Le Labo, a boutique fragrance brand established in 2006, is on the move. Despite being in the niche fragrance category with a small but dedicated following, the perfume house has been expanding quietly across the globe. In late October this year, it opened a store in KL with no fanfare, and no press — despite it being the first in Southeast Asia. That’s on top of putting its City Exclusive scents available for purchase worldwide while insiders in Singapore speak in hushed tones about its arrival on our shores sometime in early 2020.
Edouard “Eddie” Roschi is the co-founder, alongside business partner Fabrice Penot. Roschi matured what was initially a one-store business (located in New York’s Nolita neighbourhood) into a prestige name characterised by its urbane and notoriously discerning clientele. From the outset, Le Labo’s strategy, as conceived by Roschi and his team, has been to defy almost all accepted wisdom. The brand does not directly advertise — nor, as a corollary, does it court the affections of celebrities or influencers — and it relies on employees to bottle and package its fragrances in-store.
Today, the brand has over 40 flagship stores and played a pivotal role in reshaping the conversation around niche perfumery — a product category that accounts for over 10 percent of sales in the wider US$26 billion industry. Their standing amongst a particular consumer demographic drew industry-wide attention. Consequently, in 2014, Estée Lauder added Le Labo to their portfolio of critically revered perfumers for an undisclosed sum.
We stopped by for a casual conversation with Roschi; from his formative years at industry juggernaut L’Oréal, to his fondness for an autocratic creative process, we left no stone unturned as we explored Roschi’s career in fragrance, one that spans three decades.
I studied chemical engineering because when you’re that young, you don’t really know what you want to do. I was interested by science and I wanted to please my parents, and due to a mixture of both considerations, I ended up studying chemistry. However, at the time I was studying chemistry, I already knew I wasn’t going to do anything with it — in terms of becoming an engineer, researcher or whatever. After finishing my degree, I wanted to do a job that I knew would be fun, involve chemistry and wouldn’t require doing drugs [laughs], so perfumery was the logical next step. As it happens, I had a friend who worked for Firmenich (in Geneva). I was studying in Switzerland at the time and thought, “Why don’t I go talk to them [Firmenich]?” They liked the fact that I had a background in chemical engineering and gave me an opportunity to do something that wasn’t R&D.
I wasn’t looking for perfumery itself, rather I was interested in doing something that was fun and chemistry-related, even if from an abstract perspective. In reality, you don’t really apply chemistry principles unless you’re doing research for the industry.
Absolutely. I was put in charge of our North African and Middle Eastern markets, so I was doing a lot of traveling around those regions, developing perfume accounts comprised mostly of powdered detergent, fabric softeners and shampoos — functional perfumery. It was very different from high-end perfumery.
At the time I was in my early 20s, so it was an incredibly satisfying, challenging and rewarding position. I was essentially given the keys to the house and told to go and develop the perfume releases for the African market. In a way, I was able to do anything I wanted, going to places like Sudan, Syria and Algeria to develop business.
It was for purely technical reasons. I felt that I needed to complement my existing experience with business management theory. Up until then, I’d had a background in science and a lot of hands-on experience — when you do business in North Africa and the Middle East it’s very hands-on. It’s wheeling and dealing, it’s social, so I wanted to have something that was a bit more theoretical, hence the MBA. [Laughs] I think they’re a good transitional device if you don’t yet know what you want to do with your life but also don’t want to travel for a year and go to Bali.
Fabrice was actually at L’Oréal before I joined, but we met fairly early on when we were working in the perfumery arm of Giorgio Armani. We’d meet Armani himself every month in order to get stuff approved, and he’d say stuff like, “I like this red”, “I don’t like this red”, that kind of thing. It was extremely good training, and we are very much influenced by Armani himself and his style.
However, when you work for a big corporation you can very quickly become frustrated. As your expertise increases and you become confident in what you want, you’ll have more and more people telling you that isn’t what you should be doing. There’s almost always a political or commercial angle: the company wants to increase sales, the company wants to increase profitability, et cetera. Fabrice and I had numerous ideas which were diluted in order to serve those agendas and it became so frustrating that, three or four years later, we were bitching more than we were enjoying our work on a daily basis. We both thought, “Let’s try to envision a future in which we’re not constantly bitching”, and that future involved Le Labo.
When we begin developing fragrances, the inspiration can come from a wide variety of areas. The genesis can be ingredients-centred, which was the case for the new Tonka 25. But it can also be conceptual: “Let’s develop something that makes you feel like you’re at a beach that’s close to an urban centre”, for example. I think unlike more traditional artists, who are constrained by their medium, inspiration in perfumery can be quite abstract. Once you have the concept nailed down, you instruct the perfumers to begin developing a sample — this is a process that is riddled with trial and error. Then usually after 18 months — or in some instances, two years — you finalise the perfume. It can be challenging knowing when to stop the development process, but if you find yourself running in circles that’s probably a good indication that you should stop.
