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Oscar de la Renta Reenters Fragrance Fray

Designer aims to breathe new life into the long-enduring brand.

Oscar de la Renta is back in the fragrance game.

More than a year after legally wresting his fragrance license back from YSL Beauté, the venerable designer and Alex Bolen, chief executive officer of his fashion house, aim to breathe new life into the long-enduring brand that made a huge splash in 1977 as one of the first big American designer scents.

“It’s not that I ever abandoned the fragrance business,” de la Renta said of his namesake scent business, which has been sold and resold through the decades — first to Avon Products, then Sanofi, then YSL Beauté and, finally, L’Oréal. “But I’m really happy to be back in control of it, and we have plans to make it really great.”

De la Renta will make 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. The line extension is called Esprit d’Oscar Eau de Parfum. “We felt that the Oscar story was important enough that we needed to tell it again, but tell it in the context of something new,” said Bolen, who is leading the effort to reclaim and restore the brand. The packaging of the fragrance’s eight ancillary products also has been upgraded and Bolen is thinking about adding more products to the line — a body scrub and a body spray.

Then, once the new edp has broken the ice, the house plans on launching an entirely new fragrance under the Oscar umbrella in September.

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Bolen’s overall objective in winning the license back in December 2009 was to bring the fragrance business into brand-imaging synch with de la Renta’s fashion and accessories. During an earlier interview, Bolen said he started tightening up the fragrance distribution, which now stands at 2,200 doors in the U.S. In a subsequent session, he discussed the design implications of the new edp. “The cap kind of looks like a ring and maybe there’s an opportunity to tie our jewelry business and our fragrance business closer together,” Bolen noted.

“Our complete objective, very generally, in doing what we’re doing now is to bring fashion and fragrance and beauty closer together. Everything we do — fragrancewise, packagingwise — we want to try to have it hit on multiple brand points.” Elaborating further, he added, “We talk about fabrics that are twisted by Oscar to look like flowers, start to become things that are caps for bottles. So we really want to bring everything together in our business.”

As part of fine-tuning the brand’s positioning, Bolen said he has been “shrinking, materially, our distribution at all levels of distribution. For example, we were in 600 doors at Macy’s with the Oscar fragrance, we are now in 200,” Bolen said, adding that he has been working with “the folks at Macy’s, who have been great partners, to figure out exactly the right distribution for where we want to take this fragrance.” He said the new edp edition will go to all the present retail partners, with an on-counter date in April. But a different distribution strategy will probably be employed for the new fragrance in the fall.

“The Oscar fragrance has been and will remain the heart and soul of our business,” Bolen added. But it is the franchise that has developed sprawl over the years with the addition of other fragrances: Pour Lui in 1979; Ruffles, 1980-81; Volupte, 1990-91; So de la Renta, 1997; Oscar for Men, 1999; Intrusion, 2002, and Rosamor, 2004. Apparently, the company will have plans for the other fragrances in the future, but right now the only non-Oscar scent on the radar screen is the men’s fragrance, Pour Lui. Bolen noted, “It is going to get some focus from us.”

Through all the years of turnover, the brand appears to have held up. The entire global fragrance franchise was estimated to have peaked at $250 million to $300 million in retail sales in 1989 or 1990, according to estimates by industry sources who calculate that the franchise is still generating about $40 million in retail sales globally.

According to the in-house team that Bolen has assembled to rebuild the business, the Oscar brand had a fairly good Christmas. “There were a lot of comp-door increases, which means definitely there’s a lot of life in the brand,” said Jean Hoehn Zimmerman, a former longtime Chanel executive who now is consulting at de la Renta under the title of executive at large in the fragrance division. She noted that the brand had a plus-40 percent jump in comp doors at Macy’s for the fourth quarter. Michele De Bourbon, senior vice president of U.S. wholesale in the fragrance division, said Oscar ranked in the top 15 at Belk and placed second in the Canadian market.

Bolen credited his wife, Eliza, the company’s creative director of licensing, with the idea of updating the formula of the Oscar fragrance to produce a scent that “is still recognizable as Oscar, but a little different.”

While preserving the scent’s floral oriental character, the top note has acquired a citrus sparkle, thanks to a bouquet of Sicilian lemon, bergamot and citron. The formula retains its floral heart with Egyptian jasmine, orange flower and tuberose. De Bourbon noted that the base has a “creaminess” that “makes [the fragrance] very smooth, easy to wear and long lasting.”

The edp was created by Frank Voelkl of Firmenich, working with Ann Gottlieb. The fragrance will come in two sizes: a 1.6-oz. spray for $78 and a 3.3-oz. size for $98. De Bourbon said the company will use scented strips in an advertising and promotional campaign designed to make 10 million scented impressions. Ads are slated to appear in fashion magazines like Vogue, Allure, InStyle, Elle and Glamour.

Figures were not broken out, but industry sources estimate that the advertising budget could exceed $3 million and the target for the resultant sales increase is $25 million at retail, spread across the whole brand. Without mentioning numbers, Bolen said he hopes the advertising for the new edp will also spark sales of the old eau de toilette.

In his effort to reconstitute the fragrance business, Bolen also has been busy lining up distributors: Hugh Winters in Canada, Kenneth Green in the U.K., Trimax in Australia and New Zealand, Essence Corp. as master distributor of Central and South America and Nobilis of Germany. There are also other players in Europe and Bolen is working on the Middle East and Far East. Some markets are so important, they have to be approached directly, like France. “That’s taken some more time,” he said, adding, “we want to proceed patiently.”