Susan Skelly sniffs the rarefied air in Milan.
The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other, says fragrance authority Tania Sanchez, in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, is “What scent drives men wild?”. After years of intense research, she declares, “We know the definitive answer. It is bacon.”
In the Garden of Eden that has been created in the grounds of Bulgari’s Hotel Milano, there is no bacon, but things are, nevertheless, sizzling. The luxury brand is entering day two of a showcase of temptations of biblical proportions: new jewels, watches, accessories – and the object of desire it is banking on to bolster the bottom line, Mon Jasmin Noir.
The cream of the beauty world’s scribes are waving little cardboard palings in front of their noses, inhaling top notes of golden cedrat and lily of the valley (“Luminous! Sparkling!”), its heart of sambac and angel wing jasmine (“Elegant! Bewitching!”), and the dry-down finale of musky nougatine and vibrant wood (“Addictive! Sensual!”). They sit, like eager disciples, with one of the creators of the scent – “nose” Sophie Labbé – under a four-sided “chandelier” that features the perfume’s new face, Kirsten Dunst, an oversized bottle of the fragrance in an elegant elongated palm, watched over by a lion having a very good hair day. Nice kitty. But then, selling perfume is about suspending disbelief. In launching Mon Jasmin Noir, a Gen Y cousin of 2008’s Jasmin Noir, Bulgari’s chief operating officer, Alessandro Bogliolo, made it clear this would be a perfume with a work ethic: it was expected to find its way into the top 10 this year via 20,000 “doors”. He understands that a certain degree of fiction (aka marketing) is required to do this.
The Mediterranean Eden that is the 2011 new product collection is, he proclaimed, “a mythical garden, reminiscent of the Renaissance’s beauty and magic, where stones become precious, jasmine is black and lions are docile”. It is a garden that is home to Bulgari iconography – the lion and the serpent – which feature in clasps on handbags, wallets and belts; ancient coins with effigies that give sautoir necklaces heft and grandeur; and stones like luscious sucked lollies “tumbled” to resemble fairytale pebbles. The night before, 1000 guests, many in town for Milan Fashion Week, had descended in their sophisticated working-warrior best. There was a polite scrum at the reception desk where the coveted VIP entry wristband was snakeskin with the au courant enamelled serpent-head clasp. They devoured dinky little bread fingers with anchovies, lemon and salted butter, veal Milanese and saffron risotto with hazelnut meringue; drank 430 bottles of Champagne and 50 carafes of a Secret Garden cocktail, and nonchalantly cased the buy-me-now displays.
Bulgari is one of the global players in a luxury market that the GFC shook to its python-skin boots. But the 127-year-old house of jewels sashayed its way out of the red to post a turnover of €1.1b ($1.5b) in 2010 before announcing, in March, a merger with LVMH that will see Bulgari become the second-largest group of family shareholders in Bernard Arnault’s LVMH luxury brand conglomerate. While Bulgari’s signature jewels contributed the lion’s share of last year’s profits (its jewellery traditions were what LVMH clearly lusted after), perfumes and cosmetics were the silver medallists. Perfume has become the calling card for everyone from celebrities to couturiers to cosmetic giants to jewellery houses. The world is drowning in it. According to industry ambassador Michael Edwards, last year saw the release of 1080 new scents, to add to the 7000 classified in his annual bible, Fragrances Of The World. Blame it on Revlon’s Charlie which, in 1973, changed everything. Before that, Edwards says, men bought fragrance for women as a gift. “Charlie spoke to working women and by the end of the 1970s, women were spending more money buying perfume for themselves than men were spending on them.”
In 1984 there were 38 new releases; in 1994, 149; and by 2004, 641. Today perfume is a $US34b ($34.34b) business, according to Edwards. The deluge in the 21st century is more about choice than perfume, per se, he says. Movie releases and restaurant openings all tap into the desire for choice. “Just as newspapers report all that is new, retailers want all that is new. They look for stock turnover.” The fragrance industry in Australia refers to the “Myer ranking” when assessing sales success, as the department store is Australia’s largest retailer of fragrance. The number-one selling female fragrance in Myer is currently Chanel No.5 (it’s been in the top five for the past 15 years); and the best-selling men’s fragrance is Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani (number one for the past five years). Chanel No.5 is, as perfumes go, le monstre. Released in 1921, it was last year rated (following a UK pharmaceutical company poll of 3000 women) as the perfume most likely to seduce the opposite sex. Even without bacon. Instead: plenty of sexy florals and fresh-faced aldehydes. Just a handful of new fragrances become classics like Chanel No.5. Says Kate Gildea, spokesperson for Cosmax Prestige Brands Australia, which will distribute Mon Jasmin Noir: “Many launched these days have a short retail cycle of six to 12 months – especially in the celebrity category. Only two to three fragrances in the Myer top 10 rankings for the season are recent releases, that is, post-2009.”
