Talking scents with Odette Toilette
Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette has many strings to her bow; event curator, author, blogger, purveyor of olfactory adventures and perfume obsessive. She chats to us about her fragrant events, her views of the industry and her most beloved scents.
Your role in the fragrance industry is quite unique, how did you get into it?
You could say the whole thing started by accident! I didn’t start with the intention for it to become a business, I wasn’t a professional in the industry I just decided to start running events as a hobby from the position of being a really engaged consumer who loved fragrance. There was a way that I wanted it talk about it and enjoy it and I didn’t feel like that was out there. I wanted to see if it was possible. I wanted to explore what fragrance could be about and see what the limits were and where it could have relevance for people. That’s what has always really driven it. To take scent and look at it and try to discover what it really is and what it means to people.
The first events were called Scratch + Sniff as I wanted it to sound fun, like something that would be a fun event in a bar on a weekday night, that’s where it grew from. I started doing little evening events, then they became bigger evening events, then I’d be asked to do corporate events and then suddenly the fragrance industry heard of me and became intrigued. That was when I thought, “this is much more fun than my actual job” so I decided to fully concentrate on it and turn it into a business. I was working in the events industry previously and worked on quite creative ones so that had me in good stead on how to create interesting events. It was one of those things that got a of bit momentum behind it and built up fairly organically.
What was your first event like?
The first scratch + sniff event was a bit of a random free-for-all. I held it in a bar and it involved a lot of drinks! It started off with a tour through fragrances of the 20th century. There were scents for each decade and each table had vials containing unknown fragrances. I had set different games and challenges so it got them to really get talking about what they were smelling. The first event was quite simple and experimental. It was a one off event, but then I started doing them monthly and that became the time when each one had more of a theme.
And Odette Toilette?
The name Odette Toilette came randomly from a friend of mine one evening, we were playing around with ideas for a ‘stage name’ and he came up with it, so I owe him! Most people seem to know me as both so it’s like a fun Jekyll and Hyde situation now!
What’s your favourite thing about the fragrance industry?
From the point of view of someone who is outside of the fragrance industry, not a professional or perfumer, just a consumer who loves fragrance, my favourite thing is that it’s a bottomless well of incredible creative practice, technology, people and ideas. I sometimes think that those who are in the industry don’t realise just how fascinating it is to those outside.
“I wanted to explore what fragrance could be about and see what the limits were. To take scent and look at it and try to discover what it really is and what it means to people.”
From the outside people think the fragrance industry is really quite specialist and tiny but it’s actually this huge creative entity. If we think about something like the wine industry, it’s one drink but it’s huge and there are endless fascinating things to learn about it you could go on forever and I think the fragrance industry is the same. That’s what I love about it, the more you get into it the more there is to discover, it’s endless. Also I’ve been increasingly interested in functional fragrances, alongside fine fragrance, there’s now so much creativity that goes into those kind fragrances that people in the public realm just don’t know about yet. It’s just so fascinating.
I also love the heritage and the history of fragrance but also how fast moving it is. And I love thinking about where the excitement for new fragrance comes from. It often doesn’t come from where you think it would, there always so many different types of story in there.
How do you think promoting and selling scent has changed? Do you think it’s become more difficult?
If you look back to the 1970’s everything seemed much more straightforward then. You had a handful of launches per year for a start. There was a formula for launching them and there was a relatively good bet that they would succeed if they had the right ammunition behind them. And now I think that certainty has very much gone and so I feel a lot of fine fragrance marketing has become more conservative. Some marketing campaigns now can be derivative and unimaginative, there is no wow. There is also a challenge now that the way that we want to buy fragrance is changing, for example; hand bag bottles, discovery sets, experimentation, so it’s almost like the product model needs a new kind of marketing, because with fragrance you’re not selling someone an identity, you’re selling them a set of possibilities which is what I think the market is moving towards.
The niche market is not so niche anymore. It’s also very much collection based now too than one fragrance so you need to how do you sell a collection? If you have one fragrance, you can have a great story behind it, but now you have to have a story around a whole collection. I also think as ecommerce grows there will have to be more innovation in marketing.
What do you think a new fragrance needs to do these days to stand out and be different?
