‘Guerlain is to fragrance what the Little Black Dress is to fashion. There’s one for everyone.’ So says Emmanuelle Noyer, Managing Director of Guerlain in the UK. The irony, of course, being that it was not Guerlain who invented the Little Black Dress, but Chanel. Guerlain is not and never has been a fashion house - its origins lie in perfume, which still accounts for 54% of its market; fragrance is, and always will be, the most important product made by Guerlain. This may go some way towards explaining why this particular launch is so important to the house, which hopes to repeat the success La Petite Robe Noire had on its release in France earlier this year now it has been launched in the UK.
If you mention perfume to the average Brit, they might indeed respond by naming Chanel, maybe Chloe, D&G, or Sarah Jessica Parker - but not Guerlain. Mention Guerlain and the response is most likely to be confusion; mention Shalimar, and you might just see a flicker of recognition. Added to that, there’s the familiar problem for any long-established company, of how to stay true to its roots and keep its traditional fan base happy, whilst also appealing to new buyers. It’s a fine line to tread - move too far in either direction and you risk alienating the former and not even registering with the latter. Undeterred, the folk at Guerlain are very keen to please everyone with this new version of La Petite Robe Noire, which is described by them as ‘a new chapter’.
The original fragrance was released in a limited edition in 2009 to a positive reception, followed by a second version in 2011.
The success of the original prompted a reformulation in order to introduce it to a wider market. As with the two previous versions, the 2012 La Petite Robe Noire is presented in the Guerlain ‘gendarme’ bottle, featuring the design of a Little Black Dress drawn by Serge Manseau. The advertising campaign is noticeably free of celebrity endorsement, the chic retro-styled animation of Kuntzel and Deygas proving very popular, despite its limited exposure, whilst also being a return to Guerlain’s long history of collaborations with illustrators. Again, there’s that fine line - go down the now well-worn path of fronting your fragrance with a celeb and you risk looking like everyone else and effectively cheapening the brand; then again, not doing what everyone else is doing, and doing successfully, is inherently risky. The lack of a celebrity face is, however, a deliberate strategy. It sets Guerlain apart from the crowd; crucially, it also allows the fragrance to appeal to a wider range of people.
And so to London on a very hot day, and a stylish launch, including afternoon tea, which featured some of the ingredients of the new fragrance. Sadly, Thierry Wasser (described in the press release as ‘an immense “nose alchemist” ’, which just made me want to meet him even more) couldn’t make it, apparently off on his travels sourcing Rose Bulgare - but he did appear, complete with lab coat, in a pre-recorded message, just for us.
He described what was effectively an early market research method used by Jacques Guerlain, who would come down from his laboratory above the shop at 68 Champs Elysées to try out samples on his clientele and, with their feedback, decide what he needed to do next in order to create a fragrance that would please his customers. Thierry reiterated that the success of the original La Petite Robe Noire has allowed him to do the same thing, to understand ‘qui était la petite robe noire’, in order to ‘transform her to so that he can show her to the whole world’. He states: ‘It’s a fragrance which suits all women because there’s the archetype of this Little Black Dress which is an icon... it’s a classic.’
The problem with a one-size-fits-all fragrance is that it can descend into blandness. I’ve not had the pleasure of experiencing either of the first two incarnations, but my first impression of this one is of an appealing combination of cherries and licorice; sweet, but not too sweet. Five minutes in it settles down into a pleasant, warm scent. Despite these atypical ingredients for Guerlain, containing as it does elements of the Guerlinade, La Petite Robe Noire does still manage to exude something of the Guerlain character and I suspect will, as intended, have a broader appeal than the likes of Insolence, which was clearly aimed at a younger market.
if the aim is to attract new customers whilst keeping with the Guerlain tradition, for me, at least, it works.
La Petite Robe Noire is available exclusively at Selfridges now, with a nationwide UK launch to follow.