‘Nobody actually needs another fragrance...’

By Martin Brandtner
Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe

The beauty spot. Véronique Gabai-Pinsky. - © System Magazine

Fragrance has been the core of Véronique Gabai-Pinsky’s professional life for the past 20 years. French-born Gabai-Pinsky is president of Estée Lauder’s designer-fragrance division and is responsible for the global business for the Aramis, Lab Series Skincare for Men, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger Toiletries, Donna Karan Cosmetics, Michael Kors Beauty, Kiton, Ermenegildo Zegna, Marni and Tory Burch brands. As part of her responsibilities, she also looks after BeautyBank and IdeaBank, the entrepreneurial think tank divisions of The Estée Lauder Companies with a mission to identify global opportunities for product development, diversification and regional expansion, bring- ing these concepts and brands to mar- ket through sustainable and profitable business models. As the world’s foremost interpreter of a brand’s identity into fragrance, Gabai-Pinsky knows more than most about the relationship between the fragrance industry and fashion houses, and the way a fashion brand can be brought into the lucrative world of fragrance. We wanted to talk to her about this most delicate of all brand extensions; and if when designers choose to move into this market, they are motivated by more than the potential profits; how she identifies the spirit of a fashion house in order to find a fragrance that can sum up and trans- late that into the memory-laden world of scent; and her extraordinary career which saw her start in France, breakthrough with Armani fragrances and subsequent move to the US. Most of all, we wanted to find out how she fell in love with the fragrance business.

Martin Brandtner: I have so many questions to ask you, but perhaps we should begin with your career – your background and how you broke into the industry.

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky: My journey was very interesting because I really didn’t know I wanted to do fra- grance. It happened a bit by chance, and in life it’s good when things happen to you by chance. I started at L’Oréal in cosmetics, but I was then asked to move into the fragrance category to work on Cacharel. I fell in love with fragrance! I was doing my marketing job during the day, and in the late hours I would train myself to smell because I felt it was important to understand all aspects of the product to be a good marketer. I was lucky enough that the owner of a very important fragrance house took an interest in helping me develop that aspect of my product knowledge.

Having someone senior mentoring me, coaching me and taking an interest in developing my career was very instrumental, as it helped me understand what you had to do to be a good manager above and beyond being a good business manager, as well as giving me the passion for the product itself. I think that the passion was fused at a young age through very senior leaders who showed me it was not only about numbers but it was also about the love for the product itself. As I moved through the ranks of L’Oréal and in spite of my young age, I was given an unbelievable opportunity by senior management to try to reinvigorate Giorgio Armani, which was troubled at the time, in 1994.

You were talking about your mentors. Who were they?

My boss at the time was Annette Louit, who was the general manager of Cacharel. But the person who really helped me was the owner of Givaudan at that time who was called Mr Jean Amic. I was really helped a lot by a perfumer in Jean Amic’s team who was called Jean Guichard. I will forever be grateful to them. My second boss, George Klarsfeld pulled me off the Cacharel team and asked me to work on Giorgio Armani. And I wasn’t even 30 at the time: I think I was 28. It was quite amazing that I was given tons of responsibility at a young age. Being young helps you to see things in another light – without necessarily seeing all the risks. So basically you just go for it, and you’re dumb enough to not see the pitfalls. When you need to think differently, not seeing the potential pitfalls is a very important thing.

‘You can never imagine. You can avoid disaster in your field, but you cannot predict success to that level.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

I have a question directly related to what you were talking about in regards to taking risks. In those days, would you consider that L’Oréal was a company that would be risk-inclined? It’s interesting to hear that maybe Klarsfeld was taking those risks or was a different kind of guy.

Yes. Klarsfeld really was somebody. Today, the companies that are the strongest in the world are formidable companies – the Estée Lauders or the L’Oréals. And they evolve. They have moments when they take risks on a category and a little less on anoth- er; they try new things on one and not the other. At that time it was not a big risk because the Giorgio Armani fragrances was a small brand. It’s not the same to take a risk on a small brand as it is taking a risk on what generates the livelihood of the company. So risks are taken where they need to be tak- en. And honestly, at that time I was too young to be able to understand the full complexity of the company’s strategy. But I was given this mission, and I went for it. It was a great time and it result- ed in an extraordinary experience and extraordinary results. I want to say that I don’t think it’s only based on risk taking because it’s not true. There’s a lot of luck in the business we’re in. There’s a philosophy in how you create products and develop brands which differs from company to company. But clearly there’s also an element of chance that exists as well. I always say to my team that our business is 30 per cent brain power, the strategic understanding of the market place and the objective you have; 30 per cent the passion you put into it; 30 per cent muscle because if you don’t execute it well it’s not going to work; and then 10 per cent chance.

