RESTRAINT IS IN THE AIR AS LACROIX PREPARES U.S. FRAGRANCE LAUNCH
Byline: Alev Aktar
NEW YORK — Christian Lacroix padded into a SoHo art gallery for his fragrance introduction wearing a black hooded sweater with a black chalk-striped suit and black sneakers. Not exactly a riot of prints and colors.
More than any other designer of the last 20 years, Lacroix is associated with lavish head-to-toe ornamentation. But there’s been a sea change at the couture house as Lacroix has moved beyond baroque and embraced relative simplicity.
“I’m tired of being considered a toreador, the nostalgic couturier who’s obsessed with Spain and Arles and who spends all his time poking around attics and visiting fashion museums,” said Lacroix, without any trace of a smile. “I was starting to feel trapped by my image.
“I realized that I enjoy visiting galleries more than museums — I don’t even like fashion museums that much — and I collect contemporary art. I’m interested in technology. I love these things too much not to show [that side of myself] in my collections, and I was starting to feel schizophrenic.”
For Lacroix, the turning point came when he saw the controversial Sensation art exhibit in London in 1998 — the one that so offended New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Lacroix became determined to scale back on his trademark extravagance. “My collection a year ago was very streamlined, and there was a lot of transparency and geometry. And no one said, ‘It doesn’t say Lacroix,”‘ he remembers with pride.
Lacroix is forging a new direction, and now he has a new, high-powered management team to help him do so. As reported on Wednesday, Yves Carcelle has been named president of Lacroix, a title that comes on top of his duties as president of Louis Vuitton and the entire fashion and leather goods division at LVMH, where he is a key player. The Lacroix business is one that Carcelle knows well — he had already been president of the house from November 1989 to April 1990.
In addition, Jean-Pierre Debu, currently women’s fashion director at Kenzo, has been named managing director of Lacroix beginning in January and Christophe Girard will be director of fashion strategy at LVMH after spending two decades as the right hand of Pierre Berge at Yves Saint Laurent. Both Carcelle and Girard were all smiles at Lacroix’s launch party here.
Lacroix’s new restraint is reflected in his new signature fragrance. The scent will debut in a tight specialty store distribution of 160 doors in late January and there will be no national print advertising — at least at first. Executives at the U.S. distributor, Mode et Parfums, intend to engineer a slow build.
“We want to position the brand in the high end of the prestige market,” said Gerard Pichon-Varin, president of Mode et Parfums, a subsidiary of Boucheron U.S.A. “The Christian Lacroix image is very high in terms of fashion and couture, and we want to [pitch the fragrance at the same level.] We want to begin with very few doors but rank in the top five in those doors.”
Pichon-Varin declined to comment on a sales target, but industry sources estimate that it could generate $6 million to $7 million at retail in 2000.
Clearly, prudence is the operative word. After all, Lacroix was badly burned by his first fragrance, the famous flop appropriately named C’est La Vie. The scent was introduced with much fanfare — prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem was flown in to perform at the press party in New York — and soon fizzled. Its failure has been endlessly analyzed, but most perfume executives say the big-guns launch budget and far-reaching distribution were far too ambitious for a young couture house.
“The problem was the marketing,” said Lacroix. “C’est La Vie was introduced in 1989, and my couture house was only two years old. It was just too soon for a mega-launch. Parfums Christian Dior handled the introduction, and as a result, it was on a Dior scale. I pointed out that I wasn’t well enough known, but they said, ‘No, you’re too modest. Let the professionals handle it.”‘
Another sticking point was the packaging. “I wanted the bottle to look like one of the smooth stones that are found in La Crau area [of Southern France] with a coral branch on top,” noted the designer. “The bottle ended up shaped like a human heart with coral on top, and it was very badly accepted.”
As a result, Lacroix’s second fragrance has been a long time coming. The project was reportedly assigned to various LVMH divisions including Christian Dior and Givenchy and then put on the back burner. Finally, after an aborted effort at Guerlain, Lacroix asked LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault if he could take the fragrance outside the group. In March, LVMH signed a fragrance license deal with the Paris-based Inter Parfums, the beauty licensee of Burberry, S.T. Dupont and Paul Smith. LVMH subsequently purchased a minority stake in Inter Parfums Inc., the U.S. parent that’s publicly traded.
At the time the licensing deal was announced, LVMH fragrance and beauty chief Patrick Choel explained, “Very simply, we have four houses that have quite enough to do on their own. We’re very pragmatic here, and Inter Parfums is the best partner. We’re not the right people to handle a startup.”
For Lacroix, the licensing deal meant closer proximity. “With Inter Parfums, we could meet almost every day. I realized that it was necessary to be totally involved, from the initial concept to the in-store presentation, and not just give ideas and poetic expression to the project. This time, I wanted everything to be more modest and intimate.”
The glass bottle is shaped like a shell and has a twirled stopper. The bottle fits into a scarlet carton with a white bas relief depicting the Theatre of Arles. “Red is the color of my mother, and she died this year,” said Lacroix. “It’s also my color, and it looks good in stores.”
As reported, the floral fragrance was developed by French fragrance consultant Frederic Malle and Sophia Grojsman of International Flavors & Fragrances. The juice was inspired by smells that Lacroix considers magical: Christmas aromas, hot summer days at the beach and Lachaume, one of Paris’s premier florists.
The scent has topnotes of green foliage, hyacinth, living magnolia, seringa, mandarin and neroli. Midnotes of jasmine, living Casablanca lily, nasturtium, heliotrope, narcissus and spices in the heart, and oakmoss, vetiver, sandalwood, musk and incense in the dry-down.
The fragrance will be priced at $125 for a 35-ml. parfum; $95 for a 125-ml. eau de parfum spray, and $75 for a 75-ml. eau de parfum spray.
The company will promote the fragrance with heavy in-store sampling, special public relations programs and scented strips in catalogs, according to Amin Rizk, marketing director for Boucheron USA.
In Europe, the scent was unveiled in October and is selling briskly, said Philippe Benacin, president of Inter Parfums.
He reported that in France the scent generated almost $1 million wholesale between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30.
The dollar figure is converted from the French franc at current exchange.
Lacroix, meanwhile, is already dreaming up new fragrance projects. He would like to introduce a men’s scent in 2001, at the same time that his first men’s collection hits stores. He’s even thinking of re-introducing C’est La Vie, perhaps in a limited edition.
“Doing just clothes and being a fashion victim isn’t enough,” he shrugged. “Life is about evolution.”