Previously perfumers hid in fragrance labs, with not so much as a name on a bottle to their credit. With the rise of independent scent-making, more have come out of the shadows and into the spotlight, but perhaps none as memorably as Christophe Laudamiel.
Part perfumer, part provocateur, Laudamiel is known for expressing the things most industry veterans are afraid to admit, be it the lack of diversity at major fragrance manufacturers, or the marketing gimmicks of advertising copy. A literary project containing his insights, Perfumery Revealed, just launched on Kickstarter. Aside from his own fragrance lines The Zoo and strangelovenyc, he runs scent communication agency DreamAir, which creates bespoke scents and olfactory delivery solutions for industries including travel, entertainment, and retail. His perfume portfolio is equally eclectic, ranging from Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce and Ralph Lauren Polo Blue to Tom Ford Amber Absolute.
In the following interview, Laudamiel sits down with BeautyMatter to dispel perfumery myths, a new code of ethics, and the future of fragrance.
What misconceptions in fragrance production and marketing need to be dispelled?
In marketing, the ignorance of the public and celebrities signing perfume deals is blatant. So it is being used. It is all legal but penalizing the quality of the creations and the most-used ingredients. It is not profiting the creators or inventiveness compared to other industries like music, biogenetics, fashion, architecture. The perfume marketers, the fashion brands, the packagers, and the department stores profit from unbelievable margins. Not a healthy business for Perfumery with a capital P, but as a marketer, perfumery is a very healthy business.
Celebrities, if you are fair and ethical, stop signing many of those deals. You have no idea what you are stepping into. You also have no idea when your perfume does not reflect you at all conceptually, olfactory-wise, or is based on clean-conspiracy or unethical conventions. Check with specialists, each in their respective areas.
Another misconception is that perfume formulas change all the time. It is commonly accepted now that any perfume created before 2000 was changed. Only when there was the sandalwood crisis in the early 2000s have I seen perfume formulas being changed to make them cheaper. Many are already cheap anyway and it is a nightmare for the brand and for the perfume house to change a formula. Mostly it is for regulation reasons, so it does not happen as often as people say. Those regulations are being put in check nowadays actually more than before thanks to Fragrance Creators, IFRA, scientific committees in certain countries, and journalists and writers who are much better trained on science these days.
At times a formula must be changed for supply reasons—that is actually not rare: a hurricane in Florida or in Madagascar, a factory blows up or burns down, a supplier goes bankrupt. Our industry is so small that it has learnt to have resilience, but at the same time, certain blows are hard to contain. So changes yes. Often no. Each time: get your nostrils to work. The Zoo has decided from day one to be clear on changes. It is harder, but let’s see if we can maintain that.
How can we improve diversity within the fragrance industry?
The number-one issue is that the only perfume composition schools—two 3–5 year programs and one 9-month program-—are in France. There are a few marketing or chemical engineering programs here and there in the UK, USA, Singapore, but these are not really forming perfumers. There are perfumery programs around the world, but no proper universities. That is not France’s fault.
Non-perfume universities around the world have to open perfumery schools, and Perfume programs in science, history, art, geopolitics of olfaction. They must recruit the way the best universities recruit. For France, the English translations should be in proper English, and we have to stop requiring a scientific background to enter into perfumery.
Anti-systemic racism lesson 101: white people that are systemic racists should be modest enough to get trained seriously, some should resign because it is too much for them. They should not be in charge of recruiting and presenting to their alma mater colleges, who have obviously not trained them very efficiently in diversity and equality (not equity by the way), and at least not from one college which itself is more famous for its drinking problems and complaints about its treatment of diverse students. One year, a college had the Black fraternity closed because it did not have enough Black students. I think this is the wrong place to recruit in order to diversify the fragrance industry. Prioritize other colleges that have proper diversity programs in place and go to the best colleges. We are in New York: how many people in the fragrance industry are from Ivy League universities? We have enough nepotism and cronyism in the industry. We know it is not good for a diverse, healthy, and ethical population, we received a refresher in the past four years. We should have better equality rules, including on age of admission in certain programs and better checks on previous experience. Education, good public education, and fairness.
