When you close your eyes and think of a perfumer, what do you see? In 2022, fragrance still feels white and heteronormative. To this day, we use some pretty twisted terminology to talk about perfume. For decades, the term "oriental" has been used to refer to a specific class of fragrance characterized by scents like amber, sandalwood, and vanilla. It's also a term New York banned from use in state documents in 2009 because it's considered incendiary.
"Oriental wasn't intended to be negative. Still, unfortunately, it has a negative connotation in the U.S., and I'm hoping people can understand why we don't feel comfortable using this term," Givaudan perfumer Linda Song says. Song is amongst the fragrance leaders, perfumers, and entrepreneurs who've come together to update the industry's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices.
How The Fragrance Foundation Is Amplifying Diversity
In October 2021, The Fragrance Foundation (TFF) kicked off an initiative called In October 2021, The Fragrance Foundation (TFF) kicked off an initiative called #FragranceForwardTFF to amplify fragrance's diversity conversations. The announcement has been a long time coming and involves revamping the cultural imagination of who a perfumer can be, according to TFF President Linda G. Levy.
"A perfumer is one of about 25 jobs that are key to fragrance, but it is the most visible and, quite frankly, [diversifying our image of a perfumer] was part of my mission from the beginning," she says. #FragranceForwardTFF's inaugural event featured, among others, Song and Chris Collins, founder of The World of Chris Collins. Collins' brand made history as the only Black-owned fragrance brand sold at Bergdorf Goodman.
The rise of brands like Collins' has been made possible by the explosion of the niche fragrance space, which started in the 2000s and has added to a range of possibilities in fragrance, according to fragrance historian and founder of Fragrances of the World Michael Edwards. Niche, in this context, refers to the growing world of independent perfumers and entrepreneurs who are free from the institutions that have dominated the industry for hundreds of years. The maverick 'niche' movement has been a game-changer.
"One of the best things about niche is that it's restored perfumery to luxury," Edwards says. "With the development of marketing and the explosion of the '80s and '90s, perfume became a commodity. Now, with niche, it's back to luxury."
The Challenges of Building a Fragrance Brand
Still, there are substantial barriers to entry, even if you already run a successful brand. CEO and founder of The Phluid Project, Rob Garrett Smith, has championed a gender-free, radically-inclusive approach to tees, hoodies, body products, and, now, perfumes. But it took Smith a moment before he was ready to dive into fragrance. "With fragrances, you commit," Smith says. "You're dealing with five SKUs instead of hundreds of SKUs, as would be the case in fashion. It's intimidating that these few scents drive 100% of sales."
If you're starting your fragrance business from scratch, you have to cultivate a following with very few products—and even fewer resources. It's a problem that Chavalia Mwamba, owner and perfumer at Pink MahogHany, tackled when she released the brand's first scent, French Cuffs, in 2011. At first, it wasn't easy finding an audience for Pink MahogHany, which creates gorgeous perfumes people with fragrance sensitivities can wear.
"There were a lot of hits and misses," Mwamba says. "I couldn't budget for expensive advertising. The first real challenge was getting out of the bootstrapping phase and establishing myself as a brand that people want to follow and watch. I am self-taught, and I had to find my niche and own it."
Through Mwamba's efforts to build a social media following, Pink MahogHany found its fans. "Now, I have social media to thank for the acclaim Pink MahogHany has received," she says. "It's allowed me to not only utilize my voice but to connect with my potential consumers in a personalized way. It helps to connect by sharing the challenges, and it can help ignite the fire for someone else."
Next Steps for the Fragrance Industry
So, what can the fragrance industry do to foster diversity? It all starts with language. "Language is powerful because it's one way we can communicate about fragrance," said Song. "If you're looking at a painting or cooking, you can physically point at something, but in fragrance, we have to use our words to point out something very abstract."
There's been an alarming spike in hate crimes directed at Asian-Americans across the U.S. in recent years, and, accordingly, Levy's gone all-in on demanding that the industry stops using the word "oriental."
"We need to find another way to speak to the concept," Levy says. "When I spoke to a lot of people across the pond, and in Europe, I told them, I'm not contacting you to see if you want to join us. We're moving forward, and we're changing this word, and it's not an option. Every single member of the Fragrance Foundation is responsible for eliminating that word. I believe we can unite the community and find a way to make it right.
Smith thinks the fragrance industry can improve its diversity problems through a more inclusive marketing approach. "I think fragrance is probably among the worst industries when it comes to showing inclusivity in marketing campaigns," Smith says. "They tend to feature caucasian movie stars and celebrities. We wanted to include trans models, different ethnicities and showcase body positivity. It's time for the industry's marketing to stop putting people in boxes."
Historically, it was important for perfumers to have a specific background, but fortunately, we're seeing change now, according to Song. That change could be massively credited to buy-in from the largest, most powerful fragrance houses.
Mwamba, who grew up in small-town Texas, had no idea that fragrance could be a career as a kid and dreams of seeing more people like her in the industry. "I would love to see large fragrance houses and schools provide scholarship opportunities for underserved communities, like the African-American community," she says.
For my part, when I close my eyes, I have to stop imagining that far-away Frenchman at Barney's counter that no longer exists. He's long gone, and, consequently, I want him nowhere near my fragrance collection. Perfume allows me to dream about myself, and I'm relieved it's not just straight European men spinning those fantasies anymore. Those perfumers also look like Smith, Mwamba, and Song.
Now, when I close my eyes, they're the ones I'll see.