At a recent beauty event, the biggest ripple of anticipation from the assembled group of editors was not in response to the Hollywood who’s who name-dropped in anecdotes, but that a luxury brand had persuaded celebrated perfumer Honorine Blanc to share the formula for her personal fragrance blend – the indelible concoction she made for herself – in an upcoming perfume. Blanc is responsible for many bestselling department-store perfumes. Five years ago you’d have had to search for her name in marketing materials, but she’s now a star in her own right. Call it boldface fatigue, but even global designer brands are shifting the emphasis of their exclusive perfume ranges to the craft within the bottle, instead of a celebrity in an ad campaign. And that puts a new spotlight on perfumers, who used to be as invisible as their scents.
This fragrance news frisson came courtesy of impish celebrity style insider turned florist to the stars Eric Buterbaugh, who is conscious to present himself alongside the perfume collection that bears his name, and tells more stories about the perfumers he enlisted, like Blanc, than himself. Although he’s surrounded by a constellation of stars, he’s keen to make the perfumers shine most. “I’d always envisioned having a big life around the world and it was a dream that came true,” he said last month to the group of journalists gathered at Saks Fifth Avenue to meet him and, most importantly, smell the wares of his two-year-old perfume brand. Initially, Buterbaugh was a jet-set fashion insider during the hedonist 1990s supermodel era, first at the Gianni Versace boutique in Dallas, then the Rodeo Drive store in Beverly Hills, where he handled VIP clients and cultivated an enviable address book. Tired of the whirl of the fashion world, he started doing flowers for a friend’s dinner parties as a favour and found his calling. Buterbaugh is refreshingly candid about just how well-connected he was – and still is – and how that kick-started his first Hollywood florist business (his best friend Herb Ritts photographed his first promotional mailer card), before he spent 21 years as the resident florist at The Four Seasons. (He’s the creator of most of the congratulatory arrangements that stars get after the Oscar nominations, and of the condolence bouquets, too.)
“What was always in my mind with the flowers, which has been an amazing career, is that I’ve always wanted a fragrance company,” he says. “It was always the underlying thing.”
Buterbaugh knew years ago that he was in a position to launch a brand (in more than one anecdote, he mentions his close friend, his “strong straight wife Demi Moore” and his Instagram feed is peppered with behind-the-scenes photos of nights out with pals like Gwyneth Paltrow and Gwen Stefani). “It’s easy for me to get press with all my famous friends and my reputation and my lifestyle. I didn’t want it to be all fluff and no backup,” he says. He is proud that the scents come to market with the original vision of the perfumers, not tweaked, nor altered or diluted dozens of times based on market research.
It’s a lesson learned from the perfume brand started in 2000 by Frédéric Malle, who was the first to position scent creators as authors and put their names on bottles (Malle’s grandfather founded Parfums Christian Dior, and knows a little something about marketing). The exclusive Velvet Collection by Dolce & Gabbana comes in similarly simple identical bottles, differentiated only by cap ribbon colour, as does the Chanel Les Exclusifs range. Neither have splashy campaigns.
Similarly, The House of Creed started out as a London tailoring business in 1760, then moved to the outskirts of Paris and focused on perfume. During a recent visit to Holt Renfrew where the brand is carried, I sat down with Erwin Creed, a member of the family’s seventh generation, to talk about the company’s latest scent, Aventus for Her. Creed works with his father, perfumer Olivier Creed; he sources ingredient suppliers (cedar from Virginia and Canada, for example) and oversees production, but has a hand in all aspects of the family business, down to the packaging.
We got to chatting about the receding nature of celebrity associations. Creed is famously known for its many, many royal warrants going back centuries, with scents in its portfolio famously worn by Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. These associations are important historically, Creed says, but are not the company’s focus. Since he’s the face of the company I asked Creed about this recent development of the perfumer as rock star. “[In] two years I haven’t made a personal appearance, maybe. I don’t push it!” he says with a laugh. But he mentions that his reputation is at the point where a TV show recently wanted to follow him for several weeks to make a docu-series. “I said no. I have my privacy and I’m not Paris Hilton,” he says. “Her perfume sells because it’s Paris Hilton not because of the perfume.” After our conversation, he was on the shop floor signing limited-edition bottles. “It’s always good to talk to Creed lovers, but also to show people that there is someone behind the brand. Sometimes brands pretend there is when there isn’t. I’m not a spokesperson or a paid model,” Creed says.
Not that a little old-fashioned stardust alongside a spritz is entirely out of the question. It’s nowhere in the official bumpf, of course, but when Buterbaugh presented his new Kingston Osmanthus perfume, he explained that it was named in part to appease his superstar friend Stefani’s eldest son Kingston, who mistakenly thought Buterbaugh’s previous Apollo Hyacinth was named for his younger brother. The famous florist gets that an anecdote might help create mystique among the star-struck, but it’s what’s inside the bottle that makes clients come back for more.