Certain white people have to champion Black people. When people have been suffering from Holocaust conditions (define what a Holocaust is and you will see it applies to Black people), a push is needed for the coming few years. When a board contains 33 white members out of 33 seats, I would resign to give my seat to someone else immediately, without waiting for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to die, nor for July 1, 2021, as the Fragrance Foundation determined. “People are coming out of Auschwitz, but excuse me, wait another 13 months before we determine how you can join the ‘normal” assembly’ because ‘you are too small.’ Actually, your company was 40 blocks (not miles) from our headquarters but we did not know you existed.” It is just gross. At MIT, Harvard, or P&G, as a manager or teacher doing or saying those things you would be thanked. Sorry, I need to drop names because people are not used to a perfumer raising those embarrassments.
I see Fairchild organizing big diversity events with challenging pro-diversity personalities. This is excellent. The fragrance industry is more busy wishing “Happy Father’s Day, please buy this and that,” literally, the week everyone is mourning George Floyd and during his funeral. Past February, Black History Month? Thank God, we went over it quickly, celebrating 13 white notables and their entire white families, which was kind of weird, posted and elected by 33 white board members. This is not OK. Thank God it is already March, Fragrance Month, and that we prepare actively.
If I would be in the Notables or the public listening to them, nominated after the June 2020 events, I would have demanded right away that the nominees not be just white. “Oh there are no Black people at that level in the industry yet,” I heard upon my suggestion. Systemic racism #1 excuse. They had to wait 70 years to be admitted and now they need to wait another 13 months, gross. A white Notable did reach out to me to say “she deserves to enjoy her moment.” The passive Germans, coming out of the war should still have another 12 months to enjoy their moments? Excuse me. It’s terrible! And plastering not only 13 white Notables out of 13 seats, but then all their white families and friends as well, and not one feels embarrassed and demands to invite 2-4 Black Notables to join? How is this possible in 2021 after June 2020?
Act effectively with less hot air. I sacrificed a lot of my weekends, my business, and personal money (15% of my income in June and July alone) to print, write, hire, train people, support the pacific demonstrations and occupation about the Black cause and carrying some flags (with a few death threats along the way and a few ex-friends demasked and gone), in the USA and in France. I am not a “socialist,” even less an anarchist, this is beyond politics. I have studied the Holocaust (as a minor in history) and there is no way you can not act more concretely. The generation from after the war should be even more ashamed because they know how Black people were treated as they were enjoying vacationing in Palm Beach, the Hamptons, and the Vineyards in the ’60s and ’70s, and to this day. Disgusting.
Disabled people need also a “moment,” using that despicable expression. But when you are so attached to the fashion industry, that doesn’t work well together when the look is not there. The fragrance industry has to review its relationship with the fashion industry. We shall not be based on our look. We shall not be assimilated with certain unsustainable practices and antidemocratic vendors as related enough in beauty magazines, CNN, and other places. Not my words here.
However if every fashion house would treat perfumery the way they treat fashion, that would be very good. You expect a record label to have singers and music composers. A fashion house usually has a fashion designer in-house. That fashion designer infuses a lot of creativity, expertise, knowledge, and certain standards too. So request that every perfume brand has a perfumer in-house. It’s easy.
What inspired you to create the Perfumery Code of Ethics and A Fragrance Manifesto?
The lack of ethics in our industry is blatant when you are properly trained, strictly trained, and if you are coming from another industry. Just like for diversity, I am talking big misses, not debatable, hard-to-answer subjects. How can you not create a code? Do you know that there are only a few journalists who keep their strict journalistic etiquette and ethics when they report about perfumery? Behaviors, disclosures, and true fact-checking. Do you know that blatant copies of successful perfumes are marketed with no recognition, no royalty system, in plain daylight? How many times are perfumes cited without the name of the perfumers? Can you imagine one second writing about a poem without mentioning who wrote it?
A Fragrance Manifesto is a summary of my dreams and to provide ideas how perfumery can be treated. Since they say you have to be positive and make suggestions: how we can inject much more inventiveness and creativity in the industry, to bring our industry and our creative activities to the level, business, and excitement of music, videos, movies, literature, etc… Again, we are very avant-garde in terms of natural plant extractions, agronomy, and chemistry to create new odors and natural smells. We are 100 to 400 years behind in world exploration. London Kew Gardens stores 30 million plants since Darwin’s days, we extract 300: we can do a few more! Of course if our money pays more trips for fashion models, and more fabric and techniques for fashion designers, it is not reinjected into perfume world exploration. We put scent in the air with candles and plug-ins like 30 years ago or like 30,000 years ago, we put our fragrances on skin like 50 years ago with a silly pump including a lot of waste or inefficiencies. What would you say if you were playing your music like 50 years ago? That is how it feels. Perfumers create by hand, with pipettes like 150 years ago. No mini robots, no Photoshopping, no microdosing. For me as an engineer and a chemist, that’s crazy. Last but not least, I want perfume shows like we have fashion shows.
