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Angel Still Soars

PARIS — In 1994, Georges Wichner, then U.S. president of Thierry Mugler, found himself in the aisles of a Publix supermarket near Palm Beach, Fla. It was about two years after Groupe Clarins launched Angel, the radical, blue-tinged fragrance with...

PARIS — In 1994, Georges Wichner, then U.S. president of Thierry Mugler, found himself in the aisles of a Publix supermarket near Palm Beach, Fla. It was about two years after Groupe Clarins launched Angel, the radical, blue-tinged fragrance with unmistakable food notes in a star-shaped bottle.

“I smelled it instantly on this woman and so I went up to her,” Wichner recalled. “I said, ‘Congratulations for wearing Thierry Mugler perfume.’ She said, ‘No I’m not. I’m wearing Angel.’ “

It’s a telling anecdote given, Clarins’ plans to shutter Mugler’s fashion house while continuing to market his fragrances.

Wichner said he did no formal studies in the U.S. to gauge consumer awareness of the Mugler name. But informally, his impression was that people knew the fragrance more than the fashion designer. “Angel, that’s easy to remember,” he said. “Thierry Mugler is not such an easy name to remember in a foreign language.”

Angel has become a domestic and international watchword. Since 1998, it has frequently supplanted Chanel No.5 in the number-one spot in women’s prestige perfumery charts in France. For the first nine months of 2002 ended in September, Parfums Thierry Mugler posted sales of $96.3 million, up 17.4 percent year-on-year.

Yet the question remains: Could the Thierry Mugler business continue to flourish without a fashion house broadcasting its image? Most say Clarins has little to fear.

“The Mugler fragrance range is such that it really has established itself as a classic,” said Sandhya Raju, vice president at Merrill Lynch in London. “The core consumer who buys Mugler wants that brand alone.”

“At the end of the day, Angel has really developed a life of its own,” concurred Eva Quiroga-Thiele, vice president at Morgan Stanley in London. “People don’t buy the brand because of who it is associated with.”

However, some are less bullish.

Nicole Bernardo, women’s fashion manager at Paris’s flagship Samaritaine department store, said that if she were heading up Parfums Thierry Mugler, she “would be worried.” Bernardo explained that for such a beauty business to succeed, it needs the backing of a strong designer personality.

Others believe the bells-and-whistles accompanying runway shows are key. “They allow a brand to communicate its image,” said Philippe Charoing, managing director at Parfumeries Marionnaud, who deems the Mugler beauty business healthy.

Others feel a designer’s presence is only really necessary at the launch of his or her fragrance business.

History proves there’s no set model when it comes to the fashion-beauty link.

There have been a few cases of designer fragrances succeeding with neither ongoing fashion or its founding designer. A good example is Jean Patou, whose scents have survived its fashion by years. In 2000, Parfums Kenzo produced a best-selling scent, Flower By Kenzo, one year after its namesake designer left the house.

The converse is also true. Some designers, notably Bill Blass, have succeeded in building a fashion following, but not a significant fragrance presence.

Beauty executives say it’s paramount that a fragrance stays true to the brand’s roots. But the relationship to its fashion image can vary. Dior, for example, has taken the fashion-beauty link into the realm of advertising, with its designer John Galliano spearheading the image of both.

Mugler, majority owned by Clarins since 1997, launched a new men’s scent, Cologne, in 2001. More recently, the focus has turned back to Angel. The house celebrated the fragrance’s 10th birthday last year by hosting numerous star-spangled events and producing a series of limited-edition crystal bottles.

Industry experts question whether Mugler can overcome the challenge all its designer beauty counterparts face: bolstering its fragrance sales by diversifying into product categories such as color cosmetics or skin care. Mugler’s prior move into treatment in 1999 met with little success.

Yet the fact remains it has Angel. And, as Merrill Lynch’s Raju reminded: “If you have a classic, it’s not going to go away.”