Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 7 – Le Labo’s Aldehyde 44 (2006)

Le Labo Aldehyde 44, © Victor Wong
Le Labo Aldehyde 44, © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. VII. Playing Hard to Get – Le Labo’s Aldehyde 44

An animal figurine collectible manufacturer confesses in their collector’s handbook that when they first started their company, they were a little clueless. At a gift show, a businessman told them that they had some great products, but they weren’t exactly in the collectible business yet. He gave them invaluable advice on how a proper collectible company operates: some pieces should be limited editions while others should be retired, and a collector’s club should be formed.

As I was reading it, I felt that I was a little tool, being manipulated by their collectible business strategy. But, I’ll be damned, I felt happy collecting them. Without scarcity, there’s no appreciation of value, no thrill from competing to own before others, no fun and no need to collect. If you think about it, all products except Cream of Chicken discontinue some day. By telling you it’s limited edition, you suddenly feel that you need to get it now.

But how do you create scarcity without discontinuing a product? Limiting its distribution channel and marking up the price, maybe? Guerlain, Roja, Robert Piguet and many perfume companies have one or two perfumes created just for the luxury London department store Harrods. You go there to get slaughtered and come home smiling with a bottle that you think only a few people on this planet have. The price of “exclusive” perfumes are often double the street price of their regular line, for two reasons I can think of. The shop carrying them will be happily perceived as selling only to the rich and powerful; and because the exclusive products are not conveniently available, for a perfume house to recoup the cost of developing the perfume and make as much money as their regular line, they mark up the price even higher.

At the beginning I thought I could make some decent sales of my perfumes through my online shop exclusively, but they weren’t as rosy as I originally had imagined. (I even fantasized that I could quit my day job as soon as I had started my shop.) I had always thought my products were unique, but in the world of perfumes, they were only as unique as the pink balls in an IKEA kiddie ball pool. Reality is brutal, and since then I have been thinking of asking other online and retail shops to carry my products. I had walked into a niche perfume shop in Toronto and had a good conversation with the owner. During the conversation I suddenly had an urge to suggest, “How about I develop a perfume just for your shop? Please carry my products?”

And that was why I thought Le Labo was so ballsy. Their Aldehyde 44 was a Texas department store exclusive, but unfortunately that department went out of business, and Le Labo discontinued Aldehyde 44 altogether, instead of selling it online or getting another store to carry them as an exclusive. I have spent a considerable amount money developing my own perfumes, and discontinuing a perfume like that was like throwing money down the drain. But Le Labo is rich, and they have probably recouped all their development cost from just selling 50 bottles. (Best example is their Geranium 30 perfume. It’s limited edition, and they made only 100 bottles at $250 each. Assuming that they’ve made a profit, now you know how crazy their markups are.)

There are many books on luxury marketing, and I vividly remember some of the key points from those: Never reduce but always increase your price, never go on sale, the more difficult to get the better. And people buy that.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 6 : L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Mechant Loup (1997)

L'Artisan Parfumeur Mechant Loup © Victor Wong
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mechant Loup © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. VI. Perfume Names and Expectation – L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Mechant Loup

I don’t know French, but I would be in big trouble if I do – I could read all the French perfume names, and easily get sucked into the little fantasy world that they create and possibly buy a bottle just because of the name itself. Recently announced that their top-selling perfumes in 2014 included “The Sexiest Scent on the Planet. Ever. IMHO” by 4160 Tuesdays, and I think one of the major contributing factors is its cute name.

Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel mentioned that the movie Dirty Dancing was a smash hit in the 80s’ probably because it had one of the best movie titles in history. In the perfume world, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume was a huge hit in the 80s’ not just because the scent was good, but the name was controversial and it sounded dangerous and decadent. However, Opium has been banned in China because China paid a heavy price in the Opium Wars in the 19th century; an opportunity gained here, and an opportunity lost there. (There’s an Opium flanker called Opium Eau D’orient Poesie de Chine, but on the box, the Chinese title that dominates the packaging reads “My Fair Lady”, not Opium).

