Le Labo - Revolutionizing Perfume
A slender young man clad in jeans and a loose shirt sits in a leather armchair in the vintage-style perfume boutique "Le Labo" on Third Street in West Hollywood. His tousled, dark blond hair is only partially kept in place by a faded baseball cap. He might easily be mistaken for one of the alternative rock musicians who can be found in abundance in the neighborhood – or he could have if he hadn't immediately jumped up and introduced himself as Fabrice while throwing in a couple of authentic French air kisses.
Whether rocker or perfume-maker, it soon becomes apparent that Fabrice Penot, co-founder of "Le Labo Fragrances", dances to a different tune when it comes to entrepreneurship. "A press kit? No, we don't have that kind of thing," he replies with a cocked eyebrow to our query for a facts & figures sheet. His post-punk, "my-way-or-the-highway" attitude, however, does not come across as arrogant; if anything, it rings refreshingly sincere. "Actually," he goes on to admit, "when we started with "Le Labo" we couldn't afford a PR specialist. With hindsight that appears to have been a good thing. We had to put all our efforts into our product and trust that it would speak for itself."
Philippe Starck told me once that he would have loved to have done our design. He wanted to know who did it. Truth is, nobody did it. We could not afford it.
Meanwhile, "the product" consists of a range of 11 extraordinary scents developed by the world's best perfume creators including Frank Voelkl and Françoise Caron – the very opposite of your usual run-of-the-mill, commercial perfume franchise. "Le Labo" creations are different, more complex and intricate than a department store perfume; they are bewitching and beguiling. Or, as Penot puts it, "just as a perfect man or a perfect woman become boring after three weeks at most, a 'perfect' perfume is not at all exciting." These views mirror Penot's fondness for Japanese culture, especially the wabi-sabi philosophy which celebrates transience and imperfection. “We don't want to, and we don't have to please everyone," he continues while dipping a blotter into a tester containing their newest creation "Santal 33" – a reinterpretation of the spirit of the American West – and then giving it a slightly theatrical wave in the air.
The packaging for the perfumes equals the no-nonsense approach to doing business: a classic bottle with a simple, yet heavy cap and a plain white label imprinted with an old-style typewriter font. Not a frill in sight. And the concept behind naming the perfumes is equally unspectacular: each fragrance is named after the main scent note and followed by a number that indicates the amount of ingredients used for the concoction. Absolutely no fantasy creations, imaginary worlds or romantic gimmicks. "We don't want anything to distract from the actual fragrance itself," the "Le Labo" founder says.
We rarely launch a new perfume. And when we do, it has to be meaningful. It’s about harmony in the construction and the performance of the perfume, even if it takes hundreds of modifications and years before we get it right.
By comparison, store manager Justin's manipulations behind the fragrance bar are positively dramatic. Wearing a white lab coat and surgical gloves he readies test tubes and pipettes. Then, from a chrome and glass refrigerator, he selects a small container of the highly concentrated essence "Rose 31" and carefully adds a few drops into a glass vessel containing an alcohol-based solution that rests on a set of high precision scales. While observing Justin, Penot explains that the compounding has to be done very precisely. After completing his task, Justin fills the resulting perfume into a flask. "Which name would you like me to print on the label," he asks the client. Bearing the name provided by the customer as well as the location the perfume was compounded and the fragrance's best-before date, the label is printed off on the little office printer and affixed to the flask with the utmost precision.
"Le Labo" is the entirely unplanned result of a training course that Penot did with Hermès master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena in Grasse. "In an environment similar to Ellena's laboratory," he remembers thinking, "clients would be involved in the compounding of perfumes directly at the sales point." The direct olfactory perception of the different scents on the part of the customer is also the reason why each "Le Labo Boutique" and every "Le Labo Corner" is equipped with an "olfactionary" – a type of dictionary for the nose containing 40 different natural essences. Customers can breathe in the various scents to develop their olfactory palette and learn about the provenance of the flowers and woods that lend the fragrances their distinct notes.
Edouard Roschi, a work colleague of Penot's at the time, attended the same course in Grasse. Both men worked in a team that developed marketing campaigns for Armani Parfums and they soon came to realize that they shared the same values. "We were always running down the branch. We both disliked the soulless, mass perfumes that are created according to marketing concepts. And Corporate Culture just isn't us," Penot remarks, looking back on the time that served as the inspiration for their present venture. And so, the two individualists thrown together by circumstance dreamed of fragrant creations with artistic merit that would be born of inspiration, a pioneering spirit and creativity. They want their final products to be comparable to niche fragrances such as the Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle or scents by Serge Lutens, yet bolder, with more character and still more focused on content. The idea of the laboratory setting provided the initial spark, and, while still in Grasse, Penot and Roschi made a solemn vow that one day they would do things differently. In 2006, they launched "Le Labo" in New York, the city that in the meantime had become their new home. Remarkably enough, apart from some small contributions by a few friends, they did not even need a loan. "We probably wouldn't have gotten a loan with our funny idea anyway," Penot laughes. "And even more importantly, we wanted to remain independent." Soon it became clear that they would be selling the "Le Labo" fragrances exclusively through their own distribution channels. "That is the only way to really make our customers aware of what we're about."
There's nothing sadder than a great brand that sells out.
A small shop on Elizabeth Street in NoLita provided the venue for the first "Le Labo" boutique. "First we hired an architect," Penot recalls, "but we soon realized that he would simply cost a lot of money without ever really understanding what our vision was." So the "Le Labo" founders decided to take things into their own hands. During the refurbishment, a metal wall with relief ornamentation unexpectedly surfaced which, together with a masculine-industrial touch, has become the trademark look for the boutiques. Penot says he developed a penchant for industrial design when he was a boy.
My dad was working in a factory in a small place in the center of France, and I have been impacted by industrial design very early on. I love cast iron, I cannot get this out of my system.
And Fabrice Penot learned already during his days working for Armani that masculinity can have a very feminine allure. Which is why the "Le Labo" fragrances are created unisex, although some have a more masculine and others a more feminine note.
All the improvisation and meager start-up capital does not mean they embarked on this adventure without a clear business concept. "Not at all," Penot says, "we considered every aspect long and hard. After all, 'Le Labo' is our life and mirrors our core values." The fledgling entrepreneurs expected to sell about four perfumes a day with their uncompromising attitude, but soon found they had miscalculated badly. In just two months, "Le Labo" reached break even. Today, the young fragrance company's turnover exceeds USD 5 million, with four boutiques and 18 store corners located globally. Without having invested a single dollar in PR and marketing, lifestyle magazines and bloggers began writing enthusiastic articles about the fragrances, and big names such as Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel and the lifestyle chain Anthropologie were eager to cooperate with them and have a little of the "Le Labo" cult status rub off on them. Penot's succinct explanation for their success is "we may only address a small minority with our fragrances, but those that do like our scent bond with them very closely." So closely, that approximately 85% of the customers are brand loyal. A figure that most marketing managers can only dream of.
Fabrice Penot checks his watch. "I have to run," he says. His flight back to New York leaves in a few hours. "Le Labo would not exist without New York," he remarks as he gets up.
In New York there is a lot of space for change and innovation. It’s a great place to make dreams happen, and I got the self-confidence in New York that things are possible.
And with that, the unconventional perfume entrepreneur turns to the door and, after tossing a few air kisses, disappears.
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