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Penhaligon’s Revives Its Past

An old English perfumer recasts its Victorian roots.

Penhaligon’s has upped the ante in the game of fragrance storytelling as it launches a collection of scents aimed at freshening its Victorian origins and providing a modern sharp edge.

It has become commonplace for artisanal and even major brands to launch a collection of six or 10 fragrances at a time, but the London-based Penhaligon’s took this new practice a step further by creating a group of scents, called the Portraits Collection, with each representing individual members of a Victorian family. Penhaligon’s describes the project as an “olfactory fiction.” Fittingly, the characters are very English and aristocratic — perfectly correct and as privately deceptive as need be. Each has a story and the time is 1870, the year William Henry Penhaligon, a barber, set up his shop in London, later to become the court barber and perfumer to Queen Victoria.

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The characters portrayed in the Portraits collection include the deceptive and “tragic” Lord George; his suffering and vengeful wife Lady Blanche; his son-in-law, the Decadent Duke who spends his nights at the theater and elsewhere, and the demure Duchess Rose, who is always aching for desire. Those four, core figures will be launched first as chapter one.

Chapter two is scheduled to make its bow in January and February in time for Valentine’s Day. That will consist of Clandestine Clara, who is Lord George’s “sweet thing,” and a dissolute male character who is yet to be named, Lord George’s illegitimate son who enjoys “fun without responsibility, freedom without a badge and money without obligation.”

The fragrances were formulated to match the personality of the character. For example, “the revenge of Lady Blanche” fragrance is described as “modestly uplifting and timelessly present” and features powdery orris, narcissus flower and hyacinth.” Each fragrance is topped with a cap resembling an animal’s head and denoting their personality. Lord George is a stag. Rutherford is a lion. The Duke is a dog.

The outer cartons are decorated by different illustrations from artist Kristjana Williams, who interwove Victorian engravings with her own illustrations.

The creative energy poured into Portraits is the latest example of the support given by the Barcelona-based Puig since the Spanish beauty company acquired Penhaligon’s and its French sister brand, L’Artisan Parfumeur, from Fox Paine & Co. LLC in January 2015. Puig has been opening new stores for both brands, with Penhaligon’s in the lead, which now has 30 stores that it owns. Penhaligon’s first three American stores were launched last year in Rockefeller Center in New York, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and Short Hills, N.J. Manuel Puig, vice chairman of the parent company, said, “all exceeded our expectations.”

Stores were also opened in London and Kildare, Ireland, last fall.

Another five Penhaligon’s stores are rolling out this year in the U.S. — Stanford, Calif., opened on May 16; World Trade Center in New York, set for mid-August; and Honolulu World Market Place, Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., and San Francisco are all due in the fall.

As for L’Artisan, a new flagship was opened in early April at 167 Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. The new flagship, which measures less than 400 square feet, already had four stores in Paris and one in Lille, France.

Lance Patterson, chief executive officer of the Puig division containing the two brands, said the L’Artisan flagship offers a new face. “It’s the complete new brand image, all the new design, new packaging, and the response has been, ‘wow.’ You’re always nervous when you change a brand so much. This is quite good news.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Puig said, “We think that this top-end perfumery market will be a great future. Today the customer really wants a story, and both brands have incredible stories that are authentic.”

Puig noted that contemporary consumers are coming to understand that perfume is coming from licensed fashion houses, “not mainstream.” He maintains, “she is asking for more quality and maybe a tighter distribution and more differentiation. We are working on that. We are focusing on being more unique, different and more experienced through retail.”

He observed that in the beginning of the 20th century, there were fragrance houses that gradually faded, with the exception of Guerlain. Now they are back. “It’s a reality again that you can exist by yourself just by being a fragrance house. The customer is looking for unique fragrances.” He predicted that a consolidation will happen “because probably there are too many brands and this is why we are speeding up in terms of retail — in order to be one of the winners in the category.”

In terms of distribution, Patterson said “we’re looking to be not more than 600 and 700 doors [for Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan each] and right now we are slightly less than that.”

In addition to the 30 stores it owns, Penhaligon’s also distributes through a network of retailers, most of them high-end specialty stores. L’Artisan has six of its own stores.

Neither executive would discuss figures, but industry sources figure that Puig’s goal is to grow total retail sales of each brand to a total of more than 100 million British pounds each, or $132.5 million at current conversion rates, with Penhaligon’s closer to that mark than L’Artisan.

“L’Artisan got abused over the years with the ownership structure that it had, a private equity and different management,” Patterson acknowledged, noting that the 40-year brand has been taken “back to its roots. We’ve completely revolutionized the world of L’Artisan,” he said.

On the other hand, the 146-year-old Penhaligon’s was “a little bit stronger in its management…” but “definitely was getting dusty and old” under a parade of owners. “We are shaking it up and bringing in a bit of modernity and youth into the brand,” he said. “This is a step bringing the brand forward, not only to please our current audience, but also attract a new audience. This is olfactory fiction of a very British affair,” Patterson said referring to the fictional positioning of the Portraits collection. “It’s embracing our heritage while really telling a story.”

Patterson maintains that the line underscores the brand as “a differentiator in the market. When we describe ourselves in words, we use ‘aristocratic,’ ‘heritage’ and ‘eccentric.’ When you combine those, that’s what Portraits delivers.”

He said the fragrance characters will be introduced in chapters and they probably will proliferate. Patterson ticked off “the patriarch, the matriarch, the daughter and her husband in the first chapter in the fall. Then we have the illegitimate son coming [at Valentine’s Day in the spring], a few visitors from America, people from the Middle East.

“It is a multichapter story that will be told over the next several years,” he noted, estimating that the number of fragrance personalities could top off at 15 to 18. “But if someone doesn’t work out maybe we will have to kill them off.”

Of Penhaligon’s 600 doors worldwide, Portraits will be carried by only 100 doors, including its 30 stores. The other outlets will be high end, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bon Marché.

The first fragrances will be launched on Sept. 11 in the U.K. and in October in the U.S. The fragrances, offered in 75 ml. bottles, will be priced at 178 British pounds, and $230 in the U.S.

Puig does not break out projections, but industry sources estimate that the Portraits Collection could generate as much as 20 million British pounds, or roughly $26 million, in the first two years on counter.

Penhaligon’s Portraits will be the highest priced line of the brand, surpassing Trade Routes, a brand that was launched September 2014. It consists of five different fragrances inspired by the shipping trade that trafficked through London in the 19th century — such as Empressa representing silks from India, Halfeti referring from roses from Turkey, and Levantium for spices and exotic ingredients from the Middle East. Two more Trade Route scents will be launched in late July, bringing the collection to seven scents. The first is called Oud de Nil, a pun on Penhaligon’s signature color, Eau de Nil, is meant to conjure images of boats plying the Egyptian river. The other scent is Alizarin, an oud composition, was designed as  to the traditional perfumes of ancient Egypt. The fragrances are priced at $170 for a 100 ml. bottle in the U.S.

“Trade Routes, for us, was really breaking the mold from the traditional English perfumery that we were getting known for,” Patterson said. “It has become a nice sizable double-digit percentage of our business in a very short period of time.”

He paused, then said, “Puig is allowing us to be agile and run fast but also powering us with this incredible creativity, giving us the ability to take our message further than we have ever taken,” he added.