2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the inclusion of men in the FGI membership roster.
In recognition of that milestone, we start this series with one of the earliest
– and most valued – male members: Theo E. Spilka
A series of conversations with Fashion Group members
What they do, how they do it and why it matters.
by Wendy D’Amico
Théo E. Spilka
It would be safe to say that everyone knows, from experience, that smell and taste have the transformative power to evoke “remembrances of things past” in the most sudden and startling ways; memories of places and events thought long forgotten; of people out of mind for decades. And in thinking about that, we sat down with Théo E. Spilka, Global Vice President, Strategic Licensing & Business Development at Firmenich, a leading company in the creation of fragrances and flavors which they supply to a roster of clients in a host of countries. With its 122 year history of Swiss and family ownership, Firmenich is the largest privately owned company in its industry. And we started with this:
How and where did your career begin?
Right out of university, I was recruited by America’s oldest department store – Lord & Taylor – to join their executive training program and pursue a career in retail. As a native New Yorker, keen to return to the city after my college experiences in Switzerland and Boston, I accepted the offer. But after two years, exposed to the finished goods side of the business, I realized I had an affinity for working more on the conceptual side and one day saw an ad in The New York Times for an opportunity in sales and marketing in Geneva. After three months of interviews, I was offered a position in the training program at the second largest perfumery house in the world. A month later, I moved to Switzerland and the rest is history.
While flavors may play a part in your role at Firmenich, for our purposes, we’ll focus on fragrance so what drew you to that world? Did you have an early interest?
My father was an art history professor and on occasion, he opted for overseas teacher exchange programs and/or research sabbaticals, so I ended up spending a good deal of my childhood in Europe, much of the time in Paris and the south of France. It was there that perfume really caught my nose. My mother, especially, grew very fond of fine French perfume; mostly Dior – Miss Dior – to be specific. Smelling perfumes always brings me back to my childhood. Everyone there wore perfume!
We understand that your recent area of expertise is tied to music, celebrities, designers, athletes and apparel brands. Can you tell us, then, how you develop those partnerships and how they lead to the creation of fragrances?
When I broker fragrance licensing deals, I look for opportunities that can involve strategic partnerships with our existing roster of marketer clients (straight licensing); with start-up companies new to our industry (directed turnkey); or marketers who wish to do hybrid deals (joint ventures). In each of these three models, the partners need an equity; a brand upon which to base the partnership – a license. That white space usually falls into one of those five areas, and it’s my job to get to know those categories and the many people surrounding those businesses. As the fashion and music businesses are relatively small communities, word gets around. I’m proud of the fact that Firmenich is considered the go-to house when brands want to expand into fragrance; I reach out to the brands and personalities; they reach out to me.
What are some of your most outstanding partnerships and successes?
There are many, but some of the most memorable are considered successes for different reasons. It’s not always the potential volume that matters. Sometimes, it’s personal satisfaction as with the Mercedes Benz license; sometimes it’s artistic creativity as realized with the House of Brioni fragrance and the Robert Graham license; sometimes it’s in opening a new channel of alternative distribution into a non-typical fragrance destination like The NY Yankees franchise license and the Mary J. Blige license. Other times, it’s the sense of reward that comes in helping to start a new company that achieved outstanding success and became a real player with a sustainable message for the industry (Give Back Brands.) Finally, there are those very large success stories in terms of overall revenue… blockbusters like the Justin Bieber and the One Direction fragrance licenses.
What are your thoughts about perfumers? Do you consider perfumery an art or a science or a bit of both?
I admire and am inspired by the perfumers around the world. I consider them artists, but also like astronauts in that they seek new frontiers; push new limits and that there’s a finite number of them in the world! I find that some knowledge of the sciences is most helpful for anyone pursuing this very specialized métier. So many raw materials – both natural and synthetic – are on the perfumer’s palette today. One can be very creative, but those raw materials have a tendency to misbehave when combined with each other in varying proportions. Having a background in chemistry, for example, helps one understand which materials tend to react and discolor most, or go off in odor, in which combinations and under which temperature and light conditions.
What do you see as the major fragrance trends of the next few years?
