Hall of Fame

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.

Lifetime Achievement Perfumer

Calice Becker, the widely adored 2021 Fragrance Foundation Lifetime Achievement Perfumer Award recipient, has made the world a more beautiful place in countless ways. Her work has a signature grace, but she is also unafraid to be daring, and her singular vision has brought us such masterpieces as Dior J’Adore, Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Girl, and several distinctive By Kilian creations including Back to Black and Woman In Gold. The VP Perfumer is also Director of the Givaudan Perfumery School, where she shares her thoughtful approach and accumulated wisdom with the next generation.

How does it feel to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Perfumer Award?

I have many feelings. First, I think it’s incredible. Second, I’m not sure I deserve it. Third, does it mean that it’s something that is behind me? How about all of the things I still have to do, because I put myself into a lot of new projects. I’m always thinking of what’s next. So, let’s put it this way—I’m not used to this!

What made you want to be a perfumer?

I didn’t want to be a perfumer. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to heal people. And this feeling, I still have it today, because to be compassionate and to bring good things to people, in a way, is what I do with fragrances. I was pushed into math studies because my father is a mathematician. I ended up doing an internship in an engineering company. And I said, oh God, no, never. I would never do this professionally. It was not my type of environment. That’s why my mom suggested that I become a nose. I imagined that I would be like a dog, sniffing the conditions in factories. I had no idea what a nose was. She told me, “No, it’s not about that. It’s about creating fragrances for companies like Chanel.” At the time we didn’t have the internet, so I grabbed the yellow pages. I called Chanel, and they said, “No, that won’t be possible.” I called many places and someone was nice enough to tell me that I should get in touch with one of the fragrance houses. These days, you have Wikipedia, but then you have to be very resourceful. I called the perfumery school in Versailles and they told me I needed a Masters in Chemistry, so I was just about to go buy a lab coat when I got a phone call from Roure asking me to come in for an interview. I guess I made some impression, because they hired me to enter in the perfume school in Grasse. When I started perfumery school, I was like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t believe that people would be paid to play with smells. I fell in love with the profession the day I began to learn it.

Did you have a mentor?

Yes. You do your studies for four years and then you work with a mentor. I had very well-known people. Dominique Ropion and Francoise Caron, who have both done so many fantastic fragrances. And then I started to fly with my own wings. I always loved what I was doing, so each time I got a promotion or a raise, I was like, “Do you think I need it?” I was already so happy to do it.

How do you describe your style?

Even if I tried to do things that are very meaningful and powerful, I always work very much towards harmony. So, if there is a spike of something, I always try to go from one note to another in a harmonious way. It needs to be nicely put together, it needs to be kind. To me, all of my fragrances are kind. Even when I do darker fragrances, they are velvety and smooth. I don’t do anything harsh.

What accomplishments are you proudest of so far?

I have many accomplishments I’m proud of. Part of my personality is that I’m always very curious, and I’ll always try to find a new solution of any problem. But in terms of fragrances, I’m very proud of Tommy Girl. I’m proud of what J’Adore has done on the market, but I think Tommy Girl was more of a breakthrough fragrance. I’m proud of the fragrances I’ve done for Kilian, because they don’t look like anything else. But there are also things I’m less proud of. I have done some flops, too.

What are the most important lessons you can teach as an educator?

What I’m looking for is people who love the product above everything, above the glamour of being a perfumer. I teach them to train their brain, because their brain will be their worst enemy. It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, to imagine that you have smelled something, to imagine someone told you something. You need to always take a step back. I teach them what’s called metacognition. You have to ask yourself so many questions as you work. We have limits to what we perceive, and we perceive things under a certain context. For instance, if you go in a room that is normally bright but you come from outside in the sun, the room is very dark; but the same room, if you come from the cellar where it was dark, you’ll find it very bright. It’s the same when working with scents; you always have to contextualize what you’re doing. When you smell something, to be true to what it is, you have to think of what you have smelled before, the environment, how do you feel at this time? Did you get coffee beforehand? These things make a huge difference.  

What do you find most interesting about perfumery?

I’m learning something every day. I’m not that type of teacher who gives something to students to do that I know the result. I’m learning with them, which I think is fantastic. Right now we’re working on a yellow orris. The smell is amazing, and I’m breaking my teeth, trying to find what’s inside it with them. I think that what drives me is curiosity. I need to learn something new every day to have a fulfilled day.

What scents do you dream of that you have not yet captured?

I’m not the only perfumer saying this, but it’s true that it’s very difficult to capture the beauty of the honeysuckle. It’s a little bit like magnolia. It’s very refined, you have to be very close to smell, but even from afar, you can smell it with the same intensity. It fills the air, it creates a trail, but with something very delicate.

What are some of the inspirations that you draw from when you’re creating?

Everything! First, other artists. I look at how artists work, how they transform something from another media, how they trickle down, how they trickly up, how they think. Looking at artists, creators, authors, musicians, inspires me a lot. For instance, one day I was at The Hermitage looking at the Dutch painters of the 17th century, those black paintings with the flowers that are quite bright. I thought, I can’t have a bouquet like that because none of those flowers grow together in the same season. I understood that they work separately with the flowers, the painters. They don’t draw a bouquet with everything together, they go one by one. With J’Adore, that was the way I worked. I worked on each flower separately and I put them together in a way that they don’t overlap.

How has the fragrance industry changed?

Everything has gotten much more technical, much faster, much more ethical, much more sustainable. There is a huge consciousness of what we are doing, what we are using, and that is totally new. When you use something, you are responsible for its safety. You know where the ingredients are coming from, and you know they’re ethical. That has been a huge shift. And the speed. Now, AI is coming as well. It can be a help or it can be a threat. It can take over many cumbersome tasks, but maybe some people are very comfortable to keep doing those tasks and they don’t want the computer to take over. I think it’s not special to perfumery, it’s something you can see across all industries. Everything changes.