There has been a lot of words written about the latest big business acquisitions in the niche perfume space. I’m going to add a few more.
During the first week of November 2014 Estee Lauder purchased three niche companies: Le Labo, Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums, and Rodin Olio Lusso. This news was met generally with the reaction that Estee Lauder will ruin these brands. Examples used were the previous acquisition of Jo Malone by Estee Lauder ten years ago. Guerlain’s acquisition by conglomerate LVMH is also always mentioned.
Detractors tend to point towards these examples and say they aren’t the same since they were bought. The implication is the business has overtaken the artistry. Except that isn’t true. In Jo Malone’s case the availability expanded dramatically. I would also argue that under the stewardship of perfumer Christine Nagel some of the very best perfumes in that label’s history were produced. The ability to give the creative reins to someone like Mme Nagel only comes when there is a bit of big money behind a brand. If the future holds more opportunity for people to discover great perfumes like Le Labo Rose 31 or Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums L’Eau d’Hiver, how can that be bad? I have always wanted a wider distribution for niche perfume which has embraced the principles of niche perfumery to make something for the true aficionado without worrying about the bottom line. The big money sale of these brands show they have been successful at that and I am hopeful that more people can see there is more to perfume than the latest mass-produced fruity floral.
I have also seen a number of comments around the idea that these two lines which have come to be prime examples of niche perfumery “selling out” is bad for the other brands out there. My short answer to this is, “Good!” One of the things that has distressed me is the proliferation of business people behind new niche brands who believe there is money to be made in this sector, quickly. If nothing else these sales show that it takes time to build a brand identity and allow that identity to find an audience. All of these moneychangers in the perfumed temple looking for a quick buck might realize there is a little more to it than fancy bottles, aspirational pricing, and high-concept marketing. If they want a quick score what the spate of brands bought by the big companies has shown is you better have a good track record over many years.
My bottom line is both Le Labo and Frederic Malle will continue largely unchanged and the only noticeable change will be the opportunity to buy some of their perfumes more widely, a good thing. It might also bring to an end Le Labo’s city exclusives since Estee Lauder would want to have those with a wider availability; also a good thing. Reformulations should be a non-issue as both brands were already IFRA compliant. I think that there are many good years and great perfumes ahead for both brands no matter who reaps the monetary benefits.
I have been part of many enthusiast communities on the internet. I have always thought they were special groups of people. Over the past few days the group of perfume lovers who connect digitally all over the world have flown into action and shown that they are ready to help in any way they can.
The unfortunate reason which precipitated this outpouring was the announcement that my former colleague at CaFleureBon Tama Blough has terminal cancer. I have known Tama for years but it was only this past March that we actually met in person at Esxence in Milan. I thought how funny it was we both had to travel to Europe to finally meet. Tama was the same in person as she was electronically. A warm presence always smiling. I got a kick out of watching her meet some of her favorite perfumers and then communicate that in her daily post for CaFleureBon. I remembered my first trip to Esxence and the doors it opened up for me and was thrilled to see Tama opening her own doors. I knew she would create personal relationships that would last. She has done that for years as the organizer of her hometown SF Sniff and has created a local community of perfume lovers who regularly met up to go sniff perfume.
As the word of her illness was revealed late last week one of those local people Nina Zolotow took it upon herself, with Tama’s permission, to rally the perfume community to help by starting a Give Forward donation site called Tama Blough’s Cancer Fundraiser. In just five days it has raised $12,000 of its $20,000 goal. That money is critical to Tama’s ability to face her cancer on her own terms, in her own home, surrounded by the things she loves and her cat Buster. As someone who works within the cancer community I know the importance of keeping a hold of all of the things you love in life and allowing that to raise your spirits. I believe Tama also has to be drawing strength from the level of genuine love that has been displayed. Not only by donations to her website but different efforts to raise money using perfume as the vehicle. There are multiple sale threads on Facebook where people are selling their unwanted bottles and donating what they sell those bottle for. Perfumer Tanja Bochnig of April Aromatics and CaFleureBon Editor-in-Chief Michelyn Camen have made a limited edition perfume called San Francisco Rose which can be purchased here. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is donating 15% of the sales for her The PLP Project perfumes; Peace, Love, and Perfume.