One the other hand, I also find it interesting that simple, literal names such as Guerlain’s “Vetiver” and Tom Ford’s “Tobacco Vanille” also work. Maybe certain people prefer simple straight-forward names to fancy names like “What We Do in Paris Is Secret” (by A Lab of Fire), but I suspect in order for such names to work, the brand itself is already well-known for its style or other qualities, such as Tom Ford is perceived as luxurious and stylish, there’s no need to pretty up the perfumes with some obscure names.

(Speaking of Vetiver, did you notice there are a lot of perfumes with the same name Vetiver? I wonder is it because you can’t register a product name with a single word that you can find in a dictionary?)

At one point I got very interested in L’Artisan Parfumeur’s perfumes, and I had watched quite a few of their promotional videos on Youtube. In one of the videos, the “ambassador” of L’Artisan Parfumeur mentioned the perfume “Mechant Loup”. He enthusiastically proclaimed, “Mechant Loup means big bad wolf in French!” Hmm, interesting! I immediately checked Luca Turin’s book on perfumes for a quick review (it has become a reflex action, unfortunately). In his one-star, one-sentence review, he wrote: “Bad wolf? More like a wet dog.” Actually this made me more interested in smelling Mechant Loup – why did L’Artisan Parfumeur give it that name and how did it fail?

To me, Mechant Loup doesn’t conjure up an image of a bad wolf or a wet dog. It smells too tame and too quiet to be bad or animalic, but I think it smells very nice and herbal. In fact, it reminds me of a traditional Chinese herbal drink called Five-Flower Tea (Plumeria, Chrysanthemum, Pagoda Tree Flower, Japanese Honeysuckle, Cotton Tree Flower). It smells dry, herbal, with a hint of pumped-up roasty chamomile and honey sweetness. I actually prefer Mechant Loup to the famous Timbuktu. So I guess Merchant Loup “fails” because of mismatched expectation; if L’Artisan Parfumeur named it differently, would Luca Turin give it a better score? I suspect he would.

Near the end of the development cycle of my perfumes, I handed out samples to my co-workers for final feedbacks. My boss told me that his wife thought that Panda was “perfect” and she also liked “Beaver”, but she disliked the name. I told him I could name it “Sensual Musks”. He immediately said, “Never mind what I have just said. You will have no fighting chance if you name it Sensual Musks.”

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 5: Creed’s Aventus (2010)

Youtube Review of Aventus by Jeremy Fragrance
Youtube Review of Aventus by Jeremy Fragrance

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. V. What Does a Perfume Mean to Men and Women? – Creed’s Aventus

After spending three years reading posts on various Facebook fragrance groups and perfume review sites on an almost daily basis, I have noticed a huge difference between non-editorial posts made by men and women.

My observation tells me that men are more obsessed with their perfumes, such as their manufacturer batch numbers, and are more eager to show off what they have on Facebook. But the amount of details are often lacking, resulting in just a “Scent of the Day” photo of their perfume sitting on a kitchen counter, with a comment like, “This juice is amazing”. We already know that men are “visual”, may be a photo is really all you need to communicate with other men, just like if you post a photo of yourself sitting in a Porsche with a babe feeding you a banana, what really do you need to write about? “This banana has a linear fragrant indolic tropical fruity note, but it has a soft silky smooth texture. (Almost too slippery.) It is best eaten on a cold winter day, highly recommended”?

In a male-dominated group, I feel like the quality of a fragrance is often judged by how cool the bottle and the packaging look, how expensive it is, how hard it is to get, and how often it appears in the group. Of course, the fragrance itself needs to be good enough for a hype storm to form, but once it has started, it seems almost unstoppable. The best example I’ve seen is Creed’s Aventus. I don’t own a bottle, but the amount of “love” and Scent of the Day posts it has gotten makes it impossible not make you at least smell it at a department store once. Just two days ago before I wrote this post I saw a man buying a bottle at a department store without sniffing it for more than a split second. He told the sales that everyone said good things about Aventus online.

