The Sweet Smell of Success

In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas devotes an entire chapter to perfume. Next to handbags, perfume is the most successfully mass-marketed item for many luxury brands, bringing in around $15 billion a year. None of this is a surprise to people who read perfume blogs, or who’ve read Chandler Burr or any other of a handful of writers writing about perfume today. We know all too well how large the market is, how prolific the releases are each year. Businesses of all sorts have launched perfumes (Coach), and it’s de rigueur now for every designer with a collection to also have a fragrance (Stella, Narciso Rodriguez). Even the most obscure celebrities (Eau de Gary Coleman, anyone?) are launching fragrances, while decent department store brands are cannibalizing their own lines by launching flanker after flanker (Pleasures Most Super Intense Pleasure EVER).

Thomas begins briefly with a visit to La Petit Campadieu, the French flower farm that produces the Centifolia roses that go into Chanel No. 5. She offers a brief history of perfume, explains the differences in concentration between parfum/extract, eau de parfum, eau de cologne, and eau de toilette, and gives a short biography of Chanel and the development of No. 5. She interviews Jacques Polge and Jean Claude Ellena, talks about the large conglomerates and cosmetic companies that develop perfumes for designers, discusses briefly Givaudan and IFF and synthetics versus “naturals.”

In the context of the book–when I was reading along and absorbed by the overall idea of mass-market luxury (oxymoron, anyone?)–this all seemed fine. She spends a great deal of time on Chanel No. 5, but that’s understandable: it’s been a symbol of luxury for generations. But when I re-read the chapter in the context of reviewing it here, I saw her treatment as a bit generic, and I thought I’d point out some other areas I wish Thomas had addressed:

  • First, she never talks about the importance of Estee Lauder in conjunction with the rise of an American fragrance market. After all, was it not Estee Lauder who was one of the first to market a perfume (okay, perfumed bath oil), Youth Dew, as something women should buy for themselves? Talk about the creation of a market! Through the 1950s and 1960s, French perfume may have continued as a “luxury” item, but ultimately the opening of the market would force them to compete.
  • Second, she goes on at great length about Chanel, but she never once mentions Chance, which was a great mainstream hit for them. She only gives the briefest mentions to Coco and Coco Mademoiselle, two other mainstream market big hitters. I think this is important because it does show how a luxury brand can do mainstream well, and without resorting to flankers and trends. She also says nothing about the Rue Cambon series.
  • Third, she talks with Jean Claude Ellena, primarily about the creation of Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, but she never mentions the Hermessences, which are not mass-marketed and are available only in Hermes boutiques, nor do they discuss Ellena’s own perfumery, The Different Company. I found this strange, because I think it’s interesting to have a nose working for a “mainstream” luxury brand who clearly sees the need for niche.
  • Fourth, she never talks about any niche (luxury) perfume houses, such as L’Artisan, Serge Lutens, Frederic Malle, or JAR–all of which could easily change our idea of luxury (or already have), displacing the traditional brands. What sort of new standard are they setting? How will the traditional houses compete? In the end, will they pander to the masses, or go back to being exclusive?

If you read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. The book overall is a great platform for discussion, and I recommend it thoroughly. And speaking of niche, visit me tomorrow. I’ll be sampling Bond No. 9 Brooklyn.

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