Free the birds

Beauty, Communications

Molton Brown – eccentric London perfume, or the scent of France?

Joanne Bell, CEW

As a passionate perfume lover, I was excited to attend the CEW UK networking event, Molton Brown: The New Guard – A Perfumer Panel, in Covent Garden last month, held to celebrate the launch of its new Eaux de Parfum collection.

First up was some context from Global Beauty Analyst Margaux Caron from Mintel, who presented the intelligence company’s view of the UK fragrance market, predicting it would grow to £1.55bn through to 2024, a rise of 4.7%. Caron highlighted the trend for unisex (women’s fragrances dropped from 63% to just 48% of the market between 2015-2018, unisex rising by a staggering 21% to 38%). She also noted 92% of UK consumers like to choose their own fragrances; around half (54%) want to have a single statement fragrance, and 61% want to wear a different fragrance than anyone else.

So it’s not that brands necessarily need to be personalising fragrances themselves, rather providing a wide selection and enabling consumers to make choices that help them express their personality. Something reflected in Molton Brown’s British Beauty Week-long pop-up shop, featuring its new Fragrance Finder that “helps find the scent most suited to your highly distinctive, truly unique self.”

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Chairing the Panel, beauty journalist Kathleen Baird-Murray introduced the four different Molton Brown perfumers: Jacques Chabert (creator of its iconic fragrances Black Pepper and Gingerlily); his daughter Carla Chabert (Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel); Maia Lernout (Flora Luminare) and Jérôme di Marino (Suede Orris), both of them protegees of Francis Kurkdjian.

As the most established Molton Brown perfumer, Jacques talked about the industry’s evolution from marketing to people who actively liked smelling like celebrities or designers, to focusing on distinctiveness. Noting that Molton Brown had always had polarising fragrances, largely down to the fact that they’d never done panel testing. The perfumes always chosen with some element of courage (9/10 perfumes will fail) and sheer fondness for the fragrance.

Carla Chabert said she felt that wearing perfume has become just as important as wearing fashion, olfaction being the most emotionally evocative of the bodily senses. Jérôme felt that in many ways, perfume wasn’t just about personality but of a statement of intent, some fragrances – think 1980s blockbusters – take up a lot of space in a room!

The perfumers also talked about the challenges working with ingredients when classics – like oakmoss, integral to chypre and fougère, found in Chanel No 5 and Miss Dior – have been banned. Jacques put it best when he said that it was a creative constraint, perfumers still have two thousand ingredients to work with and “we only have 26 letters to write books every day”. Quite.

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The conversation gave way to one of how the perfumers were inspired by Molton Brown’s creative briefs. Maia visited the Paris ballet and opera, Jerome drew on his personal memories and emotions of different people and places. All of them worked from a ‘orgue’ or organ – ingredients physically laid out in order for them to work with, aided by a little modern technology. Carla recounted how she’d worked using perfume software on her laptop from a bar in New York, while her assistant made up the physical formula in Paris!

Then talk turned to authenticity and here’s the rub. Maia very rightly highlighted how the move towards personalisation comes partly from the desire for meaning in what we buy. People want to know the authentic story behind the brand, to understand and connect to it. And there is no doubt that all the perfumers present were true creatives whose work is an expression of authentic emotion and feeling. Precisely why Molton Brown have brought the perfumers to the forefront (historically they were almost invisible except to those in the industry). And it’s not just Molton Brown. Chanel’s recent launch for Gabrielle Essence puts perfumer Olivier Polge at the forefront of the new campaign, alongside actress Margot Robbie.

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But – and it’s a big but – all of Molton Brown’s perfumers are either French, living in Paris or Grasse, or both. Molton Brown’s About Us, however, states ‘our products blend exotic ingredients with a touch of London eccentricity… still blended in England, our home since 1971’. Being blunt, there isn’t a touch of London or England about it, the perfumers’ memories, daily environment, creative inspiration simply not from there. And it’s not like there aren’t London eccentric perfumers that could be used – Lyn Harris, Anastasia Brozler and Sarah McCartney spring to mind…

It demonstrates the huge challenge of establishing authenticity in corporate-owned brands (Molton Brown has been variously owned by private equity and now Japanese conglomerate Kao Corporation). For sure, Charlotte Tilbury, Fenty and Pat McGrath might be owned on paper mostly by business, but the brands themselves are driven by real-life personalities. It’s their creative vision that is brought to life, it’s not borrowing creative vision second-hand. And when it’s the latter, it really has to be congruent the with brand’s own story. As it was, it was all very fragrant, but fell slightly flat.