Let’s go back to Armani. When you started working for Armani how much earlier had they begun doing fragrances?

Oh, a long time – at least ten years before.

Can you tell me the story about Acqua di Giò, and how that came about?

I think that what happened with Acqua di Giò was that it connected Giorgio Armani as a brand to the world of fragrance – and what fragrance means. Let me tell you what I believe fragrance is and what fashion is, and maybe you’ll understand why this connection is so important because the psychological effects of the two categories are very different. If you want to be success- ful in bringing fragrance to a designer, you have to connect the dots which many people usually have a hard time doing. What we did at the time was to bring Giorgio Armani, a brand based on the search for perfection and quality with a kind of rigour, into an emotional platform that would be relevant but still connected to the world of fragrance. The way that we did it with their existing fragrance called Giò was to describe the spirit of Giorgio Armani in a moment of relaxation. We renamed it Acqua di Giò and took the source of inspiration of Pantelleria – the getaway of Mr Armani – and tried to understand why it was so beautiful and powerful. That was honestly the source of inspiration for Acqua di Giò.

Giò is the nickname of Giorgio. So the idea here was to bring it to a place where you just have water, air and sun, to an island of relaxation hence cutting the name. You scrape off a little bit of the social aspects of your life to go back to the essence of things. That’s how Acqua di Giò was born. The idea behind doing this was to help the brand get to an emotional platform where people could project themselves onto the product in an emotional way. The reason it was so successful is because the fragrance is extraordinary, and it was a disruption to the marketplace in the current universe of men’s fragrances; that’s where the risk was taken if you will. We brought to them an element of femininity or sensibility by doing a floral fragrance with a touch of fruit and watery notes which did not exist at the time in that field.

When the project was put together and shown to Mr Armani and the people at L’Oréal, did they have an immediate understanding of the potential of this incredible mix: a new fragrance, new imagery, a new concept?

It was a big project for the company. We needed it to be successful and supported it, but nobody imagined at the beginning of the lifecycle of the brand that it was going to be mega successful. You can never imagine. You can avoid disaster in your field, but you cannot predict success to that level. It was a great surprise for everybody, but it was a surprise built over a couple of years. It was the juice – what we call perfume in the fragrance industry – that created the amazing sustainability of the brand. People fell in love with it and bought it again and again.

An interesting point here is that the first time you buy a fragrance you buy it mostly because of the concept: the design and the image. You’re attracted to the brand by what you call the ‘marketing mix’. The second, third, and forth time you buy a fragrance – and what keeps a business sustainable – is because you love the juice. Everybody was taken by surprise at the beginning because the appeal was so great.

‘It was the juice that created the amazing sustainability of the brand. People fell in love with the juice and bought it again and again.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

Acqua di Giò’s visuals were ground breaking at the time and probably played an important part in kickstarting its huge success. How did it happen?

I wanted to bring Armani into a world of emotional content that would connect with the fragrance. This idea of being at one with nature is something that’s very important for the fragrance but at the same time suited to the brand because of Pantelleria, where Mr Armani was relaxing. Sea, air and sun are all things we can relate to when we speak about the notion of escape. It’s the moment when you feel the most relaxed, at one with the elements, that gives you a sense of well-being. That was the concept – your body connecting with those elements. Then when you present that to a talent like Herb Ritts you will have very strong and beautiful expression of that idea.

The visuals are an important part of connecting all of the dots and communicating what lies beneath the surface of a brand and a fragrance. The inspirations for them will come from culture, literature, architecture. Sometimes it’s a place; like in the case of Acqua di Giò, it was Pantelleria. For the next Zegna launch, Uomo by Zegna, it’s also a location – Casa Malaparte in Capri. If you know the story of Casa Malaparte, it really makes sense for Zegna. Curzio Malaparte built this house on the top of a cliff where it would be impossible to access unless you came through a tiny mountain path or by sea. The whole house is a set of stairs, and he built it to remind himself of his time in prison (he was imprisoned by Mussolini when he wrote some of his most beautiful pieces of literature). When he was released, he wanted to find that feeling of isolation again, to remind himself of his individual willpower against the odds of life – that’s why I felt it was the perfect location for this campaign. Zegna is really the archetypal expression of masculinity. Men measure themselves by their accomplishments, so when you ask a man: ‘Who are you?’ he tells you what he has done. This idea of masculinity and the idea of the step-by-step establishment to create one’s own masculinity and destiny suited this story and this house perfectly.