How can the fragrance industry improve its approach to sustainability?
The fragrance industry is the most sustainable industry of all industries I know from chemistry, electronics, packaging of all kinds, cattle, fashion, pharmacy, transportation, etc… People associate us with fashion or diamonds: WRONG. You can visit the rose fields and lavender fields. First, we are a tiny industry. Secondly, it’s open air. You can check there is no child labor. You can go and talk freely to the farmers. You can watch all the harvest movies on the internet. It is how ingredients are sourced. We cannot do a movie for a rose field in Turkey and hide all the “other” fields because they are all there. Once you have visited two rose regions, you have seen them all because there are no others. We are a tiny industry with a lot of impact for the world, easy to check.
Regarding the chemistry of the perfume industry: out of the ten most energy-, water-, and forest-efficient companies in the world (of all industries combined), two are fragrance companies, and the third one is close behind. We exceed the water and energy requirements of any climate-change goal (like the Paris Treaty, for instance). We have solar energy like you will not believe. We use the by-products from other industries like paraffin, which is a rubbish that would otherwise clog planes. We use by-products from vitamin A production, we do a lot of upcycling of naturals that are not extracted for us, such as pine branches the forest industry is not using. They don’t really cut things for us, and if they do, we replant. We are a very high-value industry. One kilo of violet leaf absolute is 3,000 USD per kg. We are complicated to plant. If we cut corners, it doesn’t smell good. If we polluted the rivers, you would smell them, we can’t hide that. We do not use chlorine or mercury. If you start to plant patchouli in Africa like they plant soy in the Amazon, destroying that area, guess what? The patchouli is not happy and won’t grow well. So we plant vanilla in Africa but that won’t grow well in the USA plains. It is very hard for us to cheat nature in any way.
In summary, frankly, sustainability is not the issue of this industry at all. In fact, global warming would be gone if every industry would be where we are. The domains where the industry is extremely advanced, modern, human, and creative are sustainability, agronomic developments, and chemistry. This includes some brands, but you have to be extremely inquisitive. Don’t believe what people tell you, including myself. Check, but don’t stop when you hear, “Oh it is confidential, we do not disclose this type of information.” I think it is well-known now that when something is too secretive, it is not really healthy.
In terms of packaging, we could save a lot. The brands and the public put too much effort and money in bottles to such a point that it is ridiculous. There is also a lot of waste with boxes, wrapping, etc. A few bottles should be spectacular: totally fine. A good bottle should deserve a good fragrance. The consumer should learn not to be trapped by a bottle, so I like to teach quality. The best wines, usually, are not in the bottles with the most diamonds and other tacky inserts. Especially if to the detriment of the fragrance. Do you know that some charms on the bottles are more expensive for the brands than the juice they allow perfumers to put inside? It’s really unbelievable. People have to open their eyes and their nostrils. I would say loud and clear that we should concentrate and put energy and money in the fragrance first.
What innovations and changes do you see shaping the future of the industry?
We will see the entry of scent and olfaction into electronics, movies, hospitals, wellness, sports, planes, and art. The science is already en marche since 2004, and now running, so that is good.
We will see the entry of olfaction into history much more. Until about 100 years ago when schools became more democratic, less people could read than today, but they could always smell. Smell was providing a much bigger communication. How can you study history only with words and pictures, but no smell communication? Olfactory communication will also develop, since for marketing it is a dream medium. We will see the entry of olfaction everywhere where vision is used. Olfaction is as important to the brain as vision. We are catching up.
Perfumery will be getting more respect from brands and department stores (they cannot exploit us any longer), from the public (education will change the cards), and from A-list personalities signing perfume licenses (before signing the licenses, they will inform themselves better). Creativity, inventiveness, art, science, and fairness have always prevailed. Perfumery is next on the list.