So often when a person is facing a terminal disease there is a reaction by many to pull away to not want to face the inevitable. What makes me proud to be part of the perfume community is from all parts of the world it has come together to give Tama a virtual hug. We can only hope that Tama allows that love and caring to help her through the difficult times ahead.
I am spending this fine mid-October weekend among people who share my passions. Half of it will be spent with my fellow comic book fans at New York Comic-Con and half will be spent with my fellow perfumistas at Sniffapalooza Fall Ball. One thing both groups have in common is the willingness to spend for that which they believe to be unique and/or collectible. As I have observed this over the past few years I have begun to wonder if there is an upper limit to the price we can be asked to pay for our passion.
I rarely talk about price in my perfume reviews because I try to judge based on the quality alone. I leave it up to the reader and eventual consumer to judge whether it is “worth it”. I do talk about perfumes I think are a great “bang for the buck” and heck there is a whole category called Discount Diamonds on the sidebar to the right. There have been ultra-luxe lines exemplified by Amouage, Roja Parfums, and Clive Christian. Not to mention extrait versions from established houses like Guerlain. There are bottles of perfume in my collection which required me to pause for a moment before paying the price. I always justify it as the price for owning a piece of olfactory art. No matter how a buyer justifies paying the price the brands can still go too far.
What is beginning to concern me is that brands that previously didn’t charge high prices have started to do so. There have been numerous examples of brands in the last year charging significantly more for a new release. Some brands have charged up to four times their previous price. Sometimes I can understand the increase in price because of the choice of ingredients….and sometimes it is not so obvious. That is really where my concern lies if the much higher priced offering doesn’t differ significantly is the brand taking advantage?
Many of the brands I am talking about have spent years building a passionate base of perfumistas who await each new release. I don’t know what it must feel like to see myself, or another reviewer, wax rhapsodic about that new release only for the consumer to get sticker shock when choosing to buy it. Business principles say the market will only bear what the consumer is willing to pay. I wonder if that factors passion into that equation.
My final worry with this tactic is if the passionate supporters feel taken advantage of can this do damage to the brand as a whole? Once a consumer feels taken advantage of there is no easy way for a brand to re-capture that one time supporter. This could be a case of short-term gains at the expense of the long-term.
How much something is worth to someone is a very personal decision. Almost as personal as choosing which perfume brand commands your respect and loyalty. I don’t want to see either taken for granted in an attempt to increase the bottom line.
For as long as I have been writing reviews of perfume I have included a sentence about how long the perfume lasts on my skin and my estimation of its projection, or sillage. Even when including that bit of information one of the most common questions in my e-mail box is exactly how long does it last and does it really project? There are a group of readers who have also asked me to stop including the information because they don’t care; they are the minority. For most who read about perfume the length of time a perfume lasts on their skin and whether you can smell it a few feet away has become some indication of overall quality, but should it be?
The persistence issue is a particularly perplexing one to me how that has become correlated with quality. I think the hypothesis goes if it lasts overnight on my skin then the amount of perfume oil must be higher and so it is better. There are some lines for whom that thinking is sort of correct. If you are smelling patchouli or natural sandalwood in elevated concentrations which can last for quite a while. Those materials can be expensive to use in a concentration that lasts. When you think about it though some of the most persistent notes in all of perfume are the woody aromachemicals like Ambrox, Iso E Super, or Norlimbanol. These are among some of the cheapest ingredients in perfume but last longer than even the most precious natural oils. Those are what many people are smelling the next day even after a shower.
Rose Petal Enfleurage
A perfume which is employing a number of special ingredients that have been produced by labor-intensive procedures like enfleurage or tincturing are worth their weight in gold. When a perfumer uses these kind of ingredients it adds nuance that simple aromachemicals can’t imitate. This is why when a perfume containing large amounts of natural ingredients which might not last as long has much more appeal to me than a perfume that just finishes on a base of woody aromachemicals that last overnight. I would also venture to say that the perfume containing the natural raw materials is more expensive to produce.
