Q&A: Chandler Burr and “The Perfect Scent”

On January 22, Henry Holt and Co. will release “The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York,” outspoken perfume critic and journalist Chandler Burr’s frank look at the art and business of fragrance. The course of the book tracks the creation of two scents for two distinctly different markets—Hermès’ Un Jardin sur le Nil by in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena; and Lovely, the scent co-created by IFF’s Dominique Ropion, Laurent LeGuernec and Clément Gavarry for Coty’s celebrity partner, Sarah Jessica Parker.

We recently spoke with Burr about his experiences and observations in covering the fragrance industry, including celebrity scents, forward-looking designers and more.

P&F: You appear to feel Lovely is an artistically successful celebrity scent. Are there any others that come to mind?

Burr: Absolutely. Jim Krivda and Steve deMercado’s first scent for Paris Hilton is a completely acceptable commercial floral, and Louise Turner’s juice for Lopez's Glow is actually even more than that: a truly interesting creation. I think that Caroline Sabas and others have done some very interesting stuff for Britney Spears. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, Carlos [Benaim] and Loc [Dong] just dumped ethyl maltol into the Mariah Carey [scent], and that was it, and Carlos Vinals and Jean-Claude Delville must have been given about $5/kilo to work with and the lowest-common-denominator creative direction on Shania by Stetson and Goddess.*

P&F: You’ve offered observations in “The Perfect Scent” about what you see as a dysfunctional business reality in fragrance. Do you think anything you’ve identified will change?

Burr: I think it's changing already. The marketers and execs are starting to realize that much (though not all of) the public wants to go behind the scenes. They want to see how the things are made. They don’t want to be fed “stories” and more pretty, empty faces. That is where the growth will come from. A woman said to me yesterday, “What’s that Beyoncé perfume? I’m buying that because I think she’s cool.” This woman is already a perfume consumer. She is irrelevant to you, the perfume industry executive or marketer. What is relevant to you are all the people who are not her, who do not buy perfume, who could not care less about Beyoncé’s putting her face on a box, who are convinced they don’t need scent. They’re the challenge. Stay with the same tactics, and inside the demographic your market share will increase 0.0%. I do believe things are changing, though obviously not fast enough for my taste. (Easy for me to say, of course.) I think Frédéric [Malle] and Le Labo and Tom Ford and maybe Francois Demachy are going to create new approaches, and I don’t think even they are doing one quarter of the innovative things they could be.

*In his recent review of Chloé for T Magazine, Burr says, "It’s hard to do a good scent for under $40 per lb ... "

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