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On June 9, 2004, just before 5:00 p.m., Jean-Claude Ellena was being driven to a meeting at the offices of Parfums Hermès in Pantin, just outside the périphérique to the northeast of Paris. Ellena was a famous ghost, a member of an elite group of perfumers who create fragrances sold under the names of designers and luxury houses while keeping assiduously to the shadows. But he was just at the point of becoming particularly, and rather extraordinarily, visible to the world. He was on his way to Hermès to submit his first essais, his olfactory sketches, for an important scent he was creating.
Paris was enjoying a spell of Los Angeles–like weather. You could look from the top of rue Ménilmontant down over the Centre Georges Pompidou’s industrial modernism all the way to the Eutelsat balloon floating over the Parc André Citroën. In the deep-cobalt summer sky, the cloud of aerosolized filth from the Paris traffic hovered in the blue air. The sun shone brightly. The Parisians walked around wearing black, smoking cigarettes, exhaling ashen fumes into the air, and throwing the butts and packets onto streets where Africans in cotton bleus de travail uniforms swept them into sewers.
From his car, Ellena looked out at the bus stops. It seemed as if every single one featured an ad for Chanel’s latest feminine perfume, Chance. It was a bit startling. The car crossed an avenue, stopped at a light: Chance. It turned right: Chance. Ellena looked left; from every vantage the publicity image of a wispy blond girl floated spectrally over the round metallic glass Chance bottle. This display represented a breathtaking marketing outlay. If you were in the perfume industry, if you were the competition—say, another immaculate luxury house like Hermès—you might not show any reaction. You might smile, eyes focused just beyond the ads. But you would register them as they slid by your car, this show of Chanel’s stunning power, a silken reminder of the might of this billion-dollar titanium luxury machine. The bus ads were not a campaign. They were a statement. “We are here.” Their ubiquitousness was profoundly intimidating. This was the intention.
Hermès had, in fact, two responses. The first was the three small vials in Ellena’s pocket, each containing a pale golden-colored scent. The second was Ellena himself.
Across the Atlantic not many months later, at 1:00 p.m. on October 29, 2004, the actress Sarah Jessica Parker arrived at the offices of her agent, Peter Hess, at Creative Artists Agency at 162 Fifth Avenue in New York City. She was there to meet representatives from Coty, Inc., the international perfume licensing corporation, whose headquarters were just up the street. Parker and her representatives would be discussing the final details of a contract for the creation of a perfume that would bear her name.
They met in one of the white CAA conference rooms. Along with Hess, Parker’s rep Ina Treciokas from the public relations agency IDPR was present. The Coty contingent numbered four, all perfume industry executives and “creatives” (as those in charge of developing a perfume are called in the industry). There was excellent sushi and a big bowl of popcorn, a neat line of drinks, and bowls of ice. Parker was dressed in relaxed style—jeans and a T-shirt—but she was quite alert to the significance of the meeting and to the variables at play.
Parker had for years been a star on stage and on screen, but she was as aware as anyone of the risks of attempting to transfer the mercurial, amorphous good of celebrity to other domains. In both a symbolic and a literal sense, she was funding this project with her public equity. But she had for years wanted to create a perfume—“dreamed of it,” as she expressed it eagerly to the Coty team that day. Peter Hess and CAA had been pursuing it for her, making the contacts, talking to the players in the perfume world—the luxury juggernauts like the Lauders and LVMHs, with their brands and labs and marketing armies—and Hess had found the process far from easy; the perfume industry is brutal, and the financial stakes increasingly high. Yet Coty was interested in Parker, and the lawyers—Coty’s and the star’s—had been working on the contract for many months. It had been a complicated negotiation.
Hess naturally shared Parker’s concerns. Were she to give Coty the license to her name and her public identity, the project would entail years of effort on her part and that of the Coty team that would develop the scent with her, millions of dollars put into the launch and a massive promotional campaign, and the risk of her image and reputation.
It would also require of Parker a special, and rather unusual, form of participation. During the development of the scent, she would assume the position known in the industry as artistic director. She would have to guide the perfumers who would build her scent. She would be responsible for directing them toward a precise olfactory representation of an idea of a perfume she already had in her head. Parker had never played the role before—it was the perfumers who understood mixing rose absolute with dihydrojasmonate, not she—and she didn’t, truth be told, know exactly what to expect.
