The Oldest Perfume Brand in the World Built a Fragrance Empire by Ignoring Trends. Now It’s Part of One

Artisanal scents are growing in popularity thanks to House of Creed

Viking is Creed’s first men’s fragrance since 2010.
Amelia Fletcher/Creed

It’s a summer Friday morning in Manhattan, and Emmanuel Saujet has just settled into a corner table at the NoMad Hotel’s atrium restaurant. Though the Flatiron District hotel is hardly a cheap place to score breakfast (oatmeal will set you back $16 here), the NoMad has no dress code—jeans, polo shirts and hoodies predominate. Yet despite that, and despite the withering New York humidity outside, Saujet is attired in his usual way: a well-cut suit (sans tie), cuff links and loafers. He is French, after all, though he’s lived in America most of his life, and imbued with that continental skill of making what is difficult somehow look effortless.

"We don't follow the trends," says ICP's Emmanuel Saujet.

The same might be said of Saujet’s business. As the co-founder and CEO of International Cosmetics and Perfumes, or ICP, Saujet is the exclusive North American marketer and distributor for the House of Creed, the oldest and possibly most mysterious fragrance brand in the world. With its long history (Creed was founded in 1760), illustrious clientele (everyone from Queen Victoria to JFK), and cut-above positioning (1.7 ounces of a Creed fragrance goes for $350), the House of Creed is just about everything that mass-market fragrances are not.

The curiosity of it is that Creed (and by association Saujet’s ICP) occupies the perch it does by having essentially ignored all of the conventions of the modern fragrance industry. It barely advertises, doesn’t hire celebrity endorsers and keeps distribution channels extremely limited, even though broadening it would mean more sales. Saujet is an iconoclast, and proudly so.

“Everything we did since the beginning was always under our terms,” he says. “People don’t understand how we even got here.”

This fall is a heady time for Creed and ICP both, since October sees the release of Viking, Creed’s first men’s fragrance since 2010. Most large fragrance brands would have released 14 or more new scents apiece during that time.

“They have to launch once a year to kind of get the excitement going,” Saujet explains. “We haven’t launched a man’s scent in seven years. It’s unheard of.”

If forcing consumers to wait nearly a decade feels like a gamble, Creed has proven it knows how to roll the dice. Its last release for men was Aventus, which has since become not only Creed’s top seller, it is the best-selling men’s fragrance in the U.S. in the artisanal-prestige category, according to NPD Group research. And though the Paris-based company insists Viking is not a follow-up to or a competitor of Aventus, the new juice will need to row awfully hard to equal the former’s popularity.

“Talk to anyone who wears Aventus,” says Kissura Craft, director and industry analyst for beauty at NPD, “[and they] keep saying no matter when they wear it, people are always stopping them on the street and asking, ‘What are you wearing?’” Creed, she says, “hit on it” with Aventus.

Two centuries of scents

When it comes to creating fragrances that develop fiercely loyal followings, Creed has actually been hitting on it for nearly 257 years now. Founded in London in 1760 when perfumer James Henry Creed created a cologne for King George III (it’s now sold as Royal English Leather), the House of Creed is renowned for its celebrity devotees—Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford—and its old-world approach to perfuming.

Every Creed fragrance has been created by an actual Creed (these days, by Olivier Creed, the sixth-generation head of the house). And every ingredient in the bottle has been weighed, mixed, macerated and filtered by hand. The company’s infusion technique, a centuries-old method that involves gradual heating to draw out essential oils, is painstakingly slow—too slow (and, it follows, also too expensive) for most of the dominant fragrance houses to bother with. Then there are the ingredients. At a time when most mass-market fragrances have turned to less expensive synthetics, some 90 percent of Creed’s ingredients are still natural, and the company will go most anywhere in the world to find them: roses from Morocco, irises from Florence, tuberose from India, and so on.

Erwin Creed: "We focus less on marketing and more on perfume-making."

“For us, the natural components make the compositions more beautiful,” says Erwin Creed. “While natural ingredients cost more, that does not hinder us at all from using them.”

He is in a position to know. Erwin is not just the company’s heir apparent, he shares responsibilities for running it with his father. The 37-year-old Erwin mostly manages the field, jetting around the world to find ingredient suppliers and spending time with distributors such as Saujet at ICP. Olivier, meanwhile, is the principal perfumer, or the “nose,” in the trade.

A living legend in the business, Olivier Creed opened his first boutique in Paris in 1970, allowing the public access to a brand that, prior to that time, was wholly bespoke. Many of Creed’s popular scents were originally created exclusively for prominent clients (Tabarome for Winston Churchill, Fleurissimo for Grace Kelly) and could not be purchased for any price. Today, Creed sells its scents online through two North American boutiques and via select retailers such as Neiman Marcus. But nearly everything else about Olivier Creed is decidedly old-world, in particular his habit of taking years to develop a new scent and penchant for tweaking it until the last minute.

