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EXCLUSIVE: Louis Vuitton’s Michael Burke Talks Fragrance

The executive discussed the introduction of the Le Jour Se Lève scent and the evolution of the brand’s perfume business.

PARIS — Louis Vuitton keeps diving deeper into fragrance, now with the introduction of the perfume Le Jour Se Lève in March. It will arrive one-and-a-half years after the brand relaunched in the category, where it is growing sales strongly worldwide, including in Asia.

Le Jour Se Lève (or Daybreak) is the eighth women’s scent in the Les Parfums line, which made its debut in September 2016 in some 200 Vuitton stores.

“It’s a full-fledged member of the family, with its own distinct positioning as far as the notes are concerned,” Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chairman and chief executive officer, told WWD during an exclusive interview.

“It’s very connected to Grasse,” he added, referring to the southern French city that’s the cradle of modern perfumery and also the home of the Les Fontaines Parfumées perfume workshop site, where Louis Vuitton perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud plies his trade alongside François Demachy, of Dior, both LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned houses.

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In the latest fragrance, Cavallier Belletrud sets out to channel the essence of the sun’s first rays. He said of Le Jour Se Lève: “There’s a lot of roundness, but there’s an edge to it. It’s radiant. The mandarin note brings a sweetness that is given a sharper aspect with blackcurrant and jasminum sambac notes. I think the industry calls it a ‘fruity floral.’ I call it an ‘edgy yummy,’” he said with a smile.

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Les Parfums are sold in 250 Vuitton stores and by yearend, that count should range from 290 to 300, according to Burke, who added ideally the fragrances will — after a progressive rollout — ultimately be carried in all of Vuitton’s 450 doors.

The scents’ largest market today is the Europe-Middle East zone. And more than 30 percent — a larger-than-expected portion — of Vuitton’s overall perfume sales are rung up in Asia.

“Japan has been an absolute surprise. One of the top five doors in the world is in Tokyo,” said Burke of a country that has historically shied away from perfumes in general and shown a penchant for light floral scents.

Yet for Vuitton, its strongest-smelling scent to date, Matière Noire, is its second-best selling fragrance in Japan after Rose des Vents, a floral that ranks first globally for Vuitton.

Burke said business in China is also well exceeding expectations, and that e-commerce represents Vuitton’s top-selling fragrance door.

The geographic breakdown of Les Parfums’ client base is: 30 percent Asians, 25 percent Americans, 20 percent Middle Easterners and 20 percent Europeans.

“We are probably the most balanced perfume house,” he said, adding its clients range from young to mature. “It doesn’t skew one way or the other.

“The big surprise is actually the penetration of men,” he continued. “Of course, a lot of men are buying this as gifts. But we estimate that half of what men are buying is for themselves.”

Burke would not discuss sales figures, but industry sources estimate that Les Parfums generated about 60 million euros in first-year retail revenues, and that with the launch of Le Jour Se Lève, on March 15, the line could register approximately 20 percent growth in its second full year on the market.

Prices for the fragrance in France will be 210 euros for a 100-ml. eau de parfum and 125 euros for a 100-ml. eau de parfum in-store refill. The 200-ml. versions will retail for 320 and 250 euros, respectively, while four 7.5-ml. travel sprays are to go for 210 euros and their refills for 115 euros.

Vuitton is not rushing headlong to expand in the fragrance business.

“We took a very deliberate approach in reentering this trade,” said Burke, referring to the 90 years Vuitton remained outside of the perfume market. “And just like we did when we went into shoes, just like we did when we went into ready-to-wear, we went into it as a perfume house and not a marketing house,” said Burke. “It is a real business. We wanted it to be an organic part of our business. We took our time to launch it [when] it was right.”

He attributed the success of Les Parfums not just to its juices and bottle aesthetics but also to Vuitton’s in-store client advisors, who are selling a $200 scent rather than a $2,000 handbag. That’s counter to the traditional retail model.

“Typically a perfume at $200 is considered very high-end competing for shelf space [with a] $50, $70 bottle,” Burke said. “In our case, it’s the exact opposite. It is our entry price point in our stores. So it has to compete with products that are 10-times more expensive.

“That means we have to gain the acceptance of our network of all of our stores,” he said.

The Vuitton fragrances are recruitment- and image-builders.

“When you aim for something really creative and beautiful, sometimes you achieve it,” he said. “If you segment too much, and you try to slice and dice, you come up with a product for a very specific demographic. Then you will rarely achieve that magical quality of being both image-driven and entry price.”

When asked whether Vuitton could venture into makeup and skin care, Burke replied: “There’s very little that Vuitton couldn’t do. The trick is not to do everything. That would get us into trouble. Many, many brands have gotten into trouble because they went into it because they could go into it. We try to stay away from that.

“The stars have to align for us to enter a new business,” he added. “And it may take us decades before getting into it.”

Burke reminded Vuitton was born in the realm of travel, with trunks. “If you look at what motivates Millennials, travel is their number-one search for experience,” he said. “So that’s a very wide world. But we are going to go at it very slowly, very deliberately. There’s no need for us to grow our top line.”

The executive added: “We are trying to lead this company down the path of long-term growth and extensions, nothing flash-in-the pan. So I’m not ruling it out, but it’s not for the immediate future.”