Between 2004 and 2006, I reported these two stories, one for The New Yorker, the other for The New York Times. Both were intimate behind-the-scenes accounts of two very different people creating two very different perfumes. Ellena’s scent was built at and for Hermès, among the last family-owned exclusive luxury goods houses in France, based in an eighteenth-century shop on the rue du Faubourg. It was created in Paris and in Grasse, France’s traditional capital of scent. Parker’s fragrance was made under the corporate aegis of one of the largest commercial producers of perfume in the world, a company headquartered in a skyscraper in New York City.
The first perfume was Un Jardin sur le Nil. The other was Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely.
It happened that I fell into both of these stories—they found me, each one in its own particular way. Both of these scents were built to be launched on the $31-billion international perfume market, and in the course of reporting on their respective creation processes, I spent two years inside this industry, one of the most insular, glamorous, strange, paranoid, idiosyncratic, irrational, and lucrative of worlds.
I am the perfume critic for The New York Times, but I am not a visceral perfume obsessive. Some people want me to be, but I’m not. Fundamentally I’m a reporter and critic whose job is to write on perfume—the business, industry, and personalities, and of course the works of commercial art they produce, the perfumes. It’s a professional beat. At the same time, writing about perfume has held a real, and I will admit visceral, surprise, which is that I am now conscious of experiencing the world more deeply and vividly than I’d ever thought possible. Many people situate themselves by sight; they marvel at scenic vistas, take photos, draw pictures, recall images. In this job I find my brain recording time and place in scent. I remember places by smell.
In travel, smell is our best, most reliable landmark. Researchers have found that our ability to recall a specific scent surpasses even our ability to recall what we’ve seen. Show photos to people, then show them the photos months later; it’s estimated that visual recall is about 50 percent after four months. Trygg Engen, a professor of psychology at Brown University, found that people recall smells with 65 percent accuracy after a year. If you’ve been in Africa or Asia or Latin America for any significant period of time and then return home, open your suitcase and take out the clothes, and the aroma places you. You’re in Nairobi or the bush, Bangkok’s center, the beach in Rio. Photos can’t do that. Smell transports us, beautifully, strongly, insistently. The smell of my childhood was South Texas, but also the aroma of travel, of jet fuel, the synthetic carpets of airports, and the recycled air of planes. My grandmother, Marjorie Langston Stewart, lived in the Corpus Christi of the 1960s, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. While I remember her voice and face, she actually exists in my memory as a fragrance: of fresh citrus and the green leaves of the poisonous Texas oleander she warned my sister and me never to touch, the hot wet breezes of the Gulf of Mexico off fishing boats, the clean, rich Victorian smells of the England she grew up in that scented her house, and the scent of her immense, powerful, white 1958 Pontiac’s interior. The years I spent following these two stories were mapped in scent in just this way, and I recall its chapters by their smells.
The main actors in each story were utterly different—a French perfumer and an American movie star—and the companies and contexts in which they worked were dissimilar in a thousand ways, but both stories began with a problem.
At Hermès, the problem was simple to identify, tough to solve.
Hermès is as close to an immaculate brand as it is possible to get. In the business world, the name commands absolute respect. But while consumers from Paris to Osaka faithfully snapped up astoundingly expensive Hermès silks, clothes, and leather bags, the Hermès family was quietly aware of a weakness in the house: its perfumes.
Clients on Fifth Avenue and the Ginza, avenue Montaigne and Via Monte Napoleone were reaching for bottles of Chanel, Armani, Calvin Klein, and Dior well before they reached for an Hermès scent. For a luxury house, a perfume problem is not just an image issue. It goes inevitably to the heart of your business. Because of its profit margins and its massive distribution, perfume is a crucial money generator for almost all the high-end houses. It’s an open secret that fragrance is essential to the financial health of most of the world’s luxury brands. A man I know once sat next to Yves Saint Laurent at a Paris dinner party. He asked, “What portion of Yves Saint Laurent revenues are accounted for by perfume?” Saint Laurent replied, “Eighty-three point five.”