“My father is driven by the art of perfumery and is constantly developing new formulas because he is inspired to do so—just like painting,” Erwin says. “A painter continues to paint and is constantly doing so. We aren’t in the business of trying to outdo the last introduction. We are more focused on [whether] a composition is beautiful than if it sells.”

Like his father, Erwin Creed does not much care to discuss business so much as a creative process that, he and his father are confident, will bring the business on its own. “We focus less on marketing and more on perfume-making,” he says. “The quality speaks for itself, and that’s what makes our clients so loyal.”

How ICP became a perfume player

Emmanuel Saujet, for his part, also knows about loyal clients, and he learned how to find them the hard way. Saujet started ICP with his brother Thomas—the company’s co-founder and president—in 1996. The first perfume he represented was Butterfly by Hanae Mori, a designer often referred to as the Chanel of Japan. But in mid-1990s America, few people had heard of Hanae Mori and, a year into ICP’s incorporation, Saujet was nearly bankrupt.

His dismal routine consisted of driving up and down the east coast, hitting department stores along the way and desperately trying to interest them in Japan’s Chanel. It was a lost cause. Associates would wrinkle their noses. “Who cares about that?” they’d say. “I want to sell Hugo Boss.”

Things were so bad that Saujet’s sales trips would be underwritten in part by his girlfriend at the time who is now his wife.

“She would give me these coupons—Ramada, $29 a night—because that’s all I could afford,” he says. When Saujet would meet with high-end department stores, he would find creative ways to avoid mentioning that he was staying at the Ramada out at the airport.

Yet, despite his financial straights, Saujet believed in the importance of person-to-person selling, or “high-touch” marketing, in today’s jargon. To that end, he took a gamble and hired an assistant named Calvin to sell Hanae Mori at the Saks store in tony Bal Harbour, Fla. Calvin was a Dennis Rodman lookalike, complete with orange hair, blue glasses, big earrings and a good dose of charisma.

One day, Saujet got a panicked call from Calvin, telling him that Oprah Winfrey had just walked into the store. “I said, ‘Listen, go back to the selling floor, buy with your credit card [some] Hanae Mori products, make a gift basket—and figure out a way to give it to Oprah!” he says.

It took Saujet a few minutes to talk his rep down from his panic, but finally, Calvin tracked Oprah down in the restaurant and, too terrified to talk to her, dumped the gift basket on her table and ran.

Olivier Creed is known for taking years to create a new fragrance.

Hearing the story, Saujet was certain he’d blown the chance of a lifetime.

“A week later, it’s Friday afternoon,” Saujet continues. “My buddy calls me and says, ‘Emmanuel, turn on the TV.’” And there was Oprah, telling her audience of 48 million people that Butterfly, as Saujet recalls her saying, “is probably one of the best fragrances you’ll ever smell.”

For Saujet, that day pretty much marked the end of airport Ramadas. But it was also the beginning of a business model that had been tried by fire and one that’s served ICP ever since: Represent only high-quality beauty brands, invest in one-on-one selling, ignore hype.

Through a family connection, Saujet and his brother met Olivier Creed in 2003, when the French fragrance house was looking for a new American representative. Olivier Creed could have had his pick of U.S. distributors, but his company’s approach to making fragrance was very similar to Saujet’s approach to marketing it.

“He is very old-school and doesn’t care about the trend—there is no trend for him,” Saujet says of Olivier Creed. “He goes where he wants to go with his aspirations. That really is, I think, what makes him different.”

So Olivier Creed signed ICP—“he took a gamble,” Saujet says—and the two companies have been partners for the 14 years since.

The more they wait, the more they want

Because Olivier Creed acts only when he is ready and will not be rushed, it follows that his American distributor takes a similar stance. Most of Saujet’s major competitors—L’Oreal, Estée Lauder, LVMH—are publicly traded.

“They have a business model that forces them to compete,” he says, because shareholders demand constant expansion and revenue growth. Among other things, it means that hundreds of new fragrances hit the market every year, more than most consumers can reasonably keep track of, as the big brands jockey for market dominance, spending fortunes on marketing, and especially paying celebrities to slap their names on the latest juice.

By contrast, privately held Creed and ICP have no such pressures, which allows Olivier Creed to limit the fragrances he releases and Sajuet to cherry pick the U.S. stores that Creed will be sold in. So far as marketing goes, ICP does very little of it, and while his chief of staff, Vanessa Dabich, has been gently nudging him to increase ICP’s social-media presence, Saujet is proudly old-school. “I’ve been around 20 years,” he says, “we don’t follow the trends.”

Saujet has particularly little regard for the beauty industry’s race to hire young influencers, paid to mention new scents on do-it-yourself makeup blogs and the like.

