• U.S.

Business: Fragrance War: France vs. U.S.

4 minute read

A barrage of brash scents

The hype was pure Madison Avenue, though the locale was Paris. First there was a gushing news release. “Since ancient times,” it declared, “perhaps since the Garden of Eden, woman has communed with perfume. In creating Nahema today, Guerlain adds a prestigious page to this eternal dialogue.” Then came an “intime” press dinner for 40 or so at Maxim’s, followed on another evening by a glittering soiree near the Place de la Concorde, where 650 guests were plied with champagne as the new scent being introduced by the doyenne of French perfume houses filled the air.

Guerlain spent more than $10 million to launch its first new perfume since 1975, and it will doubtless make a similar splash when it brings the pricey ($85 per oz.) fragrance to the U.S. next year. Nahema’s debut was one of the biggest barrages in a war of dollars and scents being waged by French perfumers this fall: more than 20 new fragrances are coming out, and most will carry the names of well-known fashion houses, including Balenciaga, Courreges and Balmain.

Without their perfumes, many of the top French fashion names would simply disappear. Robert Ricci, head of the Nina Ricci firm, openly concedes that his firm could not exist without its worldwide perfume sales. Says he: “It is very difficult to make money out of clothes, and impossible out of haute couture. “High sales volume cannot be achieved with clothes, since no one style can ever have really broad appeal. Perfumes, by contrast, are bought everywhere, in all seasons and by all kinds of people, from secretaries to socialites. L’Air du Temps and other fragrances account for 75% of Nina Ricci’s revenue. Several fashion bastions, among them Schiaparelli, Chanel and Paco Rabanne, are said to rely on perfume profits to keep their doors open.

But now France’s traditionally subtle perfumes are under siege. Though the gentle Chanel No. 5 remains a bestseller, this fall’s freshet of new scents was triggered by the success of Opium, which is sold under the Yves Saint Laurent label. It was so popular in Europe after its launching there in 1977 that its appearance in the U.S. had to be delayed a year for lack of supply. As it happens, Opium is marketed by a subsidiary of the Squibb Corp., the U.S. pharmaceutical firm, which pays the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house a royalty in return for the use of its name. More galling to the French, Opium is a strong scent; it thus follows in the style of the brash and popular American perfumes, like Revlon’s Charlie and Jontue, that are edging out long dominant French brands as the leading sellers in West Germany, Britain and Switzerland, among other markets. Tellingly, Guerlain’s Nahema and many other new French scents are potent perfumes in the U.S. style.

Some French fashion chiefs are indignant. Robert Ricci complains that the assertive American-type perfumes should “only appeal to jet-setters who want to shock.” Lanvin’s marketing director, Jean-Louis Delpuech, scoffs that U.S. perfume makers have tended “to go ‘down market’ to a type of woman who demands more smell for her money.” But others are more philosophical about the demand for perfumes with staying power. Robert Young, president of Yves Saint Laurent perfumes, traces the taste for strong fragrances to the same craving for identity that makes people want designer names on their clothes. Says he: “The French were wrong when they failed to respond to this need.” Whatever the reason, powerful scents are selling. Worldwide sales of Opium are expected to reach $80 million this year, a lot for a brand that has been out for only two years. The top-selling perfume of all, with an estimated $150 million in annual sales, remains Revlon’s six-year-old Charlie.

What seems to concern the French as much as the spread of the American scent is the expansion of American ownership of perfume houses. Coty, for instance, is owned by the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm, Pierre Balmain by Revlon, and Jean d’Albret by Max Factor. Globally, sales of U.S.-owned perfume firms exceeded $1 billion last year, compared with $737 million for the French. Girding themselves against further U.S. competition, many older French perfume houses have sought mergers with larger European corporations, and a long moribund national perfume-promoting organization called Prestige has been revived. Says Bernard Lanvin, head of the family-owned firm that bears his name: “Until recently we were content to compete among ourselves. Now we’re closing ranks.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com