By 2004, Hermès (the name’s French pronunciation is closest to a combination of “air-mess” and “air-mezz”) was ready to confront the perfume problem. Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès was the head of the family, which owned 75 percent of the house. Dumas was elegant and refined and his personal worth was around $1.5 billion, and if he presented a certain gentleness that overlay a steely control, he was remarkably free of the arrogance that haute Parisian culture and great wealth could have produced in him. In 2004, Dumas hired a new president of Parfums Hermès, Véronique Gautier. Gautier had a significant reputation.
Dark-haired and dark-eyed, opinionated and direct, Gautier was a veteran of perfume operations at Chanel and Cartier. She was known for two skills: crafting grand strategies and imposing, with an iron will, the decisions needed to get them into place. Gautier had determinedly big vision, and she was relentlessly daring, both qualities Dumas needed. Gautier had, naturally enough, left in her professional wake a division of opinions. “Véronique is admired rather than liked,” one of her French competitors, a woman, said with a hard look. Another gave a different assessment: “She knows the business as well as anyone, and she’s competent and strong. Jean-Louis will need that.”
The figures in front of Gautier were relatively straightforward.
In 2003, the previous year, the Italian jeweler Bulgari had had perfume sales totaling $136,700,000. This represented 18 percent of Bulgari’s total revenues of $759,300,000. Hermès in the same year had sold $54 million in perfume—less than half of Bulgari’s sales—on a total of $1.23 billion, which meant perfume was only 4.4 percent of Hermès’s business.
Dumas and Gautier were exquisitely conscious of the perfume referred to by some in the industry as le monstre—the monster—Chanel’s Chanel No. 5. Here was a ninety-year-old fragrance always at the top of the international bestseller lists, an institution whose 2003 sales had been an astonishing $180 million. Hermès had a collection that included excellent scents like Calèche and 24 Faubourg, but their sales didn’t even touch those of the fabled No. 5. Hermès had a waiting list for its $10,000 Kelly bags, yes, but these Hermès bags consistently carried more Chanel perfume. The question for Dumas and Gautier was: why?
Start with the open secret of the industry, which is that the perfumes purchased from Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, or Giorgio Armani are not created by these designers. Domenico Dolce and Marc Jacobs don’t make their own perfumes. They don’t know how. They never have. In fact almost none of the people whose names go on the boxes have ever touched a scent raw material in their lives. All the fragrances in the world are made by an army of professional ghosts called perfumers, who are hired by the designers and brands. The ghosts live in a sort of netherworld carefully hidden from view by the designers’ marketing machines. They work primarily for several international scent-maker corporations, the “Big Boys”—Givaudan and Firmenich (both Swiss), IFF (American), Symrise (German), and Takasago (Japanese)—plus the smaller players like Robertet, Drom, Fragrance Resources, Mane, and Belmay. Of them, the fashion houses do not speak publicly. In fact, most of them spend large amounts of money on public relations agencies in Milan, Paris, and New York in order explicitly to create the impression that the perfumes come from the designers.
Estée Lauder created none of her perfumes. A huge international corporation called IFF did. International Flavors & Fragrances is based in New York. Lauder gave the IFF perfumers concepts, she guided the scents to finalization, and she put her name on the scents they made, though not her real name, Josephine Esther Mentzer, nor the real names of the people who actually built the juices for her.
Youth-Dew, Estée Lauder’s first perfume, in 1953, was made by the IFF perfumer Josephine Catapano. Youth-Dew started as a simple bath oil, just a gift Lauder gave to her clients. Lauder was unknown then, but IFF believed in her. Betty Busse made Estée, the legendary Francis Camail built Aliage (the following year he would create Charlie for Revlon), and the equally legendary Sophia Grojsman (Trésor for Lancôme and the beautiful Jaipur for Boucheron) did Lauder’s White Linen, a landmark in everyone’s view. Private Collection was the creation of Vince Marcello, Beautiful was made by five different IFF perfumers. Leonard Lauder gave credit for his multibillion-dollar success to Ernest Shiftan, IFF’s chief perfumer who encouraged and built a generation of great American scent artists. Estée was, perfumers note, demanding and involved; she had taste and she had vision, and she closely creative-directed the scents they made. But perfumers also note (although they never do so on the record) that saying she created her own perfumes would be, as the perfume expert Michael Edwards phrased it, like saying Pope Julius painted the Sistine Chapel.