“It’s a superficial world where all of a sudden a woman becomes an authority, and now she has 500 followers so therefore she can influence?” That whole trend, he says, “will cycle through” sooner or later.

For Saujet, true marketing happens at the store counter, where especially if you’re a brand that charges several hundred dollars for a bottle of perfume, hearts and minds must be won.

Creed's Miami boutique is one of only three in the United States.

ICP sinks a great deal of resources into hiring and training Creed sales reps. Each quarter, Saujet says, “we spend dozens of hours with each of our salesmen at the store level for them to maximize on the opportunity to make that sale.” A Creed pitch doesn’t begin with the scent but with customers, asking what they like, what inspires them, thus opening the door to “discover” the right Creed scent.

“When you’re walking through the fragrance floor,” says Dabich, most of the fragrance salespeople say, “’Would you like to try this? Would you like to try this?’ For us, when you to come to our counters, it’s: ‘Tell us about yourself.’”

“We’re going to romance you,” Saujet continues. “We are very good at it.”

Which is not to say that representing Creed is a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens. Creed’s insistence on its method, its habit of taking half a decade or more to get a scent out the door and its artisanal approach to making it, means that stock outages are part of Creed life, a reality that hardly helps the bottom line.

“Two and a half months after launch, we’ll be out of stock,” Saujet says. “So what happens is I’ll call Olivier and I’ll say, ‘Olivier, what’s going on? Where is my order?’ Olivier will say, ‘Emmanuel, we are artisans—we don’t manufacture in bulk.’ But I say, ‘Olivier, we are losing business!’” And to this, Olivier Creed has a categorical response: “Let people wait. The more they wait, the more they’re going to want it.”

The market moves in Creed’s direction

Indeed, aside from the obvious fact that the product smells nice, Creed’s entire value is built on the notion of enforced scarcity—the scarcity of the ingredients, the scarcity of new releases, the scarcity of old-world skills to create the juice and sometimes the scarcity of the juice itself. In today’s hypercompetitive fragrance industry—IBISWorld values the U.S. market at $4 billion—that might seem like a risky game.

Fortunately for Creed, consumer preferences have been drifting in its direction on their own. After years of buying mass-produced scents hawked by celebrities that everyone knows have little to do with their creation, more consumers are looking for something more exclusive, especially made-by-hand fragrances like Creed that, though they may cost more, at least the wearer can be confident that 25 other people in his immediate vicinity aren’t wearing the same thing. According to NPD data, celebrity fragrances have declined 15 percent in the past year as of August. By contrast, artisanal scents grew 13 percent in the same period.

That means, paradoxically, that though Creed has long prided itself on ignoring the latest trends, it now finds itself in the center of one.

“A brand like Creed, they’re part of a trend—they’re artisanal,” Craft says, explaining that, apart from the fragrance itself, it’s the story behind such scents and how they’re made that “captures consumers.”

“And consumers want that story, and they relate to that story and want it to be part of their lives,” she says.

And that, in turn, may make Creed’s launch of Viking especially fortuitous. Not only are millennial males now the “main user group” for fragrances (77 percent regularly wear some kind of scent, according to Mintel), similar research from Global Industry Analysts noted the “growing popularity” of artisanal brands among these young bucks—specifically, the “metrosexual male with high propensity to spend on … personality-enhancing products.”

For its part, Viking is formulated for just such an enhancement, assuming the metrosexual in question has $350 to spend on 3.3 ounces of cologne. In a prepared statement accompanying the new scent’s release, Olivier Creed explained that he “wanted to create a totally new men’s fragrance that would capture a different spirit than our Aventus.” It’s hard to take something as ineffable as a personal scent and define it with marketing copy, but judging from the verbiage, Viking furnishes another hit of that manly-man stuff that every khaki-clad cubicle warrior wishes he had more of: Aventus smells like “strength, power and success,” and Viking evokes the “fearless spirit of boundless exploration for the modern man who goes against the grain.”

Not that any of these distinctions matter much. The selling point for Creed is, of course, the scent and then the elusive but no less critical feeling one gets when he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and spritzes on something he knows isn’t for sale at the local Sephora, something that chances are nobody else in the elevator will be wearing. This combination of aesthetic and emotional attributes is what delivered a reported 70 percent rise in sales for Creed in 2015 and will likely sustain the brand regardless of how well Viking is received. Creed is among the few fragrance brands that can afford to play the long game. As Erwin Creed observes, “Aventus, in the beginning, wasn’t a big success. It took two years.”

Saujet, finishing his coffee at the NoMad, seems in no hurry, either. Creed, he says, “has 256 and a half years of history behind it. And [with] customers these days, there’s a shift happening. The celebrity fragrances died seven years ago. Now, it’s all about the niche. It’s a great opportunity for a company like us.”