When it comes to projection I am just baffled at the concept that it is an indicator of quality in any way. I have a number of extraits which are among my favorite perfumes. They wear so close to my skin you can’t smell those unless you are me, or my wife. They are true skin scents and they are incredibly compelling in their ability to convey beauty without filling the room up with a vapor trail. There are plenty of perfumes I love which fill a room up with their extroverted sillage but I have never seen it as something which means it is better. It really is like a chorus of voices and you need all levels from Bass to Soprano but if it is done well it is done well whether everyone around you can smell it, or not.
Don’t worry I understand longevity and sillage is important to many readers and I will continue to add the information. Just keep in mind a whisper can often be as compelling as a scream.
I am very flattered that a number of fledgling independent perfumers ask me to try their fragrances. It is as close as I will ever get to being a perfume evaluator, which is probably a good thing. I just finished assessing a new line this past week. As I was writing up my e-mail to the perfumer I realized one part of my missive was coming out almost formulaic, as if I had written it many times before. I then realized that maybe this was good advice to be able to find before beginning your independent perfumery. What is most often lacking from early efforts is the proper base.
When I use the word base I am not speaking of base notes. A perfume base is a mixture of notes which are meant to form the foundation of a fragrance. The most famous example of a perfume base is one called Mousse de Saxe which was the signature finish to all of the Caron perfumes. By having a consistent place to start perfumer Ernest Daltroff would build many diverse olfactory architectures. That is a key point to also understand; a great perfume starts from the base upward not the top down. It is that thinking which I run into most often when trying a new perfumer’s early efforts as they spend a lot of effort getting the top right but end up just leaving it hanging. It is also the answer to many early perfumes’ longevity issues, as a proper base can also be the last thing left at the end of the drydown.
A perfumer for a commercial firm spends years doing nothing but making bases as they train. By the time they are given their first commercial brief starting from a base is second nature to them. It is precisely the raw talent and unregimented vision that sets the independent perfumer apart from those more corporate perfumers and it is what makes independent perfumery such fun to experience. The principle still remains the same you need a base to start to build your perfumes upon.
Another reason for doing this is to give your perfumes a signature. I smell Mousse de Saxe and it is hard not to think of many of my favorite Caron perfumes. Guerlain has its own base called Guerlinade which is the thread which connects every Guerlain fragrance. They even bottled it and sold it as a perfume, too. Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes has had his characteristic woody incense base dubbed Tauerade. As a perfumer it is a way to add your figurative John Hancock to every perfume you make.
Usually after one of these e-mails I get a question on where to start. My advice is something I have learned from two of my favorite people in perfume, Michael Edwards and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Ms. Hurwitz spent the early years of her independent career trying to make the classic perfumes herself. It was a valuable exercise because she came to understand the value of each ingredient and how they impacted each other. That is the best, more laborious, way. Mr. Edwards has the easier way. Just go to the mall and take a few small Ziploc bags and spray a bunch of strips all from one perfume brand and lock each of them away in their own Ziploc bag. After a few hours go back open the Ziploc and sniff. What you should be left with is the base used for those perfumes. From there you will gain an understanding of what this particular perfumer used as their starting point and you will be surprised to find out how different they smell at this point.
If you start from a good base it is much easier to create a memorable perfume, and you’ll save me from writing the same words to another young independent perfumer.
There are many things about the current state of artistic perfumery that irritate me but there is one thing that is top of my list. I genuinely look forward to seeing what has come in the mail every day. I live for the potential of trying that next new great fragrance. There is a dark side to that and it happens when I open the envelope and see it half-filled with multiple vials. I emit a sigh because another “collection” has found its way to me.
My biggest objection to the term, and the practice. is I think it is 99% marketing and 1% inspiration. The majority of these collections have only one thing connecting them, the name on the bottle. What is even more frustrating is it is apparent there was zero effort in trying to have a coherent aesthetic or theme. Heck I would even accept if it was made up of connected pairs. Instead it feels like a box checking exercise where the perfume line covers all of the expected bases. This would be great if the creative direction was focused enough to provide an interesting viewpoint. The other collateral damage to this collection obsession is it feels like the line can’t be bothered to make up their mind what is polished and ready to be released. Which is why within a collection there are many entries where my reaction is, “Why didn’t you take the time to get some feedback and really add a final edit?” Many of these feel like the perfume equivalent of reading the first draft of a novel before an editor gets a hold of it to tighten it up.