This arrangement is standard industry-wide practice. In 1947, Christian Dior’s first, Miss Dior, was made by two Givaudan perfumers, Jean Carles and Paul Vacher. In 2007, the summer launch by Giorgio Armani, who is well-known for wanting the public to believe he makes his own perfumes, was built for him by the perfumers Francis Kurkdjian and Françoise Caron.
The arrangement is an uneasy one in all sorts of ways. How is an outside perfumer to incarnate a house in scent? What does the perfumer know of that house’s aesthetic, taste, or style? Nothing, usually. Here was Hermès, founded as saddle and harness makers on the rue Basse-du-Rempart in 1837 (and hyperconscious of that distinguished date). Hermès was French, which meant that above all it was proud, obsessed with its craftsmanship and its pedigree, a house for whom coherence was a golden rule, and to create its perfumes it went to strangers? The quality of Hermès saddles was reflected in the leather in Hermès belts, all of it a seamless gleaming perfection. Except its fragrances. And this was the thing about le monstre.
Only one house did not employ the Big Boys and their perfumers: Chanel. Chanel had Polge. And Jacques Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfumer, directed its perfume collection with precision. He was part of the house’s genetics. Polge was only the third Chanel perfumer. (The first had been, from 1920, Ernest Beaux, who had created among others No. 5 and No. 22 under Coco Chanel’s direct artistic direction. The second, Henri Robert, was author of Cristalle and Pour Monsieur.) Polge had authored Coco and Allure and, in 2001, Coco Mademoiselle, which joined the others on the bestseller lists. In him, Chanel had tradition, institutional memory, a coherent aesthetic. And although an in-house perfumer was an expensive proposition, Hermès needed all those things. Of course Dumas and Gautier wanted commercial success. But perhaps more important, they wanted a scent collection with the elegance and coherence of their leather bags and silk ties. They wanted Hermès perfumes, which was to say they wanted beautifully constructed fragrances carefully built by artisans’ hands. They wanted perfumes whose exquisite purity distilled Hermès and were worthy of their smooth Gallic pride.
The answer to this, they decided, was a particular perfumer named Jean-Claude Ellena. Gautier flew down to Grasse, where Ellena lived, to make the proposal. She and Dumas already had plans for the initial Hermès perfume Ellena would make, but first they had to get him on board.
My entry into the second story began when I got a call from Belinda Arnold, Coty’s director of public relations at Coty’s New York headquarters at Park Avenue and East Thirty-third Street.
Coty researches, develops, launches, and manages its brands. It claims to be the world’s largest fragrance company, with annual net sales of $2.9 billion. (It doesn’t publish the gross; Coty’s principal competitors, LVMH, Estée Lauder, and L’Oréal, also lay claim to number one status, which depends a bit on accounting and a bit on exchange rates.) Coty operates in over twenty-five countries. Since Coty’s playing field is global, its strategy calculates interests in markets across the planet. It owns Davidoff, which is minor in North America and a huge player in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and Coty continually acquires licenses to fortify its positions and expand into new markets. It also enters into strategic distribution partnerships. The perfume lines Nina Ricci, Carolina Herrera, Prada, Paco Rabanne, and Comme des Garçons are owned by a Coty competitor, the Spanish company Puig, but Coty distributes these brands in the United States.
Where Hermès makes all its own products itself, with its own designers, artisans, and raw materials—except its perfumes, and hiring Ellena was the effort to remedy this—Coty is a licensee, which is to say that it contracts with brands that are not part of itself and makes these brands’ products using other people’s materials. This is the way the large-scale perfume industry works. In 2005, when Belinda Arnold approached me, Coty, between its two divisions—“Prestige” and “Beauty”—was already huge and owned or licensed around thirty-five brands. It had celebrities—Gwen Stefani, Céline Dion, Shania Twain, David and Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue, and the Olsen twins—and some brands that were huge in Europe like Jil Sander, Joop, Lancaster, and Rimmel. It had the supercommercial—from the license for Kimora Lee Simmons’s Baby Phat line that produced the hideous Goddess to the license for the TV series Desperate Housewives that led to a pleasant commercial feminine of the same name—and it owned upscale antique brands like Pierre Cardin. It had the purest pop-culture licenses; Chupa Chups, the candy company, had lent its name to a perfume that Coty had had built. And Coty had just bought Unilever’s entire fragrance division, which meant it had bought the licenses of several high-end designers from Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs to Vera Wang, Kenneth Cole, and Vivienne Westwood, as well as Cerruti and Chloé.