The Lady of Shallot (1888) by John William Waterhouse
The Lady of Shallot (1888) by John William Waterhouse

Posts made by women are a different animal. A photo of the actual perfume bottle is not necessary, but the quality of the writing and the imagery that it provokes do make a difference. (A panoramic landscape photo or an exotic painting complementing the review always help.) Where would this fragrance take you to? An enchanted garden with wisps flying around you? An unforgettable encounter with a romantic medieval knight who invites you to a grand ball and breaks your heart with some mercilessly hard bottom notes? A thorny dark rose that wraps around you like a soft blanket? Wearing this you’ll meet a tall dark stranger…

A few years ago I read an article on the differences between public toilet stall graffiti made by men and women. Studies found that men were more likely to write insults and nasty comments, and doodle penises to reinforce their dominance. For women, the washroom was a sacred place of reflection and confession, and they more often wrote about relationships, religion and philosophy.

Furthermore, I have watched a crowd-funding pitch video by a woman who wanted to create some “engineering toys for girls” called GoldieBlox. The toy set included a board with a grid of holes, some spinners, rods and ribbons and a book of challenges. Note that it’s a book, not instructions on a single-sided piece of paper. The creator said that boys liked building and girls liked reading; if you pour a bucket of Lego blocks on the floor that might not be enough to entice girls to play. You also give them something to read along.

These two seemingly unrelated pieces of information might explain a little about the phenomena I see online. I wonder, for my perfume to succeed, maybe it needs both a rocking packaging design and a potential story for people to tell?

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 4: Le Labo’s Iris 39 (2006)

Le Labo Iris 39 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Iris 39 © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. IV. Perfume and Gender – Le Labo’s Iris 39

Spring, 2013

Dear Le Labo,

I have a question about your fragrances. Are they all unisex? That’s the feeling I get from browsing your website. However, upon closer examination of the product photos, some bottle labels read “Femme” and some “Homme”. So I guess they are not unisex? I am a man and really like your Iris 39 fragrance, but it reads “Femme” on the label.

Sincerely Yours,

Dear Victor,

Iris 39 is an unisex fragrance. Just ignore those photos with our old labels and buy all our products.

Le Labo.

Not exactly what they wrote, but I got the idea – not too long ago, Iris 39 was a women’s fragrance, but by not specifying which gender it’s for, the potential market simply had doubled.

But I knew Iris 39 was for women, because it smelled just too beautiful to me. There were no rough edges, just very rich powdery green iris mixed with a little bit of ginger juice, a hint of some sweet bread smell, and a drop of sweat from the baker lady who is looking at you tenderly in a softly lit morning kitchen while she kneads the dough.

I wore Iris 39 perfume and went out only twice; one time taking a subway and an older woman sitting in front of me looked at me with an ambiguous smile, as if she was telling me, “You smelled nice, but son, it’s a women’s perfume you are wearing.” The other time I wore it to work, and I had to walk over to a programmer’s cubicle to talk to him about some bugs. I could hear he was listening to some death metal; and as he saw me coming he immediately paused the music, but he wasn’t prepared for the cloud of Iris 39 that I brought along with me. I was very uncomfortable talking to him because I knew I over-applied my perfume and his balls were falling off because of that and no electric guitar could save them.

I remember some guy on wrote, “If a man wants to wear a woman’s perfume, he is free to do so, but let’s not pretend that fragrances have no gender associations to them.” I actually agree, although I have reached the point of I don’t f*king care what others think.

But that’s just me and a small group of people (I think) who don’t care. I could have done a more thorough marketing research before deciding which gender my niche perfumes are for, but at the end, I trusted my gut instinct and designed one for each category: Beaver is unisex, Panda is for women, and Rhinoceros is for men. (Although the latter two turned out unisex.) When it came to the label art illustrations, I asked the illustrator to draw all male animal characters. I believed that most (straight) men simply would not buy a bottle or packaging with a hint of feminism. (God damn, there’s a flower!) Women, I think, are more relaxed and flexible, though. If a bottle label has a female character, I think women will most likely think that this is a women’s product; if it has a male character, they might think it’s attractive, seductive or “whatever”; for men, any hint of feminism could challenge their sense of security in their masculinity, even if the perfume itself smells unisex or masculine.

