J. Crew loves to tell a good story. On its Web site and in its catalogue, cashmere, ballet flats and even jeans can have a past.
So it only makes sense that in developing its first niche fragrances, No. 31 and No. 57, out Monday, the brand would collaborate with niche perfumer Arquiste.
Founded in 2011 and led by creator and fragrance developer Carlos Huber, Arquiste develops scents around a particular time and place, like “June 1660, Isle of Pheasants, Basque region, on the French-Spanish border” for its woody floral Fleur de Louis.
“Carlos has a very romantic way of discussing fragrance. It’s very steeped in history,” said Jenna Lyons, J. Crew executive creative director and president. “Fragrance is not something we know a lot about, so when the opportunity to work with him arose, we knew it was time to do this.”
Though J. Crew has dabbled in beauty before — the retailer has done lipstick with Bite Beauty — this passion project represents a bigger step into the business. “When developing other products there is usually a starting point, but because this is fragrance, we developed a totally new concept, from beginning to end,” said Tom Mora, head of J. Crew women’s design. In over a year of development, Huber and his team met with J. Crew executives biweekly to sample and tweak the formulas. “The project slowly started growing on its own. We were originally aiming for one fragrance, but as we kept meeting, we realized there were two distinct scent stories that everyone loved, so we went with both,” said Huber.
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After that decision, made last December, J. Crew’s fragrance purchase from Arquiste increased fivefold. Though he declined to comment on a specific number of units, Huber said the buy continued to increase as the company expanded the launch from just its higher-end collection stores to include all 269 of its doors and online.
No. 31 and No. 57, $78 and $25 each for 50 ml. and 10 ml., respectively, were designed by Givaudan perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier to conjure up the Jan. 5, 1943, opening of “Exhibition by 31 Women,” the first all-female modern art show in the U.S., curated by Peggy Guggenheim and displayed at her Art of This Century Gallery on East 57th Street in New York.
“The exhibition featured artists like Frida Kahlo and Helen Frankenthaler. Guggenheim had oak chairs so patrons could sit down and admire art. The walls, floor and ceiling were all done in wood,” said Huber. Guggenheim feted the opening with a cocktail party. “Of course she didn’t just serve wine and sparkling water. There were Manhattans, negronis, and gin-and-tonics — all these cocktails that were popular during that era,” said Huber.
From that scene arrived two scents, one warmer than the other. In No. 57, aged whiskey, cinnamon bark, labdanum and vanilla are meant to reflect the warmth, wood and amber glow in Guggenheim’s gallery. “No. 57 is abstract, mysterious, enveloping and feels layered,” said Huber.
The red vermouth, eau-de-vie accord, Bulgarian rose, and damson plum in No. 31 attempts to capture the excitement of the crowd and essence of the cocktails. “This scent is sparkling and radiant, but still sophisticated. We incorporated dark plum, which was a popular note in fragrances in the Forties. It’s fruity but very elegant,” said Huber.
J. Crew is investing significant resources into the fragrance collection’s marketing campaign. No. 31 and No. 57 will be featured prominently in the company’s September catalogue and will have their own landing page on the Web site. The company has filmed perfumers Flores-Roux and Vasnier in the lab with Huber doing quality checks in the factories for potential use on the page.
J. Crew would not comment on sales, but industry sources estimate first-year revenue for the two fragrances will reach $1 to $3 million. “Emotional connection is such an important part of who we are. And that’s our goal with these fragrances,” said Mora. “If we can connect with her and get her excited, this project will feel like a success.”
There are no plans for line extensions or further expansion into beauty in the works, but Mora says the company is open to projects that tap into the brand’s spirit of uniqueness and discovery. “There’s always a possibility of more products because we’re looking for things that we love so we can then share with our customers. Of course we’re hoping that we’ll capture all J. Crew customers with these two perfumes, but we just might have to do more.”