Inside the Complex World of Fragrance Dupes | Allure

2023-03-02 01:13:51 By : Mr. Liu Gary

There’s a certain perfume that, if you've been following fragrance trends for the past few years, you've read about countless times: Baccarat Rouge 540 by Maison Francis Kurkdjian (MFK), a groundbreaking blend of crackling saffron, cedar, and airy sweetness. "Baccarat celebrates its 250th anniversary with Baccarat Rouge 540, created by the fine crystal company in partnership with globally acclaimed perfumer Francis Kurkdjian," reads a description. "Since its launch in 2015, Baccarat's Rouge 540 [sic] has cemented its status as an elegantly luxurious and intense scent. Stunning and unique in every conceivable way, there’s absolutely nothing boring about its scent profile."

The copy in the above description does not come from Maison Francis Kurkdjian. It appears on the product page of Dossier's Ambery Saffron perfume, which costs $49 per 50-ml bottle and is further described as "inspired by" Baccarat Rouge 540, which retails for $325 per 70 ml. Dossier, founded in 2018 by Sergio Tache, an investment banker with a background in e-commerce, makes perfumes explicitly based on popular high-end scents, such as Le Labo Santal 33, Creed Aventus, Tom Ford Lost Cherry, and Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb. Essential Oil Glass Bottle 10ml

Inside the Complex World of Fragrance Dupes | Allure

Dossier's creations are not counterfeits. Counterfeit perfumes, like a counterfeit handbag, explicitly mislead consumers by pretending to come from a brand with which they have no affiliation, and are therefore illegal, if relatively common. Nor are Dossier scents what you might consider knockoffs; as with luxury fashion, scents originating in high-end perfume trickle down to the mass market all the time. But it takes a discerning nose to recognize that, say, Zara Gardenia is a riff on YSL Black Opium, just like it would take a knowledgeable shopper to see that Zara's Mini City Bag features traces of Balenciaga's Hourglass Bag.   

The dupe model for brands like Dossier is unique to perfume. These companies explicitly lean on consumers' awareness of a well-established brand and claim to sell a nearly identical product, but stripped of expensive packaging and marketing. Alt Fragrances, founded in 2018 by commercial real estate developer Michael Saba, also sells lower-priced scents "inspired by" many luxury creations. Lazy Royal, which launched in 2022, does the same with candles and reed diffusers. Oakcha and Montagne — the latter of which goes so far as to use a typeface similar to the typewriter font used by Le Labo in its packaging — are two more examples. Lazy Royal, Oakcha, and Montagne did not return Allure’s request for comment for this article.

These brands can exist because, unlike logos or monograms, fragrance formulas are not protected by copyright. Plus, they offer an attractive model to consumers: By claiming to "democratize" fragrance through lower prices, dupe brands position themselves as the David to big perfume's Goliath, delivering prized formulas to the masses without the brand and celebrity markup. 

By claiming to "democratize" fragrance through lower prices, dupe brands position themselves as the David to big perfume's Goliath.

Critics of dupes, however, say they dilute the artistic creations of perfumers, also known as "noses" in the industry, who often devote years of study, expertise, and hours of research to create a single scent. "As an independent perfumer, I am generally against duplicating works of art," says Yosh Han, creative director of fragrance house Scent Trunk. "If the resources spent on development and marketing were applied towards supporting original designs and educating consumers, the fragrance industry would evolve. Dupes are the equivalent of fast fashion."

It is not altogether notable that brands jump at the opportunity to sell cheap scents, but the rising popularity of dupes is an indication of more than just a demand for affordable products. For some, it is also symptomatic of decades of marketing strategies that have failed to educate consumers about the craftsmanship involved in creating perfume.  

According to Maison Francis Kurkdjian CEO and cofounder Marc Chaya, it is a problem of the perfume industry's own making. "Why are people attracted to dupes? It's because we are facing a situation of ignorance," he says. "This trend is exactly deriving from years and years and years of uncontrolled messaging in marketing, where perfumers were for a very long time denied the right to exist."

