The smell of things to come…

Top Stories

The smell of things to come…

A process of democratisation has overtaken the perfumes industry

By Vir Sanghvi

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 19 Jul 2013, 7:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:39 PM

The fragrance market, professionals will tell you, is not about quality or even smell. It is about fashion and trendiness. And indeed, the shape and size of the market suggests that they are right.

You probably already knew that most of the fragrances that are sold in the names of famous fashion houses have very little to do with any fashion house. Generally, a fashion brand (say Ralph Lauren) decides that it wants to sell a new fragrance. It will work out what the target audience is (young professionals, teenagers, working women, older men or whatever) and will usually design the packaging and think of a name.

Then it will send out briefs to the five or six big fragrance companies that dominate the market. These companies will make submissions and the house will shortlist two or three. These fragrances will be market-tested and, depending on how the focus groups respond, one will be selected. This 
will be further refined after more 
market testing.

Unlike say, the ready-to-wear or 
couture lines, which reflect the desi-gner’s vision, the launch of a fragrance is really a commercial, rather than 
artistic, activity. Experience has shown that focus groups like fragrances that remind them of those they already know. So, when Cool Water was a hit, focus groups preferred fragrances 
that smelt like it and hundreds of Cool Water clones were launched.

The obvious consequence of this 
process is that most new perfumes are depressingly poor. And yet, it does not seem to matter. Go to the duty free shop at any international airport. You will find that consumers are only interested in what is new in the market or what has been launched by a famous brand. When people try the fragrance, they get one spray from a shop assistant and make up their minds even before the fragrance has had a chance to develop fully on the skin. (A journalist once asked Chanel’s Jacques Polge for one bit of advice to perfume buyers. “Try the perfume and then wait the whole day to see how it develops,” Polge said, “and go back and buy it the next day only if you like the way it changes on your skin.”)

Perhaps because mass-market 
perfumes are so bad, some houses are trying to develop an artistic vision in-house. Chanel has always made its own fragrances. Hermès hired Jean-Claude Ellena a decade ago to make its 
perfumes. LVMH has hired a nose from Chanel to coordinate its fragrances.

But the obvious consequences of the identical nature of most fragrances is that sophisticated fragrance buyers are graduating to niche perfume houses: Serge Lutens, Annick Goutal, Byredo, L’Artisan Perfumeur, Frederic Malle etc. These fragrances can be terrific but they often cost twice as much as duty-free shop perfumes.

The big houses have treated the move towards quality as an opportunity. Chanel has its own niche range: 
Exclusifs. Hermès’ range is called 
Hermessence. Dior does boutique-only fragrances. Estée Lauder has two high-priced ranges, both built around individual brands: Tom Ford (whose fragrance business is run by Lauder) and Jo Malone (a niche house that Lauder bought and is now expanding madly across the world.)

I think that now we may be ready for a third wave of fragrance: the democratisation of 
niche perfumes.

One of the leaders in this field has been the UK high street chain, Marks and Spencer. When M&S first started selling own-brand fragrances, it stuck to the kind of rubbish that you could get at duty-free shops. But now it has commissioned top fragrance houses to design scents for it at a much lower price-point than you would expect for a quality perfume.

For instance, Lyn Harris of the niche British perfume house Miller Harris has done a range for M&S that costs only £25 (duty-paid) for a 50ml bottle, which is much cheaper than any good duty-free shop fragrance. I smelt some of her scents. One was so-so (the Rose) but the others were terrific, far better than many fragrances you could buy at an airport duty-free shop.

Is this the future of fragrance? It might just be. Smart buyers are now beginning to see through the hype that accompanies designer fragrances and are beginning to be guided by their noses. They don’t care whether is says Giorgio Armani on the bottle or Marks & Spencer, as long as the fragrance is special.

I applaud the trend and hope it persists. 
Fragrance is about artistry and scent. It is not about hype, brand names and advertising.



More news from