FIFI’S FANDANGO

Byline: Alev Aktar

NEW YORK — Here’s the 26th Annual FiFi Awards in a nutshell: No single vendor dominated the prizes, the audience was so rude during Andrea Marcovicci’s performance that she stormed off the stage and, once again, industry veteran Jerry Abernathy stole the show with his droll comments.
The Fragrance Foundation held its yearly bash honoring the industry’s standouts at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall Tuesday and drew more than 1,500 attendees.
As usual, Abernathy was the emotional favorite of the evening. The former chairman of Coty Inc. was presented with a Hall of Fame award for his contributions to the fragrance industry. He retired in December after 32 years with Coty.
Abernathy accepted the award from longtime buddy Gary Farn, president of Gary Farn Ltd., and thanked the usual suspects. Then he explained how his wife, Ada — “the most important person in the world to me” — has kept him in line all these years.
“She’s at my side providing constructive critique,” he drawled, with his grin broadening. “If you have not had constructive critique from Ada, you have not had constructive critique. She did give me a little praise, but just enough to get me to come back for a little more constructive critique.”
He also poked fun at Farn’s effusive praise of him. “These are really nice words. Why’d it take you 30 years to say something nice about me?”
Farn had described Abernathy as the “blueprint for the perfectly made executive and the best friend a guy could ever have.” Farn also raved, “There are people who build companies, and there are people who create markets. This gentleman did both.”
Other FiFi winners also had nice words — and, from time to time, a little constructive critique — for retailers.
When Fernando Aleu, chairman of Compar, stepped up to accept the Men’s Hall of Fame FiFi for Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, he thanked the stores: “Without the retailers, we would be playing the guitar in Times Square.”
Jean-Andre Rougeot, president of Coty, also thanked the company’s retail partners: “[They] gave us trust, but more importantly, two to four feet of space.” Coty’s The Healing Garden grabbed the FiFi for Environmental Fragrance Introduction of the Year.
Finally, Norbert Becker, president and chief executive officer of Renaissance Cosmetics Inc., picked up the Award for the Men’s Fragrance Star of the Year in Chain Stores and quipped: “Thank you to the retailers, because it’s the first time that I didn’t get a chargeback.”
On a more touching note, Linda Suliafu, a beauty adviser from Nordstrom’s Utah region, said that being awarded the 1998 Certified Fragrance Sales Specialist (CFSS) of the Year award would “remain a highlight of my life.” She added that the special training “can transform a job selling fragrance into a career.”
Suliafu was presented with a $500 check, the official CFSS pin and a Lalique crystal vase by Yves Coleon, president and ceo of Lalique, and Peg Smith, professor at Fashion Institute of Technology.
As far as a breakdown of the winners, Coty, Gap, Calvin Klein, Thierry Mugler, Compar and Cosmair’s European Designer Fragrance Division each took home two of the crystal statuettes. There were 25 awards presented, three more than last year.
The three new FiFi’s were Environmental Fragrance Introduction of the Year, Bath and Body Introduction of the Year and Men’s Private Label Fragrance Star of the Year.
In addition, Annette Green, president of The Fragrance Foundation, presented Jeanette Wagner, departing chairman of the organization, with an antique ivory bracelet from Paris as a “token of our esteem and affection.”
Wagner responded that “it has been a privilege to serve you for all these years.” She also added that “despite rumors and recent articles to the contrary, the fragrance industry is vibrant and with great momentum.”
So vibrant that one of the celebrity presenters even put in a plug for a fragrance deal. Donna Summer came right out and asked the audience, “Don’t you think it’s time I had my own fragrance?”
Kenny Rogers, one of the hunks in Elizabeth Taylor’s new White Diamonds campaign, was another of the celebrity presenters. “I’m so happy to be here in a group of great-smelling people,” he said. “I just came from a rodeo in Oklahoma.”
To everyone’s relief, the awards ceremony moved along at a quick pace, although it did start nearly an hour late. As is the case every year, the 1,500 attendees were slow to take their seats, and Green dispatched helpers to herd the talkative crowd into the auditorium.
Some, however, found the awards long and couldn’t wait to toss back some champagne and start networking. As Ben Gilliken, general manager of Thierry Mugler Parfums joked while accepting the FiFi for Men’s Fragrance Star of the Year in Limited Prestige Distribution, “Being a finalist and having your name called is a hell of a lot more exciting than sitting out there [in the audience].”
In fact, the industry’s sociable nature became a big problem when Andrea Marcovicci, the cabaret chanteuse hired to perform after the gala dinner, tried to sing.
