Inside the threeASFOUR fashion show at the Jewish Museum during Fashion Week, the first thing you noticed was the smell: a heavy, exotic perfume hanging in the air. As models walked the runway, the scent melded into the scene until it was as much a part of the show as the clothes.
From choosing just the right venue to choosing the perfect smell, nothing happens by accident in the production of a fashion show. Welcome to the heavily perfumed world of “scent branding.”
While scent branding isn’t confined to the fashion crowd — it’s also used in casinos, hotel chains, stadiums, clubs and retail — it’s become a particularly sexy way to brand fashion retail stores, events and parties. Smells, often custom-designed to the brand, are used to evoke a happy mood, causing the customer to linger, hopefully creating brand loyalty or at least a memorable experience. The scent is diffused through a small box that blows air, or in larger spaces may be pumped through an air- ventilation system.
According to fashion legend, the practice started with Coco Chanel in 1921. To promote her new perfume No. 5, she spritzed it on her rich and connected friends at a dinner party.
Scent marketing has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then. But why are background smells so important?
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The Barclays Center is one the venues that has been perfumed, with owner Jay-Z heavily involved in the project.
“Scents have a way of working in the background of our consciousness and can affect mood, for better or worse,” says Leslie Vosshall, a professor of neurogenetics at the Rockefeller University in New York.
“Scents are very potent at forming associations in our brains, the stuff of memory,” she says. “If a certain hotel lobby is perfumed with something lovely, and the experience you have there is fantastic, the next time you check into a hotel of the same brand — even if it is across the world — the good memories of your last stay will come flooding back,” says Vosshall.
Companies range from the corporate (like ScentAir, IFF and Prolitec) to the boutique, like New York’s 12.29. The olfactive branding company often works with fashion designers to create a custom scent for runway shows.
12.29, founded by twins Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, did their first fashion show in 2009 with Rodarte. They’ve since handled fragrances on the runways of Jason Wu, Chadwick Bell, Zac Posen and Thakoon.
They’ve also designed scents for Surf Lodge in Montauk and a fragrance called “1992” for Purple magazine’s 20th anniversary party.
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Models walk the runway at the custom-scented threeASFOUR show during Fashion Week.
ScentAir is the largest scenting company in the world, with clients in 109 countries. It provides fragrances for hotels, retail stores and even a ride at Disneyland.
Scenting is “not new, it’s just becoming very much in vogue and in fashion,” says creative director Gary McNatton.
ScentAir also created the fragrance for the Barclays Center, although the actual concoction is a heavily guarded secret. McNatton says a scented space should be subtle, “so you don’t know if it’s intentional or just a happenstance.”
The Barclays project was headed by another team member, McNatton says. However, he reveals, “It was designed directly for Jay Z. He was very involved in it. It was a very elevated, beautiful, masculine scent, because he didn’t want it to smell like your typical popcorn-and-hot-dogs experience.”
On the fashion and retail side, ScentAir also provides olfactory auras for Juicy Couture, Lord & Taylor, Hugo Boss and J. McLaughlin. They even scent a grocery store chain with the smell of fresh-ground coffee. Dylan’s Candy Bar is also a client.
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Jay Z, at the opening of Barclays Center, reportedly had a hand in designing the facility’s scent.
“For stores, it’s an investment in completing that environment in making it as seductive and memorable as possible,” McNatton says.
ScentAir’s prices vary widely, depending on whether they’re creating a custom scent or using an existing one and on the size of the space, but costs start at a few thousand dollars.
The perfumery Aedes de Venustas scented the threeASFOUR Fashion Week with their own perfume, Irina Nazarena. Scenting shows isn’t anything new to them: The first show they were asked to provide a fragrance for was Bill Blass in 1997, when the craze started.
“It makes sense,” says Robert Gerstner of fragrances at fashion shows. Gerstner is the co-owner of Aedes de Venustas, a fragrance retail store in the West Village. It’s been in business since 1995 and came out with its own perfume brand last year.
“People see the clothes, and [they] hear the music, and so by spraying it, they are subconsciously put into a particular mood … You can really put them into whatever mood you want them to be in.”
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Robert Gerstner, co-owner of Aedes de Venustus, a fragrance retailer in the Village that provides companies with scents.
After their first Blass show, the company was asked to perfume the rarefied fashion air of Giorgio Armani in 2004. It does threeASFOUR in New York and Giambattista Valli in Paris regularly, and has also sprayed for designers Chris Benz and Michael Bastian.
As far as the diffusion method: “Old-school, no devices, by hand,” Gerstner says. “It’s still the best way.” For the threeASFOUR show, they sprayed three entire $ 245 bottles in four one-hour rounds — spritzing not only the room, but the show notes and the goodie bags.
“It’s just to complete the scene, so to speak,” Gerstner says.
Of course, scent is only one ingredient, and not necessarily the magic one. Vosshall, the professor of neurogenetics, says, “The key to this working is that you associate the scent with a good experience.”
Designer Prabal Gurung knows that all too well. He had a scenting malfunction at his most recent Fashion Week show earlier this month, when many showgoers complained that the scent he used — a collaboration with 12.29 — was overpowering and sickly sweet.
People can even scent their residences now. Diptyque can scent your home or apartment with its new $ 350 “Un Air” electric diffuser, which allows you to float scent through your house. It’s a miniaturized version of the devices used to scent very large spaces.
“We wanted to create an olfactory signature for the home,” said Myriam Badault, Diptyque’s international marketing director.