This leads to the second issue they are asking the consumers, us, to be their evaluators for them; at full price. Over the last three years as this ploy of releasing multiple perfumes in a collection has become more prevalent I’ve noticed a couple years on there are only a couple of them still on the shelf. I believe those are the ones which sold well and the majority were discontinued because they didn’t sell. This means they make us pay for the right to beta test their perfume and that should be their job not ours.
From a store perspective this also puts them under tremendous pressure to decide whether they have enough shelf space for a dozen new perfumes. The lifeblood of the indie and artistic perfume community are the small stores which cultivate customers who return to find out what the store owner has identified as worth trying. These new lines approach the stores and ask them to carry all of them or none of them. There is a bit of fallacious thinking that these lines are just on the cusp of being added to Bergdorfs, Neiman’s, or Saks by the line owners. They fail to see that success in those venues has almost invariably happened from a more conservative approach where you build the line over a number of years. These small stores which the purveyors of these collections hold hostage are the very people who will create the repeat customer and buzz for the brand that will open those magic retail doors they dream of.
I am sure there is a collection heading my way which I will be thrilled to explore fully but I expect to be sighing a lot more before that happens.
One of the many barriers to having fragrance breakthrough as an accepted art form is the need for a consistent vocabulary to evolve from the discussion of perfume. The perfume community doesn’t even have consensus on how to describe a specific fragrance. Consumers rely on the list of notes to help them decide whether they want to give a perfume a try. If they don’t like jasmine they are unlikely to try something as soon as they see jasmine in the list of ingredients. But should they? There are perfumes where the jasmine is used as a note of contrast and foundation never rising to noticeable levels. By just reading a note list a consumer might miss out on something they would really like because they see the note they don’t like in the list. The companies have become skilled in the art of describing accords in ever more flowery terms. There is one perfume I got the press materials for which called it “The Elixir of Love” accord. I have no idea what that means and depending on my interpretation it could go in so many different directions. In the end these descriptions are no more illuminating than a list of ingredients.
This has come to mind again as Chandler Burr has re-started his Untitled Series on Luckyscent. Mr. Burr is one of the most active proponents of making olfactory art something substantial. Towards that end he has used the language of other arts to describe those perfumes he considers worthy of being called olfactory art. Mr. Burr described specific “schools” of perfume and showed examples of each during his exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC. Mr. Burr is also very steadfast in his insistence that fragrances should not be broken down into a list of its components when describing it. He likens it to looking at a painting and describing it only as the colors displayed on the canvas without describing the overall artistic display.
When taken to the extreme I agree with him; a simple listing of the notes does not convey anything special about the overall composition. Where I disagree is that notes have no place in the description of a fragrance I think is olfactory art. I would never write about Thierry Mugler Angel and not mention the use of ethyl maltol Olivier Cresp used to create the cotton candy smell within this game-changing perfume. You can’t talk about Chanel No. 5 without talking about the aldehydes or Lancome Tresor without considering Sophia Grojsman’s use of an overdose of galaxolide. The very use of these materials in unique ways, I believe, requires us as writers to point them out. It is the ingenuity of the perfumer and their intuitive way of taking a raw material into a heretofore unimagined direction which often sets apart a fragrance as something worthy of the label olfactory art.
Here is where it gets a little tricky though. There are some fragrances which are so intricately composed to create a desired effect that trying to pick it apart into its component notes is completely irrelevant. Calice Becker’s By Kilian Back to Black, Bertrand Duchaufour’s Sienne L’Hiver, and Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Parfum D’Empire Musc Tonkin are such amazing still lifes that I always just experience them on that level without overanalyzing the notes which bring these exquisite perfumes to life. This is where I and Mr. Burr are in complete agreement but this can’t apply to every fragrance.
Where Next? by Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)
Every writer has to make the decision on how best to communicate their experience with a perfume. I decided early on to plant my flag firmly in the middle. I always try to communicate the way a perfume makes me feel without relying overmuch on the individual notes. Then I usually spend the next paragraph exercising my analytical skills tearing it apart into the notes. This captures my two-sided love of olfactory art. I want to be transported by a great fragrance as any art lover does and hope to communicate that. The scientist wants to know how that was achieved and so that part of my psyche delves deep looking to figure out the inner workings of that which I admire.
