When she was just 22 years old, perfumer Calice Becker (creator of Tommy Girl and Dior J’adore) consulted a cosmetics executive about breaking into the rarefied world of fragrance. She spoke to him about extraction techniques, raw materials, and the innate sensitivity of her nose. The man listened with a finger poised senatorially against his cheek and then offered some sobering advice. “He told me, ‘You are a woman, not connected to the industry, and way too nice to succeed,’” she says. “‘I can see you are not a bitch. It will be difficult for you.’”
The first option (being a man) was out of Becker’s control; the second (being a bitch), out of character. Equally offensive to her purist’s sensibility was the fact that the man’s suggestion displayed a misunderstanding of perfume. At its core, fragrance is a tool of self-expression. How was Becker supposed to telegraph her personal vision if she was pretending to be someone else?
That was in 1986, and things have changed. Becker is now a master perfumer at Givaudan and president of the International Society of Perfume Creators. And for the first time in memory, women are occupying a slew of top spots in the fragrance industry. But the notion that female perfumers are less legitimate than their male counterparts still persists — though perhaps in subtler, more nuanced ways. “I think it’s unconscious, but I definitely encounter it,” says Mathilde Laurent, the olfactory trailblazer and in-house perfumer at Cartier. It’s possible, she says, that male perfumers continue to exude a certain “seductive” mystique, while women are viewed as consumers of fragrance rather than creators. This mentality can sometimes leave one feeling invisible. In the fragrance industry, feeling invisible is rooted in historical precedent — and it’s not unique to women. From the late 19th to the late 20th centuries, perfumers, who were trained by fragrance houses, operated behind closed doors, usually mixing chemicals in the dim recesses of a lab in Grasse, France. “Perfumers simply weren’t talked about,” says Karyn Khoury, the creative fragrance director and strategist behind some of Estée Lauder’s most iconic scents (Beautiful, Pleasures). “Consumers were more focused on the company that marketed the fragrance than the person who designed it.” (Case in point: Everyone knows Chanel No. 5. Fewer people know its creator, Ernest Beaux. And almost no one knows the name of the lab assistant who some suspect really created it.)
Name recognition in fragrance is a relatively new concept, brought on by a growing appreciation for what many perceive as an artisanal art form and a wave of writers and editors who view fragrance as a rich source of material. “Perfumers are very much exposed today,” says Nathalie Lorson, a master perfumer with Firmenich and the nose behind ALTAIA’s new scent, Tuberose in Blue. “Our sources of inspiration and our creative processes are increasingly covered in the press.”
Still, a conspicuously small and disproportionate number of women are out front, doing the talking. “You don’t see many female creators in the public arena,” says Laurent. “It’s very strange because in the press you only see men, and in the perfume companies you only see women.” That isn’t a mere impression (this magazine owns up to not always giving female noses equal representation). And it’s perhaps the predictable result of a system that for more than a century discouraged and even denied access to women.
Few perfumers can speak to the subject of historically impenetrable glass ceilings with more authority than Patricia de Nicolaï, owner of the acclaimed niche fragrance brand Nicolaï. “I come from a well-known line of perfumers, and I could never, never work in the family business because I’m a woman,” says de Nicolaï. “My family decided I would probably quit to get married and have children, so they didn’t want to invest in me.”
That “family business” is Guerlain, one of the oldest and proudest fragrance houses in the world (de Nicolaï is the great-granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain). Founded in 1828, the firm was still being transferred to the men of the family when de Nicolaï began to study the craft in the 1980s. “There were no women family members in the company: no cousins, aunts, grandmothers, wives — none,” she says.
With the help of her husband, de Nicolaï built her own fragrance house (incidentally, the couple did have children — four of them). Today, the Paris-based company produces roundly celebrated scents, all created by de Nicolaï in the same independent style as her ancestors. “I work alone in a lab, totally free,” she says.
The 19th-century traditions and methods that influence de Nicolaï’s work are part of the institution that walled out many aspiring female perfumers in 20th-century France. “I was told I would never make it in perfumery because I was a girl,” says Anne Flipo, vice president perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), who grew up in Picardy, France, and now creates best-sellers for brands such as Lancôme, Jo Malone London, Chloé, and L’Artisan Parfumeur. To get around the staunch bias that she encountered at the start of her career, Flipo and other trained female noses took risks and looked for opportunities in a place that enshrined newness and innovation, not tradition. “I chose to work for an American company,” she says.
Cosmetics companies that were owned and operated by American women, such as Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden, recruited female perfumers — a move that proved richly rewarding. Flipo cites one of her role models, IFF legend Sophia Grojsman, who achieved international renown in 1978 when she created White Linen for Estée Lauder, a scent that was clean in its composition and groundbreaking in its message: Not all women want to smell like lusty sex goddesses. (Grojsman went on to create Trésor for Lancôme in 1990, one of the best-selling perfumes in the world.)
