In his introductory presentation on the exhibition at Abu Dhabi's Manarat Al Saadiyat gallery, Edwards made a point of stating that any consultancy work he carries out is always with retailers, not perfume brands. So I used this as the starting point of our chat and asked him if avoiding brands was a conscious decision he made when he embarked upon this particular aspect of his career.
Michael Edwards: All my work has always been with retailers. I had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time when a group of perfumeries asked if I could help to develop their business. And there was no fragrance guide. There was the Haarmann & Reimer genealogy, but it had become more and more complex. So that led to my first guide, because I was convinced - and I demonstrated it when I was at Halston - that a simple guide to fragrance families could help the in-store consultants enormously. So my work started with retailers, it demonstrated its worth, and then really it was Nordstrom, the great American department store, who picked it up, and said, 'Okay, we like it,' and they gave authority to it.
Persolaise: What else do you do, in addition to your retail consultancy work?
ME: I have two things: working with retail and, of course, the database, which has become the memory of the industry. Our real work is to provide the industry with the reference that they need. So, for instance, Will Andrews refers to the database as being Procter & Gamble's unofficial archives. He told me that the Boss people had a review of limited editions in Geneva. Guess where the only complete selection was? On the database, because we keep everything. Firmenich and Givaudan rely on it, because it's the only complete resource.
P: So as you carry out your various roles with all these different companies, do you ever find that there's a tension between getting enough work to earn your keep and maintaining your independence?
ME: No, not at all, partially because when I started, I was terribly lucky. I got a 20-year contract for scent strip samples in Asia. So that paid for some bread and butter. My basic business premise has always been: never put all your eggs in one basket. So if any client gets to be more than 50% of my business, I would get nervous.
P: But do you ever get frustrated by the fact that you can't openly say which perfumes you really like or dislike?
ME: No, because I do tell people. I love Eau Sauvage, I still wear it.
P: Ah, but that's a classic. Are you able to express your views on new creations?
ME: I'm intrigued by Naomi Goodsir. I think she's making a mistake by putting all her scents into the leather family, but I'm intrigued by them. I smelt a very interesting fragrance from Marc Antoine of Parfum D'Empire. He's taken Corsica and given it a really green twist*, and that intrigues me. In fairness, a lot of what I smell is plonk. I think the niche market has become opportunistic.
P: Could you expand on that?
ME: If we go back in time to define what niche means, it started in England in 1975, with Sheila Pickles' revival of Penhaligon's. Then came L'Artisan Parfumeur, 1978. Then was Annick Goutal,1980.
P: Where would you place Diptyque in that list?
ME: Diptyque came in 1968 with L'Eau De Diptyque, but for me, that really was more an ambience spray. Etro was the first Italian niche brand, in 1989. In the 90s, you had the first of the great brands, with Serge Lutens. When I look at fragrance, I must look at it as an historian. Niche markets succeeded by accident. And the accident was that American suburbs ran out of air, which meant that American department stores ran out of profit. If you look back, in the States, after the Second World War, the American government gave the returning soldiers and Air Force people the GI Bill, which gave them the money to go to college, and gave them mortgage facilities. For the first time, a whole generation of Americans had the ability to actually own a house. The result was that we started to see the emergence of suburbs. American department stores in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s made money whenever there was a new suburb with a new mall. It all came to a halt in the 80s when we started to see the gentrification of the inner cities. So what do you do, if you're a department store and you've got so used to making all this money?
In 1977, Opium, our first blockbuster, and Giorgio, 1981, showed that perfume was a core product. Quite naturally, there were a lot of little people from all over the world, approaching these stores saying, 'Sell me 50,000 bottles of Opium and 100,000 bottles of Giorgio. I'll give you cash.' Of course, they waved them away, until suddenly they had the need for profit, and there were a couple of department stores that saw an opportunity. And so they ordered products from the brands, knowing that they wouldn't have to pay for them for 200-odd days, they on-sold them for immediate cash, and the industry was flabbergasted, because there was now a grey market. The department stores controlled it.
P: Then came the 90s?
ME: Yes, and the Gulf War, and by this time, most of the brands were in the hands of the global multi-nationals. Now, if you're a global multi-national marketing manager, and you've got a budget, whether there's a Gulf War or not, you've got a budget! 30% of most of the great brands' profitability comes from travel retail, and so suddenly they had to make it up, and they said, 'I remember all these nefarious characters,' and they themselves started to do what the department stores had done in the 80s, and that was the second time the grey market expanded.
The third time was, of course, in the late 90s, and since then these great brands have been hijacked by the stock exchange. If your sales estimate is not met, your share price is savaged. So what do you do? Again, that's why the grey market continues to exist. It's a deliberate strategy. What do you do if you're a department store like Nordstrom? Nordstrom's policy was: bring it back, no questions asked, and we'll give you your money back. So, these characters would go down to the discount mall, buy Opium for $52, take it to Nordstrom and say, 'Can I have my $75, please?' So Nordstrom was forced to delete Opium. So what do you do if you're a department store? How do you replace this business?
P: Start stocking niche?
ME: Yes, that's where the niche business came in. And it was a unique opportunity, when you look at it, in the 1990s. For the first time, you had niche brands that had grown a little bit in Paris and were ready to fly. You had American women who had grown up with Charlie and had become part of the designer revolution of the 80s and were now looking for something different that not everybody knew about. And you had department stores who were desperate to pick up some new brands. That was what caused the revolution of niche.
And then of course the Internet happened. Suddenly the perfumistas took control of it. Unfortunately though, because the entry price is so low, any Tom, Dick and Jane can come up with a range of fragrance. But to come up with a decent fragrance, you have to have taste and you have to have knowledge. Much of what I smell is not finished.
P: Would you say the perfumistas still exert some control?
P: But aren't some of them becoming opportunistic too?
ME: Absolutely, but that's inevitable. I know there's a lot of dreck. But out of this, I think we're seeing the emergence of some very good, inspired writers. People with taste and character.
P: Finally, on a rather different note, a couple of perfumers have told me they can see the day when you're going to have to make a separate category for 'oud' on your Fragrance Wheel. Is that going to happen?
ME: No, I would put it under 'woody' or under 'woody oriental'. I think it fits quite logically in those two categories.
[The Masters Of Fragrances exhibition can be viewed at Abu Dhabi Airport Duty Free until 12th June 2014.]
* Edwards is referring to the new Corsica Furiosa from Parfum D'Empire.
* Edwards is referring to the new Corsica Furiosa from Parfum D'Empire.