Angel is such a textbook case of successful marketing that it is studied in top business schools, as Vera Strubi, who engineered it, told us recently at her conference for the Société Française des Parfumeurs: a perfect storm of intuition, vision and audacity, as well as a canny leveraging of women’s aspirational and the emotional relationship to perfume. Not to mention that blue juice smelled like nothing else on the market – a case of knowing what the public wanted before the public knew it themselves.
Clearly, Angel’s recipe for success has been scrupulously studied, adapted and expanded to ensure that Womanity, the third feminine fragrance in the Thierry Mugler portfolio, follows in its steps. But where the story of Angel, at least when you listen to Vera Strubi recount the it, seems like it was being invented as the trailblazing team went along, the launch of Womanity has a deliberately calculated quality about it: a virtual creature emerging fully armed out of Dr. Muglerstein’s lab. Which is no reflection on its interest and originality: it is both interesting and original. And part of its originality, as a product, is the fact that the whole deliberateness of the operation, including the calculated risk of introducing a demented-sounding caviar accord into the blend, is plainly there to be read.
Leveraging Thierry Mugler’s myth
As a fashion designer, Thierry Mugler unleashed fierce female warriors and wasp-waisted glamour goddesses on the runways: his vision of women was heroic and tinged with a retro-futuristic vibe – I had the chance of seeing some of his last shows and they were magical, exhilarating events. Now that Mr. Mugler has given up fashion design, his perfume brand is left to carry on the universe he created, in which his larger-than-life couture shows act as a founding myth, all but forgotten by the current customers who were too young to have known or worn Mr. Mugler’s designs. Womanity’s bottle, topped with a vaguely ominous female sphinx bust, reflects his science-fiction sensibilities much in the way that the star-shaped Angel bottle reprised his fetish motif. This time, the juice is pink: Angel’s blue subtracted from Alien’s purple. Consistency is the operational word here.
Staking a claim on the Earthlings
After Angel and Alien, both otherworldly creatures, Thierry Mugler stakes a claim on the Earthlings with the name, Womanity, a portmanteau word condensing “Woman”, “City” and “Humanity”. The women Mr. Mugler photographed for the campaign are -- inasmuch as it is possible in an ad campaign for a luxury product -- “real” women. One even looks like she’ll never see thirty again.
Creating a community
Each Clarins product comes with a customer card to be filled in and returned, which fosters a strong sense of loyalty to the brand. Angel was the first fragrance to adopt the same strategy as its parent company, thus building a continuing, emotional relationship with the women who bought it. Womanity is more ambitious still. This time, months before the worldwide launch, Thierry Mugler opened the womanity.com interactive platform to create an “invisible bond between women” and “engage with women all around the world through their personal videos, words and images”, with “the stories of inspiration and iconic women and global news affecting Womanity today.”
This isn’t Mr. Mugler’s first foray online: he is already behind the “Island of Dr. Muglerstein” on Second Life (the links are no longer active). This time, the Womanity website reaches out of the screen into “real life”, to federate a sense of community extending to a full half of humanity, no less: as though the emotional bond felt towards Angel could be conjured for Womanity before it even existed.
In her conference, Ms. Strubi explained that Angel rather than Thierry Mugler was perceived as a brand. Womanity, set to expand into accessories and fashion, is apparently conceived as a brand rather than as a simple fragrance. Somehow, this brings to mind the last film of the Alien franchise, in which Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is resurrected from her DNA: here, the Thierry Mugler brand, which gave birth to a fragrance, might be resurrected from a fragrance. We never really leave the realm of science-fiction with Mr. Mugler, do we?
Opening up Dr. Muglerstein’s lab
Very cleverly, the press materials put forward the innovative techniques that allowed the composition of Womanity’s main accords: a molecular extraction process perfected by Mane Laboratories, which allows picture-perfect virtual reproductions of natural products, in this case the fig fruit, fig tree wood and leaves, and caviar. High-tech and eco-friendly - very few real fruit and fish eggs are harmed in the process – the technique can obviously yield a range of interesting new materials. But what’s more interesting still is that it is put forward as a sales argument: it seems the public’s increasing chemo-phobia will be appeased by the “straight-from-Nature” angle, despite the fact that Nature, in this case, is brought to you courtesy of people in lab coats. Displaying the science may run counter to the what-we-do-is-secret tradition of perfumery but it cleverly addresses the consumers’ need to know what it’s the bottle.
Inventing a new perfume family
Angel was the first of the gourmands, and went on to spawn a million sweet fruit and patchouli cocktails. Womanity claims a similar ambition: to found a new aromatic family, the sweet-savory, thanks to its infamous, buzz-generating caviar accord.
Pierre Aulas, who helmed the team of Mane perfumers who collaborated on Womanity, says that several materials were submitted to the molecular extraction process to nab the “salty” accord – but the Guérande sea salt so prized by gourmets yielded the aroma of violets, and sardines were a disappointment. Caviar, on the other hand, turned out to be iodic, smoky-leathery and slightly animalic – the accord smelled on its own is not fishy at all, though it is oceanic. Will Womanity convert the try and go on to spawn as large a family as Angel? Will we be wafting prosciutto and melon, foie gras and dark chocolate, ham and pineapple any time soon? And, more significantly, will as many women take to Womanity as they did to Angel -- and as many loathe it, a sure sign of success – in today’s saturated market?
The aroma of Womanity
Kudos to Pierre Aulas (who also launched the Ego Facto line) and his team for coming up with a genuinely intriguing olfactory concept, a welcome and gutsy move in a flat-lining mainstream market. Just for that, I hope they’ve come up with a best-seller that will inspire other big brands to venture out of the beaten baths – not to mention that crowds wafting Womanity would be less invasive than the Angel brigade (don’t get me wrong: I admire Angel. I think it’s a classic. It’s just that I’ve been overexposed.)
In my first preview, I joked about the symbolic connotations of the fig. The Italian word for the fruit, when feminized, designates female genitalia and the fig leaf is, according to the Bible, what Adam and Eve covered themselves up with after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and discovered shame. So it’s not quite an innocent pick to start with. As for caviar, its whiff of the sea also conjures the place from whence all of humanity sprang (and I’m not talking about the ocean), and this can’t have entirely escaped the very savvy people at Thierry Mugler.
But Womanity doesn’t, in fact, smell of sex. It offers an original take of the very popular marine note and, despite the intense, milky sweetness of the fig in the opening, is much lighter-textured than both Angel and Alien. The three main accords are well balanced, the sillage is actually quite elevator-friendly, unlike its predecessor’s, and the composition is enough of an oddity to keep you interested as you study its development, but not to the point of sniffing around worriedly as it unveils a new facet.
Do I like it? I can’t say it was love at the first whiff. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll be giving Womanity much wear other than to study this new, mutant creature: I’m still wrapping my mind around the novelty of it, trying to decide whether I’m wary because it’s so new, or just not that into figs and caviar when they’re not in my mouth. (O.K., so I’m wimping out. I’ll give it a few more stabs before attempting a proper review.)
As of June, you’ll be able to make up your minds for yourselves, when the fragrance goes on sale online – it is offered in a trial 10 ml size and, like Angel, in refillable bottles, as well as in shower gel and deodorant. It will be sold exclusively at Harrod’s and Bloomingdales’ in July before the world-wide launch in September.
Illustration from the Womanity ad campaign, by Thierry Mugler.