A number of perfume companies have looked to the Asian markets of Japan and China as the next growth opportunities for their brands. As a result you have seen the niche companies also follow that lead, trying to establish their own beachhead in those territories. I know my first impression of the difference between the way Japanese and Western tastes were different came from a 2005 column by Chandler Burr for the NY Times magazine. Where he described a culture where perfume was frequently given as a gift but never worn. This also went along with an anecdote from a sales associate where test strips were left out next to their bottles so that top notes would be gone because according to the article “apparently the Japanese dislike top notes”. The article also touched on other market forces in the Japanese market which were tied to luxury brands like Bvlgari where the jewelry image has a halo effect on the fragrance.
Beijing Perfume Counter (Photo:Alan Chin/NYT)
The Chinese market is much less understood but it does seem like the same considerations that are good for the Japanese market are also good for the Chinese market. The overall beauty sector in China has been growing consistently year-by-year. By Kilian and Serge Lutens, among others, have made series of fragrances meant to target these potential fragrance consumers. It seems the agreed upon design aesthetic is for something which is lighter in nature than typical releases from those lines. They also seem to be designed to not last as long as the other releases. What I don’t understand is why the great majority of these fragrances I have tried to date have been so disappointing.
I am also suspicious of the hypothesis that this aesthetic truly exists. At the Elements Showcase two years ago I was intorduced to a perfume line called Kaze which is created and sold in Japan. As I stepped up I expected to find a collection which matched my assumptions. I couldn't have been more worng and I kept saying over and over, "these sell well?" The only apparent eastern influence was the use of particular indigenous ingredients.
I am a big fan of perfumes with a lighter touch. Le Labo’s Tokyo exclusive Gaiac 10 seems to be the pinnacle of the kind of perfume which should be successful in Japan if the above assumptions are true. Comme des Garcons X Monocle Scent One: Hinoki is another example of this desired aesthetic. I know both of these fragrances are widely appreciated by the western fragrance community.
This is contrasted with the Asian Tales collection from By Kilian which feels like it was so calculated in design that somewhere along the assembly line it lost its joie de vivre. What has really brought this point home for me is the third of the Serge Lutens’ L’Eaus which has just been released. The newest one is called Laine de Verre and after sniffing it on a strip and a patch of skin I just can’t bring myself to wear it for a couple of days to properly review it. It is wan and anemic and yet has some irritating sharp aspects to it as well. I am completely flummoxed how two of my favorite perfumers in Calice Becker who did the By Kilians, and Serge Lutens’ Christopher Sheldrake can miss the target so completely.
I haven’t been able to get any current sales figures on these markets but the blog Kafkaesque recently published a very comprehensive worldwide economic review of the fragrance sector using the best available data to the public. In that article there is a very sobering statistic she reported from a Euromonitor study of the Chinese market, “No remarkable changes have been seen in consumers’ acceptance of fragrances – the Chinese account for 20% of the world’s population, but only contribute 1% to value sales of fragrances.” This seems to indicate that despite all of the targeting by adhering to a, perhaps, non-existent Asian aesthetic the perfume houses are making no headway.
That is the source of this Eastern Paradox, instead of trying to design a specific fragrance for the market; try and just design a good fragrance. I believe the free market principles will let the brands be guided by what sells in those markets. The idea that you can cobble together a fragrance for Japanese or Chinese markets which will make a culture of people who don’t wear perfume all of a sudden start wearing it seems like something out of a novel. As I sit here disappointed in yet another attempt to create this magical Eastern Elixir I just hope for a little less focus group thinking and more free artistic expression from these brands I like so much.