I think increasingly it needs a compelling story coming from its creator. Over the last 15 years or so, the perfumers have finally become more important but I think that the founder of the product has to be able to represent the fragrances, whether it’s because they are also the perfumer or because they are very good at working with the perfumers. Without the ability to talk confidently and in detail about the story of the fragrance and about its creation then you’re sort of stuck, you’re not going to get beyond that surface layer, the layer of a general release. It may smell nice and be a great perfume but to stand out there needs to be a story behind it and some passion.
The fragrance pyramid is obviously still relevant but the appetite is growing to know what’s really in a perfume rather than just what it smells like. So I think you need to be more open about that and not be so scared about sharing it. Don’t be scared about competitors because they’re going to be able to smell it have a good guess at what’s in it anyway.
I also think that the danger at the moment is lots of gimmicks and, especially in niche, there’s the idea of “let’s launch a line themed around some really ‘out there’ ”. I recently saw one inspired by sea urchins, so I can’t help but wonder if we really need that? New brands need to think carefully about what their story is and why is it going to be interesting. A story that is quirky isn’t necessarily going to be a scent that people want to wear just because it’s crazy.
I do think that brands that have fewer launches, that take their time and don’t launch with 15 fragrances but instead launch with three or five are easier to get a handle on. Brands need to think carefully about the range and how they’re classifying them, I don’t think it has to be about novelty. But I think you do need to have something you really want to say with a fragrance.
What predictions do you have for the fragrance industry and it’s consumers over the next 5 to 10 years?
It seems to be that in Europe and the USA enthusiasm for fragrance is growing and it seems to be growing outside of fine fragrance. Like the perfumery of laundry care, and air care and hair care. Functional products where scent is so important, there’s a chance to do something really interesting. I think there could be a fatigue of being overwhelmed in the fine fragrance market but open to excitement when it comes to your body lotion, so I would say alternative formats for fragrance could grow.
“it seems enthusiasm for fragrance is growing outside of fine fragrance. Like functional products where scent is so important, there’s a chance to do something really interesting”
Home fragrance has so much potential to grown even more, it’s never ending, there so many new applications for air care. However I do worry about the gadget side because there are lot of people in technology who are adding fragrance to their products, but they don’t understand fragrance they understand gizmos and the danger is having this range of products with possibly unremarkable scents purely for the novelty of it. I think it’s a real missed opportunity.
Wearable fragrance, as in jewellery and accessories, has loads of potential. If we think about it in relation to regulatory, if there are ingredients that we can’t put on our skin then that opens up the pallet for perfumers again. But it’s got to be commercial, it’s got to be something that people actually want, it can’t be some silly hat that no one is going to wear. If it’s done well then I’m excited about it because if means materials that have been difficult to use in fine fragrance can be used again then that’s great. Also, I think that encapsulation and where that’s going is really exciting, there are so many possibilities for encapsulation, it’s really great for hair care and longevity of fragrance.
Lastly, if you could pick one fragrance or scent to wear from now on, what would it be?
That’s so hard! I can’t pick just one! It would usually just be whichever my current favourite is, but that will always change! If I really had to wear one fragrance for the rest of my life I would rather wear no fragrance at all because I wouldn’t want to be stuck with something and end up resenting it. I’d actually rather be able to bottle the smell of my home than a perfume because I think that what is comforting and meaningful is every day scents.
But if I really have to whittle down my list, I‘ve got huge soft spot for White Musk by The Body Shop, I don’t wear it that often but I really love it. It’s almost like it quietens me down, I smell it and it makes me feel cocooned and feel good about things. If it disappeared from the market I would be really sad as I love the fact that it is always there to buy. I would also pick Diorella by Dior. It’s a sort of herby, fruity, chypre fragrance, so very sparkling on the one hand. You spray it on and it’s a bit like a cologne but then it turns quite weird and interesting. It’s a really good every day favourite of mine. Lastly I would also choose some kind of rose perfume; I would probably go for Nahema or Mitsouko by Guerlain. Just to be able to smell them and really appreciate them and just go “wow these are amazing creations”.
I love fragrance, but sometimes there’s too much choice, there are more fragrances than we could ever want and yet we still say “oh I still can’t find what I really want!” Most of us are still yet to find the holy grail of the fragrance world, but what a brilliant world of scents we have to explore to go on and find it.
Spring / Summer 2017
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