It's exactly two years since The Library of Fragrance launched in the UK and we've been feeling quite nostalgic about the fragrant adventure we've been having ever since! To celebrate the anniversary, we thought we'd re-publish this interview that Clare conducted with our CEO Mark Crames, during our first trip to the USA to meet him and the team and to smell the 'library' in its entirety! We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we've enjoyed reminiscing!...
As you walk through the Pennsylvania factory where Demeter fragrance is blended and bottled by hand, it's like moving through a surreal smellscape of memories. At one corner, I find myself awakening to cut grass and the first day of spring. A few paces on and I'm taking a deep breath in front of a chocolate birthday cake full of candles. As I take a step forward to meet Factory Manager, Marissa Crames, who is nimbly filling vials with a fragrance named “Thunderstorm”, I find myself stood on a hot summer pavement beneath a downpour, my nostrils filling with the scent of aroused, dusty earth and the purest of rain drops, singed with the metallic electricity of a fierce and fearsome lightning bolt.
For a scent-obsessive like me, Mark Crames, CEO of Demeter USA, is the Willy Wonka of perfume and perhaps even the Noah of the fragrant world – filling his ark with an ever-growing collection of linear note fragrances that each capture and preserve a moment in time, a memory – and therefore an emotion attached to that memory, which is as unique to each wearer as the tapestry of our own lives.
I pause when I see “Baby Powder” on a shelf nearby – it's one of my favourites by Demeter and I can't resist a spritz. I explain to Mark that it has an amazingly soothing effect when I wear it; it’s comforting and cosseting. But I admit that I have no idea why, as I don't have children of my own and can't think of a time when I've really come into contact with baby powder myself. Mark smiles and nods, “But you have been a baby. And the chances are that when you first smelt it, you were cradled, cared for and felt safe. Such is the attachment between scent and memory that you don't even need to have a visual memory of a time or a place for it to impact how you feel. Baby Powder is our second best-selling line, after Pure Soap and it wouldn't be so if only parents with the experience of having a baby were connecting with it.”
That hadn't occurred to me at all. My mind is duly a little blown.
New York born brand, Demeter, was founded back in 1996 by Christopher Brosius and Christopher Gable with the mission of capturing “all the wonderful smells of nature and the garden, highlighting the beautiful scents that surround us every day that are too often ignored in our busy, pressured, multi-tasking world”. The first three scents, Dirt, Grass and Tomato, were launched into Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. I was 16 years old, but I remember that the story of these quirky new scents somehow reached the UK news. Having begged an American friend of the family, I came into possession of a bottle of “Grass” and in that pre-online world, with no hope of a replacement, I treasured every last drop. So it's a little surreal to think that 18 years on I'm stood in front of row upon row of the brand's iconic bottles and a fist full of scent strips, with the harrowing task of narrowing a selection for the brand's 2014 re-launch into the UK.
The initial concept of Demeter attracted immense attention and quickly expanded to include a broader range of smells, no matter how odd or unusual, and additions such as “Gin & Tonic”, “Rain” and “Dust” came to be. Mark Crames invested in the business in 2002 and took full control of the reins shortly afterwards, paving the way for Brosius to launch his latest line, CB I Hate Perfume. Today, the rows of bottles before me hold over 300 scents and the Crames' family business and its unique operation is what makes this possible, as fragrance industry veteran Mark explains, “In typical modern fragrance manufacturing, factory lines are set up and it's necessary to run at least a minimum of 5,000 – 10,000 of any one product to reach profitable efficiencies. It would be impossible to carry 300 different fragrances if this was the case – unless the business was bankrolled with an endless supply of funds that didn't depend on ever making a return. The rate at which most people buy fragrance would be outweighed by the minimum production and storage costs, particularly as we pride ourselves on making our products as affordable as possible for the end wearer, without compromising quality. But because we still do everything by hand, from blending, to bottling, to capping and labelling, we specialise in the kind of labour intensive, short-run production that makes it possible to produce as a direct response to demand, and to create such breadth of choice.”
This expansive catalogue of different scents is, in part, why Demeter will launch into the UK with a new name – The Library of Fragrance. In truth, this is actually because an agricultural organisation owns the Demeter trademark in Europe, but as Mark philosophises, “I have faith in the fact that things often happen for a very good reason. The Demeter name, while it has a huge amount of heritage and would be recognised by those in UK perfume circles, was originally inspired by the Greek goddess of the harvest – the giver of food and grain. And while everything begins with nature, I'm not sure what she'd have to say about some of our scents, like “Crayon” or “Play-Doh”, which exist today. What we do has become more focused on bottling memories and the feelings that we each attach to them, rather than nature – although the two areas obviously crossover. The “Library” reference may as well relate to the catalogue of scented memories that each of us holds in his or her brain, as it does to the fact that we literally do have a “library” of scents for people to try. We're really excited about the mainstream reaction to The Library of Fragrance name in the UK. It's already working for us in France, Germany and Italy. For people who are completely new to the brand, we just feel that it quite simply says what it does, just as each of our individual fragrances do.”
