The Fragrance Report: 2023 Trends & Trajectories
Fragrance holds deep-rooted origins in magic and mystery; alchemy and divinity. Beguiling us for millennia, dating back to the scent-sweetened sacrificial offerings of ancient Egyptian priests.
For the last five centuries, the functions of fragrance have transitioned through medicinal, spiritual and political. In the third decade of the twenty-first, they embody all at once.
Invisibly influential, scent holds mass amounts of dormant power in branding. And not just for fragrance-based products. But while a one-size-fits-all approach should never be set in motion by true luxury brands, selling scent is perhaps the most personal and intricate pursuit of all.
In this space, intimacy is key; doing things differently even more so. Industry leaders are reshaping the mould, not necessarily reinventing the wheel but certainly steering towards individual expression, wellness and our increasingly digital lifestyles.
Despite it being arguably the most underrated of the senses, smell is especially unique to the individual. To prove this anecdotally, I plugged into the eccentric (weird) minds of the MOF team. Do not try this at home.
For one colleague, a bouquet of gardenia, orange blossom, vetiver and sandalwood evoke her mother’s heirloom dinner party perfume, after which they’d be treated to decadent leftover puddings.
For another, the overwhelming smell of suncream reminds them of white kids being slathered in the UV-repelling goo during sports days — a welcome disadvantage during the egg-and-spoon race.
It’s called the Proust effect — a nod to a specific allegory within the French novelist’s most notable work: In Search of Lost Time.
To be viscerally transported to a particular time or place by a waft of scent molecules has been the subject of neurobiologists’ musings for aeons, and — despite significant leaps forward — continues to mystify today.
What we do know is, however scent molecules manifest in individuals, they have the power to uniquely and immediately create cognitive and emotional connection.
As in beauty, jewellery, fashion and every other industry selling products pertaining to identity expression, fragrance selection is increasingly subject to mood or occasion.
Before art directing drug-fuelled abstract advertisements, perfumers and fragrance houses must decipher their message and meaning. Will they define irreverence, lust, adventure? All three? Or something else entirely?
Intimacy and identity are clear-cut characteristics of an art as historically secretive as perfumery but brands must find a strain of universality in order to appeal to more than one individual. Balancing the two, Phlur create modern fine fragrances inspired by ‘memories, moments, experiences and feelings’.
Staying far away from the word ‘clean’, their mindfully formulated, responsibly sourced and meticulously crafted scents swaddle wearers in cocoons of nostalgia and sentiment by not centring around one of two specific notes. An approach adopted more and more by others in the industry.
Drifting away from the coveted ‘signature scent’, layering of multiple perfumes has become habitual among everyday wearers to differentiate between sides of such multifaceted identities.
Artistry founded in the Middle East, fragrance layering highlights an emerging expressiveness when it comes to olfaction. As most luxury names have caught up to the concept, each has produced some version of a fragrance profiler, offering tailored recommendations to prospective buyers.
British heritage brand Penhaligon’s takes it a step further with educational content on creating bespoke, layered scents. Enlightening readers step-by-step, the brand positions itself as an expert on the subject, seducing buyers with thoughtfully placed product listings.
Leaning into a worldwide love for DIY, even among the U/HNW, NOTA NOTA is a smart perfume-mixing machine for those who wish to brew their own fragrances at home. Still in its prototyping phase, the concept is sold as a daily ritual — similar to that of making a morning coffee — alongside a corresponding app to record fragrance formulas and exchange them digitally.
For STORIES Parfums, their fragrances “reflect the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of Ireland — an island of artists, musicians and new ideas”. The house was born from founder Tonya Kidd-Beggs’ attempts to transcend trauma-induced memory loss and relive the times of her childhood through scent. Their second fragrance, STORIES Nº.02, is the exact concoction that brought them back.
For strictly limited edition perfume maker Ffern, the cosmos, nature and pastoral English countryside guides their four seasonal scents. Sold out for five consecutive years, the number of bottles made exactly matches the number of names on their ledger; delivered on or before the solstice or equinox.
Scents grounded in place offer a nostalgic return to many while simultaneously presenting an opportunity for sensory exploration of an unknown setting.
Before aristocratic adoption, use of fragrance was led by alchemy to treat a catalogue of maladies — a practice and aesthetic seeing renewed popularity in modern day.
Brands like Aesop, Le Labo and Malin+Goetz are combining clean white, transparent or amber packaging with captivating typography to build the practice’s history into their design language while others are integrating the ideas more centrally.
Adopting a different approach to science and scent, The Nue Co. bottles aromatic supplements to aid with everything from stress and focus to recovery and sleep. Contained in diagram-adorned packaging, each cruelty-free product is made from non-toxic, traceable ingredients and recommended within a specific routine which is complimented by the brand’s other supplements.
As wellness credentials continue to act as a tipping point in purchasing decisions, fragrance houses have pivoted to join in on the action.
Evidently, the trend-turned-evolution that is sustainability hasn’t skipped fragrance. In fact, it’s one sector seeing plenty of innovation that has yet to wane.
