By  on May 20, 2011

Alexander Bolen, chief executive officer of the Oscar de la Renta fashion house, pitched the unthinkable to the designer several years ago when he suggested they bring the fragrance operation in-house.

“So, are you nuts?” was reportedly de la Renta’s response to Bolen’s idea.

But Bolen, who said that the company’s fragrance business had seen sales fall 39 percent from 2005 to 2010 to $15 million, really didn’t have any other option. Launched in 1977, de la Renta scents generated $300 million at retail in 1990. But, the business changed hands many times over the years, first to Avon Products, then Sanofi, then YSL Beauté and, finally, L’Oréal, losing its focus. And the brand also was at risk for losing its cachet. As one department store buyer said to Bolen, “The brand isn’t right for my store since the fragrance is available in every drugstore in Texas.”

The fashion house, on the other hand, has seen a 17.7 percent growth in sales over the same time period, which includes everything from gowns to swimwear to sunglasses.

“Fashion and fragrance were moving in opposite directions,” said Bolen.

So, 18 months ago, Bolen brought in the fragrance business, ended all licenses with partners and began clearing out scents from the drugstores and mass chains that carried them.

This year, de la Renta made his reentry into the business prior to Mother’s Day with the introduction of an updated eau de parfum version of the brand, complete with a contemporary interpretation of the famous 1977 perfume bottle, called Esprit d’Oscar Eau de Parfum. Distribution is being kept tight, prices have doubled and synergies between the de la Renta fashion and fragrance business are being carried out, such as the placement of a red Oscar de la Renta gown within the fragrance department at Harrod’s.

Bolen envisions a future that includes launching limited-edition scents, such as a solid fragrance ring, and new offerings for the fourth quarter. Even lip and nail lines are being considered. But he doesn’t want to do anything too ordinary, such as the typical “model with the bottle” print ad format, and he discounts strategies that call for a $25 million ad campaign to reap $50 million in sales. “A race to the bottom is not what brand marketing is about.”

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