The launch of a new perfume can cost upwards of $100m. But regardless of the amount spent on research, advertising, packaging and marketing, there is no guarantee a scent will join the ranks of the classics. “All we can do is to propose something and see if it clicks,” says Michael Edwards. Conversely, some that have become iconic would have failed the research test that aims for broad appeal, he claims; among them Angel, Shalimar, Mitsouko, Oscar de la Renta and Samsara. “But they all had something different and innovative.”
Still, each decade throws up its classics. In the 1990s, there was Trésor (Lancôme), L’Eau d’Issey (Issey Miyake), Pleasures (Estée Lauder); in the 2000s, Flower (Kenzo), Narciso Rodriguez, Coco Mademoiselle (Chanel) and J’Adore (Dior). “If we can find, every three to five years, one classic, that’s great,” says Edwards. “Fragrance is a sociological phenomenon,” he declares on his website, fragrancesoftheworld.com. “On the one hand, perfume is a commodity, dominated by global brands and fashion houses, but on the other hand, we’re in a new golden age of perfume, driven by artisans who seek to create experiences rather than brands.”
The latter trend is exemplified by The Different Company. Its charismatic perfumes came to Australia in March (via Vaia Beauty Imports in Sydney’s Surry Hills). The Different Company portfolio includes the peachy Osmanthus and the woody Bois d’Iris, both created by Jean-Claude Ellena before he moved to Hermès; and his daughter Céline Ellena’s Sublime Balkiss and her new, musky Pure Virgin. Only a handful of the big-name luxury houses have in-house “noses” – notably Chanel, Guerlain and Hermès. Others commission a scent from one of the three giants IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances), Givaudan and Firmenich; or the second tier that includes Mane, Robertet, CPL and Takasago.
Both Sophie Labbé and her collaborator on Mon Jasmin Noir, Olivier Polge (son of legendary Chanel perfumer Jacques Polge), have won the International Fragrance Prize – Labbé in 2005 and Polge in 2009. Both are noses with IFF.
Labbé’s contributions have included G by Gigli, Jardin de Soleil (Escada), Organza (Givenchy) and Emporio Armani pour Homme. And Bulgari’s Jasmin Noir (with Carlos Benaim). Which scent is she most proud of? “It’s like Sophie’s Choice. You can’t choose among your children. Really, when I am creating a fragrance there is a lot of myself in it. Each time it is linked to my private life, my emotions, the brand. Each time it is a different story. “Sometimes the brief is specific and inspiring – with a nice story. Sometimes it is simply to make something that will be in the top 10. There are still some brands that really talk to you. Seeing Bulgari’s 125th anniversary exhibition [of jewellery] in Paris [last year] enhanced my love of the brand and its detail.”
Perfumers have a strange language that is a kind of chemical reaction between image and words. Labbé talks of trying to create, this time, a smell that conveys the idea of “the glow of a diamond in golden caramel”. Where Jasmin Noir was all about contrasts and the dark side of the white jasmine, Mon Jasmin Noir wants the innocence of white to assert itself over the forces of dark. What this means is that, with luck, it will appeal to a younger market.
Labbé confesses to a vivid imagination. “I express myself better in perfume than in words. It’s difficult to find the real, proper words. Perfume is an international language of the emotions. You talk to many people with perfume.” The mother of two daughters – one who, at 11, is already concocting her own scents – is again reluctant to name her Top 10, but concedes Mitsouko (Guerlain) and Thé Vert (Roger & Gallet) would be on the list. She understands the archival nature of scent, the way individual perfumes evoke a period in one’s emotional life. But it is more nature’s smells that truly transport her. “My childhood was spent in the west of France close to the ocean. When I go back there on vacation I love to re-experience these scents: the combination of the sea, the salt and the everlasting flowers on the dunes. Their smell is wonderful – spicy, curry undertones and also notes of maple syrup.”
From Splurge To Strange
In their hefty, idiosyncratic Perfumes The A-Z Guide, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez pronounce the top 10 in all manner of categories, from best feminine and masculine scents to best floral, chypres and orientals.
Best big-ticket splurges: Amouage Gold (Amouage), Cuir de Russie parfum (Chanel), Derby (Guerlain), Homage (Amouage), Invasion Barbare (Parfums MDCI), Joy Parfum (Jean Patou), La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens), No.5 parfum (Chanel), Sycomore (Chanel), Ubar (Amouage).
Best of the strange: L’Air de Rien (Miller Harris), Black (Bulgari), Breath of God (B Never Too Busy to Be Beautiful), Comme des Garçons 2 Man (Comme des Garçons), Jasmin et Cigarette (Etat Libre d’Orange), Lonestar Memories (Tauer Perfumes), Muscs Koublai Khan (Serge Lutens), Sécrétions Magnifiques (Etat Libre d’Orange), S-ex (S-Perfume), Stephen Jones (Commes des Garçons).