Snicker all you want, but Britney Spears—famous for losing her kids after going clubbing without benefit of underwear—is the indisputable Grand Dame of perfume sales, having sold 30 million bottles since she first launched "Curious" back in 2004.
Not to be outdone, a week or two ago, 50 Cent was seen hawking his own fragrance, "Power by 50," at Macy's in Manhattan. And why not? The potential for a big seller (Britney's "Midnight Fantasy" had sales of $100M in its first year) can be a lucrative hedge when a new album tanks. Not surprisingly, given the money at stake, the designers who create those fragrances are rock stars in the industry.
But I bet you couldn't name even one.
Well, for starters, there's Edmond Roudnitska who created Eau Sauvage and Diorissimo, Maurice Roucel,, the man behind Envy by Gucci and Tocade by Rochas, and Sophia Grojsman, who created such best sellers as Calyx by Prescriptives, Calvin Klein Eternity for Women, and Yves St. Laurent's Paris. (FYI, Elizabeth Arden's Caroline Sabas created Britney's latest, a tangle of strawberry, raspberry and mango.
The New York Times fragrance critic Chandler Burr called it the perfume equivalent of a Jolly Rancher.)
While they're geniuses at concocting scents in response to a brief, most of these designers, called "noses," labor in obscurity, like Andy Warhol creating windows for Bonwit Teller.
And therein, thought Frederic Malle, grandson of Serge Heftler, founder of Dior Perfumes, lay an opportunity. Malle, the nephew of film director Louis Malle and a perfumer in his own right, wondered what they might do if they could create something for themselves.
So, ten years ago, he invited them to do just that.
"I took the best noses in the industry and told them I'd give them carte blanche to do what they wanted," Malle says, strolling down Madison Avenue one night in late November. The perfumers were excited. "I signed nine of them in a year," he says.
Like Google giving employees 20% of their time to work on private projects, the perfume labs typically allow their superstars time to tinker on their own. But without a big-name celebrity or fashion designer attached, those scents often just languished in the lab. "I set them free," Malle says.
In 2000, Malle opened his first shop in Paris to feature the scents created by his stable of noses. It quickly became a favorite destination for clients like Catherine Deneuve and the city's most stylish women. "I once went to a party where I counted at least 14 women who were wearing my fragrances," Malle says.
Just in time for the Christmas rush, Malle opened his first free-standing shop in the U.S. (top). The space, formerly a small doctor's office in an Art Deco building on Madison Avenue, was designed by French architect Patrick Naggar. It resembles a library, with perfumes in starkly simple bottles, each identified by its author, in a refrigerated case. And it includes three of his trademark "smelling columns," phone-booth-sized enclosures that resemble the Orgasmatrons in Woody Allen's "Sleeper," that let customers sniff how a perfume would smell if they were following an especially fragrant woman on the street.
Women's Wear Daily estimates that Malle's new shop could ring up in excess of $1M in its first year, and exceed that by 30% the following year. Not bad for a venture launched during the Great Recession, when much of Madison Avenue looks like a ghost town.
Malle, who worked with many of these noses at the perfume labs of Roure Bertrand Dupont, works with his designers to manipulate molecules to create a fragrance with a unique signature. "I'm a nose coach," he says, confessing that after working in the industry for 10 years, he is still a better critic than creator. "My job is similar to a publisher. I look after my authors. For some, I rewrite half the book. For others, I don't change a comma."
Even though the fragrance industry has been slammed in the downturn, Malle isn't worried. "Most of what you pay in conventional perfumes is for marketing, advertising and distribution," he says. He doesn't have those costs. Most of the money's in the molecules. And as a result, "The ingredients we put in the bottles are 10 to 20 times superior to the competition," Malle says.
Indeed, his strategy against knock-offs is very simple: Use at least one very pricey molecule in each fragrance that pirates can't duplicate. "Difficult times are an opportunity. It's a time when people are really editing what they want. It's not a bad time for us. It's a bad time for cheaters," Malle says.