PARIS — Coty, a name that has resonated in the world of beauty for the past 100 years, owes its origins to its founder, François Coty. Coty was, however, born François Marie Joseph Spoturno in Corsica in 1874.
Raised by his grandmother after he was orphaned as a young boy, the French entrepreneur later tweaked his mother’s maiden name, Coti, to become Coty. That name was more marketable than Spoturno, noted Orla Healy in “Coty: Perfumer and Visionary,” a book that is being published by Editions Assouline and is set to hit shelves this month.
Coty, who numbered Napoleon’s aunt, Isabelle Bonaparte, and a count among his ancestors, left Corsica for Marseille where, after a period in the military, he worked as a haberdashery salesman and a journalist. From there he moved to Paris to work as a parliamentary attaché. While searching for business opportunities, he spotted an opening in the fragrance industry and later visited Grasse, where he studied perfumery and began concocting his own scents.
Armed with the knowledge he had acquired in Grasse, the heartland of French perfumery, and a loan from his grandmother, Coty returned to Paris with the aim of making accessibly priced prestige fragrances.
“François focused at first on targeting middle-class women who could afford perfume, yet for whom it was still a self-conscious, special purchase,” Healy wrote. “Even though he wanted to make the market for his products as wide as possible, he still wanted ‘Coty’ to spell prestige.”
He set up a laboratory in an apartment he shared with his wife, Yvonne Le Baron, with whom he had two children. While Coty acted as both perfumer and salesman for the couple’s nascent business, his wife embroidered pouches for sample bottles.
Coty encountered stiff resistance from retailers when he tried to launch his early scents. Indeed, it was after a rejection by a Parisian store manager that the brand found its feet. According to Healy, after Coty smashed a flacon of La Rose Jacqueminot on a counter at the Grand Magasins du Louvre, customers — intrigued by its aroma — began snapping up bottles of the fragrance. The scent became a bestseller, and Coty’s business expanded to include new headquarters, a laboratory in the Paris suburb of Neuilly and additional sales staff. Meanwhile, he continued to concoct new scents, among them Vertige, Idylle, L’Ambre Antique, L’Origan and Le Jasmin de Corse.
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Coty, who worked in close collaboration with retailers on training and merchandising, opened his first store on Paris’ prestigious Place Vendôme in 1908. He also relocated the company to Suresnes, where he later purchased the Château de la Source. The area became an industrial zone Coty dubbed “Perfume City.”
Also in 1908, he began a partnership with renowned jeweler and sculptor René Lalique to design Coty fragrance bottles. While Lalique’s bottles were almost objects of art, he devised a mass-production technique inspired by the wine industry, which allowed him to reduce costs while producing in large quantities.
Indeed, packaging and presentation were cornerstones of Coty’s marketing strategy.
“He thought it was indispensible to create the necessary excitement to make Coty a desirable purchase for [the] lucrative, relatively untapped, middle-class market of women who cared about their appearance, yet were not consumed by it,” Healy wrote. “François’ strategy was to seduce these women with the kind of enticements usually reserved for the very rich — an elegant presentation and air of refinement, concentrating on the design of the perfume bottles, and later on the packaging, as much as their contents.”
Lalique also collaborated on other aspects of the brand’s look, including bottle labels that were in the Art Nouveau style, and created pressed glass panels for Coty’s New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue. In 1920, Coty took over bottle design and production following a disagreement with Lalique, but the pair would later reconcile, and Lalique once again designed bottles for the brand.
Coty — who believed every woman should have her own fragrance — continued to add to his offering, concocting scents to appeal to specific consumer segments. In 1912, for example, he created L’Or, a fragrance for pale-eyed blondes. In 1917 he introduced Chypre, considered one of his greatest achievements, which became a bestseller and lent its name to a new fragrance family. His business ambitions didn’t stop at scents. He extended his beauty portfolio to include cosmetics, among them a line of powders, which in 1914 were selling at a rate of 30,000 compacts per day in the U.S. He also expanded the brand’s global reach by opening numerous subsidiaries around the world.
While the beauty industry made Coty a millionaire, his other interests included the press and property. In 1921 he bought Le Figaro newspaper and later Le Gaulois, which he shuttered and relaunched as L’Ami du Peuple. He also purchased French castles, including the Château de Longchamp, outside Paris, and the d’Artigny estate in the Loire Valley. He is said to have had many mistresses.
Following Coty’s death in 1934, his family maintained control of the company and remained on its board of directors until the Sixties.