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The Whiff Gets A Twist

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It was a long held tradition in the perfumes business that men and women wanted — and needed — to smell differently. Women preferred floral notes while men tended to stick to woody fragrances. This was why there were perfumes created specifically for women, and others that were blended only for men. Shops had different counters for the different genders. And no man ever thought of using his wife or sister's perfume if his own fragrance had run out. That line of thinking is slowly being junked by many in the fragrances business. Now, many fashion houses and perfumeries are happy to create unisex perfumes that both men and women can wear. The idea is that different perfumes appeal to different personalities — and not different genders.

Even traditionalists are coming around to the new view because many unisex perfumes are doing well commercially. The trend is gathering speed in India too. "In urban areas, both men and women want to appear uber-cool and are becoming conscious of their looks and how they smell. Eventually, it comes down to a perfume that fits an individual's attitude, mood, personality and even the state of mind," said Vivek Bali, vice-president and business head-Cosmetics and Fragrances, at the Lifestyle division, Reliance Retail.

Emporio Armani Diamonds is popular among both men and women PRICE: Rs 2,500 for 30 ml

Given the growing popularity of unisex fragrances across the world, Reliance Retail decided to try these out in India. "With the launch of unisex fragrances globally and preferences for a fragrance family, we felt there could be a market for it in India," explained Bali. The company tracked initial sales of unisex fragrance launches in India. "As sales trends started rising, we encouraged the customer to try unisex fragrances frequently. In most cases, the response was positive and prompted us to include unisex fragrances in our portfolio," says Bali. Globally, fragrance is based on a theme, which is represented in its packaging, visuals and marketing campaign. However, in unisex perfumes, they don't look any different from other perfumes.

Clearly sensing a market, Reliance Retail has thrown open an eclectic range of perfumes like Calvin Klein — cK One, cK BE, Kenzo Amour, Versace Versense and Moschino Light Colours whose notes can be summed up as feminine floral and yet woody musk fragrances. Right now, these variants contribute to 8 per cent of the business.

What was once considered heady and overwhelming seems quite acceptable now. India has traditionally been a strong men's perfumes market. Men constitute approximately 65 per cent of the country's fragrance market. "Our Emporio Armani Diamonds for Men is very popular with women who like woody fragrances over fresh floral notes," says Dinesh Dayal, COO, L'Oreal India. Besides unisex perfumes, women in India seem to prefer men's fragrances. Many women shoppers shun the idea of smelling too floral and follow the trail of woody, spicy and musky notes, originally worn by men.

While many perfumes are positioned as unisex options in evolved fragrance markets, in India the market is still nascent. Though it is not an established trend, it cannot be totally ignored. Often sales counter personnel are largely responsible for marketing unisex fragrances for luxury seekers.

"We have fragrance promos across the year at our stores. During promos, we've noticed that many women opt for men's fragrances. About 15 to 20 per cent of our brand sales come from the unisex fragrances that some brands offer," added Govind Shrikhande, customer care associate and managing director, Shoppers Stop. The retail chain has popularised unisex fragrances through animation promos, which they feel is the most acceptable and practical way to educate customers about fragrances. "Customer feedback from the retail team revealed that women do buy men's fragrance occasionally. This became a point of understanding that unisex fragrances might work. We plan to have new offerings in September," says Shrikhande. As of now, a popular pick with perfumistas is Voyage d`Hermes, a woody, fresh, musky unisex fragrance from Hermes.

cK One is considered one of the first unisex perfumes PRICE: Rs 3,700 for 200 ml

How do men look at it? "I bought a perfume which my wife and I use regularly. It made a romantic gift for our wedding anniversary," said Sunil Raj, a software engineer. Such people may be few, but are opening new opportunities for retailers., formerly known as, conducted a two-week perfume promo in June. The e-commerce company ran a campaign to attract customers, who turned out to be first time buyers in the age group of 25-35 years.

It ran a promotion for Calvin Klein, which is their most popular unisex brand. cK One was conceptualised as a fresh citrus for men and women. It probably ranks among the early cult-creating unisex fragrances, with notes of rose, violet, papaya, pineapple, nutmeg and musk. "cK is popular because it is being well promoted. The company has targeted everyone. However, less than 10 per cent of our online sales on perfumes come from unisex bottles. We plan to address this market by adding some more unisex variants to our portfolio," explained K. Vaitheeswaran, its founder and COO.

The shopping portal has a wide range of perfumes, which includes men's perfumes, women's perfumes and unisex fragrances. Over the past one year, the consumer has shown an inclination towards unisex fragrances, which is why the portal is likely to add more variants in coming months.

Voyage d`Hermes comes with woody, fresh and musky notes PRICE: Rs 6,500 for 100 ml

The perfume wearer, who once flaunted fragrances to carry it with attitude, is now clear cut about the choice. "One of the reasons why neutral perfumes are slowly picking up in India is because women have the flexible attitude to change fragrance according to situations. They can wear a woody fragrance during the day that suits the work atmosphere and opt for sweet and flowery perfumes in the evening depending on whether it is a relaxed outing or a romantic occasion," said a Baccarose spokesperson. The company has a bouquet of offerings, which include international fragrances, skincare and cosmetic brands.

A fragrance triggers emotional or psychological responses. ‘I don't want to smell like my grandmother who used lot of floral,' seems to be the thought that leads women towards unisex perfumes for women. According to stylist Prasad Bidapa there's no such thing as women's perfume or men's perfume. "A lot depends on the wearer. There are women who enjoy wearing men's perfume. Of course, stores in Dubai like Jo Malone customise perfumes. Many couples go there and get perfumes mixed and blended with notes of coffee, vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossom that can be worn by them," says Bidapa. Obviously, it will take time for this experience to come to India. Nevertheless, there is always the traditional ittar or oil-based perfumes sold in Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk. These stores are willing to mix potions of essential oils and hints of vetiver (khus khus) and personalise a blend especially for the wearer.

When Gabrielle Coco Chanel said, "A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future," the legendary French fashion designer may not have imagined that the scented scene would eventually include fragrances with a unisex appeal.

The author is a freelance feature writer based in Bangalore

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-09-2011)

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