Byline: Julie L. Belcove

NEW YORK — When she began looking into the Annick Goutal brand, Marjorie Wollan, the company’s newly installed U.S. president, said she didn’t get it.
“I didn’t understand it at all when I looked around the stores here,” she recalled in a recent interview. But when Wollan traveled to Paris and entered the Goutal shop there, “it was like a spiritual experience.”
“It absolutely mystified me, mesmerized me, captivated me,” she added.
Once under the spell of the French fragrance brand’s romantic names, pretty pouches and gold bows, Wollan said leaving Estee Lauder Cos. after 13 1/2 years there was not as difficult as she might have thought.
The brand consists of 10 women’s fragrances and five men’s scents. Prices of the women’s scents range from $45 for a 1-oz. eau de toilette spray to $170 for 1/3-oz. perfume.
Since taking the helm of Goutal in mid-January, she has been traveling to many of the company’s 120 doors of distribution and taking a turn behind the selling counter.
As successor to Laurice Rahme, who is widely credited with building the brand in this country during her five-year tenure, Wollan said she appreciates the exclusive nature of the line.
“It’s sort of a hybrid company,” Wollan said. “We’re not a traditional cosmetics line, and yet our retailers have given us the most incredible space and location as if we were.”
Wollan said she intends to maintain Goutal’s tight distribution. “We feel we should have a broad consumer reach, but within the existing distribution,” she said.
Wollan continued, “It offers [retailers] the distinction of having us there. It keeps us precious.”
Goutal is the definition of focus. The company has made itself important to a handful of high-profile retailers. The 15-fragrance line ranks consistently among the top five best-selling fragrances at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel and Kansas City’s Halls. But sources have estimated Goutal’s entire U.S. volume at only $11 million wholesale last year. That volume, however, represented a 30 percent increase over 1993.
Wollan, who declined to discuss dollar figures, did say she expects sales to increase by 15 to 20 percent this year.
“It’s a beautiful line,” said Deborah Walters, divisional merchandise manager of fragrance and cosmetics at Saks. “We can make such a statement with the environment in our stores.”
The Frenchness of the line is one aspect Wollan said she will emphasize, in part by developing the persona of Annick Goutal herself, the company’s founder and creative director.
“I think Americans are very fascinated by anything French,” Wollan said, noting that Goutal is planning a June trip to the U.S. that will include personal appearances. Wollan said she hopes to communicate that there is a person named Goutal behind the brand, as the creative force. As with another French fragrance house, Guerlain, each scent in the Goutal stable has its own tale of creation. Eau de Charlotte, for example, came into being when one of Goutal’s daughters asked her to make a fragrance that smelled like her favorite jam — black currant.
“There’s a lot of magic,” Wollan said of the line.
Still, Wollan said Goutal’s ability to carve a niche in the U.S. is far from being only image-driven. Since most of the juices are light, she said, they have broad appeal and do not fall into “the love-hate category.”
“Nothing is cloying,” she said. “I personally think the American market has lost sight of what fragrance should be. In other words, when a woman walks into a room, her fragrance should not precede her. Who she is is the focal point. The fragrance is an accoutrement.”
One of the hardest parts of her new job, Wollan said, comes every morning when she has to decide which of the 10 women’s fragrances to wear.
Wollan said advertising will continue to focus on Hadrien and Gardenia Passion, the company’s bestsellers, while she tries to find other ways to draw attention to the lesser-known scents.
One way of encouraging its customer to tap other Goutal fragrances is through the company’s biannual Refill promotion, in which the customer receives a 3.3-oz. bottle of any eau de toilette free with a $75 purchase.
“This is our [gift-with-purchase] program, and it’s big,” she said. “It’s generous to the consumer, but it’s not overdone.”
Wollan said the company, which is owned by the Taittinger family’s Societe du Louvre, does not have immediate plans to launch a new fragrance. She is, however, considering paring down the line, which encompasses roughly 150 stockkeeping units.
Goutal also makes a skin care line but, with plans to keep the company’s resources behind fragrance, Wollan said treatment will remain a very small part of the overall business.
With a U.S. staff numbering only 17, including the field, Goutal is far from becoming one of the behemoths with which it competes.
“We’re very tiny. We’re going to stay that way,” Wollan said. “We don’t need a lot of people. We need people who can wear four hats — at least.”