Chaya, who began his career in finance and marketing, says he too was largely uneducated about perfume when he first met Francis Kurkdjian, unaware that he was the perfumer behind scents like Jean Paul Gaultier's Le Male. The two founded MFK in 2009; the brand was then acquired by LVMH in 2017. Chaya describes his mission as putting the perfumer — whose creations he likens to works of art for their ability to inspire emotion in the wearers — back in the spotlight. 

"Marketing has been an extraordinary developer and an extraordinary destroyer of value in this industry," Chaya says. Designer and celebrity perfume campaigns have successfully created a fantasy world for fragrance, but they have also erased the work of the perfumer behind the scent and, in the process, left consumers skeptical about the foundation perfumes are really built on, besides a high-profile spokesperson. 

"There are many players that are very happy with this gap, with the fact that [intellectual property] rights are not recognized to perfumers," says Chaya. "Because they would be facing the challenge of having to pay royalty to past perfumers. So, in order to crack the model, first we need to reeducate customers." Part of that education should include making the general public aware of how it is relatively easy to replicate a fragrance these days, thanks to new technology.

"The industry used to be very much based on gentlemen's agreements," says Charles Cronin, adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and a visiting scholar at George Washington University Law School, who has written frequently on copyright and intellectual property.

For decades, fragrance formulation has been mostly the domain of just a few major flavor and fragrance giants, like Givaudan, Firmenich, and International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), which employ many of the perfumers making the most well-known scents on the market and to whom perfume brands would typically outsource production of a perfume formula itself. But with the advent of gas chromatography, technology that was developed in the 20th century and allows for the separation, identification, and quantification of aroma compounds in a perfume sample, new competitors can simply reverse engineer a fragrance and resell it under a new name. Without making the prior investment to develop that scent, it can be cheap to do so. 

"The price of the fragrance reflects, at least to some extent, the enormous [research and development] of that creation," Cronin says. And sales from a successful fragrance are necessary to fund the creation of new products. "I think the name houses are particularly bothered by the fact that these smell-alike fragrances have not invested in the R&D, but have capitalized on their R&D by simply reverse engineering a successful fragrance and creating a much less expensive version."

European courts have litigated perfume as intellectual property on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately determined that they are not uniformly eligible for copyright, Cronin explains. According to Christophe Laudamiel, a former IFF perfumer and founder of DreamAir studios who created many mainstream fragrances like Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce and Tom Ford Amber Absolute and now creates scents under his own label, The Zoo, it is not only dupe brands that have capitalized on that lack of protection, but some mainstream perfume brands as well. "For the public, there is no google search to find plagiarizing in scents — only your nose," says Laudamiel. He claims that big perfume makers have regularly copied original creations with impunity for years, and notes that many of the big corporations that own perfume brands do not employ actual perfumers in their ranks.  

"For the public, there is no google search to find plagiarizing in scents — only your nose." 

For Laudamiel, the dupe brands are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to questionable practices. His frustration with the lack of legal protections for perfumers is among the reasons he founded the Perfumery Code of Ethics, which currently has dozens of industry pledges, including perfumers and journalists. 

The origin of or investment in perfume, however, might not always be a concern for many consumers, particularly those new to fragrance: They simply want to try appealing scents within their budget. "I think it offers people the opportunity to try a variety of scents without putting them out financially. So, in the beginning, when you just want to try everything, it gives different people options," says Olivia Olfactory (who prefers to use their social media name for privacy) of the appeal of dupes. The Los Angeles-based hairstylist shares perfume reviews on their TikTok and Instagram channels, including recommendations for lower-priced alternatives. 

For many consumers, the emergence of dupes has come at just the right time. "You've got a pandemic, people are not working, and still want to feel like they can have some sort of luxury item that will make them feel connected to themselves," Olfactory says. “But you don't have the means to go out and spend a lot of money on it. So I think that a lot of these were successful because of economic situations in the last 10 years, and then the even higher pressure of the pandemic."

In Olfactory's experience as an owner of 300-plus bottles of fragrance, they note that, often, a lower-priced dupe is not going to give the complexity or longevity of the high-end original — and they try to be honest in their recommendations about those trade-offs. But the mere comparison of a cheaper alternative to a high-end scent can inspire many polemical comments, they note, as perfume wearers can feel loyalty to their high-end purchases. 

