Christophe Laudamiel, 53, never expected to become a master perfumer. For a kid born in Clermont-Ferrand — one of France’s oldest cities — he didn’t think the high-fashion perfume industry would have him. But when International Flavors & Fragrances tapped him to become one of their staff perfumers, he took the opportunity and ran with it. In 2002, this meant working on a small account in Abercrombie & Fitch that no other perfumer wanted and formulating a scent that would go on to become the most iconic smell of the early aughts. In fact, between 2003 and 2008, if you found yourself in a mall anywhere in the world, you probably got a whiff of Laudamiel’s formula. Here’s the story, in Laudamiel’s own words, of how Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Fierce” wafted from his imagination to your nostrils.
* * * * *
In 2001, I was a junior perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF). My background was in fabric softeners. I helped formulate the scent of Lenor, or European Downy, for Procter & Gamble. But fine perfumes were a different world. And in it, I was a nobody.
Early on in my life, I wanted to be a veterinarian. But that all changed in 1986 when I won the French National Chemistry Olympiads, after which I could no longer ignore the fact that my true calling was in molecules. So I went to Lycee Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand to study chemistry and engineering. At the time, I thought maybe I’d apply my studies to forensics. But around the same time, I happened across a photo of a perfumer for Dior in a lab setting. Here, I thought, was a person standing on the edge between science and beauty. That I could formulate a scent that people would wear was an idea that stuck with me. But who was I? I was a middle-class kid from the middle of nowhere in France. To be a perfumer, I thought, you had to know someone at Dior.
Nonetheless, I continued to study chemistry and teach at Harvard and MIT. Then, I was selected for an internship in flavor chemistry at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. Once I was there, I interviewed with the perfume department. They hired me so I went to P&G’s in-house perfume school. In 1999, I received the P&G Special Recognition Award for my work in fragrance creation, especially in fabric softeners. At the same time, I studied introductory fine fragrance formulation with master perfumer Pierre Bourdon, the creator of Cool Water, Kouros and Dolce Vita. After that, IFF hired me.
The perfume industry is made up of seven to eight layers between the perfumers who develop the formulas and the fashion houses. There’s the parent companies and the department stores. And in between, there are marketing and design teams — referred to as “wrappers” — who decide how the perfume bottles should look and how the bottle should be packaged. Most of the money is spent on the design of the bottle. And the parent companies of these fashion houses like L’Oreal which produce scents for Lancôme, Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani to name a few, want to get the cheapest juice they can.
Typically, for a coveted brand like Ralph Lauren, the company will brief 40 different perfumers in New York and Paris. The selection process is a competition. And perfumers have to submit formulas as well as adaptations for shampoos, candles and any other potential products the company plans to release. After a few months, the company will select maybe three or four finalists, and a few months after that, they select two contenders. The problem is, if you don’t win the account, you don’t get any money for your time. So you have to win to make everything worthwhile.
At the end of 2001, after nine months of competition, myself, along with my colleague Carlos Benaim, won the account for Polo Blue. At the IFF building in Manhattan, all three floors stood around us and began clapping. In less than 12 months at IFF and working in fine fragrances, I could officially say that I was a perfumer for one of the biggest accounts in the industry.
Just before the announcement was made, IFF was approached by a design and marketing firm called Boom that was going to help this small brand — Abercrombie & Fitch — develop their first perfume. I remember this lady coming to brief us about this exciting new project for the new-and-improved Abercrombie. One thing I knew at this point was that I didn’t want to create a classic scent like like Halston’s and Elizabeth Ardens’ because these 1980s style scents weren’t something I was into at all.
Worse yet, the potential for the project was about $40,000 worth of juice. This meant that Boom would buy about $40,000 of oil for the launch, which is tiny. For comparison, the Polo Blue account was something between one and two million. So a lot of the senior perfumers weren’t interested in the Abercrombie account. But since I was still a junior perfumer, I took on the project. It was better than nothing.
After Boom briefed us, Carlos came to Bruno Jovanovic — a colleague trainee perfumer at the time — and I. He handed us a piece of paper and said, “Why don’t you play with this formula?” To this day, I’m not sure where that formula came from. It could have been a formula that was already on the market, or one that was just hanging around the office. Carlos gave it to me and said, “Just rework it, and do whatever you want.” As a new perfumer, to have a formula to build on was better than starting from scratch. It was a starting point, and that’s not always the case.
If you’re a good perfumer, when you see a formula, the first thing you do is extract what key ingredients are in the formula to make a base, which meant that I removed some things and left some things in. When I was at P&G, I learned that fragrance in Tide is a very precious commodity; it’s the most expensive ingredient in Tide or in Downy. So I had to learn to scrape every little bit because when you’re talking about tons of Tide, all those pennies add up, even though the amount of perfume in Tide is less than one percent.
The formula that Carlos gave me was one page long, and it had roughly 50 ingredients. I submitted different versions to Abercrombie. Some had between 17 and 20 ingredients, and some had closer to 25. I named the fragrance “Indecent” since that concept was my inspiration while I worked on the formula. I wanted something sexy. The client, of course, has no idea which formula is which. They just see sample bottles with different letters on them — A, B, C, D.
For seven months, we heard nothing from Abercrombie. Then, one day, someone from Boom told me that my scent was doing quite well and that I was a contender. The competition was down to just me and another perfumer. I asked the person which letter they selected to be in the final run, and he told me they went with the letter G. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “You have to check again. There must be a mistake.” Why? Because “G” was the base. It was never meant to be included in the package. Whoever sent the samples must have made a mistake. But I guess they thought the base smelled good by itself.
I thought to myself, “All the work we did on the grapefruit notes and other stuff, and they picked the base, which was sage, cucumber, sandalwood, musk and oak moss.” I was shocked on every level, including when we ended up winning.
If you remember the old Abercrombie & Fitch stores mirrored the atmosphere of a club — low-lighting, loud dance music and dark wood paneling. The fragrance, which they dubbed “Fierce,” was the culmination of their new direction.
I asked our contact at Boom how they made their decision, and she told me that in the spring of 2002, they had people from Abercrombie stand outside of a New York City club at 3 a.m. so they could ask two questions. They asked guys: “Which of these scents would you wear if you were trying to get laid?” And they asked girls: “Which fragrance would you prefer your lover to wear as you’re having sex?”
I’m sure you know the smell. That’s because the Abercrombie CEO wanted to have the fragrance sprayed on all the clothing and throughout the store. I remember them asking me for pumps to spray the clothing, and I said, “Oh my God, but those poor people doing the spraying — it’s going to hurt their hands.” Instead, they figured out a way to get these machines from Milwaukee that would diffuse the scent in the store automatically, every few minutes or so.
They ran into an issue, though. The oak moss note was purposely made to be a little heavy so that it would last on the skin for eight hours. In the air, however, it could be suffocating. And so, Abercrombie asked us to rebalance the formula for the machines. All of which is to say, that technically, the formula in the bottle is, balance-wise or proportionally speaking, slightly different than the one you’re smelling in the stores.
A few years after the release of the scent in 2002, I remember seeing people line up to get into the store. Before long, Fierce was one of the top-selling fragrances in the U.S. Of course, I don’t get any of the royalties. The perfume industry is a gross business for the artists compared with music or fashion. As a staff perfumer, you only get your end-of-the-year bonus if the scent meets its sales expectations. Sadly, when I left IFF in 2008, I stopped getting that as well.
Like the taste of Coca-Cola, Fierce is iconic. To this day, I have friends who tell me that when they meet someone new who’s wearing Fierce, they feel like they’re falling in love or having sex with me.
That’s quite the legacy, no?