We see five main trends for the future:
a) Addictive Connections of high energy, new naturals, and new acceptance levels. The idea here is that energy, nature and non-traditional notes of addiction are being accepted. The energy and life source found in nature is a huge theme; it is the new “addiction” we are seeing now from our perfumers. Beyond that, allowing natural and synthetic ingredients to live together under this new approach is key for the future.
b) Soft Whispers that are more powerful than our current understanding of ‘strength’. The idea of a slow, emerging power within the perfume that’s not always driven by the top notes. Connecting to the larger trend of inner beauty being stronger than outer beauty in the olfactive construction of the perfume.
c) Seeing the common ‘fresh and clean’ through flavor profiles. Our perfumers are choosing to use more of our flavor driven notes to show ‘freshness’, which is a new and truly different approach for marketers today. We know that the idea of fresh and clean is a great testing attribute for all generations and genders. We see exploring the world of freshness as a huge trend moving forward.
d) Emotionally charged gourmands that bond with your heart and senses. Gourmand or “edible” notes is a key area that has yet to be fully discovered. Last year we saw gourmand going more gourmet, and we are continuing to see that with new chocolate notes, boozy notes, and nostalgic gourmands of bubble gum, praline and Coca Cola. This trend is the idea of constructing a gourmand fragrance using emotions rather than the ingredients as your touch points. This trend is about creating nostalgia, happiness and comfort with a hint of reassuring sweetness in a fragrance rather than over-the-top sticky, lacquered fruity or whipped gourmand notes.
e) Desiring the dirtiness is a positive beauty we all admire innately. This trend is truth coming from the imperfections in natural or synthetic ingredients being pushed. This trend goes against the grain of a ‘sea of sameness’ and having something different (true to natural), rather than manipulating a perfume so many times for it to ‘test well’ or be familiar, approachable and/or overly commercial. This coincides with the much larger trend of seeing beauty in all things natural and real. Most brands are trying to go after this space and it needs to be greatly explored on an olfactive level in the coming years.
What is the life cycle of a celebrity fragrance and are celebrity fragrances less important than the new artisanal fragrances?
The lifecycle of celebrity fragrances – like all fragrances – varies a great deal. Every fragrance – celebrity, conceptual, artisanal, lifestyle, designer and/or private label, like Hollister or Victoria’s Secret – needs many attributes in order to succeed, including quality, authenticity, laser focus on the target demographic, proper pricing/value and appropriate distribution. It is true that the “celebrity brand” category, contrary to the “celebrity endorsed” category has been on a decline for several years in the US. I still see an uptick in Latin America for celebrity brands, and in North America, the classics keep on going; Elizabeth Taylor, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, Fergie and Britney Spears for example. I would say that marketers and retailers alike continue to respond to this category, though they are being more selective about which celebrity brands they will agree to take in; actress and singer, Ariana Grande, and Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, would be two. Compared to artisanal fragrances, I don’t think it’s a question of importance. Celebrity branded products are just different from artisanal products. There is a different demographic; a different purchase intent. For example, a marketer seeking immediate identity with their regional or demographic community might be more inclined to sign a high profile celebrity name and face. An artisanal brand marketer is looking for extremely tight distribution; something off the artistic beaten path in terms of luxury packaging; high price point and an olfactively original perfume. The consumer for an artisanal fragrance is not looking for a scent that’s worn by many or that can be found just anywhere.
What is Firmenich’s position on natural vs synthetic ingredients, and is there a difference in quality or in the result?
Firmenich’s goal is to create game-changing ingredients for our marketer customers and to enhance our creators’ palettes with the broadest and finest portfolio in the industry. There’s a perception that natural denotes expensive; synthetic denotes value. Many synthetic molecules happen to be extremely expensive to produce, partly due to their multi-step purification process and to the complexity of the molecule itself. On the naturals side, the “Catch 22” is the ingredient story behind a rare and beautiful flower. So many of these flowers have to be harvested from the ground in order to produce very little botanical yield. Thanks to alternative techniques for capturing essences, Firmenich can reproduce the scent of a living plant, flower, wood, or even the environment in which the living species grow, without having to remove it from its soil. Either way the quality can still be amazing!
What about the issue of sustainability?
I am proud to work for a company so committed to sustainability issues. I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve witnessed firsthand how, since 1991, the Firmenich family has instilled sustainability into the long-term interests of employees, local communities, customers and the environment. On our website, we publish regular updates about our efforts in ethics, environment, innovation science, partnerships and community which to us, as a responsible global citizen and a company that believes in giving back to every community in every country in which we do business, is extremely important.
Given the number of fragrances that launch each year and the short attention span of the consumer, do you think that any new fragrance has a chance to become a forever classic like Chanel No 5, Shalimar, Habit Rouge or Arpège?