Let’s talk more about the relationship and distinction between fragrance and fashion.

When you think of what fragrance is, it is a very emotional and personal – very intimate – product. It’s your signature and can be a way to build your own confidence. For many people, it’s the last touch. People also use it as a tool for seduction. And the difference is very clear when you choose what fragrance you use at the office to what fragrance you use when you go on a date. To a certain extent, it’s also a tool for escape: you spray something, and you’re transported somewhere else. It’s very emotional. It’s linked to your own set of memories. The sense of smell is the only sense that is located in the reptilian brain and not in the cognitive brain. All of the other senses are cognitive. So that’s why it’s so primal; it connects to your most primal elements. You cannot describe fragrance or what it does to you. There’s a language for visuals, a language for music, but no language for fragrance. It really is something that’s hard to express. And it expresses who you are in a strange way.

Now fashion on the other hand is an expression of creativity. A designer creates a fashion collection to express a message to the world. Someone wears those clothes to send a message about themselves to the world. So it’s an intellectual process, not a primal need or sensation. The challenge when you work on a fragrance for a designer is how to connect their stylistic expression to what really motivates that expression and where it comes from on an emotional platform. When you look at a fashion collection, it’s an expression – one which might change from season to season – but it’s the unique vision of one designer which comes from one emotional place. When we work on fragrance, we have to ‘dive deep’ into their vision, beyond the current collections, to really understand what the wider motivations are for that creative expression, how they perceive the world. I’m not interested in the collection of the day per se because it doesn’t help build a fragrance; but why this designer is doing this type of collection – that’s what helps us build a fragrance.

‘You have to address it at a primal level of what fragrance does and then the cultural aspect of acceptance of what you’re wearing.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

Sexuality seems to have a lot to do with the world of fragrance. Fragrance plays a significant role in our primitive reptilian brain because it is intensely linked to sexual attraction and potential. Both fashion and fragrance seem to be linked at their core idea of seduction on a very primitive level.

There is truth to your analysis that sexuality lies at the core of fragrance, but it’s not just about sexuality. Fragrance is connected to your primal needs – a sense of danger, the necessity for survival and the desire to find shelter. Memories are also very significant and fragrance can be a way to connect you to things around you as well as emotions and memories. So, the range of fragrance expression is much more than just a tool for seduction. You can explore the idea of escape, of memories, of comfort, of shelter or going back to a time or place. If you look at what Mugler did with his signature fragrance, Angel, it’s amazing. It was never about sex but about childhood memories.

There are certain brands that lend themselves quite easily to being translated into fragrance because what they’re about is fairly essential and easy to understand – they can be summed up in a few words. But then, there are other brands – huge luxury brands – which have struggled to translate their success in fashion into fragrance. In your opinion why is that?

Our role is to find a way to take the vision and the personality of the designer and build something that will resonate. Marni is a smaller-scale fashion brand – a trendsetter and trend-leader – with an edge that drives what happens elsewhere in the industry. Marni express- es Consuelo’s vision of modern femininity, which is not linked to the traditional archetype of women. It’s not linked to seduction but more to the creative expression of each individual. For her, the traditional models of femininity are obsolete. So how do you take that and translate it into fragrance? For us we knew we couldn’t go the traditional route of femininity – we had to remove all the flower notes, all the fruit notes and give Marni something that would meet Consuelo’s vision, and yet be a beautiful women’s fragrance that will be really lovely to wear. We ended up using wood and spices which are usually used in the male field of fragrance and the scent of a rose to wrap it up. The rose is filled with incense, so it was not the traditional female rose scent. It is a gorgeous fragrance and a new way to look at women’s fragrance – it disrupted the market because of that. We realised we couldn’t launch it the way we would launch a traditional fragrance. We needed it to find its public. So we decided to go for a limited distribution to really cultivate and roll out the distribution little by little. When you work with a designer who has such a different point of view, you need a creative direction that fits the unique point of view as well as align it with the business model that will allow you to be successful.