I am not sexist, but you can call me stereotypical, I’m just applying my observation to product development.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 3: Diptyque’s Philosykos (1996)

Diptyque Philosykos EDP © Victor
Diptyque Philosykos EDP © Victor

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. III. Unwavered Olfactive and Art Direction – Diptyque’s Philosykos

I remember taking a test strip sprayed with some Philosykos and walked out of a department store, people looking at me sniffing that white strip of paper as I passed them by, as if there was some kind of new fun drug that just got legalized and they were missing out, and 15 minutes later I turned around and bought a full bottle.

Philosykos smells like one part my childhood in Hong Kong, and one part my adulthood in Canada – when I was a kid, my favourite snack drink was semi-sweet coconut milk in a little carton box; when I was living by myself in a condo unit in Toronto 15 years ago, I had a mini potted fig tree and I could smell the green yet milky fig leaves every time I touched it. Philosykos smells fresh, comforting, edible, because it’s a little sweet and coconutty, not-so-edible because it smells botanical and raw. It’s awesome.

Strangely, out of that many Diptyque fragrances, I only love one or two bottles, but it has never crossed my mind that I would hate any of the scents that I don’t love. If one day Diptyque releases an oud fragrance, I will be a little bit disappointed, because to me, Diptyque is all about fresh or woody botanical scents, and it has an abstract and yet consistent olfactive style. They are a little bit like Hayao Miyazaki’s anime, one look and you can tell it’s his movie because of the art direction, yet each one has its own story to tell.

What also drew me to their scents was their label artwork. Imperfect black and white ink pen artwork and chaotic pre-letterset typography that channel you to an unfamiliar yet lovely location or mood, such as the pagoda or the Indian palace depicted on the Do Son and Eau Lente label artwork, or a Mediterranean garden full of lavender from the label of Eau de Lavande.

I remember asking my coworker Caro which perfume brand she likes more and she says, “umm… they don’t smell strong but nice, they have one that smells of tomato stem (L’Ombre Dans L’eau)… which one is it?” “Diptyque?” “Yes.”

Diptyque fragrances don’t get a lot of Scent of the Day mention in Facebook fragrance groups, probably because they are not really exciting scents, but I want to make a wild guess that 3 out of 5 women in the fragrance community has a bottle of Diptyque in their collection. If this is true, Diptyque is a very successful brand, in my eyes.

If I can’t make my perfumes all share the same olfactive style, I want my packaging to at least have a consistent and distinct art direction like Diptyque’s.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 2: Byredo’s Seven Veils (2011)

Byredo's Seven Veils © Caro Veliz
Byredo’s Seven Veils © Caro Veliz

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. II. A Second Opinion That Matters – Byredo’s Seven Veils

Fall, 2013. Like a giant bag of popcorn being nuked inside a microwave oven, my excitement over the new discovery of niche perfumes could not be contained, and everyone in the office could smell it. The daily topic of which video game was great got hijacked by me and had turned into a “Have you smelled this? This is crazy! This is called oud! This is patchouli!” nightmare for some.

Every three or four days I would bring to work a little Ziplock bag containing perfume samples that I purchased from Luckyscents to share with my coworkers. Slowly, some coworkers got quite bothered by my obsession and lost interest in this sample-smelling game, except Carolina, a designer-perfumes lover, remained interested and happy to test samples with me during lunch time. We would woo and boo over different scents, looking like a pair of lunatics that had just escaped from a boring asylum called the work place.

One day after work we went to Holt Renfrew (a Canadian luxury department store) for the first time together to smell some niche perfumes. Caro was appalled by the prices of niche perfumes, but I assured her that we came here just to explore. We tested Diptyque, Frederic Malle, Acqua di Parma, and many more. When we were at the Byredo counter, I immediately showed her Pulp, Mink and The Tulip. These three scents were some of my favourite from the line, but she wasn’t impressed. When she smelled Seven Veils, she said, “Oh this is nice”. I took a sniff and said, “Really? I felt nothing. May be it’s not for me.” We asked the salesperson for some samples and went home.