Rose 31 was the perfume that set us up for Santal. When we started the brand, we originally developed nine fragrances with no idea as to which would be the most popular. Rose 31 all of a sudden became our best seller. It is, in measurable terms, our iconic fragrance and it solidified our reputation from the very beginning. It’s a very androgynous kind of rose, subtle and yet omnipresent, extremely long lasting and reactive to men and women. It gave us the means to develop the brand, open new stores and protect our creative autonomy. In the early years, it accounted for about 60 percent of our sales and ’til this day remains one of our best sellers. Then, as you know, along came Santal 33 — the result of a very happy accident.
So if I had to give two fragrances pride of place, I’d say I’m fond of Rose 31 for the formative role it played in establishing our business, and of Santal 33 for the way in which it has come to define our brand. Every other formula we created has its function, but these two scents were pivotal.
It is. Santal 33 plus its candle-based counterpart, Santal 26, make up at least a third, if not more, of our current sales.
We started Le Labo as an extension of who we are, of how we function day-to-day. As a brand and as individuals, we try to be socially and environmentally responsible. We’ve never dwelled upon the fact that we’re vegan or “green”, because we think that’s how everyone should develop their business if they want to be around in 50 years. It’s undeniable that sustainability today is a crucial subject. In the past, we were allowed to be unsustainable simply because we weren’t as numerous as we are today. We didn’t consume as much and we didn’t have the same political discourse that we currently do. Now, all of a sudden, it’s the beginning of a changed situation. I hope that sustainability will become something more than a topic of conversation, but in order to do that you need companies to step in and implement policies which political movements can’t on their own. What’s the purpose of running a seven-digit profit if you’re not thinking about waste management, sustainability and environmental impact?
Research tells us that if we want to live on a planet in 50 years where customers have the ability to interact with traditional retail propositions, companies are going to have to start considering these things, or else there will be too much disruption. It’s also a matter of feeling: We’re speaking today in the context of perfumery, and that’s an extremely limited field. I’m by no means suggesting that my craft will change the world, but because it’s something I know well, we’re able to create products with a degree of consciousness about the climate we’re a part of. There’s no point in selling beauty by killing beauty — it’s hypocritical. What’s the point of using cosmetics to make yourself feel better if the ingredients were obtained by torturing an animal? Our efforts ultimately represent a drop in the ocean, but if everybody thought of it in these terms, I’m sure we’d see a significant change over time.
We’re still very much in charge of product development: We don’t test our perfumes externally and we don’t ask outsiders for a second opinion. I firmly believe that creation is an autocracy, it’s not a democracy. Especially in the case of perfumery, it’s not ideal to ask people what they think, because when you do you can be unduly influenced, your concept becomes diluted and then the result is a mass product. So, to answer your question, we maintain our autonomy with Estée Lauder and although we’re growing we remain one of the smallest brands in their portfolio.
We’re one of the biggest niche brands from a sales context, but in marketing terms our exposure is very limited. I just talked to one of my team members about this: We have 150 points of sale internationally including our stockists and concessions, and compared to most of the Estée Lauder brands, that’s trivial. A big part of my role is managing Le Labo’s relationship with Estée Lauder. Of course, they want to benefit their shareholders, but so far I have to say they’ve proven to be very good brand managers. I think they realise that if a brand is robbed of its essence, it won’t mature into what it should be five years down the track. Our acquisition has also given us the opportunity to influence Estée Lauder in the way that they do things — how they perceive and acquire other niche brands. Our dynamic can sometimes be “big guy, little guy” and naturally that can cause friction. But in that friction there’s a lot of value.
Of course. On the back end their influence has been extremely beneficial. When you have a small company like Le Labo that’s rapidly growing, you often don’t have time to put internal processes in place to deal with that growth long-term. The benefit of having a big corporate is that they help you to structure the back end so that it can function semi-autonomously. I remember when we first started that if someone went away for a weeklong holiday, the whole company would stall. At the same time, Estée Lauder don’t insert themselves too much into our frontline activities, so we have the prerogative when it comes to opening new stores and developing new products.
Honestly, there’s no easy way to answer that: It’d be like trying to fall in love with someone by reading their résumé. “This person’s fun, likes to be honest and is self-deprecating. Okay, I’m going to fall in love with them”. And then you meet that person and there is, in reality, no connection. It’s the same issue you run into when developing an emotional product such as perfume. On paper, you think it’s going to be rather attractive, but in the real world nobody likes it. So there isn’t a miracle formula per se: If that existed every perfume we launched would be a huge hit; they’d all be a Santal 33. Creative leaps happen by mistake — they are the result of total experimentation. Chanel No. 5 was a mistake. Some of the most iconic perfumes of the 20th century were mistakes. There is no formula for success. You can increase the probability of making a great perfume by knowing what you’re doing, but a bigger part of the equation is “right place, right time, right product”.
