2021 . 11 . 26 | written by Karen Marin

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Back in the early 2000’s when I was the fragrance buyer at Sephora US, I met Bernard Naim, President of Panouge, at the Tax Free World show in Cannes when I was searching for fragrances that would be completely new to the US market. As happens so often in the artistic fragrance world, that initial encounter evolved into a long term working relationship and friendship. Little did I know that Bernard and his team are behind the development of their brands from conception to distribution, and all the steps in between. Eager to get the inside story behind the company and the method, we caught up after the 2021 Tax Free Show, nearly 20 years after our initial meeting.

How did you first get started in the fragrance business?

No one in my family is in this business so it is a matter of chance. I thought I would make my career in the financial world, and I worked for 6 years calculating risks for a big insurance company. I met an executive from the German consumer goods company Henkel and we became friends. He tipped me off to a small fragrance company in France that he was working with, and he asked if I would be interested to take it over. I was attracted by the idea of an established company with potential and becoming my own boss, and wanted to make a change from what I was doing. The company was Panouge which specialized in making perfumes but not with big name brands. They launched a fragrance called Business Man in the late 1970’s, created by a perfumer at Givaudan. This name and concept worked with the times, and it was a big success which gave the company some exposure. I took over the business in 1993 and then I started learning about the fragrance business.

Business Man by Givaudan

When did Panouge start? What is the meaning of the name?

Panouge itself started in 1946 under the name Parfums Lavernne which specialized in dealing and evaluating essential oils from all over the world. The main activity was in Grasse where they used to buy raw materials, to participate in the elaboration of essential oils with producers and to sell all over the world. In 1984 they started doing their own perfumes and the name changed to Panouge, an acronym for Parfums Nouvelle Generation.

Tell me about the company now. How does it function?

I took over in 1993, then Fabrice Biré joined me in 1994, and in 1995 I married Rania and she joined me to work in this business. She had trained in fashion, styling and design but she embraced the idea of coming over to the fragrance world to apply her knowledge to the design of bottles, packaging and the esthetics. She’s very creative and like me, she learned by doing. Sometimes the best experience comes by working on the job. Now my son is finishing his Masters but he is the one creating the digital and online sales part of our business. In some respects, he’s learning more in the company with his daily logistical challenges and contact with clients than he is in his university studies. You always need the theoretical and the intellectual which gives you the methodology, but it has to be balanced with the practical.

In fact, if you look at all successful stories in the fashion business, you always have the creator and the manager. Look at Yves Saint Laurent, the creator, and Pierre Bergé, the businessman. Dior has the management and the creators; Chanel is the same. The secret is to keep the artistic portion with the artists, and then the running of the company with the manager. This also applies to smaller companies. You need the balance between creativity and management. I’m a manager – I’m not a creator.

We are ten people in Paris that are doing the creative, the marketing and the management. So it’s a small group of people who are very motivated. We know how to do things – in a big company many people may be doing what each of our staff members do, but we all multitask. I manage the company but I also manage the supply of napkins in the kitchen in our premises! Of course, we also have the factory where we employ indirectly maybe 28 people on the industrial side. We are working with about 45 distributors all over the world, on a small scale, and in some cases on a bigger one, but we have an international reputation. We are developing in China and most of Asia, all over Europe, in the US, and we’re a major brand in Russia. Not all of the brands are big everywhere because each one has its own geographical strengths. And now of course we are developing our own online sales on our eCommerce sites as each of our brands has its own site.

How do you go about finding your brands and let’s talk about a few of them.

It’s an interesting story of how we met the Japanese designer Masaki Matsushima back in 1999. Takasago, a Japanese international company that makes essential oils, is our main supplier of essential oils. They put us in touch with Matsushima who came to Paris in 1999 because he was looking for someone to do a fragrance for him for a special event. We did the project and we got along so well, that I convinced him to create his own line, so we jointly created the license. In fact our first fragrance was mat; which you remember because it was our first project together when you were the buyer at Sephora! It had a huge success because without any effort we had press about Madonna using the fragrance. It was very innovative and new; the shape was unique, it was transparent, it was different at the time. And then we went on to develop the brand.

MAT; First perfume from Masaki Matsushima, perfumer Jean Jacques

Also in 1999 I met Henri de Pierrefeu and we relaunched together a niche brand called Isabey. At that time, no one was working in niche. So we developed it and the fact that it was handmade, a classical French perfume and very exclusive gave it a beautiful image. From here we met other people and started developing licenses for other Japanese designers and for jewelers like Poiray, and then we happened upon Jacques Fath. He had been a designer in the 1950’s, he had mythical fragrances like Iris Gris and Green Water, but the brand passed through many companies so it became somewhat forgotten. We took the license and then we bought the brand. Around 2016 we started getting demands for Panouge again so we relaunched Perle Rare and Matières Libres which is really having a good success.

