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Alaïa Paris: The Anatomy of a Fragrance Launch

Time is of the essence for the designer’s first women’s scent.

PARIS — Azzedine Alaïa’s signature collaborative creative process was used to conceive his debut fragrance.

The women’s scent launched in the designer’s boutiques on June 2, followed by an introduction in a handful of doors including Galeries Lafayette’s Paris flagship and Harrods in the U.K.

“We’ve been delighted to extend our relationship with Alaïa through the exclusive launch of their debut fragrance,” said Mia Collins, head of beauty at Harrods. “Impressively, the Alaïa fragrance has not only delighted the existing and notoriously rarefied Alaïa ready-to-wear and accessories client, but also introduced a whole new audience to the brand.”

The Alaïa Paris scent’s highly selective rollout will continue taking place in fewer than 7,000 premium doors in 50 markets through mid-September. In the U.S., it is to launch exclusively in Saks Fifth Avenue on Aug. 14.

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While executives at Alaïa’s fragrance licensee Beauté Prestige International, Shiseido’s fragrance division, would not discuss sales projections, industry sources estimate the scent will generate $40 million in retail sales during its first year worldwide.

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“The way we worked together was extremely interesting,” said Nathalie Helloin Kamel, chief brands officer at BPI, referring to meetings with the designer and his colleagues and friends, including 10 Corso Como’s Carla Sozzani and photographer Paolo Roversi.

“The idea for Mr. Alaïa was to work with people around him and to share everything with everyone,” continued Helloin-Kamel. “He could ask a question about the bottle to the nose, and a question about the fragrance to the bottle designer. He wanted everyone to feel their part of the project. He made the final decision while mixing [in] all the information around him.”

She said the cross-pollination was useful for others, too. Discussions about the bottle’s transparency helped Firemenich perfumer Marie Salamagne create the transparent top notes requested by Alaïa, for instance.

“We were all working together, listening to each other,” said Helloin-Kamel. “It really encouraged people to express themselves. I received a lesson in terms of creativity. Mr. Alaïa refuses any constraint.”

It was a novel type of collective creative process for BPI, which is no newcomer to starting designer fragrance brands from scratch. In 2011 it launched the Elie Saab label and a dozen years ago did the same for Narciso Rodriguez. (The portfolio also includes Issey Miyake.)

“The market is asking for those kinds of proposals,” said Eric Henry, chief operating officer of BPI.

Still, it’s a hypercompetitive marketplace.

“It is a challenge to enter the prestige fragrance market today, for any company or any brand. However, there are opportunities,” said Leïla Rochet Podvin, founder of Cosmetics Inspiration & Creation consultancy in Paris, who explained today’s lifestyle is closely related to beauty. “Beauty has never been so central. Showing your singularity, your style, is key in our connected society driven by image.

“In this context, if a brand has a capacity to propose something truly different to consumers, with a singular fragrance and positioning, with the right marketing tools, it will certainly capture consumers’ interest even in the context of fierce competition,” she continued. “But it cannot only rely on the name of a designer to get there.”

“The biggest challenge today is to be relevant and intriguing,” said Louise Rosen, founder and chief executive officer of The Message Inc., a Paris-based company focused on strategy and copywriting for luxury brands. “Our brains are used to being permanently over-stimulated. A girl, a bottle and a billboard is not always enough.”

The Internet has helped change the rules of the game.

“The truth is the Web has somewhat broken the stranglehold of big advertisers,” added Rosen. “It used to be that you needed big money to get the attention of your consumers. Today, the hegemony has been somewhat broken down, and influencers — beauty bloggers, celebrities and peer-recognized experts, or even those able to wave a magic wand and tell stories that stick — also have a chance. It’s more democratic.”

Crucial to a fashion label’s first fragrance launch is to maintain brand equity. (In the case of Alaïa, that’s uber-high-end luxury.) And having the time necessary to build notoriety is more essential than ever before.

“We reach an agreement with the distribution and ask them to give minimum time to make it happen; we are not going to build a new fragrance brand in two weeks,” said Henry, adding in return BPI gives strong in-store support and some exclusivity.

“We have to create a desire for the brand and the traffic to the points of sale,” said Helloin-Kamel. “We must be sure that the sales consultants are going to be able to talk about the brand and be the link between the p.r., the advertising and the product on the shelf.”

“The element of time is extremely important, and it’s a key issue that we are facing today,” said Henry, explaining such a launch as Alaïa Paris will not necessarily have immediate return on investment or short-term results.

Instead, BPI deems it takes about 18 months (through the second Christmas on shelves) to reach a first level of brand development. This is an atypical strategy in a marketplace that casts an eagle eye even on the first two weeks of a new product’s sales, but it has worked well for BPI’s other brands.

To be successful a scent must be unique and immediately seduce consumers and then make them addicted, according to Helloin-Kamel. High visibility at point of sale and well-conceived advertising are vital, too, as are well-trained beauty consultants.

“If one of these is missing in your strategy, then I think you have no chance to succeed,” she said. “Time was also something we talked a lot about during the development of the product, because Mr. Alaïa was really looking for something totally timeless. He said only what is really beautiful can go through time.”

As for the fragrance: “Mr. Alaïa explained he was looking for something like water,” said Helloin-Kamel, adding that meant the sensation of fresh water splashed on to a hot chalk wall — giving a contrasting cold-hot impression. There are airy and pink pepper notes in the top; freesia and peony notes in the middle, and suede and musk notes in the base.

The translucent black bottle created with Martin Szekely takes a cue from Alaïa fashion, especially the signature laser-cut pattern first used in the Nineties. The cap is reminiscent of a spool of golden thread.

In France, the 30-ml. eau de parfum sells for 58 euros, or $65 at current exchange. The 50-ml. version sells for 88 euros, or $99, while the 100-ml. edition is 124 euros, or $139. Ancillaries include a body lotion and shower gel.

For the ad campaign,  Guinevere Van Seenus was photographed and filmed by Roversi wearing Alaïa’s “houpette” dress from the 1994 spring collection. Julien d’Ys created the model’s golden hairstyle. “She’s mysterious, like an apparition; she looks like an Alaïa goddess,” said Helloin-Kamel. The digital spot for the fragrance is accompanied by a Nicolas Godin score.