In terms of influence, the idea behind Tonka 25 was to highlight cedar atlas. Cedar atlas is a very dirty cedar variant that smells like sharpened pencil. For me, it’s an ingredient that is incredibly interesting, but in its raw form it’s impossible to distill, bottle and sell — it’s too pungent. So when I proposed the project to our perfumers, I told them I wanted a cedar atlas that was sensual, dark and ambiguous. As we developed the formula, the natural coupling for cedar atlas turned out to be tonka beans. The reason we named the perfume Tonka 25 was because there’s a higher proportion of tonka than cedar atlas. However, the genesis of this fragrance is most definitely cedar. The tonka was actually introduced to “tame” the cedar before becoming another primary ingredient. The result is a fragrance that is very subtle but permeates through your skin and clothes. I kind of think of it as a “perfume spill” — a humming scent.
We just tell them that we’re not going to launch as many perfumes as they ask us to [chuckles]. There’s no lying in saying that they love what we do and that they want us to launch more often. But just because you execute more launches that doesn’t mean you’re going to be more successful: Inevitably, there’s one “pie” and you’re not going to get the most out of it by slicing it thinner and thinner. I actually think we have too many perfumes today, so we have to find ways to trim the line without making customers unhappy.
Of course Estée Lauder want us to launch five new scents a year, but the emotional stability you’d need to deliver on that promise is pretty insane. At the end of the day, it’s not because you launch a new perfume that you’re going to be successful; it’s how you manage your overall product line that will determine whether you’re a success. Conversely, in the case of a mass product, you can make it more successful by launching more versions and bigger volumes, because people aren’t connecting with the perfume itself, they’re connecting with the brand. In high-end perfumery — and especially for us, given the type of clients we have — it’s not about the act of launching, it’s about launching the right stuff.
It’s all about the degree of control you have in the development process, tied up with that idea of “democracy versus autocracy”. Don’t get me wrong, many accessible and cheap things that were mass developed have become iconic, but they’re exceptions rather than the rule. In the luxury goods sector, there’s a higher probability of exceptional “products” which transcend that description. People are willing to pay extra money to have that “wow” experience that goes beyond a rote product, whether it’s fashion, hotels and perfumes, of course. Conversely, there aren’t the same expectations surrounding a mass product because comparatively fewer resources are allocated to creating them. More money is being spent on diffusing it into the market, making sure it’s talked about.
We don’t do advertising. For the longest time we never did PR. Since the very beginning, we’ve maintained that in order for our perfumes to be successful, we need our clients to develop relationships with them. That’s everything. We want people to fall in love with our fragrances organically, because that way they become authentic ambassadors for the brand. It takes time to build that connection.
We make the parallel with friendship: No matter who it is, it takes time to develop a genuine friendship. If I meet a guy wearing an “I’m gonna be your best friend” t-shirt, proclaiming all of his good qualities, it’s going to be an inauthentic relationship. The same principle applies to high-end, emotionally driven products. When a brand stages a massive marketing event, it’s akin to them saying, “These are my qualities, please like me”. But you’re not immediately going to know if that’s real unless you test to see if everything is as advertised. I’m not saying you should never do PR, but it needs to be in a way that makes narrative sense for the brand. We personally never throw launch parties because it’s just an opportunity for people — most of whom aren’t really invested in what you do — to sip free Champagne in the evening. Everything has to be linked to a central narrative. If we were to release something that was cheap and disposable, then it would make sense for us to do a huge marketing push because that’s symptomatic of how people are going to interact with the product.
It’s about being authentic, admitting your mistakes and using clients’ feedback to inform how we do things. Without trying to sound too cheesy, we have conversations with everybody who comes into our stores. In fact, in the brand’s earliest days we stopped using civet (Editor’s Note: a species of mammal whose intestines are frequently used in the production of cosmetics) because one of our customers asked us point blank whether our products contained any animal ingredients. At points of sale, we do a lot of training which focuses on the human dimension of customer service. We’re always trying to obtain more feedback and take responsibility when things aren’t 100 percent.
Initially we worked with multiple perfumers, but because of how our relationships have developed over the years we’ve now narrowed that down to two: Daphne Bugey & Frank Voelkl, both from Firmenich. They know us so well: Developing something with them is a piece of cake. Thanks to our relationships, we’re able to say things in a very direct fashion.