Last month I gave the new Kenzo Amour to a friend of mine, a middle-aged white woman. Amour is an example of rather abstract perfume art, the scent of smelling (metaphorically) a flower on a high-definition television screen, a powdery, electrical, glassy, slightly otherworldly loveliness. One notices a certain power behind its softness, like the gentle sound of a jet in the sky whose distance obscures great force. My friend loved it. A week later, I saw her again. She wore an amused look. “That perfume is very strange,” she said. “A gazillion people complimented me on it.” Yeah, so? “So every one of them was black.”Actually, this is not strange at all. Tastes in art, fashion, music, food and books vary between cultures (indeed, that’s what creates and defines cultures), and the perfume business has known this for years. Kenzo’s Jungle, for example, is spicy and strong and sells well in the heavily black Caribbean. But it is loathed in Japan, where it’s anathema to draw attention to yourself: customers would step back from salespeople and motion frantically to avoid getting the scent on them.
Retailers don’t formally track sales by race but pay close attention to their customers, as good retailers should, and ask salespeople who buys what. In culturally diverse countries like the United States, perfume houses also look at client tastes by studying geographic sales, notably at malls frequented by different ethnic groups. “The rule of thumb,” says Alain Lorenzo, the president of Parfums Givenchy, “is richer scents are preferred by Latin and black cultures and the fresher ones by European cultures.” Asians, he adds, like fresher ones still, “and so when you enter their perfume world, the easiest entry is freshness.”
Of course, there are always exceptions. When Givenchy came out with Organza Indecence, a powerful cinnamon-based scent, “we suspected we’d have strong results in the Middle East,” he says. “Surprisingly enough, we had so-so results in the Middle East and excellent results in the U.S.” Givenchy’s Ultramarine, also strong and potent, turned out to be big in Japan, a complete surprise:
Asians are usually so averse to strong scents that Kenzo doesn’t even sell perfume in Asia, only eau de toilette.
There are also distinct differences between Europeans and European-Americans. Ck One by Calvin Klein was a hit in the States but never got traction in Europe. Lauren by Ralph Lauren is important here but does just O.K. across the Atlantic. Guerlain, whose Shalimar and Mitsouko are the quintessence of the French perfume aesthetic — plush, complex, ornately rococo scents of vanilla and rose and gilded 18th-century halls — rules France but not America, whose particular, quite different aesthetic is, at its best, a sporty, innovative, aerodynamic genius that produces, at its worst, soulless air-conditioning scents.
The perfumer Agnes Mazin, who moved to New York from France two years ago, got a lesson in these cultural differences working on a scent for a body cream. She was told it was “too baby powder.” “I was totally baffled,” she says. The scent of baby powder as a concept with symbolic value and cognitive associations, like the all-but-universal link between the smell of jet fuel and the idea of travel, doesn’t exist in France. “To us, the smell is nice,” Mazin says (with a shrug) of Johnson & Johnson’s scent, “but in France it has absolutely no ‘baby’ connotations. For French people, it’s orange flower that is very strongly associated with baby, because we use it to soothe them.” Mazin also learned that the smell of lemon “is very tricky to use in the U.S., because Americans associate lemon with furniture polish,” while for the French, “the smell of furniture polish is the smell of beeswax.”
Some scents have universal appeal, like vanilla. (“Apparently,” a perfumer told me, “it’s nearly impossible for a human being not to like vanilla.”) Some perfumes approach this appeal. Flower by Kenzo, a well-constructed, lovely flowery scent, is running No. 4 this year in France and Mexico, according to the company, and No. 3 in Brazil. Sephora opened its first store in China in 2005. The top seller? Flower by Kenzo, arguably because of its resolute aesthetic centrism.
Given how clearly cultural tastes vary, it’s surprising that it has taken until now for a perfume to be aesthetically engineered for and marketed to specific ethnic groups. “Two years ago I started hearing retailers say, ‘The Hispanic market is growing, we’re going after the Hispanic demographic,”’ says Ronnie Stein, who was at Faberge before starting his own fragrance business, U 2 Brands, which sells to mass-market outlets like CVS pharmacy and Brooks Eckerd. “I did some research. One out of seven people in the U.S. is Hispanic. Twenty-one million are women, seven million between 18 and 34. Their buying power in 2010 will be over a trillion dollars. As a result, I registered the name Y Tú También (And You Too).” He asked perfume makers to tell him the scents Hispanic-American women were buying: Escada’s Rockin’ Rio, Clinique Happy to Be, Oscar de la Renta’s Rosamor, Ferragamo’s Incanto Dreams, Donna Karan’s Be Delicious. Virtually all were categorized as a fruity-floral.
Armed with that information, he spoke with four fragrance houses before selecting Pierre-Constantin Guéros at Drom, whose first submission, Stein says, “blew me away — I mean, it was just amazing.” But not unexpected. The scent Guéros produced smells to me strikingly reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez’s Miami Glow, a 2005 scent that has been purchased in huge numbers by Hispanic-American women; Stein asked Guéros to create a similarly powerful aesthetic, which he did with equal parts logic and inspiration.
“You have to have fruity notes,” Guéros says. “It represents the Latin joie de vivre, so I started with aldehyde C18, a lovely, milky, tropical-smelling coconut synthetic, then gamma decalactone, which reads peach. I made a natural Florida orange-peel oil 10 percent of the entire formula, which gives a hugely juicy, powerful, yummy character. And then, because it had to be sexy and feminine, I put in some strong white flowery scents” — a synthetic called jasmolactone, methyl naphthyl ketone (which smells of orange flower and tuberose), methyl pamplemousse (a wonderfully green synthetic grapefruit) and a synthetic musk, Musk T — “which gives warmth, obviously crucial, and long-lastingness to the perfume.”
Both perfumer and marketer believe they have captured the culture’s olfactory sensibility. “If you look at the Latin dances, the Latin way of life,” Guéros says, “this is a perfume you could easily smell on people’s skin.” A few months ago, U 2 Brands began shipping Y Tú También, its first perfume designed for 18-to-34-year-old Hispanic-American women.
“My wife is older than 34,” Stein adds quickly, “and wherever Nina goes, people ask her, ‘What are you wearing?’ So you don’t have to be Hispanic to love this fragrance.” But it would probably help.