Something old, something new: Guerlain vs. Tommy Hilfiger


Perfume is a BBC Four three-part documentary from 2011 which aims to investigate the behind-the-scenes of the multi-billion-dollar business that is the fragrance industry. In the first episode, titled "Something old, something new", British director Ian Denyer takes a look at two major but very different brands and compares their perfume-making process: French house Guerlain and American multinational Tommy Hilfiger of the Estée Lauder company. A juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, classic and preppy.

Guerlain is among the oldest perfume houses in the world, founded in Paris in 1828. It is considered "French perfumery personified" and relies strongly on sense of family and tradition, reflected in the fact that it was owned and managed strictly by members of the Guerlain family for four generations. Their philosophy in regards to targeting consumers is marketing-light and focuses more on delivering solid, trustworthy and timeless scents in order to create a faithful customer base. They say some of their main clients are mothers who bring their daughters in looking for a safe choice for their first perfume.

"Get them young and keep them forever."

We meet Jean-Paul Guerlain himself, the last of the family perfumers and head of the brand at the time, in his house, where he talks about his family, his inspirations and the way he sees marketing. He believes inspiration for perfumes can always be found in women. "We create perfumes for the women that we are in love with," he says. "Take off her dress, take off her make-up—what's left? The charm of her voice and her perfume."

His ways of marketing (which he actually denies are marketing, as they do not involve focus groups or panel testing) resonate with the brand's identity, and are very reserved, low-key and old-fashioned, by inviting journalists to his private château and explicitly rejecting modern mass-marketing strategies. We are also introduced to Thierry Wasser, Jean-Paul's chosen successor—for lack of an heir—and the first to become head of the brand outside of the Guerlain family. In a tender moment Wasser describes Jean-Paul Guerlain as a father figure that he missed in his childhood, and he then discusses his relationship to the House and how he is going to deal with the weight of family history, making the brand relevant to the 21st century while still celebrating its roots in the 19th.

Thierry Wasser, in-house perfumer for Guerlain.

In a quick tour of Guerlain's headquarters, we are shown Jacques Guerlain's original "scent laboratory" still preserved, his books containing original formulas and the actual lab. Guerlain is one of the few perfume brands that hasn't yet given in to using fewer, cheaper ingredients for the sake of profit, and precision in mixing is absolutely essential in the making of their signature classic scents.

Their flagship perfume, Shalimar, is the one that Wasser plans to "tamper with" in order to create a new, more forward perfume aimed at a younger, more global generation, whilst still maintaining Guerlain's "Frenchness" and artisanal quality. To do so, Wasser decides to involve the marketing department in the making of the perfume for the first time in Guerlain's history: his is a bold, almost pivotal move, as he attempts to adhere to Guerlain's traditional ways while using ingredients that were not available at the time. Seeing him juggle between the house's long history and his desire to bring in his own fresh perspective reminded me of newly-appointed artistic director Raf Simons in the movie Dior and I, which I have written about here.

Unfortunately, that year did not end on a bright note for house Guerlain, as just two months before Christmas—the best-selling time of the year for the perfume industry—Jean-Paul stirred outrage (and was eventually fired) for making racist comments on television, in a decisively à la Galliano move.

In the meantime, we see the creative team at Tommy Hilfiger working out a new fragrance which is aimed at the millennials of Generation Y—who, apparently, are really into rock'n'roll. Holding a very different approach to perfume making and marketing, it is with TH that we can really see how perfumes have now become much of a fashion accessory, which changes regularly based on season and occasion. For many brands, including fashion biggies the likes of Calvin Klein, these bottled scented liquids represent "the single best way of monetising celebrity and brand," as explained by New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr.

One of the most evident differences from Guerlain is how marketing-heavy the entire process is from the very start—in fact, the designing of the bottle and packaging comes before the making of the scent (or the "juice," as they say in the industry) itself, which is actually the very last step of the process. Here we get to see the conception and production of LOUD, "liquid rock'n'roll," an attempt to reconnect Gen Y to Tommy Hilfiger by pushing the collaboration between music and fragrance to the boundaries. With the help of Chad Levine, the "Picasso of bottle design," the team tries to come up with a packaging which has to represent a literal translation of elements from the music industry—and, boy, were they literal: an LP-shaped bottle, volume knobs from amps and guitars as cap and a box which recalls a record sleeve as you slide the bottle in and out; even the card used to test-spray the fragrance in the shop is designed to look like a concert ticket. To be frank it looked to me like something aesthetically (and conceptually) more appropriate to the late 90s or early 2000s, which made me wonder whether they had really done their demographics research right—a question that came to my mind again when I watched a 40-something woman tell young people what they liked. Nevertheless, the launch of the fragrance looked promising, after a tight process which involved the creation of countless minuscule variations on the rose and patchouli-based formula.

The posters for the launch of LOUD and LOUD for Him. Not too appealing to this Generation Y member.

As somebody who had pretty much no previous knowledge on the perfume industry, it was actually pretty interesting to get to see two so different approaches to the production and delivery of a fragrance product. I will be writing about the next two episodes of the series soon, so stay tuned to read more about that! In the meantime, you can watch "Something old, something new" on YouTube (click here!).

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