GARDENIA -ISABEY- perfumer Jean Jacques
FATH’S ESSENTIALS – JACQUES FATH- started in 2016- with perfumers Cécile Zarokian and Luca Maffei
L’IRIS DE FATH-JACQUES FATH : re edition of Iris Gris – 2018, perfumer Patrice Revillard
Matières Libres Collection. Panouge Paris – by perfumers Marie Schnirer and Patrice Revillard

How has your role changed in the past 10 years?

Before we used to be a producer of perfume, we manufactured and sold it to the distributors who took care of the rest. Our role now is not only to make a beautiful product that smells great and then sell it, but to create the story behind the fragrance which will provide joy and happiness. There has to be substance, a real story that appeals to the consumers and makes them dream. Our products must be part of your lifestyle. There is a quote that “Perfume is the invisible dress”. So although no one sees it when you pass by, people know it is you because the scent lingers in the air as part of your identity. We have a little role in your life to be a part of your style and to offer a little happiness. This is one of the small pleasures in life that people can enjoy. And since we are not a big company with billions of consumers we try to tell the people using our brands that they are unique and individual because not everyone has the same “invisible dress” they are wearing. You won’t smell like your dentist or your lawyer or your cousin. This is a distinction that is special.

Panouge has a portfolio of brands that appeal to a broad range of consumers. Masaki is contemporary combining Japanese design and French know how; it’s very young, urban and affordable. Jacques Fath is for the premium users of perfume that are distinctive and elegant. Isabey is sophisticated with its heritage and its presence. Panouge Matières Libres is for the conceptual consumer who likes different things and something that is out of the current mainstream. We try to cover as much as possible in our own modest ways.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges now for the fragrance industry?

Very frankly, there is an ecological and environmental challenge. With a perfume you have paper, plastic, glass, liquids, packaging, cellophane, alcohol. How do we manufacture beautiful things while respecting the environment? We should rethink our way, and for me, the future is in refills. You buy the bottle once and you buy the refill. But if the refill is in plastic – is it eco-friendly? And how does a refill in a plastic container coincide with being a luxury product that makes you dream? So you see it is a dilemma. Right now there is so much research going on, I know we will find a way and we will adapt.

The second challenge involves association. France historically has been at the center of fragrance in the world. Perfumes are connected with names, with brands. But how long will this go on? Fragrances are coming from all over the world now so how will the French keep their savoir-faire, their reputation, their superiority if you will, in this industry? How do we convince the consumer that there is an advantage, a distinctive quality?

And another challenge is in the way fragrance is sold and bought. The classical way of selling perfume is giving way to eCommerce. You need to have discovery sets, you need to have quick delivery and you need to talk about the fragrance in a certain way.

So you see, there are many challenges!

How do you see the industry changing? In the best ways and in the worst ways?

What’s positive is that before if you were a small company you didn’t have the means to reach the client because advertising was so expensive. Now with the internet, it’s up to the brand to create a concept and buzz that makes people talk about you. You have access to be present in the digital world and reach consumers whereas in the past, small brands couldn’t afford the price of entry. However, now the competition is huge.

I also see that big brands want to get into the niche market, but they aren’t really credible. They are creating a contradiction because you can’t use a big budget and still claim to be a small niche brand. Jacques Fath and Isabey are niche brands.

Are you optimistic about Q4 2021? Why or why not?

The problem is not sales but it’s supply, and this is worldwide. There are shortages in cartons, pumps, so many components. Transportation is a big issue: what we were supposed to receive in September we did not receive until now. We see the price of oil is going up, the price of energy is going up. A 40 foot container that used to cost 4000€ now costs 18,000€. The sales are good for the season but if we can’t deliver the quantities due to supply chain, than that’s the problem, and I think this will probably continue.

What can we expect from you in 2022?

We are releasing some novelties for Isabey, a very conceptual launch for Masaki, we are consolidating Jacques Fath so we position the brand properly. And we want to develop our online sales because this is part of our future. It’s very important for us. I think the industry will continue to develop and so let’s say I’m a little optimistic – cautiously optimistic.

JMAT; latest release from Masaki Paris by perfumer Jerome Di Marino

This is a very wise point of view, coming from the man who used to calculate risks!

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