How the Perfume Business Lost Its Class

Ivanka Trump is no Audrey Hepburn

In the old days, celebrity perfumes were plush, rarified things—scent couture, if you will. The lucky fan might get a whiff of the magic scent, but the juice wasn’t for sale. Today, of course, every celebrity has a perfume, and all it takes is a call to the Home Shopping Network to buy it. Ever wonder how this part of Western civilization devolved in this manner?

Our story begins with the lady at right, who appeared at Hubert de Givenchy’s atelier in 1953 to find a dress for the movie Sabrina. Audrey Hepburn brought so much vibrancy and life to the designer’s clothing that soon he dressed her exclusively. In 1957, Givenchy created a perfume for her, too. As the story goes, Hepburn loved the scent so much that when Givenchy suggested he might market it, she blurted, “But I forbid you!” Hence, the name: L’Interdit—forbidden.

And it was. “Everyone asked Audrey Hepburn where they could get the perfume, but she said ‘no!’,” relates fragrance expert Marian Bendeth, owner of consultancy Sixth Scents. Eventually, Hepburn relinquished, as this 1973 ad illustrates. Even so, the pitch was subtle and irrefutably legitimate: “Givenchy created this perfume for Audrey Hepburn, and she really wore it,” Bendeth said. When you bought a bottle, you were getting a piece of something real and something special.

L’Interdit was (and remains, 20 years after Hepburn’s death) a success. But it also marked the beginning of a gradual awakening by beauty executives that celebrities are a highly effective way to market fragrances—so effective, in fact, that today’s $30 billion perfume industry has cooked up a scent for every A-, B- and C-lister out there. American department stores stocked 756 perfumes in 2002. As of 2010, the number was 1,160. Pick a celeb—c’mon, any celeb!—and there’s a good chance that he or she has a bottle of juice: Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Mariah Carey—they’ve all got fragrances (never mind the chances, low to miniscule, that these beautiful peeps actually wear the stuff). And, given this 2013 ad, we can add Ivanka Trump to the list, too. Ivanka Trump’s perfume is called Ivanka Trump—appropriate, considering that father Donald Trump has a fragrance called Donald Trump, but that’s another story.

Despite the short shelf life (Elvis and Michael Jackson once had their own fragrances, too), there’s no arguing with the celeb-scent fiscal model, which contributes mightily to the $5.2 billion notched by fragrances yearly in the U.S. Yet Bendeth observes that amid the sparkling bottles and sleek marketing campaigns, something integral has been lost in terms of brand integrity. Or maybe just integrity, period: “If they have the money, anybody can put out a fragrance now, but that detracts from the persona of polish and refinement—things that you aspire to other than fame and money. Audrey Hepburn personified beauty and elegance and class, even today. Givenchy was proud to say: This was her fragrance. But Ivanka—who is she? She’s the female figurehead of Donald Trump, so what are you buying into?”

Judging from the ad here, that’s anyone’s guess. But one thing’s sure: It’s not forbidden.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.