By Bir Ganguly
Park Avenue Princesses are finally indulging in their downtown alter-egos and East Village hipsters are thoroughly enjoying the lush milieu of Central Park – all without having to cross the great divide of 14th Street.* Even out-of-towners are basking in the fabulousness of the world’s premier city from their own less fabulous corners of the world.
Welcome to the revolution called Bond No. 9 – a fragrance collection that is defining the scents of our beloved metropolis and bottling them with great flair. Presently consisting of 21 women’s, men’s, and unisex eaux de parfum, the line has a dual mission: to restore thoroughbred artistry and luxe to perfumery, and to mark every New York neighborhood with a scent of its own. No wonder the cognoscenti are watching its every move.
Recently, Beauty News NYC’s Bir Ganguly sat down for a hearty téte à téte with Laurice Rahmé, founder and owner of Bond No. 9, at her headquarters and flagship boutique on Bond Street in NoHo. Here he delivers the inside story.
BG: Bond No. 9 is an amazing concept, to say the least. You have made me fall in love with New York all over again. How did you come up with such a novel and daring idea?
LR: Thank you. But I’ll tell you it’s not completely my own idea. I won’t take all the credit for it, because it was done for Paris in the 20th century by a number of major French perfumers. One of them was Guerlain – he covered a number of neighborhoods in Paris, the latest being Champs Elysees. Yves Saint Laurent did Rive Gauche and also Paris, the fragrance. Then, Hèrmes did 24 Faubourg, which is on Faubourg St. Honoré.
BG: So you derived inspiration from what was done in your old hometown, Paris?
BG: Tell us about your involvement in perfumery pre-Bond No. 9 and the story behind your crossing the Atlantic.
LR: I brought two perfume companies here from Europe – I brought Creed from Paris, and before that, another French perfume company, Annick Goutal. Prior to that, I learnt my profession at L’Oréal Lancôme. I was transferred to New York by Lancôme when I was a young girl, like your age.
BG: You are still young.
LR: (Pushing away the lush black locks from her face) Oh thank you!
BG: Do you continue to work with those houses?
LR: No, not anymore. Annick Goutal passed away, and Creed is liquidating because of the gray market from Dubai; one can’t compete with this gray market** – it’s like a disease.
At L’Oréal, because it is a major corporation, you become just a number. I wanted to be an entrepreneur; wanted to do my own thing. So I quit in 1990. In a big corporation, you do only one thing. When you are on your own, you get to do everything.
BG: So when did you launch Bond No. 9?
LR: In 2003, only two years ago.
BG: Oh really!
LR: Yes, it’s very new. In 2001, I became an American citizen. I have been here for so long. It was about time. You know, how those big things happen that motivate you. There was that, and also, the post-September 11th atmosphere motivated a lot of people – especially downtown. We are downtown (She speaks with the casual pride of a downtown diva.). I don’t like to talk about the attacks all the time, but we had the smell of it.
Smell is very powerful, and marks your memory forever. And the smell that we had here lasted three to four months. So, as much as downtown people would not go uptown – they are kind of snobs – with this, more than ever, it became like two cities. Anyway, it motivated us. So, I said, we love our address – 9 Bond Street; let’s trademark our address. Bond No. 9 is really our address, you see.
BG: What was happening at 9 Bond Street at that point in 2001?
LR: We had been here since 1999; we were selling Creed, books on perfumes, vintage bottles, and tea – lots of tea. We matched the tea to the fragrance – scenting your interiors just like your exteriors. I wanted a beautiful perfume gallery. We sold Creed, but it was not a Creed store. It was my store. We did this gallery concept with a tea bar and a library to sell fragrance in a different way. Not how it’s done at department stores – phish, phish, phish, phish.
When Creed went on the gray market, we realized that we couldn’t compete and decided to do our own line. We had the name Bond No. 9 trademarked, and following the example of (the scents of) Paris, started working on different New York neighborhoods. We trademarked sixteen New York neighborhoods all at once – Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, West Broadway, Gramercy, Chelsea, Broadway, NoHo, … more or less, covering the entire city, geographically. I knew that, in America, if you did two or three neighborhoods, people would copy you. But if you have sixteen neighborhoods marked at one go, you would not have Estée Lauder or Donna Karan doing Central Park – because then you have already marked the city with your style.
BG: So in 2001 you acquired the trademarks and started development?
LR: Yes. It took us two years. We launched these first sixteen neighborhood fragrances in February 2003 – all of them at one time.
BG: I see you have presented us with a few more creations since.
LR: Well, our thought was – now that we know who we are, let us do more. New Yorkers were loving it, American tourists loved it, and then foreign tourists from all over – France, Germany, England, Italy, Middle East, loved it.
So we launched Eau de New York in May 2004. It was meant to capture the essence of the city as a whole. Just as Saint Laurent did Paris (the fragrance) for Paris, we needed an equivalent. This fragrance really put us on the map internationally. Eau de New York is a liquid souvenir to summon up Manhattan’s vitality and charisma in any corner of the world.
Oh, actually before Eau de New York, we bottled Harlem in February of last year. We called it New Haarlem, with the double ‘a’ as in the original Dutch spelling. It’s very richly textured and androgynous with a brazen chic vibe.
Then in July 2004, came Central Park. Central park, to me, is more than a neighborhood; it functions as the lungs of New York. So, this fragrance commemorates New York grand oasis by offering a similar lush sensory landscape.
In September 2004, just in time for the Feast of San Gennaro (10 days of merriment on Mulberry Street), we launched Little Italy – a mellow but intriguing smell, like the essence of creamy, homemade orange gelato. Some of my friends and clients insist on wearing it even at this height of winter!