To Lauder, the runaway success of White Linen and another earlier fragrance, Youth Dew, created by Josephine Catapano, simply reinforced in her mind the business value of the female perspective, and she set out to build an environment that encouraged it. “She was very focused on providing opportunities to women,” says Khoury, who worked directly with Lauder and now develops top-selling fragrances with the late icon’s granddaughter, Aerin Lauder. “Estée wasn’t the first American fragrance marketer, but she shaped this industry in several key ways,” says Khoury. “One of which was supporting an amazing lineage of women who began their careers with her.”
Female perfumers who didn’t get their start with the likes of Lauder had a vastly different experience — even in the ostensibly liberal landscape of American fragrance. “I came up against many, many obstacles,” says Berkeley, California– based perfumer Mandy Aftel of the niche brand Aftelier Perfumes. “I’m entirely artisanal and work only with natural essences, and there was very little of that in the fragrance world when I first started 30 years ago,” she says. “No one understood what I was trying to accomplish, and even my friends at the big fragrance houses in New York were condescending. I was dismissed, dismissed, dismissed.”
Aftel continued to forge ahead with her personal vision, creating heady natural fragrances and eventually finding courage in a near-magical elixir. “I had just bought my first antique oil [Aftel collects and curates vintage aromatics], and a very well-known perfumer told me to throw it out because he was certain it had gone bad. I figured he knew better and decided to just keep the bottle. And then I opened it —” Aftel pauses and inhales, as though reliving the transformative moment. “It was extraordinarily beautiful, the essence of the richness of cinnamon. It changed something in my head. At that moment, I decided I was going to trust my instincts and figure this stuff out for myself.”
And did she ever. Aftel’s artisanal fragrances have earned industry honors and a dedicated global following. She trains aspiring perfumers and recently opened a museum in Berkeley devoted to fragrance. But Aftel measures her success in more modest, less tangible terms. “When someone reaches out to let me know that one of my scents has affected them, that’s the biggest thrill of all.”
Other women have used nontraditional methods to redefine the industry, the most prominent being Christine Nagel, the first woman to hold the coveted role of in-house perfumer at Hermès. Born in Switzerland and trained in organic chemistry, Nagel lacked the elite credentials (such as French family connections) needed to study with a master perfumer at school. “The classic route was forbidden to me,” she says. Instead, she learned to leverage her highly technical background to work on fragrances at the molecular level, creating scents that are both finely tuned and deeply expressive. “My analogy is a dancer,” she says. “You need a solid technique in order to soar.” Nagel’s latest collection, Hermessence, certainly reaches new heights. An amalgam of ingredients and concentrations (it includes oil elixirs and eaux de toilette), the line reimagines classic notes in fresh, contemporary ways.
While Nagel navigated the industry without formal training, the new hope is that other young perfumers won’t have to. Perfume schools, a relatively new phenomenon, are now accepting candidates based on potential — not pedigree. And gender is no longer an issue or a deterrent. “Last year, the majority of applicants to Givaudan Perfumery School were women,” says Becker, who is the school’s new director. Prestigious programs such as ISIPCA in France are also starting to show glimmers of diversity. It was at ISIPCA that then-student Mathilde Laurent first approached Jean-Paul Guerlain about an internship at his company. Perhaps impressed with Laurent’s fiery passion and aesthetic, Guerlain offered her a training position. After three months, he invited her to stay. There’s a certain irony here: Laurent obtained an opportunity that had eluded Guerlain’s niece, de Nicolaï, the previous decade. Laurent becomes philosophical about her career. “Mr. Guerlain took a chance on me, and I have to credit him for that,” she says. “But I had no name, no lineage. I frightened no one.”
Laurent’s work is hardly unassuming. The daring, multifaceted perfumes she dreams up for Cartier challenge cartoonish notions of femininity. “I try to bring something more complex: a vision of a woman as a human being and not only as an object of desire.” Of course, she says, a perfume can convey depth and intelligence and still be sexy as hell. Take Daniela Andrier’s new creation for Roland Mouret, Une Amourette. The composition is both voluptuous (it’s meant to be worn between the thighs) and gutsy. These fragrances unravel old-world stereotypes — something that perfumer Dora Baghriche believes female noses are uniquely positioned to do. “I think we’re less weighed down by classical themes and the past,” she says. “We’re marking our own era.”
That’s not to imply male perfumers are inexorably linked to tradition. While training in New York City, Baghriche learned from master perfumer and industry giant Harry Frémont (Calvin Klein CK One, Estée Lauder Modern Muse). “He gave me my chance and really respected the route I was taking,” says Baghriche, who designs scents for both major labels and niche brands. “We have very different styles, but he was always amazed by the new accords I was creating.”
This illuminates a truth that every woman in the field hopes to impress: Self-expression is so much bigger than gender. And fragrance can help carry that message into the mainstream. “Buying a perfume is like voting,” says Laurent. “Don’t ask if the person who made it is a man or a woman. Focus on their vision, their intent. That’s how to make sure all points of view are represented in this industry and beyond.” Let democracy rule.
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