The Meantime Perfume House

Which will be the next great perfume house?  The house that will define early 21st century tastes in scent?  Good question, isn’t it? You can go on speculating about which house will define the tastes of the 20s and 30s, but to my mind one house has already dominated the turn of the century and the oughties: Mugler.

Now if you read about perfume, if you’re in the habit of checking out perfume forums, you will note that Angel, Mugler’s flagship fragrance, is widely reviewed. There are 204 reviews of it on Basenotes alone, and it is controversial- more than a quarter of those reviews are bad.

Nevertheless,  the smell remains popular with a minority of the public, who keep on buying the bottles no matter what anyone else says.  In other words, Angel is the signature scent of a large number of people.

Angel clearly built the house of Mugler and did so in much the same way that Chanel No5 built Chanel, and with a similar business strategy.  Chanel’s corporate partner was Bourjois, and in a comparable manner, Clarins produces the Mugler perfumes in association with Mugler.

The major difference is, that Mugler’s perfume house is not associated with a great designer. Thierry Mugler back in the eighties, was a typical designer, creating clothes with wide shoulders and wasp waists.  His style was recognizable, topically appealing, and in questionable taste, which, if you think about it, are also the qualities that characterize Angel.

But there was one big difference between the clothing that Mugler created and the scent he chose: originality.  Angel did not smell like anything else.  The blue coloring was also something of a shocker.  You did have dyed perfumes in the nineties, but for the most part perfumes ran clear to amber, and juices that were obviously tinted, simply didn’t show up all that often.  Angel was original then, not only in smell, but also looks. Then there was that star shaped bottle.  It was in blue and silver, favored shades of the Mugler design house, and the bottle paraded them, and reinforced the brand until Angel that olfactory monster, and its enormous sales, swallowed up the design house entirely.

Here is the central point of the Mugler empire, for it is an empire now, it grew largely on flankers.  Mugler or his art directors, were shrewd enough to know that the public were not going to follow along in the wake of each Mugler fragrance.  Major releases did not come in a jumble as they do now among niche houses, seven, ten new fragrances at a stroke. No.  Instead, a serious new perfume would emerge every few years and then the minor releases were all flankers.

The important point about each of these major fragrances (as far as I can smell) was that they were all innovative.  Angel is- notoriously- the first of the gourmand perfumes, and most of the Mugler repertoire is gourmand, but not everything.  The cologne is a proper, fresh, slightly synthetic smelling cologne, almost as good these days as Guerlain’s old du Coq or Eau Imperiale.

In other words, the business plan didn’t involve waiting for the competition to produce something new, wait for its numbers and then imitate it if those numbers were good, the go to plan for many other perfume companies.  Muglers were different.  Consider the innovation of Angel: patchouli and caramel, then A-Men: caramel and cedar over coffee, then Alien which performs an autopsy on jasmine, and finally Womanity, with its peculiar caviar note. If anything, it was the flankers, like Angel Rose, Angel Peony etc. which were more predictable, returning to the mean of perfume, not the major releases.

And this strategy has paid off.  Today when you look at Fragrantica you’ll see 70 Mugler perfume releases since 1992.  Chanel, in all, accounts for only 53.  In terms of the number of perfumes released, the young house of Mugler has already superseded Chanel.

As to the fragrances themselves, they are disparate.  Created by different perfumers, Olivier Cresp and Yves de Chiris for Angel, Christine Nagel for Womanity, the Muglers are not cohesive in their composition, but they are in their packaging.  Every one has a bottle that might otherwise turn up as a prop in a Star Trek movie. Say what you like about them, delight in them or deplore them, the Muglers are immediately recognizable at any perfume counter.

They are also popular.  I can attest to the fact that in Jersey, no trip to the mall(s) is ever complete without my catching Alien somewhere on the air, and this too, is not only a sign of its success, but also a form of advertising. People wear what other people wear, and Jersey girls love Alien. Their mothers probably love Angel.

As to No 5, I don’t know when I last smelled that on a woman.

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14 Responses to The Meantime Perfume House

  1. LANIER SMITH says:

    A totally wonderful post! I really love a good well written and researched piece like this. I am not a fan of the Mugler. But I found it all very fascinating. Thanks!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Thank you! I enjoy thinking about what makes a perfume house tick and why they produce the fragrances they do. Muglers aren’t particularly my thing, or maybe I should say, thang either, but they certainly have been successful!