In a difference partly theological, partly quite real, where Hermès was grappling with making its products authentic, Coty was grappling with making its products legitimate. In a sense this was due to one of the most astounding commercial successes the business world had seen in decades, a trend created almost single-handedly by Coty.
Celebrity perfumes caught everyone unawares except Catherine Walsh. Walsh arguably created them. Then senior vice president for cosmetics and American licenses at Coty Lancaster, Walsh, with an immense amount of work and risk, put together the deal that signed Jennifer Lopez. When Lopez’s Glow hit the market in 2002, it exploded, selling 8 million bottles in a few short years. The modern incarnation of the celebrity perfume was born. The question for the celebrity perfume is, of course, how much of the celebrity is actually in the bottle. Did the marquee name have anything to do with its creation at all, and (moreover) how did the development process—a somewhat delicate dance between licensee and star—lead to a bottle of perfume? Belinda Arnold’s job was a bit simpler; when the juices launched, she merely had to get the word out.
Belinda is one in an amazing army of young Manhattan PR women, all attractive and slender, tastefully dressed and urban-cool and carefully professional. PR is not, generally, a pretty business, and some of its practitioners can at moments slip into a certain nastiness. Belinda never did. She didn’t do sweety-sweety either. When I’d picked up, she’d just said, “Listen, Sarah Jessica Parker is going to be coming out with a fragrance.”
Really, I said. So you guys are doing it, huh.
“Yep. It’s coming out early fall. It’s called Lovely.”
I said to her what I always say: There has to be a story. So what’s the story? The usual reply is a perky “But the story is [name of celebrity or designer] is doing a fragrance!” (You say thank you and hang up politely.)
Belinda didn’t. She replied, “What do you have in mind?” I thought about it for a second—I wasn’t taking it all that seriously; it was, after all, a celebrity perfume, an actress—and said to Belinda, Parker’s strongly associated with New York. What I’d really like to do is wander around New York with her and smell the city.
Silence on the phone. “Smell the city,” she said. “What does that mean.”
I want, I said, to smell the brick walls in the Village with her, and the tire rubber the taxis leave on the asphalt on Fourteenth Street, the subway air coming up out of the Astor Place station, and the scent of Central Park and the brackish water in the Hudson River.
We can drive around the city in a taxi. Or maybe we could just walk around the Village. But I want to smell New York with her.
“And talk about the perfume.”
And talk about the perfume. About how she perceives smell, and so, you know, how she creative-directed her perfume. (It seemed obvious to me. Clearly it wasn’t to Belinda.)
“Hm,” she said briefly, “well, I don’t think she’s going to like that.”
Is she interested in scent?
“Actually,” Belinda replied forthrightly, “she’s completely obsessed with it.”
I didn’t necessarily believe this. OK, I said, so that’s a start.
“Hm,” she said.
A few days later, she called me back, laughing. “She really likes it. She’ll do it.”
Huh. Uh—great! (What the hell do I do now?)
“I mean, we’ll have to refine it,” she said.
Sure, sure, I said. I was thinking, This is weird.
I proposed the story to Andy Port, my principal editor at T, The New York Times’s style magazine, and she was both skeptical and interested. She asked, “Do you think it’s going to be a serious scent, and do you think Sarah Jessica is actually going to be involved?” I told her what Belinda had said, that she was very hands-on during the creation, very serious about it. Andy said, “We’d want an exclusive.” Back to Belinda: We’d want an exclusive.
“OK, let me check, but I think we can do that. Just on the perfume, right?” Right.
I thought, How to go about this damn piece.
It wound up being a year behind the scenes with Sarah Jessica Parker and the Coty team, not only for the launch of her perfume but for an iteration of that perfume that they created together. But that is getting ahead of the story.
Copyright © 2007 by Chandler Burr. All rights reserved.