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Scents speak to, and of, the wearer Fashion: What's in a name? When it's the name of a fragrance, a whole lot, apparently, since it needs to reflect the emotions of an era and say something about the women who will buy it.


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a successful fragrance name can leave those Kodak moments in the dust. Consider the barrage of images evoked by Shalimar, White Linen or Charlie. In usually three words or less, the name on the bottle conveys a mood, conjures up a fantasy and, in the most successful cases, serves as a sociological and cultural barometer of the times.

"The name is probably the most critical element of the fragrance in the sense that it has to convey to the consumer the personality of the fragrance," said Pamela Vaile, a New York-based marketing and fragrance consultant who has worked with Estee Lauder and Princess Marcella Borghese.

"A successful fragrance is based on the synergy of the name, bottle, fragrance and advertising," she said. "The name is probably the first and most critical element to achieving that positioning."

While the actual creation of a perfume, or "juice," is usually handled by an outside lab such as International Flavors & Fragrances, the name is most often an in-house production. At Revlon, the brainstorming is done by marketing executives and creative minds from throughout the corporation along with representatives from Revlon's ad agency, said Steven G. Perelman, vice president of fragrance marketing. Focus groups are brought in several times during a scent's development.

The process is less formulaic at a smaller company, such as Robert Isabell. The five fragrances from this New York florist and party planner reflect his travels and love of flowers.

"It's a little art, it's a little science, it's a little inspiration," said Merle Gordon, a partner in the company, in reference to names that include Calla, Savanna and Attar. "We have ongoing discussions. When a name feels right, it just feels right."

The biggest challenge in the '90s is to find a name that isn't already trademarked -- one of the main reasons so many designers and companies name scents after themselves, said Annette Green, president of the non-profit Fragrance Foundation.

If all goes according to plan, the naming of a fragrance occurs early in the development process. The marketing team then builds a fragrance profile explaining the concept, target audience and the look of the bottle.

All of this information is given to the perfumer, Green said, who can then start experimenting with combinations of florals, spices and woodsy notes.

Some names, of course, are no-brainers. A first scent usually carries a familiar name (from the clothing, cosmetics or jewelry world) or some variation on this theme (Donna Karan, Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger). A celebrity tie-in begs for the bottle to carry the name of the star (Michael Jordan from Bijan, Patti LaBelle from Flori Roberts).

The next best thing is something closely associated wWith the company or celebrity (Elizabeth Taylor Black Pearls, 5th Avenue by Elizabeth Arden) or a central ingredient (Vanilla Fields). Once those are exhausted, just about anything goes, from names of exotic places (Ceylon from Robert Isabell) to made-up words (Amarige by Givenchy).

But given the stakes in this $5.4 billion industry, that name had better be bankable. With 80-plus women's scents being launched a year in the United States, the name has to help a newcomer attract an audience.

Along with the bottle and the scent itself, Green looks to names to offer a whiff of their era. In the 1920s, when women started to emerge as independent entities, we saw the debut of Shalimar, Joy and Chanel No. 5. The post-war '40s brought an onslaught of hyper-feminine fragrances like L'Air du Temps, Miss Dior and Chantilly. The '70s were a mix of romantic (White Linen), independent (Charlie), daring (Opium), and sensual (Jovan Musk).

Hard, sexual names surfaced in the '80s (Obsession, Poison). In the '90s, the notion of romance has re-emerged with the introductions of Allure from Chanel, Cherish by Revlon, Poeme by Lancome, Pleasures by Estee Lauder and the new Organza from Givenchy (yes, organza is a fabric, not an emotion, but its sheer, airy qualities conjure up romantic images).

Also gaining strength is a whole breed of casual scents, signified by the word "sport" somewhere on the label (Escada Sport Country Weekend).

But just when you thought escapism had run amok, along comes Donna Karan with Chaos. Although the ad copy promises that Chaos will help you "discover the calm within," the name seems to acknowledge the reality of women's lives, not offer hope in a bottle.

"It represents what my life is," says Karan of the new scent, housed in a crystal-shaped bottle. "The part of all of our lives right now. We're all looking for the calm that's in the chaos of our lives. It's like a hurricane, and in the center of the hurricane is the calm."

While the unconventional name elicited more than a few chuckles among her staff initially, Karan may have tapped into the collective psyche.

"We are truly living in a chaotic environment, and the masters of this environment are the ones who understand that the guidelines are collapsing," said Ross Goldstein of Generation Insights, a San Francisco-based firm that studies consumer behavior. "The positioning behind it is brilliant."

Also new and breaking out of the sweet-and-dreamy category is Gucci with Envy. On a more ambivalent note, Bob Mackie has launched Perhaps.

A few scents are out to improve the industry's karma. The Gap offers a unisex fragrance called om, while Coty joins the spiritual movement with Nokomis, the name of the daughter of the moon in American Indian lore. The tagline for the mass-market scent reads: "The fragrance that speaks to a woman's soul."

But while a name is essential in enticing shoppers to try something new, it won't help a flawed fragrance.

"The real thing that sells a fragrance is the fragrance," said Peg Smith, chairwoman of the cosmetic and fragrance marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "It can be in the most fantastic bottle and have the best name in the world, and if the fragrance isn't good, it doesn't last."

Scents we'd like to see

If fragrance names truly reflect the spirit of the era, can these scents be far behind?

Angst: Surrender to the anxiety

Whatever: For those moments when anything will do

Disaffected: Catch the spirit of discontent

Panic: Crisis in a bottle

Sport wannabe: Just fake it

Pub Date: 5/15/97

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