Which is correct? I don’t think anyone can answer that for sure at the moment. What I can say unequivocally that the more conversation we have about the perfumes we think rise to the level of olfactory art the closer we will become to creating a uniform language of perfume. So to all who write about perfume whether on Facebook, a blog, or a forum pick the way you want to describe your favorite fragrances and add to the conversation; together we will create a language of perfume.
One of my favorite British terms is describing a situation as having gone “pear shaped” which means it has gone terribly wrong, usually from good intentions. This phrase is particularly apropos when it comes to the latest release from Penhaligon’s called Tralala.
Penhaligon’s is a venerable old school English perfume line and in the last five years or so has really reclaimed a vital spot in the niche world. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour has been creating new perfumes and reformulating some of the historical ones. It is in my estimation a great success story but the latest release is a good example of when a brand forgets what makes it special and attempts to reach out for a different audience.
For Tralala Penhaligon’s wanted to up their hipster credibility and the first step to doing that was asking fashion designers Meadham Kirchoff to act as creative directors. Penhaligon’s has scented their runway shows at London Fashion Week and so they had some familiarity with the line. The latest collection for Fall 2014 recalled prewar Parisian fashion. M. Duchaufour has a way with Retro Nouveau fragrances. Seems like a team made for success, except for the name. The name is where it all begins to go south.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn
In an article in Cosmopolitan announcing the fragrance Meadham Kirchoff alluded to the name being taken from the character in the movie “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. For those unfamiliar with that movie or the character Tralala, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, ends up in a horrific plight and it is something nobody would want to associate with perfume. If you need to know more check out the Wikipedia entry for the novel and under synopsis read the description for Tralala. This is where the attempt to reach for that desired hipster credibility fell apart around them. I am pretty sure they just saw a picture of Tralala like the one above and thought “Yeah there’s our poster girl.” Until people started mentioning this after the Cosmopolitan article came out. On both Now Smell This and Basenotes, Matthew Huband of Penhaligon’s PR department went into spin mode and released this statement; "Hello all, I’m the head of marketing at Penhaligon’s, We’d just like to clarify that the name Tralala is simply an innocent and musical expression which reflects the fragrance. The perfume is rich, whimsical and nostalgic in Penhaligon’s best tradition, as you’d expect.”
Except I’ve smelled the fragrance and “rich, whimsical, and nostalgic” doesn’t accurately describe it. The adjectives I would use are “dangerous, edgy, and retro”. Which is where the disconnect happens; this fragrance clearly is going for this danger as whisky, leather, and patchouli are not the ingredients of nostalgic whimsy. They are exactly as was stated the milieu of Tralala, the fictional character.
This is what happens when a brand forgets about its brand identity and heads off into uncharted territory. All too often a trap door is lurking and everyone involved falls through looking foolish. The most successful perfume brands know that too many missteps like this turn their customers off and I’m pretty sure Tralala will disappear with as little notice as can be managed. I hope that the next time someone at Penhaligon’s wants to go for hipster cred they just remember that isn’t where their success lies.
Just as there is awards season for the performing arts we are smack dab in the middle of awards season for the olfactory arts. On Thursday night the French Fragrance Foundation awards were handed out and the following day in New York City The Fragrance Foundation announced their finalists and the winner of the Indie Perfume of the Year. There is an organization of French bloggers who give out the Olfactorama Awards. The new kid on the red carpet is the Los Angeles-based The Institute for Art and Olfaction Awards.
Each of these awards have their own personality and the winners can be schizophrenic and you wonder how, in the case of the French Fragrance Foundation, Jour D’Hermes (Best Feminine Fragrance in Selective Distribution) shared a podium with Invictus by Paco Rabanne (Best Masculine Fragrance in Selective Distribution). The Expert’s Award choices, from a committee of people from throughout the industry, honored Comme des Garcons Black and Tom Ford Private Blend Tobacco Oud. This kind of dichotomy gave rise to the Olfactorama Awards as a group of French bloggers thought they could do better and here is the list of perfumes they honored: Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin, Hermes L’Eau de Narcisse Bleu, Vero Profumo Mito Voile D’Extrait, and Le Labo Ylang 49.