Making the brand easy to understand and accessible to the mainstream is something that Mark feels very strongly about. As he explains, “I can't help but feel that mainstream fragrance is in a bit of a flux at the moment. There are so many launches, with so little differentiation between many of them, that the average consumer can't help but feel bewildered. While the fragrance hall of a department store used to be a grown-up playground, to many, it now feels like a bit of an assault course, and this leads to apathy when it comes to experimenting and wanting to discover new products. In response to falling volumes, I think we're seeing the price of many well-known brands being pushed up. Those who have a cemented interest in fragrance are now more likely to enjoy finding something different from the fantastic range of niche brands and independent boutiques that are springing up, but if your budget doesn't stretch that far, or you don't know where to look, your choices can be quite limited. Ultimately, this situation is bad for the fragrance industry in the long-term. We need to make sure that we’re still pulling people into the fragrance category; that there are brands engaging with young shoppers who are discovering an interest in fragrance for the first time, and brands that are meeting the desires of the majority of us, who may not have high disposable incomes but still want a great product. If we don't cater for these requirements as an industry, we fail to inspire the very thing that we depend upon most, at the very first hurdle – that is, a lifelong appreciation of fragrance, shared by many.”
Perhaps this stance is a big part of what makes the Demeter, and therefore The Library of Fragrance, proposition so special. I explain to Mark that in my mind, it's probably the only fragrance brand that manages to be truly accessible, yet maintain its ‘niche’ appeal; a dichotomy in itself. In the UK, a carefully curated line-up of the 30ml Cologne Sprays will be widely available on the high street via Boots (the leading health & beauty retailer) for an affordable £15, yet the products are genuinely respected by many industry professionals and fragrance aficionados alike. Mark is humble, but agrees and explains, "Our purpose as a business really revolves less about ‘targeting a specific audience’ and more around this simple core mission of making fragrance more accessible and expanding its use, each and every day. And this is something that just seems to strike a chord with people – whether they have a specific or deep interest in fragrance, or simply just want to smell good.” This purpose, as Mark explains, is what really keeps the whole organisation excited and united just as it was the driving force behind the creation of the brand at the beginning. As Brosius exclaimed at the launch, “A person's fragrance ‘wardrobe’ should include more than just designer or classic perfumes. Having a fragrance wardrobe of just designer perfumes is like having a wardrobe of nothing but evening clothes – beautiful, but not what you might want to wear for everyday life. You need the comfortable clothes as well.”
Mark is quick to point out that “every day” shouldn't be confused with “low quality”. The brand’s low price points and open celebration of synthetic materials has led to judgement from some past critics. To them, he answers, “The truth is that some synthetics are very inexpensive, and recreating some of our singular scents, like “Vanilla Cake Batter”, takes little time and effort, because the formula is effectively just based around synthesized Vanillan – as it should be, because so is the scent of actual vanilla cake batter, which is why the fragrance smells like the real deal! On the flip side, the cost of the essential oil that we use in our 100% natural “Rose” fragrance is so high that we actually lose money when we make that product, because our customer expects all of our products to be priced uniformly at retail and we wouldn't want to unfairly inflate the price of every other scent in the range, just to cover our back on that one. From another perspective, the “Holy Water” formula comprises inexpensive ingredients, but it took us YEARS to get that scent just right! The creation of a scent that captures water within a porcelain font and the faint aroma of aged oak pews takes immense skill and those man hours come at a price, but one that we're not prepared to sacrifice.”
"Our linear scents [a scent that does not change over time, with the evolution of top, middle and bottom notes] may not be for everyone; naturally, there will always be people who feel that it's the “journey” of fragrance and how it changes over time that is unequivocally what holds their attention. Of course, I understand that and I own and enjoy many classically constructed fragrances myself. But there are just as many people who wake up and simply want to wrap themselves in the scent of “Fresh Laundry”, and just as many more people who want to wear Guerlain's Shalimar one day, and our “Tomato” the next.
“The linear construct of each fragrance in the expansive collection is also perfectly aligned with a trend that Mark predicts will grow over the coming years – fragrance layering. “I feel that the growing amount of information that's available to us digitally, including blog posts and forums that enable perfume lovers to share information more readily, is forging a more experimental approach to fragrance. We're already seeing increasing amounts of content about layering and wearing different fragrances together being produced by these early adopters of fragrance trends, and this is beginning to trickle down into reports in the mainstream consumer press, so it follows that more people will begin to feel comfortable with, and excited by this concept, over time.
"Aside from Jo Malone, which is obviously an established brand that has long incorporated “fragrance combining” as part of its offering, new brands like Freide Modin and The Seven Virtues (both niche launches from the past year) have also been created with this as a central facet to each brand's proposition. Happily, the linear construct of our fragrances really plays to this trend and the fact that our scents are utterly recognisable by name means that it couldn't be easier; the simple rule of thumb is that if things smell good together in real life, they will work together on you. My daughter tempers almost any floral fragrance she wears with a spritz of our “Dirt” and I always love the reaction I get when I introduce someone to the combination of “Grass”, “Sunshine” and “Vanilla Ice Cream”, it smells like a summer's afternoon in Central Park, New York.
So what's next for Mark and his library of scents? Can we expect to see even more fragrances in the line-up over the years to come? “Most definitely! Over the past two years we spent significant development time on improving our existing base formulations to make our colognes more tenacious, and we've also extended the USA line-up to include home fragrance and bath and body formulations that, in my view, are some of the best products of their kind on the market. But in all honesty, fragrance development is the part of my job that I love the most, so there will always be new scents in the making. With all the millions of smells that surround us on a daily basis, we feel like we're really only scratching the surface.”
And as for my fist-full of scent strips and the mammoth selection task at hand? Having managed to eliminate some scents with specific US-references that would likely not be recognised in the UK, and trying desperately to leave our own preferences aside, my business partner and I, nostrils flaring, take Noah's lead, and follow him nose-first into the ark.