As many of you know by now, Estee Lauder has purchased Les Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle after a two-month spending spree that included Le Labo and Rodin Olio Lusso. The sale of Le Labo — a niche brand seen as hip, edgy, and expensive — came as a shock, but it was nothing compared to the outcry which greeted the news concerning Frederic Malle. He was different, he was special, he was Frederic Malle! His Editions de Parfums was considered one of the leaders of niche perfumery, adulated for its elegance and class, and respected for its innovations. For example, it was Frederic Malle who truly made us all pay attention to the men or women who actually created the fragrances by featuring the name of the “nose” on the actual bottle, and giving them the recognition that they had heretofore been denied. Malle symbolized niche and sophisticated luxury to such an extent that the Estee Lauder news was greeted with cries of “Et tu, Brute” and claims of a sell-out.
My response was something else. The very first second, I was utterly astounded but my disbelief soon gave way to an inexplicable (and admittedly hard to explain), “I’m not surprised.” My real, main, and primary reaction, however, was to see the news through the lens of Estee Lauder as the flip-side of industry trends represented by Elizabeth Arden and Coty. Most of you will probably wonder what on earth they have to do with anything but, as I’ll explain here, the Frederic Malle acquisition symbolizes the way the industry leaders respond to market changes by diverging into two, very separate, polar opposite directions, and that may be telling for the future.
As a result, the focus of this piece will be as much on the perfume industry and its market changes as it will be on Frederic Malle himself. I’m afraid that means quite a lot of financial information and business figures from the middle section onwards, but I’ve noticed a definite trend over the last 8 months that I think is significant. The Malle acquisition accompanied by the latest Estee Lauder quarterly earnings report seems to underscore my theory, to my eyes at least.