"I am conflicted because I respect that it's the creative artistry of the individuals," Olfactory says, adding that, for this reason, they prefer to recommend dupes of creations from large conglomerates like L’Oréal rather than independent brands. "But I don't think that half of the people that are buying dupes would ever purchase a $350 perfume to begin with."

Even if consumers aren't in the market for a luxury perfume, they still want to hear evidence of just how close dupes are to the original.

Even if consumers aren't in the market for a luxury perfume, they still want to hear evidence of just how close dupes are to the original. Comparison videos of fragrances from Oakcha, Dossier, or Alt with high-end scents is a growing genre on TikTok and YouTube, with many influencers offering discount codes on top of already comparatively low prices.

In a certain sense, the advent of dupe brands could force the perfume industry to act. Says Laudamiel, “At least they don’t make a margin out of [their products] that's out of whack. And because it is now in plain daylight, I think the truly original brands will have to react. It will force the industry to change for the better.” 

Laudamiel implores dupe brands to compensate perfumers of the original creations on which they base their creations, and to make their own perfumers known. Dossier, which lists transparency as a brand pillar, claims to have five perfumers in Grasse and a nose/evaluator in Paris, but does not list the names of those perfumers on its website. 

To improve the industry as a whole, Laudamiel would like fragrance formulas to be copyrighted not just to protect perfumers' intellectual property, but also to put pressure on brands to publish their formulas so consumers might see when marketing copy promoting precious materials like jasmine oil or orris butter reflects the reality. "I want the public to know that many of these ingredients that are claimed by brands and department stores to justify high prices are very little found in the perfumes," he says. 

Without intellectual property protections for formulas, some fragrance companies have turned to technology to prevent copycats. Earlier this year, fragrance and flavor giant Symrise launched CryptoSym, a blurring component that encrypts a fragrance formula against gas chromatology. Fragrance houses like Givaudan and Firmenich have also invested ample funds in developing new scent molecules, known as captives, which are proprietary ingredients that can only be used in their creations. 

While technology offers some advantages, Chaya would prefer clearly defined laws to address gaps in protections. "Nothing is above the law," he says, "and the only thing that could genuinely protect the perfumer is the law."

Whether or not — and exactly how — perfume formulas could be offered legal protection remains up for debate. "I don't think fragrance should ever be eligible for copyright protection," says Cronin. "Humans simply don't have the acuity to discern subtleties among fragrances to be able to allow them to arrive to the level of being protected." Instead, Cronin sees citing unfair competition as a potentially better way in, but such arguments are more challenging for companies to prove in court. 

Whatever legal paths might become available, perfume brands need to reckon with a changing beauty industry: Inclusivity holds more appeal than sensationalism, and newer brands are positioning themselves as outside the industry status quo under the guise of making perfume more accessible. "Don’t know what an eau de toilette is? Neither do we," reads an Instagram post from affordable perfume brand Snif, which launched in 2020. (An eau de toilette, by the way, is a perfume with a 5 to 15 percent concentration of perfume oil to alcohol.) 

As Olivia Olfactory put it, there's a segment of consumers that simply isn't interested in spending $350 on a perfume, no matter how contentious the practices of lower-priced dupe brands might be. Similarly, the fast fashion industry continues to grow much faster than luxury, despite stories of forced labor among factory workers and high levels of toxic chemicals in clothing.

Chaya is confident that with more information, some collectors will ultimately invest in creativity and innovation. Maison Francis Kurkdjian is not alone in wanting to center the perfumer in the work; since its launch in 2000, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle has printed the name of the perfumer behind each scent on its packaging, as does Laudamiel’s The Zoo brand, and Essential Parfums, which launched in 2018 with 100-ml bottles that retail for a relatively affordable price of around $83.

The accessibility of dupes offers a boon in some ways as well, Laudamiel finds. "Maybe it's step one for them to enter a more beautiful world," he says. "Consumers have the right to choose. And whenever you start learning about the perfume world, then you don't go to dupes anymore."

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