioned have pretty simple bottles but most perfume lovers could recognize them by their silhouette. All of this comes together to become eye-catching enough to have a casual consumer be attracted to it to give it a try.

It is why when I am asked by emerging independent perfume lines how to take the next step I pass along this advice. If you are looking to expand your market you need to think seriously about what you want not only your perfume but your packaging and your personality to say to the perfume buying public. That is the foundation of building a brand. More in the independent perfume business should understand the importance of making the effort to do it.

Mark Behnke

We Are the New Old Ladies

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Change is a universal constant. Resisting that change is also human nature but as futile as trying to stop the Earth rotating. Over the past few months it has become clear to me that the Baby Boomers have finally gone bust. The generation born after World War 2 was the foundation for much of the societal and cultural change from the 1960’s onward. They were so big they ruled everything. Their buying power was greater than anyone. Television ratings were tailored to 18-34 to capture their viewing habits. When it came to fragrance they were also the perfume buying generation. They changed the notion of men buying perfume for a woman as a gift to the working woman buying it for herself. For fifty years the world was theirs; and now it is not.

Over the last nine months I have been bombarded with fragrance press releases all touting their ability to cater to Millennials. This is the generation which spans the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s. This is a generation just coming into the height of their buying power. This is also the generation which will set the table for the next couple of decades at least. In 2015 they outspent Baby Boomers in the prestige beauty market according to The NPD Group. Furthermore, their spending in this sector is mostly on fragrance where the aging Baby Boomers have spent more money on skin products and makeup. The times they are a-changing.

If the brands who have been observing this same data for a lot longer have made one decision about the fragrance preference of the Millennials. They want something light and transparent. Not necessarily fresh and clean. The preponderance of these early targeted perfumes has tilted more towards sweet gourmand constructs. Which if this is what Millennials crave I can get behind. At least it isn’t an overplayed genre.

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Graphic via barnraisersllc.com

The most interesting press release I have received about a perfume aimed at this younger generation came from Chanel a couple weeks ago. It touted the Fall launch of a new version of No. 5 composed by in-house perfumer Olivier Polge called No. 5 L’Eau. In the press release the first paragraph speaks on how No. 5 is an “olfactory heritage” passed from “generation to generation”.

By the end of the first section it then makes the case that a new No. 5 is needed for this generation. Then it dives into what M. Polge is going to do. Change the metallic aldehydes out for citric ones. “Remove the powder from the base”. “Making the jasmine light as air.” In the next section No. 5 L’Eau is described as lighthearted and transparent. It was right then that it hit me. This generation sees No. 5 as an “old lady” perfume.

One of the most withering criticisms leveled at any fragrance is that it smells like an “old lady”. Which means outdated. Maybe too strong. Maybe also stinky and dense with extroverted components. Any fragrance given this sobriquet by a consumer is not going to be found on that person’s dressing table. Reading between the lines of the Chanel No. 5 L’Eau press release and all of the recent press releases from the brands catering to the Millennials I realized the Baby Boomer generation have become the new old ladies to them. The things we like are seen as outdated and quaint but not to be assimilated. No way.

It is paving the way for a very interesting next few years in the fragrance industry as the Millennials communicate what it is they do want through their buying power. For those of us being left behind we are going to have to turn to our independent perfume community to make some new “old lady” perfumes because while I might be one of the new “old ladies” I still want to smell like a Boomer.

Mark Behnke

The Importance of Transparency

Transparency can be a desirable characteristic for some perfumes. When it comes to awards on perfume and perfume writing; transparency is necessary. As one who has watched the perfume awards season every year there is always one question I have. Who is doing the judging? How were the nominees determined? The answer most of the time is “I don’t know” to both questions. It is why over the last month there has been two fledgling competitions who have decided to take a different path to honoring excellence.

perfumed-plume

The Perfumed Plume Awards were handed out on April and I was honored to win the award for “Scent Stories in Mainstream Media, Digital”. As someone who won I felt like this was an award I earned because founders Lyn Leigh and Mary Ellen Lapsansky had made it clear how the awards were being judged. There are other perfume writing competitions but they lack this openness. It makes the process frustrating to be a part of. The Perfumed Plume has shown itself to not be afraid of the light; understanding the winners enjoy being in it.

art and olfaction awards logo

This past Saturday evening the third Art and Olfaction Awards were handed out in Los Angeles. I was honored to be part of this process as one of the judges who assessed the finalists in the Artisan and Independent categories. I hope my efforts helped the winners feel the same sense of pride on winning as I did when I won a month prior. Founder Saskia Wilson-Brown is dedicated to making this award the most transparent award in the industry while simultaneously honoring the art of perfumery as practiced by the less commercial focused perfume brands. The ceremony named Zoologist Bat and Jul et Mad Nea as the Independent winners along with Auphorie Miyako and La Curie Incendo in the Artisan category. Century’s Breath by Cat Jones won for best Experimental Use of Scent. Because of Ms. Wilson-Brown this past weekend not only was about the awards but the AIX Scent Fair also took place where forty curated artisan and independent perfumers displayed their latest creations. This was the proper combination of lauding the work of last year while displaying next year’s potential nominees.

Both competitions are taking baby steps to ensure their long term success. At the recent Sniffapalooza Spring Fling Ms. Leigh laid out a challenge to those of us in the room. I want to pass it on to my readers because I think it is important. What she asked was if you live someplace besides New York City and you see an article on perfume in your local newspaper or magazine please let the author know of The Perfumed Plume at their website. The competition wants to cover all writing by American fragrance authors and right now they need the help of readers to point good writers in the direction of The Perfumed Plume.

Mark Perfumed Plume 2016

I want more people to have the chance to smile like this

The Art and Olfaction Awards also needs more entries. There is a lot of great work out there that I know did not get submitted. For this award to carry the highest profile it needs the fullest participation of the independent and artisan perfume communities combined. When the announcement goes out at the end of the year submit something, the best part of that is you will see your submission move through the process with no barriers.

That’s the kind of transparency to stand behind.

Mark Behnke