NEW YORK — Harry Fremont, a master perfumer at Firmenich who has created upward of 350 scents in his over 30-year career, compared fragrance to clothing or shoes — specifically to suits for men.
This story first appeared in the June 14, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
From afar, an expensive and cheap suit pretty much look the same, Fremont explained during an interview at his office at the Swiss fragrance and flavors supplier’s U.S. headquarters in Midtown here last week. But when one puts on the suit, the difference therein lies in the fit and how long the jacket and pants remain intact.
Similar to a suit, the goal with scent is to create the same effect — whether it’s a rose-driven juice that retails for $75 or $250. But upon closer look, the variances become evident.
“Once you have more quality materials, very often the fragrance wears more easily. When we do cheaper fragrances we use ingredients that are aggressive or tiring and we lose a certain comfort. We can create the same effect — but when you wear it you realize they are different,” said Fremont, who has worked on scents that span the designer, mass, celebrity and prestige categories.
He called synthetic sandalwood “made from a molecule” very “tiring and more opaque” than the naturally derived ingredient, which smells more like musk or skin. When Fremont created Tom Ford Grey Vetiver, for instance, he used a sizable amount of natural vetiver so the wearer would smell the “real wood from the woods from the vetiver. It makes the fragrance more real.”
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He doesn’t knock the importance of synthetics in the art of perfumery, though. They go together, said Fremont, who believes that molecules bring modernity to his work.
“Modern perfumery wouldn’t exist [without synthetics]. We have some scented molecules that are very expensive,” Fremont said, crediting much of the innovation in the space to a handful of new ingredients, which more often than not come from a new molecule. Some of the best-smelling and longest-lasting ingredients he’s worked with recently are synthetics that “smell deeply fresh and you smell it two weeks later and it’s still fresh.”
But he doesn’t play favorites — or distinguish between niche and lower-priced eau de parfums. Fragrance is subjective, and Fremont wants to create things people want to wear — which straddle the lower-priced to very prestige sectors. The desired end result is always quality product, of course, but he lauded the ability for small quantities of ingredients to “go a long way” in perfumery.
This is clear from Fremont’s work, which spans Tom Ford White Suede to Power by 50 Cent to Estée Lauder’s Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, the latter of which he called one of his favorite scents to create.
Fremont, also an avid gardener, was responsible for Nineties blockbusters from CK One (a co-creation with Alberto Morillas, who teamed with Fremont again on CK All that was released this year) and Ralph Lauren Romance to celebrity scents for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. Recent projects include Tom Ford Tuscan Leather and Yves Saint Laurent Mon Paris, a collaboration with Olivier Cresp and Dora Baghriche.
“In a fragrance you have two aspects like any consumer product. You have quality of the material and how they are used. Normally there is a ratio. [When] a fragrance is sold for a certain amount of money the ingredients that go into this fragrance should go with the price. Normally,” said Fremont, who himself wears Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Tom Ford Grey Vetiver, Calvin Klein Eternity for Men and Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio when he travels.
For him, a growing artisanal category fills a void in the market. A discerning consumer is seeking something different and wants to deviate from “the things that are very commercial” — and brands are responding.
Fremont said a lot of Firmenich’s clients are focusing on bringing niche scents to market simply because the sector is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of the industry.
“Everybody is doing it so everyone wants to do it. The problem it creates is a lot of work,” said Fremont, the sole perfumer to receive the International Prize from the French Society of Perfumers two years in a row.
At the onset of the craze, he thought a series of higher-end players would push the regular market to “get more quality” because niche was quickly filling a void in quality product. It did this at first, he noted, because a lot of brands realized they had to put more money into the fragrances they wanted to create.
But this desire for firms to build their niche businesses, coupled with endless flankers to ride the wave of their successful predecessors, gave way to the most preeminent challenges in the space: fragmentation and erosion.
“In 2000, the top 10 fragrances were over 60 percent of the total business. Today it’s only 35 percent. That’s how much the business got fragmented in the space of 17 years. It’s just incredible,” he said.
Today there are so many fragrances launching at any given time that the potential for success on a large scale is rarely there.
“It’s the big launches on the market…The money they generate is much bigger. The niche market has a very small market share,” he said, adding that firms like NPD allow the market to see very quickly if a scent is resonating or not, which largely hinges on the amount of advertising they do. This results in a client questioning their decision and if they should put their budget behind the classic or a new launch.
“Then you have all those flankers that make the whole category very confusing. It’s confusing for us in the business…It’s confusing for the consumer, too. People are looking for newness, but at the end it confuses people. Then you have this erosion and the shelf life of product is much shorter,” Fremont said, adding that an evolution of channel distribution — namely the shift from department store to specialty retail — has contributed to a shift in the business as well.
Niche juices and flankers aside, the most trying aspect of the business has little to do with the actual juice, according to Fremont. It’s red tape.
The biggest challenge is the layer of decision, he explained, where product has to go through a marketing director, the celebrity or designer, a chief executive officer, consumer testing and more. Fremont called the trip a perfumer must go through to bring an idea to fruition — where communication skills are paramount to talent — the “most difficult thing to do.”
“You should never try to lose the original idea but then you need to customize it to model it to the need of the person in front of you and the consumer,” Fremont said. “I always say there is this fine line between having conviction and being stubborn.”