The fragrance industry is booming

We take a look at what’s behind the boom in the global beauty industry as a whole and the role fragrances played in this upswing throughout the pandemic

28 August 2023 - 14:15
By Nokubonga Thusi
A long-standing collaboration between Louis Vuitton master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud and acclaimed artist Alex Israel gives us an olfactory passport to the US west coast to discover an evening cologne, City of Stars, inspired by Los Angeles.
Image: Louis Vuitton A long-standing collaboration between Louis Vuitton master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud and acclaimed artist Alex Israel gives us an olfactory passport to the US west coast to discover an evening cologne, City of Stars, inspired by Los Angeles.

The fragrance industry is booming, and we have the pandemic to thank for it. The global beauty industry as a whole saw an uptick in sales with more people investing in skincare, bath and body products and stockpiling lipstick for a mask-free future.

In this context, fragrance served not only a necessary cosmetic purpose but also an emotional one. In an initial response to the pandemic’s travel bans and stay-at-home rules, perfumers leaned into creating wanderlust-triggering scent profiles for us to cling to.

Since physical travel was not an option, armchair travel and virtual stimuli became ways to rediscover our world, birthing the “escapist fragrance” trend which saw brands creating scents that allowed us to dream and travel with our senses. 

With just one sniff, you could find yourself on a yacht in the azure waters off Capri, in a country manor in the Scottish Highlands, in a swanky 1920s New York jazz club, or amid the vastness of the Kalahari with a campfire at your feet and Orion’s Belt glinting overhead.

According to the Independent UK, the correlation between scent and unprecedented global events is not strange as “traumatic events can cause us to engage in nostalgia, where we transport ourselves to happier times”.

For Steyn Grobler, founder of luxury fragrance brand Aqualis, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.

“When people couldn’t travel, it was quite good for us to have these names and to create a narrative to get people to transcend [lockdowns] with a fragrance. The brand is all about how you experience perfume. That’s at the centre of everything we do, because we’re trying to tie memories to fragrance,” says Grobler.

“Let’s say a tourist visits the Kruger [National Park], and then comes to Skins and buys the Aqualis Kruger scent, their connotations to that perfume are going to be their memories of the Kruger. So it’s always been about tying memories to fragrance and reinforcing it to make it mean something for that person.”

Following your nose

Craving a trip to the Italian coast? You could get your travel agent to book you a Mediterranean-bound itinerary, or you could reach for fragrances from brands such as Acqua Di Parma and Dolce & Gabbana that are the perfect vehicles for an olfactory escape to the Mediterranean.

Taking us on a sensory journey that celebrates emotions, Acqua Di Parma’s Colonia C.L.U.B. is inspired by the deep connections and joy found in authentic Italian moments. With an exciting, light-hearted and genderless scent profile, this is an aromatic, woody musk with a spicy freshness in the opening thanks to notes of bergamot, lemon, pink pepper and black pepper.

Brands such as Memo Paris, Maison Crivelli, Chanel, and Maison Francis Kurkdjian are synonymous with the ability to transport you to exotic destinations.

Despite travel bans being lifted, the creation of escapist scents shows no sign of slowing down

Memo Paris Madurai is an olfactory masterpiece that takes you to the sacred city of Madurai in southern India. The bottle design takes inspiration from the motifs found on temple ceilings, while the rich, fragrant air of India is captured in a scent profile comprising notes of turmeric essence, jasmine sambac, Indian tuberose absolute and peach absolute.

The enigmatic northern lights have to be on just about everyone’s bucket list, and the aromatic musk scent of Maison Crivelli’s Absinthe Boréale only fuels the desire to escape to the icy north with contrasting frosty and soft musky notes of juniper berries, artemisia, eucalyptus oil, and lavender.

Though exotic destinations are a no-brainer when craving an escape, sometimes just breathing the air of a new city is enough to inspire you. Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s latest launch takes us to the bustling energy of New York City with a vibrantly addictive musky-floral creation — 724 — that captures the clean freshness of New York laundries at the break of day with notes of Italian bergamot and aldehydes in the top notes, continuing into jasmine absolute, sweet pea, sandalwoodand musk. Chanel’s Les Eaux De Chanel collection is the ultimate time capsule for the cities that Gabrielle Chanel held dear.

Each fragrance is dedicated to a city that held great significance in Chanel’s life and the maison’s history — Venice, Deauville, Biarritz, Edinburgh and, of course, Paris. The scents not only tell the story of her life but also transport you to these cities with every sniff.

At Louis Vuitton, a long-standing collaboration between master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud and acclaimed artist Alex Israel gives us an olfactory passport to the US west coast to discover an evening cologne, City of Stars, inspired by Los Angeles. The fragrance is a juxtaposition of light and shadow and a dream for lovers of citrus-scent profiles, with an opening of blood orange, lemon, red mandarin, bergamot and lime.

Take me away

One surprising result of the escapist-fragrance boom has been the introduction of augmented reality, virtual reality and interactive experiences. Ralph Lauren’s Ralph’s Club is an olfactory VIP admission for one to a jazz club mixing modern-day, quintessential New York night life with the flair of the 1920s.

Using technology linked to the movement of your phone, stepping into Ralph’s Club feels impressively real, with a virtual experience that allows you to navigate the club, access VIP lounge rooms, discover the scent, watch a club performance and even have fun at the photo booth using selfie filters.

Paco Rabanne is another brand that has made use of technology to aid the escapist elements of a scent with the creation of its first connected bottle for the Phantom fragrance. The tech-inspired robot-shaped flacon allows you to wirelessly connect your phone to it and bring the Paco Rabanne Phantom robot to life within the Paco Rabanne universe by tapping the bottle cap.

Technology is an innovative tool to transform iconic fragrances that do not have an overt escapist quality into ones that introduce us to their heritage.

The House of Chanel has celebrated the centenary of its iconic Chanel No 5 by immersing people in the world of the scent through virtual reality, in collaboration with Oculus. With the touch of a button on an Oculus headset, you are transported to the world of Chanel, reading up on the fragrance in your Parisian apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower, picking roses in Grasse with perfumers, and learning about the history of Chanel No 5 at a museum exhibition that feels entirely real, complete with fragrance and fashion items from the maison’s archives. You can even take photos and videos of the virtual scenarios and e-mail them to yourself as a souvenir of your olfactory journey.

Despite travel bans being lifted, the creation of escapist scents shows no sign of slowing down as people still feel the need to dream, transform and escape everyday life. Whether you want to be transported to a dreamy destination for a minute or two or relive a precious moment, scents tied to memories and the places that birthed them will always remain a big part of our human experience.