New York — Some things are just unforgivable, if you are the Bad Boy impresario formerly known as P. Diddy.
Sean Combs — who, for the record, now prefers to be called just Diddy — is rather passionate about that point. 'When you believe in yourself, it is unapologetic,' he said during an exclusive interview with WWD in his Midtown offices. 'It is explosive and seductive. Make it real and live your life out loud. To some, this is unforgivable. If so — I say be unforgivable.'
So strong is his belief in this philosophy that Combs has dubbed his debut men's fragrance with The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. Unforgivable. "One of the main reasons I picked it is because I am unapologetic in who I am, what I represent. You can't forgive someone that's not apologizing for what they stand for, so it represents strength." Also, he added of the scent — which has been seen as a radical departure for Lauder — "it smells so good, it's unforgivable. "
And he hopes it will throw a bombshell into the staid men's fragrance category.
"I think it's similar to what I do in fashion — to get men to break out of their chains of being conservative," he said. "And not be afraid to be sexy and smell good. You can still be macho, still be a man and take care of yourself. Smell is something that people remember. You may forget the way a person looks, but their smell, even years later, will jog your memory.
"And when I make a fragrance," Combs said, "I make it to the point where you damn near want to taste the person."
Combs added that he created the fragrance hoping women would like it just as much. "About 75 or 80 percent of what I do every day has women in mind," he said. "This fragrance was made by a man who likes to smell good [to appeal to the] way that a man would want to smell for his woman."
And there's yet another reason: "Women get to have all the fun, dressing up and wearing diamonds." Of course, Combs has definitely left most people — of either gender — in the dust when it comes to carat count: Combs' accessories at the interview included a gold and diamond watch, large diamond stud earrings, a diamond cuff bracelet and a yellow and white diamond ring.John Demsey, president of the Estée Lauder and MAC Cosmetics brands, has worked closely with Combs throughout Unforgivable's development process. Two forms of the fragrance will be produced, Demsey explained: a high-end eau de parfum that he calls "the couture version," and a "core scent" that will be more broadly distributed. Both were developed by Combs and Karyn Khoury, senior vice president of corporate fragrance worldwide for The Estée Lauder Cos. in cooperation with Givaudan. The manpower involved represents an unusual alignment for Lauder. A virtual unit was created within the company with most of the creative work done by the MAC Cosmetics creative team along with Khoury, and the distribution done by the Aramis and Designer Fragrances division, all under the auspices of Lauder's corporate resources.
Both fragrance formulas are built on the same basic notes and accords, although the high-end version is considerably more concentrated, said Demsey. Top notes are of Sicilian lemon, Italian bergamot, Moroccan tangerine, grapefruit, juniper and sparkling champagne accord; the heart is of Mediterranean air accord, Tuscan basil, Florentine iris, clary sage and lavender, and the drydown is of cashmere accord, cool sea moss, Australian sandalwood, amber and tonka bean.
"Unlike a lot of celebrities doing scents, Sean was a thousand percent involved," said Demsey, who calls Combs "the most product-savvy person I've ever met. He was totally consistent — he knows exactly what he wants and was dead-on consistent every step of the process."
Combs is a self-described toiletry aficionado. "I have everything from bath salts to milk baths to lotions that are scented to bath gels and all of that," he said. "Scent puts you in a certain mood, in a certain space. It can be soothing, it can remind you of a person, of a place. All of this attention to detail was built into this fragrance, and it's that attention to detail that I put into smell and also into fashion and into design."
Lauder plans a two-tiered strategy, which is also unusual, for the rollout of Unforgivable. A very limited-edition eau de parfum will retail for $300 for 2.5 oz., and will launch exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue on Dec. 15. An eau de toilette and ancillary line, which will be sold in 1,500 to 1,800 department and specialty stores, will be on counter on Feb. 15. The core juice will retail for $55 for 2.5 oz. and $75 for 4.2 oz. And Combs won't stop with the scents, adding that a men's ancillary line is planned. "We're going to go all the way into the category," said Combs. "From bath to shower — every last thing."And bling is not the thing when it comes to the brand's packaging. Indeed, it is elegantly understated. The couture version is of smoked gray glass in a clear acrylic holder, topped with a gunmetal sculptured cap and packaged in a black keepsake box. The core scent's bottle is smoked gray glass with rose-gold accents in a smoked gray acrylic holder. Both bottles were manufactured by Pochet and designed by Combs working with James Gager, senior vice president and creative director for MAC Cosmetics.