With an aim to become the world’s first carbon-negative company, California-based Aeir believes beauty can be universal without depleting our natural resources. Their Mini Discovery set claims to be ‘the future of fragrance’ combining space-age materials and bioengineering with a silver bottle capsule.
(Very) Similarly but still pioneers in their own right, Air Company launched Air Eau De Parfum — a carbon-negative fragrance made from CO2. Their approach:
“We use a sustainable and eco-friendly process to manufacture the base alcohol that is key to every perfume. Our limited-release fragrance is made by converting carbon dioxide captured from industrial processes into that alcohol, which makes this perfume extremely eco-friendly. AIR COMPANY uses renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, to create its products.
But we don’t stop there. Our fragrance comes in a label-less bottle (to cut waste) that is designed to be reused.”
According to The New York Times, both brand and product offer “an intoxicating mix of hope, hype and science.”
As with other industries, low-impact sourcing methods are on the up.
Skincare and fragrance brand Haeckels and Tetsuo Lin, a student at Central Saint Martins, worked together on a brand-new perfume project that imitates the scents of dead plants.
By removing tiny quantities of DNA from floral specimens, the team has revived previously extinct scents, enabling them to anticipate the gene sequences that encode the enzymes and produce smell molecules. A true blend of history and modernity.
As branded spaces become more liminal in nature, full sensory immersion is sought after by both buyer and business. IRL experiences are taking olfactory pleasure to new heights, whether at home or in dedicated brick-and-mortar monuments to scent.
To match their alchemic aesthetics, Aesop opened their Sensorium in 2021. A ‘new place for the senses to feast’, their Sydney store merges customer curiosity with the method of layering fragrances to create a curvaceous cocoon for visitors to explore.
A dedicated consultation space invites scent-seekers to interact with tactile ingredient displays and video content with the house’s perfumers.
In celebration of their fragrance division’s 30th anniversary, French fashion house Mugler put on a futuristic pop-up at Selfridges complete with fragmental sculptures designed to evoke the female body.
At the installation’s centre — within the ‘Synesthesia Chamber’ — dangled a droplet-shaped object, emitting bursts of fragrance, surging lightbeams and siren-esque harmonies whenever visitors walked near it.
Levelling up in 2022, the famed London department store partnered with sensory-reality experts SENSIK for the first of Selfridge’s Super Futures Series. Each in-store SENSIK pod used light, heat, sound and bespoke fragrances to mimic a psychedelic trip.
Even non-fragrance brands are employing olfactory immersion. Japanese skincare brand Tatcha launched a 4D Forest Exhibit where visitors were immersed in the sounds and smells of the Japanese forest.
They’re certainly not the first to use olfactory marketing to great success, and neither is it a technique exclusive to luxury. Some of the best examples of olfactory marketing are courtesy of famous global galleries, iconic fast food chains and, of course, the notorious Abercrombie & Fitch.
Sound Wave Synesthesia
For a more off-the-cuff example, take Byredo’s Olfactive Stéréophonique (its simplest description would be an audio-speaker-like scent diffuser) was created in collaboration with Devon Turnbull and his OJAS label to utilise speaker design theory to fill a space with smell.
Based on Ben Gorham and Turnbull's shared love of ceremonially listening to music, the design adopts the form of an old-fashioned speaker, with the horn serving as the focus of fragrance dispersion.
Ten diffusion discs of "Olfactive Pyramid," which has a top of clove buds, bay, and incense, a middle of ylana, carnation, and labdanum, and a bottom of papyrus, Haiti vetiver, and guaiac wood, were included in the Stereophonique’s second release in 2022.
Bottles On The Blockchain
In the midst of conceiving new colourways for their synesthetic speaker, last summer Byredo partnered with digital fashion startup Rtfkt to bring perfume to Web3.
Linking 26 ingredients to various emotions/characteristics (including naivety, harmony and virtue), the two brands, alongside third-party designers, have visually rendered these limited-edition ‘digital treasures’ which are wearable via Rtfkt’s avatar ecosystem.
As revolutionary as this seemed to the industry at the time, they aren’t the first to embark on this kind of product.
In 2021 Berlin-based Looks Lab used near-infrared spectroscopy to create an NFT-encoded digital reflection of a scent they named Cyber Eau De Parfum. The NFT backs a digital artwork recording the molecular wavelengths of the fragrance, making it the first fragrance of Web3.
In terms of virtual reality, US startup OVR have manufactured a new wearable scent technology. Self-proclaimed experts in digital scent, the company creates scent capsules that can be clicked into VR headsets and released only to the wearer/user/player at brand-chosen moments during the experience.
As with haptics, we’re seeing rising importance in olfactory virtual reality. A focus Web3 brands should watch out for if they want to be considered authentically immersive.
In every sense, the timeless nature of fragrance is palpable. In memories, in perception, in luxury. Scent is so intrinsically linked to our minds and bodies, it wields great power for brands — when used effectively — to leave an imprint.
In the world we live in now, products have vast potential to exude meaning in more ways than just being worn. Leading brands just need to be daring enough to try. And unafraid of a few broken bottles along the way.
Take on a chance on a bolder future than the one you imagined. Get in touch with one of our consultants via firstname.lastname@example.org.