The Perfume Biz—With a Whiff of Celebrity

THE PERFECT SCENT: A YEAR INSIDE THE PERFUME INDUSTRY IN PARIS AND NEW YORK
By Chandler Burr
Henry Holt, 306 pages, $25

“The idea that you like something can lead to the idea that you know something about it,” Sarah Jessica Parker told Chandler Burr, author of The Perfect Scent. “Which is, of course, not necessarily the case.” Luckily for Ms. Parker, a crack team at Coty, the $3 billion perfume conglomerate, helped her create Lovely, the Sex and the City star’s first signature fragrance.

Mr. Burr, the scent critic for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, juxtaposes the development and launch of Lovely with the restructuring and marketing efforts of the perfume division of the luxury brand Hermès. Written mostly for beauty industry insiders who’ll easily recognize the cast of characters, Mr. Burr’s book showcases his brilliance as a writer, though his voice is often buried by a too-generous supply of detail.

Perfume accounts for a large share of luxury brand profits (in 2003, Italian jeweler Bulgari had perfume sales of €136,700,000, 18 percent of total revenue); it’s often the cash cow that keeps big fashion houses afloat. Mr. Burr suggests that “the closest industry to perfume … is Hollywood.” Especially, he says, “in its ratio of limpid niche gems to ground-out meretricious mass-market product, in the sums of money it risks, in its mating of visions and dreams to the bottom line.”

Like Hollywood, Coty found itself a movie star to push its product—and Mr. Burr, for his part, found a celebrity character for his book. In their conversations, Ms. Parker pretentiously declines to apply the word “celebrity” to herself, though she later used her star power to launch a mass-market clothing line through Steve & Barry shops nationwide. She positions herself modestly, telling Mr. Burr of her 20-year-old dream of creating her own scent: It began with the childhood memory of her mother stashing away money all year in order to afford a bottle or two of her favorite perfume, White Linen. Voyeuristic nuggets like these give the book a US Weekly feel. “I think we all secretly really like [body odor],” Ms. Parker tells a roomful of perfume executives, “we’re just afraid to admit it.”

Ms. Parker was more closely involved in the development of the scent that bears her name than most celebrities who endorse a perfume. But to really get to know the industry, Mr. Burr crosses the Atlantic and delves into the ultra-secretive world of French perfumery. In Paris, he latches on to Jean-Claude Ellena, the new house perfumer for Hermès. (Mr. Burr estimates that he brings home around €300,000 a year.) The reader follows Mr. Ellena through the brief—“the conceptual road map of the perfume”—which takes him to Egypt in search of inspiration for the proposed scent (Un Jardin sur le Nil), and back to his scent laboratory in France.

 

WHAT EMERGES FROM this examination of the $31 billion perfume market is the “virulently insular” industry’s dirty nonsecret, which is that marketing drives every aspect of scent, playing on the consumer’s emotions and psychology to produce an incredible amount of revenue. Though the “creatives”—as the perfumer is called—may develop “a great and uncompromised work of art,” it will inevitably be reformulated for cheaper production costs to boost profits even further. (More echoes of Hollywood.) So even if either Hermès or Coty do produce the next Chanel No. 5—known as le monstre for its ability to remain in the top perfumes sold since Coco Chanel manufactured it in 1921—a watered-down version will take its place, while the price tag remains unchanged.

The consumer, Chandler Burr notes, “is merely a transport vehicle for the perfume.” And while Sarah Jessica Parker is a vehicle for hawking the stuff, she may know more about perfume than she lets on: Rather than transport her signature scent, she wears a do-it-yourself concoction of Bonne Bell, Egyptian Oil and Comme des Garcon’s Incense Avignon.

 

Nicole Brydson is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at nbrydson@observer.com.

The Perfume Biz—With a Whiff of Celebrity