The Eastern Paradox

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A number of perfume companies have looked to the Asian markets of Japan and China as the next growth opportunities for their brands. As a result you have seen the niche companies also follow that lead, trying to establish their own beachhead in those territories. I know my first impression of the difference between the way Japanese and Western tastes were different came from a 2005 column by Chandler Burr for the NY Times magazine. Where he described a culture where perfume was frequently given as a gift but never worn. This also went along with an anecdote from a sales associate where test strips were left out next to their bottles so that top notes would be gone because according to the article “apparently the Japanese dislike top notes”. The article also touched on other market forces in the Japanese market which were tied to luxury brands like Bvlgari where the jewelry image has a halo effect on the fragrance.

Beijing perfume counter

Beijing Perfume Counter (Photo:Alan Chin/NYT)

The Chinese market is much less understood but it does seem like the same considerations that are good for the Japanese market are also good for the Chinese market. The overall beauty sector in China has been growing consistently year-by-year. By Kilian and Serge Lutens, among others, have made series of fragrances meant to target these potential fragrance consumers. It seems the agreed upon design aesthetic is for something which is lighter in nature than typical releases from those lines. They also seem to be designed to not last as long as the other releases. What I don’t understand is why the great majority of these fragrances I have tried to date have been so disappointing.

I am also suspicious of the hypothesis that this aesthetic truly exists. At the Elements Showcase two years ago I was intorduced to a perfume line called Kaze which is created and sold in Japan. As I stepped up I expected to find a collection which matched my assumptions. I couldn't have been more worng and I kept saying over and over, "these sell well?" The only apparent eastern influence was the use of particular indigenous ingredients.

I am a big fan of perfumes with a lighter touch. Le Labo’s Tokyo exclusive Gaiac 10 seems to be the pinnacle of the kind of perfume which should be successful in Japan if the above assumptions are true. Comme des Garcons X Monocle Scent One: Hinoki is another example of this desired aesthetic. I know both of these fragrances are widely appreciated by the western fragrance community.

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This is contrasted with the Asian Tales collection from By Kilian which feels like it was so calculated in design that somewhere along the assembly line it lost its joie de vivre. What has really brought this point home for me is the third of the Serge Lutens’ L’Eaus which has just been released. The newest one is called Laine de Verre and after sniffing it on a strip and a patch of skin I just can’t bring myself to wear it for a couple of days to properly review it. It is wan and anemic and yet has some irritating sharp aspects to it as well. I am completely flummoxed how two of my favorite perfumers in Calice Becker who did the By Kilians, and Serge Lutens’ Christopher Sheldrake can miss the target so completely.

I haven’t been able to get any current sales figures on these markets but the blog Kafkaesque recently published a very comprehensive worldwide economic review of the fragrance sector using the best available data to the public. In that article there is a very sobering statistic she reported from a Euromonitor study of the Chinese market, “No remarkable changes have been seen in consumers’ acceptance of fragrances – the Chinese account for 20% of the world’s population, but only contribute 1% to value sales of fragrances.” This seems to indicate that despite all of the targeting by adhering to a, perhaps, non-existent Asian aesthetic the perfume houses are making no headway.

That is the source of this Eastern Paradox, instead of trying to design a specific fragrance for the market; try and just design a good fragrance. I believe the free market principles will let the brands be guided by what sells in those markets. The idea that you can cobble together a fragrance for Japanese or Chinese markets which will make a culture of people who don’t wear perfume all of a sudden start wearing it seems like something out of a novel. As I sit here disappointed in yet another attempt to create this magical Eastern Elixir I just hope for a little less focus group thinking and more free artistic expression from these brands I like so much.

Mark Behnke

Editorial: 90 Days ‘Til The End of Perfume?

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I was wanting to wait a little bit longer before tackling this subject but recent events have forced me to comment a little sooner than I expected. Last Thursday February 13, 2014 the European Union (EU) has announced a three-month period of consultation on fragrance allergens. The regulations under review are recommendations by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) to ban three substances from being used in perfume; two of the molecules found in oak moss and tree moss, and a lily-of-the-valley chemical called Lyral. There are an additional 12 molecules and 8 naturals which would be severely restricted in concentration and require labelling on the perfume it was contained in. The reasoning behind the SCCS’ recommendation is these are allergens and removing them from fragrance is in the interest of public health. As a scientist who works on the pharmaceutical side of things I’ve watched this debate and have been amazed at many aspects of it.

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A Skin Irritation test with 2 controls and and 4 concentrations of the test molecule

The data used to determine the allergen potential of these molecules is scientifically and statistically unsound. Many of the studies used to determine these molecules as skin irritants lacked the necessary statistical and scientific structure to come to the conclusions they have reached. The studies conducted on the three banned molecules that have been published were done with small groups of patients with no control. When I am developing a topical drug formulation I would have to have multiple groups of 30 patients treated with the drug in varying concentrations in one place on each patient as well as what we call a control patch of skin on the same patient. You usually use a negative control you expect to cause no effect, like water, and a positive control that you do expect to cause an irritation. These are used to calibrate the skin of the patient being tested. If the patient shows a reaction to the negative control, which remember is just water, any other result would have to be thrown out because the patient has responded to only water. This is called a placebo effect and it occurs in 15-20% of patients. For a molecule to have a statistically relevant response it would have to have a response rate 20% greater than the placebo effect. The studies these bans and restrictions have been based on were performed one time at one concentration on 25 patients with no controls, positive or negative! This is what makes me shake my head as this is not good scientific practice and the conclusions made are very preliminary and possibly incorrect.

An even bigger flaw is the idea that it’s really only 23 molecules, so what? If these single molecules are restricted and banned it will have a ripple effect throughout many more raw materials. A natural oil is not a single molecule it is a combination of as many as hundreds of individual molecules. Any one of which could be identified as one of the “bad 23” which would then make that natural oil unusable as well. In Denyse Beaulieu’s blog Grain de Musc, The Different Company CEO and Creative Director Luc Gabriel expands on this thought as he worries at the impact of these changes on the industry.

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All of this is complicated by the fact that there is no unified response. According to some sources LVMH and Chanel are extremely concerned. Other brands like Coty and L’Oreal seemingly stand on the sidelines. The Fragrance Foundation has stayed away from this debate with a ten-foot pole. Some of the raw material houses like Robertet have tried to get their lavender fields and products protected under French heritage law.

Until last Thursday this mix of concern and apathy was the norm now a 90-day clock has been turned on. Let me offer a solution to propose to the EU. Let LVMH, Chanel, and any other company that wants to participate, fund a full-blown study of these 23 substances under the highest scientific and statistical standards. Multiple controls, multiple concentrations, multiple patient groups spanning different ethnicities. In other words prove that these molecules are as “bad” as they are reported to be. This is a study that could easily be performed in 12-18 months to add a level of scientific rigor sadly lacking in the process so far.

If you also want to read more about this let me point you to this excellent post on the blog Kafkaesque where she has been diligently reporting on this issue for the past year.

The time to offer solutions is now and the time for discussion has been forced upon us by the EU. Together the industry and those of us who love perfume need to stand up and be heard or we will pay a price I think none of us wants to pay.

Mark Behnke