The packaging was inspired by Combs' favorite things, including Ferraris, yachts and planes, and his homes around the world. "It's architectural, a mix of classic and contemporary," he said. "I saw maybe 20 different bottles, and when I saw this one, I thought it was different and unique and something that I felt would be remembered."
The company's aim is to drive the fragrance to a top-five ranking. While neither Combs nor Demsey would comment on projected sales, industry sources estimated that Unforgivable would do $30 million to $35 million at retail in its first year on counter. Lauder is thought to be spending upward of $15 million on advertising and promotion for Unforgivable.
"I think this will energize the entire men's fragrance category, and women's fragrance, as well," said Demsey. "Sean is a lightening rod. And he's bringing the young generation into the stores — they haven't had a reason to go for a long, long time. He's their hero. This is a brand that's a reflection of an apparel brand, as well as a real-life man. This isn't just about a celebrity fragrance. Sean brings back glamour and sexiness to a business that hasn't had that in a long time."
While Combs believes that every man could benefit from a shot of sex appeal Diddy-style, he concedes that the scent's core consumer will be in the 18- to 35-year-old age range.
TV ads will break in February to coincide with the launch of the core fragrance in department and specialty stores. National print advertising will break in February and March men's and dual-interest magazines. As well, the brand will undertake an extensive sampling campaign designed to disseminate at least 40 million scented impressions. "The campaign is definitely going to push the envelope," he promised. "It'll get some tongues wagging, some cold showers will be necessary. It's going to be a great aphrodisiac. We're going to be edgy. We're going to be following in the footsteps of the edgy risk-takers that have come before us." The team has shot possible campaigns with several top photographers, Combs noted.While he wouldn't discuss further details, citing the fact that neither the TV nor the print campaigns are finished, Combs promises one thing: They'll be sexy. A sultry mood video put together to show retailers — featuring a barely dressed Combs with a stunning female model — gives a good idea of what Combs and Demsey are aiming for with the TV campaign.
"The mood video — it's pretty hot," said Combs. "I had said that I wanted to go make love after seeing the video," he said with a laugh. But he's serious about the effect he hopes it will have on the industry. "I think that right there is an example of the revolutionary focus and attention and marketing that we are going to do with this brand. I think that the men's maintenance category is definitely one of the fastest-growing [beauty] categories, and I definitely am happy that Estée Lauder has seen the possibilities. Your body is your temple, and also your presentation."
Combs also is planning to make in-store appearances promoting the fragrance. "I have to support my brands — this is my job," he said. "I'm going to go and speak directly to men and go where they're at." And likely, not just in New York. "If there's somebody in Chicago or Detroit or Nebraska, I'm trying to give them the attention and the appreciation, too," said Combs. "I want to talk to people, to have them give me their point of view so that I can take that information and keep on getting better. So yes, there will be appearances. There are millions of men that are taking my lead, and I've got to make sure that they come into the promised land of sexy."
To be sure, there will be plenty to enjoy in that promised land. Combs will launch his first women's apparel line, Sean by Sean Combs, in October at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's, and he has just launched footwear.
He also already has started working on a women's fragrance, a process that naturally evolved from the men's development, he said. "There were two that we thought were too soft for men — but will be number-one women's fragrances," he said. "The men's and the women's fragrances will have a synergy. They come from the same sensibility." The women's scent is tentatively slated for a fall 2006 launch. "It has a very clean and sensual smell — it's sweet, without being too tart," he said.Combs also is working on what he said will be his last solo album, and has several film projects in development.
