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.