So you’re building something that is tailor-made both in terms of a way it’s expressed as a fragrance but also as a business. It makes sense because you’re not trying to stretch a brand beyond a limit where it wouldn’t make sense for that brand. You’re also not putting pressure on projects by expecting them to be immediately in the top five fragrances. What are your ambitions for Marni?

The ambition for Marni is to be in the top five of every door we are in. That’s the way we are looking at it, roll out slowly but in every door we are, we want to be in the top five. You’re absolutely right though, you cannot apply the same commercial pressures to certain brands that you could apply for others.

‘It’s not the same to take a risk on a small brand as it is taking a risk on what generates the livelihood of the company.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

What do you think the differences are between beauty ideals in different markets?

They are very different; they have com- mon threads but also specific preferences. There are real differences and also cultural differences. An Asian woman has a very different olfactive taste from that of a Middle Eastern woman. In the Middle East, they love deep, rich, woody, spicy fragrances – that’s part of the culture. In Asia, they prefer fresher, light scents. You need to know the olfactive preferences between the different global markets when you develop fragrances for designers. If you want to be successful in Europe, you need to steer a little towards European taste. We study the differences a lot. An American, French or German woman will describe the same fragrance with very different words. If they all like the fragrance no matter if it’s fresh or woody, a French woman will describe it as sensual. If a German woman like the same fragrance, she’s going to say it’s sporty and elegant. And if the American likes it, she’ll say it’s fresh and clean. Regardless of the note. So you have the real olfactive preferences which you have to know and then there is the psychological way of describing what you like is what you also have to know when you develop a fragrance. This is very interesting because you might not see that in the fashion world. But in the fragrance world, because there is no set language you have to address it at a primal level of what fragrance does and then the cultural aspect of acceptance of what you’re wearing.

You mentioned the importance of choosing the right art directors, photographers and talents to communicate the fragrance – you’ve been quite passionate about giving chances to a lot of young talent. You gave Fabien Baron his first beauty campaign on Acqua di Giò for women with Diane Kruger and then worked with him on the iconic campaign for the male fragrance, for example. Is there anyone else that you’ve worked closely with or whose career you’ve helped launch?

I was given opportunities when I was very young, and if it hadn’t been for that, perhaps I would not be where I am today. I think it’s important to explore talent, and I believe it’s part of my role to help talent emerge. Because we’re in a world where you have 1,100 launches a year, you need to differentiate yourself creatively – you need to stand out. You need to thrill the consumer in order to create desire. I say to my team all the time that good is simply not good enough. And sometimes working with the same people gives you a repetition of the same creative expression – it’s human. So sometimes it makes sense to work with the established and then sometimes you need to give chances to new talents who approach the project very differently. I also want to help young people because I think they have a lot to give, and if nobody helps them, then how will they be able to? I’m also always looking to find new creative expression; I do believe that there are people in the industry whose points of view have not altered over the years. There’s a freshness in young talent that is quite amazing. Everyone uses fragrance of course, but the bulk of our consumer base is 18-35 years old. May- be because it’s a tool for seduction. [Laughs] So having people of the same generation communicating these ideas also really helps.

Who would your dream collaboration be with?

Andy Warhol.

You would have made a good perfume together. Do you think there are fashion houses with which you think it’s virtually impossible to do fragrance? Or can you always find a way to make even the most complex, sophisticated, twisted and bizarre language into something visceral and appealing to a general audience?

There are brands that are easier than others for sure, but I think there is always a way. There is always potential. When it comes to accessory brands or technology brands, that’s when it becomes more complicated as it’s less to do with the body. Sports brands can also be a little bit more complicated. You just have to approach them a different way. For example if a brand is rooted in a certain market, you can use the cultural background to develop its mean- ing. In Europe, brands tend to be about aesthetics, the individual and introspection. Whereas American brands tend to be more about the future, a hope or vision for the future. For a French brand, for example, you can more easily explore the mysterious sides of your soul; it makes sense, the ‘Je pense, donc je suis.’

‘In fragrance, you have 1,100 launches a year. You need to thrill the consumer in order to create desire – you need to stand out.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

I would imagine it when you take on a new brand at Estée Lauder, you analyse whether the brand will be promising commercially and what amount of business it will add to your company. When you look at the brand, can you immediately understand the commercial potential it could have in the fragrance category of that brand regardless off the chiffres d’affaires?