This is an excellent question and not so easy to answer. It’s true that there are tremendous numbers of launches worldwide, going back to the glut that started some 17 years ago. Back in the day, there was a fraction of today’s launches and many of them were coming from Western Europe. But even then, there were many in the 40s and 50s which never made it onto the international stage. Today, there are actually companies who specialize in locating/reproducing the “lost” fragrances of yesteryear ! The Fragrance Foundation defines a Hall of Fame classic as one that has been successful in the marketplace for 15 years and beyond. Look at fragrances like Cashmere Mist, Beautiful, Samsara, Coco Mademoiselle, Acqua di Gio, Opium, Charlie, Youth Dew, Angel, Polo, Romance, Obsession, J’Adore, Giorgio Beverly Hills, Cool Water, L’Eau D’Issey Miyake, Pleasures and Oscar de la Renta, among others; fragrances that I believe will stand the test of time. Some of them are already 40 and 50 years old! They are well on their way to becoming “forever classics”. It’s true, the market has become quite fragmented, but there will always be those “giants” that will stand out and carry on over the generations.
Clients’ views aside, what – in your view – represents the true value of a fragrance – commercial success or the pure and absolute beauty of the fragrance?
I believe the beauty marketer has to start with total conviction; to push for what they believe in. In developing perfumes, Coco Chanel, Mrs. Estée Lauder and later Evelyn Lauder, Vera Strubi and Chantal Roos, to name a few, “knew it when they smelled it”. They believed in and respected the perfumer’s métier. They searched for the beauty and the originality in the perfume and worked in very close partnership with the perfumer to make sure they understood the impact of those “magic bullet” materials. Those industry champions believed in the craft and were less interested in the me-too commerciality and familiarity of the notes. Many pushed the envelope with the perfumers. Not everything succeeded, but there were those milestone fragrances that turned an olfactive corner and created a completely new category.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the fragrance industry today?
As I mentioned, we need “revolutionaries” who will push the envelope of creativity instead of having to pick a familiar fragrance that will perform well in generic consumer research tests. Those fragrances risk having their creativity diluted to the point of losing their standout signature. I’m less worried about the perfume houses, as we are always seeking that next innovative frontier that will uncover a new blockbuster molecule – whether it’s found in nature or created in olfactive white space. And it’s important that retailers embrace the category and feel passion for the magic of perfume; to support the marketers and generate more in-store excitement for consumers of all ages. For many years – because it’s expensive to maintain fully-staffed brands in department stores – it’s been a challenge to get the marketers to keep the aura alive by spending against their brands. Another challenge facing us is that marketers have been trying to keep up with a moving target; the younger consumer who shops in several places and wants the product right away. Marketers have also had to come to grips with omnichannel distribution; an international market; a strong travel retail channel and to keep up with engaging and attractive digitalization strategies. One of my first bosses told me, “no one said this business was going to be easy”.
How do you see the industry evolving?
To date, the mechanics of the creative process have changed very little since the 18th century. Perfumers still write out their formulae, only they do it electronically instead of using pen and paper. Many materials have changed; their uses restricted or no longer available, further pushing the need to patent new molecules manufactured sustainably. Natural raw materials are traded more fairly and the plantation owners, farmers and the villages, themselves, around the world will continue to benefit more directly. There is greater scrutiny than ever before; more safety, legislative, trade and international registration requirements than ever before. Clearly, given the challenges the creative house, the marketer, the distributor and the retailer face for the foreseeable future, all parties must work more closely together to better serve the consumer and to make sure she is seduced by the most qualitative and performing product possible. Perfume is a luxury; an emotional product created to make her dream; to infuse her with a sense of beauty, of allure, mystery and desire; to be unforgettable to those who walk in the wake of her fragrance. We will deal, always, with that magical aura. The question is, can we get it into her hands the same way we used to, or is there going to be a digital breakthrough that enables accurate sampling of a new scent anywhere in the world. I think it’s only a matter of time before we can smell and discover, on our laptops, the next great perfume; the one that makes us dream.
At the close of the conversation, we thought again about what bought us to Firmenich – so we asked Theo…
Though not a perfumer, you have a close relationship with fragrance and would be aware of how aromas evoke memories. What is your favorite scent memory of a place, an event or of a person?
I would have to say that aromas often evoke memories of childhood. For me, it’s about being close to someone, and when I smell a fragrance my dad wore, called Pino Sylvestre, I feel him right next to me. Also my absolute and immediate trip back in time to that moment when I first smelled Eau Sauvage. Those are both literally “burned” into my memory bank, back to my childhood in Europe !
We left the Firmenich offices beguiled and besotted by the air all around us; so magical, so slyly seductive in its notes of gardenia, jasmine, tobacco and rose; of citrus, vanilla, leather and wood; grateful to Théo Spilka for his generosity in the inordinate amount of time he spent with us; for his thoughtful answers and the opportunity to delve into the mastery and allure of the world of fragrance.
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