Many of the 1,500 guests continued to chat loudly, and at least half were table-hopping. Finally, after three songs, Marcovicci gave up and left the stage.
Many people didn’t even notice that she had departed.
“She was very upset and hurt,” said Green of The Fragrance Foundation, who said she had warned Marcovicci that the crowd would be difficult. “It was really horrendous.”
“I was depressed because I really felt that [the industry] had paid all that money to go and hear her, and we made such an effort to make a glamorous set. But when the moment arrived, half the people were standing and half were going out to smoke.”
Several fragrance executives said that they couldn’t possibly be expected to sit still after having already done so during the awards ceremony — after all, there was business to be conducted and gossip to be shared.
Even a resurrected Frank Sinatra could not have entertained the audience, joked one executive.
Green said that next time around, there will be no single performer. “If I do have entertainment next year, I would probably hire a jazz quartet.”
International Flavors & Fragrances held its annual after-dinner party and provided entertainment for high rollers. The company turned a hotel suite across from Lincoln Center into a gambling casino for the night, and excited fragrance executives were heard shrieking and hooting when they won at the various gaming tables.
Guests were given fake money to wager, but at the end of the night, the make-believe dollars turned real.
IFF added up how much its guests had raked in and donated that amount in real cash — $15,000 — to the March of Dimes.
The FiFi awards are the highlight of Fragrance Week, but there were many other events, and the Fragrance Foundation won’t be the only organization hiring a jazz band next year.
At the Colbert Foundation’s annual gala dinner at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum on Monday evening, the committee announced a new wrinkle. Starting next year, the dinner will feature the one kind of entertainment both French and Americans like — jazz.
It will be turned into a mini jazz festival as a way of furthering Franco-American relations, and notable musicians will be invited to perform.
The Foundation got a head start at this week’s dinner, when entertainment was provided by French jazz artist Cyrille Bugnon and his quartet.
Other Fragrance Week events included a cocktail party thrown by Mane at Aquavit and Five Star Fragrances’ Broadway bash at The Fashion Cafe. Five Star, which was celebrating its first anniversary, recruited performers from “Sideshow,” the musical that closed despite positive reviews, to sing show tunes.
Finally, a memorial service for retail legend Raphaela “Van” Venneri, was held at the Metropolitan Club and attended by many of the beauty industry’s most venerable figures. Venneri was executive vice president for cosmetics and accessories at I. Magnin for many years.
In a humorous speech, Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estee Lauder Cos., talked about how he and his wife, Evelyn, were close friends with Van for many years, and even spent their honeymoon with her in California.
That friendship endured despite Van’s friendship with rival Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, and a mysterious incident involving a tape recorder.
“We went to Van’s house for cocktails, and Evelyn looked down under the chair and there was an old-fashioned tape recorder with the tape running. Evelyn asked what it was and Van said, ‘Oh, I forgot to turn it off.’ Our friendship survived and went on and on.”
Paul Woolard, former president of Revlon, who worked under Revson, retorted, “I would like to say that we knew nothing about a tape recorder. And I explicitly gave orders to remove it the week before.”
When the laughter subsided, Woolard talked about how Venneri enjoyed riding on Revson’s Ultima II yacht, which was named after his cosmetics brand. “Ultima II, the yacht, sailed the seas better than Ultima II, the brand, sailed across the counters of I. Magnin — no fault of Van’s,” he recalled.
Many friends and former business associates told tales of Van’s impeccable taste, sense of humor, political savvy, sharp business sense and her love of Creme de la Mer moisturizer.
Robert Nielsen, president of the Aramis and Prescriptives divisions of the Estee Lauder Cos., told how as a sales manager for Estee Lauder in the early Sixties, he lobbied Van for more space. During one of their meetings, her husband called to see if she could entertain the girls that weekend.
Nielsen ended up babysitting the kids at his hotel swimming pool. “I got the worst sunburn of my life, and I got the space.”
Patricia Rardin, Van’s former assistant at I. Magnin, said: “In all the years I worked for her, she unfailingly pulled out of her handbag the compact and the lipstick appropriate to the vendor.”
Fernando Aleu of Compar recounted how, after hearing how important she was, he dove to her feet at their first meeting. Unfazed by his antics, she commented, “You have the right approach if you want to go forward in this business.”

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