Though he may be humble about his impact, Philippe Benacin revolutionized the way that fragrances are licensed and distributed when he co-founded Interparfums in 1982. The hugely influential global company designs, produces, and distributes perfumes and cosmetics for such brands as Coach, Jimmy Choo, Lanvin, Montblanc, Montcler, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Kate Spade, among others, bringing them success and visibility in the fragrance world. Chairman and CEO Benacin, who is an avid musician and art collector, has been recognized with a Creative Audacity Prize awarded by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon in 2011 and now he has won the coveted Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame Award for 2021. To mark this milestone, he reflects on his career and shares wisdom he has learned along the way.
How does it feel to be named the Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame honoree?
It is a great honor. I was only once at the presentation in New York and it was when Tom Ford was awarded – it was gorgeous. This time it has to bevirtual but that’s ok. It’s very nice to get it no matter what.
You have so many interests. What started you down the path to the business of perfume?
People often ask me if fragrance was something I was always interested in, and I say no. I was not into fragrance at all, and my family has no link to perfumery. It so happens that when Jean [Madar, the Interparfums co-founder] and I finished business school we started a smaller company doing market surveys, and we met a French fashion company that wanted to launch a fragrance. That was the starting point. We did the market survey of the competition, but after a year of work with the CEO of that company he proposed that we develop and continue to work, physically, with the fragrance. This is how we moved, step by step, from market surveys to fragrances. We did market surveys for about two years, and it was something that I personally didn’t like at all, so it was a good point to meet this gentleman, and start in fragrance, which is much less abstract. Scent was very interesting to me, from a creative development point of view, from a supply chain point of view, and from a market point of view. When you look at the fragrance business, it’s very large. It’s very vertical. You meet people who are very different according to which segment they work in. And I have found that it’s a really nice world.
What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the perfume industry?
I don’t want to be pretentious. I think the perfume world would have gone the same way if we were not there. But what we think we’ve done well is we’ve come to understand all of the segments of the luxury business and we have become very good at translating a brand DNA into fragrance, into product, into communication. I have the impression that we’re good at that, when you compare us to our competitors.
What have been the turning points for Interparfums?
The turning point for sure was 1993, when we signed Burberry. There had been two licensees before but neither was successful. When we signed the contract the business was almost at zero, but we created different fragrances starting in 1995, and after three or four years they were very significant in terms of sales. I remember in year three we were at 160 million French francs. It changed completely the size of the company and also the strategy. So, 1993 was very important. And then 2013, exactly 20 years after, when Burberry decided to integrate their business. At that time, we lost 50 percent of our scents, but we knew ahead of time and could reshape our brand portfolio. I hope that 2020 will be a key date in the future, because we signed the Montcler license in 2020. But I cannot tell you now – ask me again in two years, and I will be able to tell you whether it was a success or not.
What are the keys of success that you can teach to others?
In luxury fragrance, I would say attention to detail is the most important thing. Attention to the client and to the product and to the brand.
How have you seen the fragrance business change?
Two things. In terms of retail, when you look at France and then the USA, when you look at the markets 30 years ago, you had many different retailers everywhere. Today it is no longer like that. In France you have three retailers who have 80 percent of the business. In the USA it is the same, with Macy’s doing not far from 50 percent. That’s a key point. And secondly the fact that the most powerful brands are more and more powerful. There are probably 10 companies doing most business around the world. Which means that when you launch a brand, if you don’t achieve certain figures, you are going to be out. You have to be successful. It’s no longer possible to be just ok – either you win or you lose, no middle ground.
How does close work with perfumers enhance your role?
We work with perfumers directly. When we start working – with Givaudan or Firmenich or IFF or whichever company – we give them a brief and they come back with different creations, but we don’t know who creates what. If we select three or four fragrances, different mods, then we go to the perfumer at the second stage, and in general we work with the perfumer directly until the finalization. We have a lot of possibilities – because we don’t just work with one or two perfumers, or all of the perfumers of the company. It happens often that we select a fragrance that is from a perfumer we don’t know yet. For instance the next Lanvin will be from an American perfumer, Mackenzie Reilly, from IFF. There was no specific link with her, but we liked very much the fragrance she gave us.
You have said the 200 women of Interparfums are very important. How so?
It is an industry that is very feminine. When you hire someone in France in this industry, you have more women than men. It happens that our company is 70 percent women. I fight to hire men! We have women and women and women. They are all very talented, and it works super well. They are faithful, and probably more conscientious than men.
What is the best advice you have received?
Again, I think it’s about attention to detail. In 1995, 1996, I met the CEO of Clarins and we happened to become friends. We spent hours talking about the industry, and he gave me so much good advice at that time, but on a friendly basis. Like pay attention to details, don’t go with too many creations – I can’t remember everything, but it was such a nice moment. That is why I asked him to join our board after he left Clarins.
What are your predictions for the future of the fragrance industry?
I have the impression that it will not change so much, because it has changed so much already. We will of course find newcomers – there will be newcomers on the brand level, the supply chain level, the retail level, of course – but I think that all of the key elements are there. I am talking in the next 5 to 10 years, not 50 years, because that you can never know.