"I am working on my album, and God willing, this will be my final solo album — then I'll be able to focus more on films," he said. One of the first up will be what he describes as "almost a black James Bond movie" called "Higher Ground," expected in a year-and-a-half or so from Universal. A video game with the same name will come first. "My partner, Marc Ecko, who also is in the industry, came to me with a video game idea. And the presentation blew me away," said Combs. "Usually, the film comes out first, but not in this case. With the movie, we've narrowed it down to three writers, and we'll be picking a director within the next 12 weeks. Then I have other things I'm doing as an actor that I can't speak on. I'm busy, but I'm focused."
With the many projects Combs is working on, he notes that there has been "a constant evolution, not just a creative evolution, but a business evolution here at the company." While he's had to relinquish certain responsibilities, he trusts his team to carry out his vision. "I'm trying to build partnerships here with my employees," he said. "What that does is it lets them be their own stars. It also frees me up to be the best at what I do, which is being creative."
He also has new chief executive and chief marketing officers in place, and is continuing his investment and involvement with designer Zac Posen's apparel line.
"Zac and I have a unique partnership," Combs said. "Even though we're different, we have a lot in common. We have taste that we feel is the future. We're from different places, but we have the same goal, and that's to be creative and to enhance the world with fashion. It's a very respectful relationship. There's a trust level there that's unique. He doesn't get caught up on my age or the color of my skin. He sees me as someone who believes in him, and I see him as someone who believes in me."Combs doesn't have other apparel investments planned at the moment. "My focus right now is Zac," he said. "The next 24 months are definitely crucial [for Posen's brand]. He has stood the test of time, and timing is everything for when we go into other categories. He is somebody who I am going to be involved with for the long haul.
"You've got a lot of young designers that have won the Perry Ellis award, and they've come and they've gone. Zac Posen is still there on the red carpet, year after year. He's twentysomething years old, and he's been consistent and not jumping on trends. He's been who he is. And if I'm going to invest my time and my money and my future in anyone, I want to invest it in somebody who is unapologetic in who they are. So he's unforgivable, too," said Combs, laughing.
One thing Combs won't do, though, is head into categories that he's not passionate about. "It's not like I'm just going out and licensing my name," Combs said. "It's deeper than that for me. I haven't done anything as of yet just for the money. People ask me why I'm doing rims. They may think I'm diluting the brand, unless they know the whole story — cars are something I'm into. Fragrance is something I'm into. Me doing baby carriages, I'm not into it right now. But I've got an offer for baby carriages. I think that I have to take my time if I want to have this brand be long-term."
Combs was coy on a question that has been asked by industry insiders. Will he do a runway show anytime soon? "Can't say," he replied. "But as a designer, you can't help but think of doing a runway show. I do the things that I can do well and that I can give the time to. So, if you don't see me doing a show, it's because I can't do it like the way I want to do it. I may not even have the money in the budget to get it to what I'd want to show if I'm going to do it." Combs' last runway show, held in February 2003, reportedly cost $1.5 million, although he feels that it was worth every penny. "Our shows were a wise investment for us, because people have talked about them, and it kind of separated us and let people know where we were going," said Combs. "That's why we made such a strong investment in it. To me, it's not really about the money. It's about the vision coming across. And my shows will return, I just don't know when. When we do, we're going to shut the city down."He's also expanding the retail distribution focus of his apparel lines. "I'm looking forward to forging a strategic partnership with someone who has expertise in that area," he said. "My store right now is above plan, and I've been blessed with it. It's a little conservative — flagships are often 20,000 square feet, and mine is only 3,500. But it gives you a look into the future of where we're going. We've got some nice creative offers to roll them out, and we're going to do it the right way."
But the lifestyle mogul certainly has no qualms about keeping busy. Indeed, he relishes the thought. "That's what you work for," Combs said, leaning forward in his seat. "You synergize everything, so that when you talk about being a lifestyle brand, that it really is a reflection of a real lifestyle brand — from seeing Chris Rock wear your suit when he hosts the Oscars to Will Smith wearing your suit when he hosts the BET awards, from the fragrance to the clothes to the music. You can walk into this building, you can hear our music, you can see our films playing on the TV. It's our job to synergize it for you, so that when you hear about all these different things, you feel like you're in the right world."
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