Finally we had Wall Street in November 2004. Wall Street the neighborhood.
BG: “Wall Street the neighborhood?”
LR: Wall Street has been emerging as a real residential neighborhood. After September 11th, a lot of financial institutions left those big, beautiful, pre-war buildings and moved to New Jersey or midtown and never came back. These buildings are being transformed into condominiums and people are moving into the area to actually live. If you go now, you see a lot of young people, couples, and children. This eau de parfum is to celebrate the bullish downtown revival, both in terms of the financial markets and this new residential, human aspect of it.
BG: So you are saying that this human aspect considerably influenced your decision to launch Wall Street?
LR: Absolutely, it’s all about people. As they say, “We the People…” (hearty laughter).
You see the shape of my bottles. I did that shape with a person in mind. I do everything like a person… the bottles, the mannequins (positioned around the shop floor to hold the perfume amphoras) they are like people.
I really want to make fragrance very human. It has lost the human touch. In the last thirty years, the fragrance industry has become very minimalist, commercial, and cold. I call this the process “Gap-ization.” I feel very poorly about this trend. When you look into older (perfumery) books, you see how it used to be so beautiful, like an art. I am trying to bring back the human touch that made it that way. That is why I did the human shape. However, some say it looks like a star. This is about New York, and New York is a star anyway (laughter). So, that’s fine.
BG: How exactly do you go about “scentifying” a neighborhood?
LR: To get a good product, a good perfume, balanced and interesting all the way to the end, the perfumer has to be superb. I mostly work with very senior perfumers – perfumers who have a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. A perfumer is like a pianist. There is nothing like practice in music. The same holds true for perfumes. You have to be thorough with all the notes, just as in music. Only there are many more notes here.
The other condition is that the perfumers have to be French, to ensure the French touch – a know-how that you can’t otherwise match. At the same time, they have to know New York inside out, love the city, and love the neighborhood they work on. I give them a few choices of neighborhoods to pick from. When you give an artist – and these are artists – the choice of work, they are truly excited. In most major companies like Ralph Lauren or Estée Lauder, they would have to work within narrow specifications. But here, there is no brief. That’s a really big thing. I just give them a keynote. For the rest, they are on their own. It’s a pure creative process.
Let’s take, for instance, Little Italy. It’s a wide subject and has a lot of elements. What am I going to pick? So I say – all the citrus. Once I give that, it’s going to be a beautiful citrus fragrance. But of course, this is a genius perfumer, so he also uses jasmine. That’s where the artistry lies. I never suggested adding jasmine to citrus – it’s completely anti-conformist in perfumery. Nobody does that. But the more anti-conformist the fragrance, the more happy I am. That is what New York is all about, individuality.
So far, I have given the right keynotes. So far we haven’t made mistakes. In other words, people can relate the scent to the neighborhood immediately.
We also do not give a budget. As I mentioned, there is no brief with price or any other stipulation. We don’t discuss price until at the very end of the process. At the end I pick what I like and I ask for the price.
BG: What technical aspects of Bond No. 9 set it apart from other high-end fragrances?
LR: Well, the most important one is that we use 22-25% concentration in our fragrances. Perfumers love that. That level of concentration means a lot of oil (the rest being alcohol and distilled water). The average is 12-16%. So our perfumers are in a dream world because it means that their creations will be presented in a purer or less-diluted form. Of course, it pushes the cost of the product and, consequently, the price much higher. (Bond No. 9 fragrances cost $40 – $45 per ounce.) But it’s worth it because people come back all the time.
BG: Tell us a bit about your upcoming launches.
LR: We have some very exciting neighborhoods coming up. Chinatown launches in April 2005 as an avant garde, edible floral scent. It celebrates the vibrant culinary scene associated with the neighborhood, as well as, the new generation of highly fashion-forward young Asian Americans. In June, we are ringing in the Hampton. Bleecker Street and West Village will join the range in September. And for Christmas 2005, we’ll have West Side Stories.
BG: I see that you are doing the Hampton. Is Bond No. 9 stepping outside of New York?
LR: No, no. This is like a little inside joke for us New Yorkers – about how the Hampton is effectively a New York neighborhood, especially in the summer. That’s why it’s coming in June. Think of it, Sag Harbor is like SoHo, East Hampton is like Madison, West Hampton is 3rd Avenue and South Hampton is like Park Avenue. And in this fragrance, we will have all of them at once. It should be a great fresh scent in a blue bottle.
We are absolutely not leaving New York. Many cities have asked us to do perfumes for them; LA for instance. We have to love what we do. Why not LA? Because I don’t ‘know’ LA. I visit LA, but to have credibility I’d have to move there. (Working with New York,) you have to understand the difference between the people who live in Chelsea and who live in Central Park or Little Italy, and you have to make sense (with the notes that you put in the fragrances). I know my city inside out; so I can do this. But what do I know about LA or other places? No, we are not leaving New York.
To bond better with your favorite New York neighborhood, visit Bond No. 9’s flagship boutique at their NoHo headquarters on Bond Street, or stop by one of their uptown boutiques at 680 and 897 Madison Avenue. The collection is also available nationwide at Saks Fifth Avenue and at Saks.com on the Web. For more information please phone (212) 228-0842 or (212) 228-1940.
* For readers who are unfamiliar with the tribalisms of Manhattan Island, 14th Street is the demarcation where uptown (midtown inclusive) refuses to meet downtown – in every way but geographically.
** Gray markets offer original products at prices significantly less than retail by exploiting loopholes in distribution control.