You look at different things. Firstly, you look at the size of the business because the size of the business gives the understanding of what the current awareness of the brand is. You look at the potential of the brand and your estimation of what that potential is. Again, it’s not all about today but about the next ten years. And then you add the complexity and emotional values of the brand as well as the persona behind the brand that could help you build a very successful business.

Earlier on you said currently there are 1,100 launches per year; when you started there were probably a third or a quarter of that. How has the business evolved?

It’s very interesting. The fragrance business has evolved dramatically. When I started, you might have had less than a hundred launches a year and a lifecycle of ten years. Ten years later, there may have been 250 launches per year, and now there are 1,100 launches per year – you’re lucky if one of your launches sees the next Christmas. Today, it has become more challenging. And to be successful you have to be true to certain values and know what you want to achieve with each of the projects that you’re taking on. From a business point of view, you have to be very clear with what your objectives are, where you want to be successful, in what region and in what type of model. Then you have to say: ‘Good is simply not good enough.’ It’s a simple sentence, but it drives a lot of our activity. You have to make sure that you commit to quality because if you want to be on sale for the next couple of years, and if you don’t offer the best quality, you have no chance. If you want to emerge from the plethora of launches, then you have to be creative, to offer something that touches the consumer in a meaningful way – whether or not it’s disruptive. We are not in the business of answering a need but of creating a want; nobody needs another fragrance. We need to create that feeling of, ‘Oh my God! I have to have it!’ for a greater chance of success.

Going back to that short sequence, you said you’re lucky if your fragrance is around the next Christmas? The lifespan of a contemporary perfume can be so short. Do you think it’s possible with all of the new and existing fragrances on the market for a new big fragrance to emerge today, something that will really last and be successful in the same way was as Acqua di Giò?

There’s always room for a new Acqua di Giò or a new Be Delicious by DKNY. DKNY’s Be Delicious was created ten years ago, and every year its sales have grown. It’s from one of the most successful brands from a fashion standpoint. Maybe it doesn’t have as much heritage and history to reference as some other luxury houses, but the fragrance itself continues to find its public because it makes a lot of sense for the consumer and they connect with it emotionally.

‘You have to balance the rational side of the consumer goods business with the creativity you see in the fashion industry.’

Véronique Gabai-Pinsky

Still, that was ten years ago. Could you do that today?

Yes, of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if I didn’t think you could make a difference and build for the long term. We start every project with that in mind. We are unlike our competition – we have a much better understanding of how to create a balance between our products, sustaining them, nurturing them and the consumer. The honest truth is that we will only launch a fragrance if it’s relevant to the brand and meaningful to the consumer. If you don’t have that then there’s already way too much in this market- place to add to the noise. You want to add a symphony to the world, that’s what we’re trying to do. If we feel it’s not so creative or different to what’s on the market, we’re not going to launch it. It’s a difficult decision to make as there is also a business attached to it, but at the end of the day you need to take pride in the work you do and feel in your gut that what you have created is beautiful. With regards to the success rate, some will work, some will not. From a business point of view, you have to know how to manage that – it’s risk management. Sometimes you’re successful, sometimes you’re not.

Someone in the fragrance industry once told me that making perfumes was like producing films. You have to put so much energy into the narrative and the visuals. You then launch it to the audience, and you have to stay quiet and see what happens. What do you think about this analogy? It’s like taking a leap of faith.

Well it’s a very good analogy. Like with the movie business or any business, you have to manage your risk and there are ways to manage risks. You build your business model according to the level of risk you want to take or you don’t want to take. You don’t take global risks. You manage regions, and you manage the portfolio. But you’re absolutely right, it’s a leap of faith. What you can do from a development and creative standpoint is to give yourself the best chances of being successful and avoiding disaster. The better the quality of the product, the better chances you have – regardless of whether you’re going for a full global launch, entry prestige or super high-end. Quality is first and foremost. You have to manage the artistic expression with the business orientation – and create a balance between the intuition, instinct and business management – it’s not all about market research but about a gut feeling – if you don’t have that, then the chances are you have a problem. The fragrance business is halfway between fashion and consumer goods. You have to balance the rational side of the consumer goods business – which is very intellectual and business-orientated – with the level of creativity and desire which you see in the fashion industry. It’s what I love about this business.

Taken from System No. 2.