dimanche 12 juin 2011

"Save the Future": a Peek into Perfume Prospective with Firmenich Olfactive Design

A red thread snakes on the white felt floor of the room; strands of angel hair on the low ceiling enhance the cocoon-like effect. We’ve just stepped into a time-travelling pod, and we’re about to be hurled into the future of perfumery.

Big fragrance and flavour companies regularly organize events to present their new materials, both natural and synthetic, in perfumes composed by the on-staff perfumers, an opportunity they relish since even niche brands can’t always offer them total creative freedom and no budget limitations. These ultra-confidential, blue-sky-thinking presentations are reserved for their clients. This year Firmenich, who have been active participants in the online perfume culture for a decade via Osmoz, have decided to open their Olfactive Design sessions to a group of Paris-based bloggers. The idea is to get the input of people who have no financial stakes in commercializing products; who love the stuff for the sake of art. The proviso is that we can’t go into specifics in our reports.

What we’ve been invited to discover is cutting-edge perfumery in its “incubation” stage, hence the “cocoon” décor: twelve proposals selected from seventy submissions from all of Firmenich’s perfumers, and eight prototypes for non-alcoholic perfume bases. These are inspired by the four social trends defined by a forecasting agency, involving our relationship to innovation, sensory pleasures, nature and high technology. The aim of the operation is for some of these to go from caterpillar to butterfly: in other words, to be the basis for products that make it to the market.

The stakes are higher than ever. In 1995, 150 perfumes were launched. The number shot up to over 1000 in 2009, remained stable in 2010 and seems to be going down slightly in 2011, but at any rate the industry is floundering under its own weight. 
More alarmingly, a class of consumers is foregoing perfume purchases entirely. As brands multiply copy-paste products, always advertised with unrelentingly unimaginative “a squirt will make you irresistible/give you an orgasm” campaigns, more are dropping off. 
While exciting new markets will be opening in China, India and developing in Latin America, disaffected Western consumers must be re-conquered, and that’s not going to happen if brands keep up their worn routines. Add to this the move by LVMH to squeeze the big labs out, cheaper materials being churned out by Chinese or Indian companies that don’t have to support the cost of R&D – something Firmenich devotes 10% of its yearly budget to – and you’ve got a crisis looming. Big labs like Firmenich are keenly aware of this, hence the title of this year’s Olfactive Design presentation: “Save the Future”.

The “way forward”, as CEOs are wont to say, is clearly through innovation: in the perfume industry, this can translate into novel textures to entice consumers into applying fragrance differently, which renews the pleasure and may have cosmetic benefits. Novel molecules that do things better, or differently: a salty marine effect that doesn’t smell of melon or oysters; a fresh green effect that acts in the base notes; an aldehyde that makes citrus essences smell more natural than the natural blend; a molecule that has similar qualities to an already extant but now restricted material, but is much more powerful and can therefore be used in much smaller quantities.
It is also finding new angles on well-known materials, or integrating into the register of perfumery types of smells that have not yet been widely exploited – the savoury or the rooty-earthy, for instance – and revealing their beauty.
But for this innovation and creativity to be accepted, first by clients, then by consumers, it’s got to connect with the zeitgeist, and that’s when the trendcasters come in.

The four social trends Firmenich suggests tapping into are each presented by a short film, followed by three fragrances and two innovative cosmetic bases. The themes have a common point: the need to go beyond perfume-as-seduction, a path widely explored by niche perfumery but less in the mainstream despite pioneering products in the early 90s (for instance Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert or Shiseido Féminité du Bois.)
The perfumers’ proposals have been selected based on their originality, but also on their palatability for mainstream clients: for all the blue-sky-thinking, the idea is for some of these to break out from the cocoon. Perfumers well know that marketing teams from client brands will come in clamouring for totally original accords then back-pedal throughout the development until only a few flakes from the butterfly wing remain in the formula. So while there are a couple of weirdos in the bunch, there’s nothing to make the Coty or L’Oréal teams run away screaming: in fact, several are both strikingly original and utterly lovely, and could easily be marketed as is tomorrow.

For instance, Alberto Morillas’s rewriting of the powdery musky floral through the introduction of a novel molecule that brings new breathing space within the notes. Daphné Bugey’s reinvention of the anisic floral with the addition of aromatic facets, inspired by a new natural essence drawn from Chinese pharmacopeia. Olivier Cresp’s deeply moving interpretation of the smell of clay, a play on floral, vegetable and earthy notes. Vincent Schaller’s capture of the rainforest. Two new food-inspired accords are presented, one by Richard Herpin in the sweet register, another by Dora Arnaud in nutty-savoury tones. Finally, the great Alberto Morillas delivers a radically novel interpretation of one of the most classic floral essences in perfumery, playing on its spicy fresh facets rather than on its creaminess.

Discovering these powerful sketches is a nose-and-brain-cleansing experience, and the proof that there is a future for perfumery, new things to smell and new ways of smelling them. How many of this year’s edition will make it to the shelves? It seems that some proposals from earlier Olfactive Design editions were taken up by client brands. Let’s hope we’ll see more of those butterflies flutter out of the Firmenich labs in the next couple of years.

For another report on Firmenich’s Olfactive Design session, see 1000 Fragrances.

Illustration: Installation for the Rojo Nova exhibition in Brazil by the French artist Sébastien Preschoux. Please note that this piece was not part of the Olfactive Design presentation.

21 commentaires:

  1. This sounds fascinating, and I know most perfumistas would love to smell these things. Will they be bold enough to tell us which perfumes include these new accords and molecules? Is a sampler set forthcoming? Or will we have to scrounge around and figure it out for ourselves, maybe without success. The secrecy is a little off-putting, but understandable considering the harsh intellectual property climate, and currently overheated state of industrial espionage.

