November 4, 2011 10:03 pm

Are they not fragrant?

Celebrity perfumes are among the bestsellers but how do they rate as fragrances?

When Justin Bieber’s Someday, the first fragrance from the teenage singing star, was released this autumn it broke all predicted sales forecasts and is on track to become the best-selling fragrance of 2011. Some experts are saying it’s the most successful fragrance launch in history.

So, would you buy it or would you, well, turn up your nose because it’s a celebrity fragrance. Can such mass-market perfumes be anywhere near as good as small, artisanal scents made by serious perfume makers?

Consider the following: Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, the best-selling celebrity fragrance of all time, was launched in 1991. It is deemed a classic perfume (ie not just a classic celebrity perfume) and last year had global sales of $61.3m. “Celebrity fragrances, like celebrities themselves, can sometimes be elegant and alluring and sometimes vacant, brain-dead white trash,” says Linda Pilkington of the exclusive perfume brand Ormonde Jayne. “They are not all bad. J Lo’s and Naomi Campbell’s are a couple I have smelt in the past and thought they could pass the ‘Pepsi challenge’ if one was blindfolded.”

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Indeed, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely is so good it could be a Chanel. Lovely is made by Coty, the company that also makes fragrances for Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta, and is considered by connoisseurs such as Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, authors of Perfumes: the Guide, to be the best celebrity perfume. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Like This (Tilda Swinton’s creation) and Rossy de Palma are other celebrity fragrances that are wondrously idiosyncratic and recherché.

So is there a prejudice against celebrity scents? Part of the problem is the sheer number of celebrity perfumes released every year. For a time White Diamonds stood alone but in 2002 Jennifer Lopez launched Glow and its soapy, jejune, fresh-from-the-shower scent became a huge commercial hit, inspiring other stars to launch a signature fragrance. According to NPD Beauty Trends, there have been 62 celebrity launches since 2007, from A-listers such as Beyoncé and the Beckhams to reality stars and Z-listers.

The latest to announce perfumes in development are Madonna, Keith Urban (Nicole Kidman’s husband) and Dita Von Teese. Lady Gaga’s first perfume, made in conjunction with Coty, is due out next year. Britney Spears, the pre-Bieber bestseller of celebrity fragrance, has 10 perfumes to her name. J Lo has 14. So, how is one to tell the good from the gruesome?

Lavanya Krishnan, a 29-year-old PhD student and perfume collector, says: “Most celebrity perfume seems to be just a marketing ploy and a way of making quick money for the celebrity and the fragrance house. Nothing wrong with that, except it makes me less motivated to seek out perfume that is marketed as a celebrity perfume.”

Stephen C Mormoris, senior vice-president, global marketing at Coty Beauty, says the celebrities on its roster (among them SJP, J Lo, Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé and the Beckhams) spend, on average, about 100 hours (or 14 working days) developing each of their perfumes. The finished product is not, as you might cynically think, merely wafted under a star’s nostrils to elicit a yes or a no. On the other hand, it also doesn’t take two years and two professional noses to perfect, as was the case with Valentino’s recently launched Valentina.

Although Bieber’s fragrance is unlikely to make it into the canon of perfume greats alongside Joy, Mitsouko, and Chanel No 5, it’s not unpleasant. Like many celebrity fragrances (it’s quite similar to Rihanna’s bumptious Reb’l Fleur), it’s an affable bubblegum conflation of fruit and flowers with top notes of pear and wild berries, heart notes of jasmine, water lily and coconut orchid, and basenotes of sandalwood vanilla and musk.

According to Coty’s Mormoris, “Celebrities are cultural icons. They are often beautiful, accomplished, wealthy and sexy – all dreams that consumers project themselves into if they are wearing that celebrity’s personal fragrance,” which can make for a powerful package.

After all, many celebrity scents have now enjoyed lingering success, suggesting that people might actually like them as a fragrance. Perhaps it’s time for the doubters to wake up and smell their preconceptions.

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An insider’s view: ‘Sarah Jessica Parker had chosen the teacups they sent home with us’

One reason why so much scepticism surrounds celebrity perfumes is the lack of information on how the process of making them actually works. Often, the logistics of the exchange are shrouded in mystery. Coty, for example, says: “We believe it is crucial that each of our celebrity partners share an equal stake in the entire fragrance development process, from selecting the various notes, to designing the bottle and packaging.”

Alternatively, one industry expert, who asked to remain anonymous, tells us: “Rarely does a famous star want to do their own thing.”

Here, they explain why.

“Large beauty companies do an enormous amount of research. Celebrity perfumes usually begin with a focus group. They’ll ask consumers, ‘Who do you most respond to? Who do you want to be?’ Armed with that information, they’ll usually approach a celebrity.”

“Occasionally the impetus for a perfume will come from the celebrity themself, but that tends to happen with less A-list names ... Even if you can create a scent, it’s difficult without the machine of a large group behind you to get the necessary distribution.”

“Once a deal has been signed, the level of involvement from each celebrity varies tremendously. I remember the launch of Sarah Jessica Parker’s first scent, for example, and she was all over it. She had chosen the teacups they sent home with us as gift; she could talk about every note. Similarly, Jennifer Lopez’s first fragrance was a sort of love it or hate it scent – it wasn’t a generic fruity floral, and it was clear she had her own opinions about it, which is why I think it was so successful. Even if it’s just a thought about what the fragrance should be, it makes a difference. On the other hand, I was at another launch once when the celebrity in question was asked how she felt about her perfume. She replied: ‘Oh, I haven’t tried it yet!’”

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