Caro eventually used up the tiny sample of Seven Veils and had decided to buy a full bottle. (I want to add that Seven Veils remains her only bottle of niche perfume ever since I have got obsessed with perfumes.) Since Caro was a very frugal person, I had figured that she wouldn’t buy another bottle till she had finished her bottle of Seven Veils, so I gave her some samples that I found uninteresting and boring to keep the fire burning.

One day, Caro text-messaged me, “Oh my god, I am in heaven!” She had put some L’artisan Parfumeur Safran Troublant sample on her body and went high loving the scent. I texted her back, “That’s awesome! Enjoy!”. Later that night I checked Luca Turin’s book for Safran Troublan’s review and was surprised to find out that it got a very good 4-star review. Similar scenarios of Caro liking an excellent perfume that I found completely boring had repeated a few times, and suddenly I had an enlightenment – she has very good taste in perfumes and I don’t!

You may say I can love whatever perfume I choose and has nothing to do with someone’s opinions, but when I am in the business of making/selling perfumes, I need someone who has a better nose who can give me valuable second opinions. Sadly Caro found a new job a year ago and I no longer see her every weekday. But I make sure every time I receive a draft or a major revision from the perfumers I will ask her out for evaluation.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 1: Le Labo’s Rose 31 (2006)

Le Labo Rose 31 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Rose 31 © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. I. The Concept of a “Hit” Perfume – Le Labo Rose 31

In 2013, my partner and I revisited Quebec Montreal, Canada during a long weekend. We stayed at the iconic and beautiful hotel, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac.

Our room was old, but I could imagine how marvellous it looked when the hotel was newly built. In the bathroom, there were neatly arranged toiletries and a bar of soap labeled Le Labo Rose 31. I took a sniff, and thought, wow, this smelled quite good!

Before leaving the room, I sat in the bed for a little while, smelling my hands, which had just been applied with some Rose 31 lotion that I also found in the bathroom. I thought, “Wow, this scent was so strong and rosy, would people think that I am wearing a woman’s perfume?” I put my hands in my jacket as I walked around the city.

The trip ended great, but the souvenir that I brought home with me, the little bottle of Rose 31 hand lotion, was greater.

I visited Le Labo’s website and had discovered how expensive their perfumes were. Besides Rose 31, they also had Oud 27. What’s oud? And neroli? What’s labdanum? I was so curious. Wait, they have Rose 31 detergent? How come their other scents don’t have their own detergent?

It didn’t take me much time and effort to discover fragrance review channels on Youtube, Basenotes forums, Fragrantica, fragrance related blog sites and many more. I had also learned about Luca Turin’s infamous book, “Perfumes, the A-Z guide”, which I promptly ordered from Amazon.

The book arrived and I immediately read his review on Rose 31. Two stars? What’s going on!? How is it possible? Come on!? It is the best perfume I have ever smelled! A quick conclusion had come to my mind – it really doesn’t matter, as long as I love it, that’s most important. I am sure a lot of people also think the same.

Later I’d come to realize that Rose 31 was Le Labo’s home run mega hit. If they didn’t have Rose 31, they might not have their success today. I think, for someone who has never experienced niche fragrances, Rose 31 probably smells amazing. Now that I have smelled quite a few perfumes, I found Rose 31 still very good, but not that spectacular. I think some of the other Le Labo fragrances smell better than Rose 31, but what they lack is universal appeal. Now I rarely wear Rose 31, but it has deeply inspired me. For a fragrance company to succeed, you need luck, a very wearable hit perfume (which doesn’t come easily and immediately), and the ability to seize the moment, promoting the hack out of it through different channels.

I have read a business article on Le Labo, it says that the founders sold their condos to gather $30,000, just enough to start their business. They had faith in their business idea and through hard work and a good understanding of the psychology of consumers, they managed to carve a good piece of cake out of the competitive niche perfume market.