  2. Marla, I don't think Firmenich will release the info if and when these accords or materials make it into commercial products: it won't be their call, and it'll be up to the people who smelled them (me, Octavian or our fellow bloggers) to try and identify them...
    Sorry about the hush-hushness, we were specifically asked not to be too specific as this was more of an opportunity for discussion than a PR operation. For the same reason, I doubt any sampler sets will be forthcoming as they could give other people ideas...
    Just thought it was interesting to explain how things were done, since this was a unique opportunity for a peek behind the scenes.

  3. Thank you for this peek behind the curtains. Can you believe how many new fumes are introduced each year?It's mind boggling, and not in a good way. I posted your link to twitter-I hope thaty is ok. I am just learning about internet etiquette. As long as credit is given to original poster, is it ok to spread the information?
    And may I ask your advice on something? I have had the chance to get some older Guerlains as deeply discounted prices, at a local store. Do you think L'heure Blue will be in line for reformulation? It has tree moss listed as an ingredient-does that mean it's already been changed? Does tree moss replace oak moss? It smells fantastic, that's for sure!
    I hope you are well, and I cannot wait to order your book!
    Yours truly,

    Carole MacLeod

  4. Carole, I must admit I'm a bit of a twit on Tweetiquette myself... Haven't been near it yet!
    As for L'Heure Bleue, I think you can take it for granted that *everything* is reformulated already. Sometimes it's well done and I'm sure Guerlain are quite cautious about that particular perfume which is still very well loved, at least in France, and widely worn...

  5. I read your post with and my mind filled with positive thoughts of the future of perfumery but then I got to the end and realized if big brands aren't interested, there is a small chance for us actually smelling the novel creativity from Firmenich.
    Why can't they make a niche brand of their own? It seems obvious they would have interesting perfumes to offer us.

  6. I'm with Ines, it seems to me that if behemoths like LVMH are saying sayonaro to these companies, the companies can do likewise and stake out their own perfume territory? If not, they should not allow brands to call these new molecules/accords silly things like "dew-kissed molten vine sap", or "honeyed sea breeze accord", but call the molecule by its trademarked name (ie: Cosmone) with an attribution to the company that created it!

  7. I see now my first sentence is a bit strange with a with that makes no sense.
    I'm not very concentrated these days so changing my sentence in the middle ends up with some strange consequences. :-)

  8. Ines, it would certainly be fantastic for the likes of Firmenich, Givaudan or IFF to make their perfumers' most creative compositions available. It's probably more profitable to sell them to big brands than to see them put out as niche offerings. Also, I'm not 100% sure whether the formulas comply with regulations: they're meant as showcases, not to be worn... But basically I suppose it's not the labs' line of business.

  9. Marla, you know I'm all for calling raw mats by their proper name, and the matter of acknowledging synthetics was discussing during our session at Firmenich. But we also discussed the general public's chemo-phobia -- hence the stampede for organic products... Also, playing the devil's advocate, what would the name of a synthetic mean to most people? If you've never smelled ambroxan or cashmeran by itself, it's certainly not a selling point. And ultimately, that's what brands and their suppliers are in the game for: selling.

  10. Ines, must be something in the stars: I keep missing my appointments... And I did understand what you meant!

  11. Thanks for sharing this Denyse. I would love to be at one of these meetings myself some day. I'd be having lots of ah-ha moments.

    It sounds promising though that finally, after what seems like a permanent fixture, the marketing of perfume might just be dropping the sexy/dull imagery in it's campaigns.

    The future seems bright. The future seems clothed.

  12. Liam, well one can always hope that big brands will listen. Some like Hermès have been using that register for quite a while now. However visually gorgeous, perfume ads have become so trite... The latest Dior Homme with Jude Law is pretty laughable, though I'm partial to Alain Delon by the swimming pool for Eau Sauvage.

  13. HAHA. I looked up that Eau Savage ad, it's hilarious right at the end. Is this intentional? Reminds me of 2nd Cumming for Alan Cumming. Maybe the piss-take/sexy imagery works...

    I agree with you about Jude Law, don't get me started on Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom... Even someone I admire like Darren Aronofsky made something weird for YSL

  14. Thank you so much for posting this, I think anyone who loves perfume must read it.

  15. Some day I want to live in a city where there is a chance of smelling L'heure Bleue on another person. Hey, a girl can dream, right?!

  16. Liam, this is a little off-topic, but the one that drives me up the wall is the Scorcese ad for Bleu, which is run by snippets on French TV and makes no sense whatsoever.
    But getting back to the issue, I think the idea is for brand marketing teams to work on concepts for the actual fragrances outside of the vocabulary of erotic seduction, concepts they could carry through into their ads, but would preside to the olfactive choices.

  17. Thanks Carrie. There are certainly encouraging perspectives there, and kudos to Firmenich for letting us glimpse into them.

  18. Anonymous: a trip to Paris seems in order then.

  19. Thanks very much for this intriguing insight. I guess modern perfumery has always been a bit sci-fi, but it's interesting to learn quite how technological it is.

    On a (kind of) side note, I always chuckle when I read about western companies panicking at the thought of the rise of India, China et al.

  20. Amazing event! I hope you are right that some of these may be produced. I'd love to buy all of them unsniffed based on your descriptions and the chance to smell something so new! ~~nozknowz

  21. Thank you for a fascinating article. I am most intrigued by the reference to the Morillas' reworking of the classical floral note. A query: I recently read about the reworking/flanker for Shalimar, Shalimar Parfum Initial. If you have had a chance to smell this, could you pass along your impressions, please.

    Tx, Ronny