I look at those winners and can say that each list of winners represents its organization’s view point and as it is with the performing arts I am happy there are writer’s awards as there are industry-based awards. In my opinion the French Fragrance Foundation Expert’s Award is the one I respect the most because they really go the extra kilometer to gather a representative panel who all work very hard to come to consensus. The last two years has seen them honor fragrances I think would not have received any accolades at all.
Which comes to the independent perfume movement particularly in the US. Ever since I have published a yearly Top 25 new perfumes list there have never been less than five indie perfumers represented on that list. The Fragrance Foundation made an attempt to recognize that community but through three iterations of that award it has gone, respectively, to Odin 06 Amanu, By Kilian Amber Oud, and this year to By Kilian Playing with the Devil. I like all of these perfumes but The Fragrance Foundation and I have very different ideas about what an indie perfume is. Which is why I am excited about the new The Institute for Art and Olfaction Awards which will name their winners on April 25, 2014. They have two categories with ten finalists in each. The Independent Category which honors privately-owned brands operated with the owner’s direct oversight and often employing professional perfumers. Included in this year’s nominees are brands: Neela Vermeire Creations, Charenton Macerations, Friedemodin, and Yosh. The Artisan Category honors a perfumer-led business where the perfumer does everything from A-to-Z. The nominees are again another fine list which include Olympic Orchids, April Aromatics, Aether Arts, Imaginary Authors, and Mikmoi. All of the nominees are finally going to receive some attention that has been a long time in coming. The entire list of nominees can be found here.
If I was comparing these awards to those given out for motion pictures I would do it this way. The US Fragrance Foundation Awards are the Oscars. The French Fragrance Foundation Awards are the BAFTA’s. The Olfactorama Awards are The Golden Globes. The Institute of Art and Olfaction Awards are the Spirit Awards. What I believe is this kind of breadth of attention paid to the best of olfactory art Is a good thing and every perfume on any of the nomination lists as well as the winners should bask in the glow of the recognition of a jury of aficionados finding their perfume to be among the best of 2013. Just as it is with the movie awards I have my favorites I am rooting for but 2014 is the first year where every perfume I think was award worthy had a place where that could actually come true. That makes the entire perfume community winners.
Just before Valentine’s Day a set of recommendations were presented to the European Union (EU) by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) to ban or restrict 23 fragrance raw materials. A few days after that I wrote an editorial about the lack of scientific rigor that was applied to that decision and asked for a real scientific clinical study with appropriate controls to be performed to truly determine the real potential of these materials to produce an allergic effect. About a week after that editorial I was pointed to a website called IDEA (International Dialogue for the Evaluation of Allergens) and once I spent some time reading what was there much of my concern for the future of raw materials has been alleviated.
IDEA was formed in May of 2013 and has had four separate workshops since then about how to classify, test, and unequivocally determine which materials are allergens. Their Annual Report (click here to read it) was released a week after the SCCS made their recommendation to the EU. While the SCCS recommendations caused a lot of people, I included, to exercise our best Chicken Little impressions. After spending the last couple days reading the IDEA Annual Report I am no longer worried.
IDEA has representation from every stakeholder in this; IFRA, SCCS, EU, the big perfume firms, the big perfume producers, and particularly important dermatologists and clinicians. They have been spending this first year doing workshops with participation from all involved and they are evolving an action plan which will once and for all determine in a scientific and statistically sound manner whether any specific material is an allergen. This is what any of us who have looked at this data from a scientific point of view have asked for and it is now happening.
I also spoke with a few of my contacts within the industry and they all seem to think that if the EU takes any action at all in May, when the 90-Day comment period is up, it will be increased labelling. Something which alerts a consumer to the presence of a potential allergen without making it seem like the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.
A month after I was busy running around yelling “The Sky is Falling!” it looks like the solutions are all in place to make sure that only the best scientific data will eventually determine which raw materials will be banned or restricted and that is the best outcome I could have asked for. Which leaves perfumery, like Mark Twain, to say, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”