  2. mals86 says:

    Interesting. Here in Podunkville, Virginia, I never smell Alien “in the wild” at all. Sometimes I smell Angel, have frequently smelled No. 5, have more frequently smelled Coco Mlle. The fragrances I smell most commonly on other people include Youth Dew (oh, kill me now), Pleasures, and ET White Diamonds.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Well, here the girls LOVE Alien, but it has occurred to me that I will smell Alien more easily than any quiet frag they might be using. Sillage, doncha know. Coco Mademoiselle, check. Pleasures, check. Youth Dew – no. It’s not au courant enough, I suspect.
      I’ll tell you something else for nothing, the husbands buy Bond No 9, but the wives don’t wear it, be- cause when you go to open houses you find only full bottles of Bond, but half empty bottles of Cristalle and Bulgari au The Vert, Angel, and even Moschino Funny, but the Bond bottles are always full. Only Chinatown foiled me because opaque.

  3. Gabe says:

    I agree with you.
    Angel is really more of a hit-or-miss type perfume. You either love or you hate it.
    It has that surprisingly strong sillage and scent that left such a mark in the perfume industry and demand, that the entire gourmand category of perfumes came following after it.
    Personally, I feel it is a bit strong. Especially for women. I’m a firm believer that all fragrances should be used subtly, only to be smelled when passing the person and not to be smelled from across the room. However, different people have different tastes and I know people who would never use anything aside from Angel regardless of what anyone thought.
    But no doubt, it is what made the Mugler house and will continue to support it.
    Great blog, by the way.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Angel is an original, all the flankers somehow come off as less tremendous which is probably a good thing. But how many perfumes start whole new categories of fragrance? So we have to give that blue bottle its due!

  4. Pingback: In Which I Grow Wings | aperfumeblog by Blacknall Allen

  5. mals86 says:

    OH – and meant to say, “Meantime” is one of those household buzzwords for us that carries all sorts of adorable-kid-related baggage.

    Because when Bookworm was approximately three, I used the word in describing to her what our day was going to be like. As in, something like, “Okay, first Mommy has to do her hair and make up her bed. And later we will go to the library and then the grocery store, but in the meantime we have to wait for the dryer to finish.” She stared up at me, and then, with the air of one determined to get to the bottom of things, asked, “But what are we going to do in the happy time?”

    Mean time. Ha.

  6. Undina says:

    Blacknall, I like reading your posts – they have such a unique pace and thoughts flow. And this one I enjoyed especially because I have a warm spot for the House. I own (and wear probably once a year) only Angel (and Angel Taste of Fragrance but for me it smells exactly like the original in 20 minutes) but I like almost all other Mugler’s perfumes. Not enough to wear but I like them. And I agree with your opinion of the brands place in the industry/society.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Thank you muchly, although I suspect that what I often have is a nonsense flow.
      The Muglers are uncanny in always getting to that spot that people love. Not sure if it’s a gourmand thing, or a refusal to use anything but the best formulas or what, but they do have phenomenal success.

      And now look what’s happened! I’m addicted to the A*Mens. Oh really, I can’t trust myself anywhere!

  7. Kafkaesque says:

    An absolutely lovely post. I love analytical pieces. I remember the days when Mugler actually designed clothes. He and his cohort of the time, Claude Montana, were fabulous, different and exciting. Now, I associate Mugler with a never ending array of Angel flankers. An empire, as you put it so well. I’m not a fan but I give him credit for actually making a perfume, a real one, as opposed to the atrocity that is the vile Acqua di Gio. Both of them are to blame for the current state of the commercial perfume market, as much as IFRA. But only Acqua di Gio makes me actively grit my teeth.

    In terms of domination of the decade, I think I would go with Armani’s Acqua di Gio more than even Mugler and Angel. The latter may have more flankers, but the former is the biggest global best-seller, year and pathetic year. I think it was Lanier who wrote that a bottle is sold every 5 minutes. *shudder* Either way, this was a fantastic piece.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Hi there, and pleased you liked it. I’d ever really thought about the world domination attempted by Aqua di Gio. If asked, I guess I’d have said that I smelled more Light Blue than anything else around NYC in the 90′s. But this does not address the question of where A di G was being worn in carpet bomb intensities.
      As to Mugler and Montana, you’re right, they were quite the pair back in the eighties. Those leather jackets of Montana’s were unforgettable, rather like Vivienne Westwoods, come to think of it.

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