Depending on where you are, New York can smell like a lot of things: Stale beer, hot garbage, unrelenting sweetness if there's a Nuts 4 Nuts cart parked just upwind. In honor of the city having reached peak freshness this week — it's warm without being stifling, and all the flowering trees are in bloom — we decided to check in with Laurice Rahmé, the founder of Bond No. 9, a relatively small perfume brand that dedicates each fragrance to a different New York neighborhood. Or, rather, the most idealized scent version of that neighborhood.
Rahmé, who logged over a decade at L'Oréal before starting her own business, talks us through her creative process, selling internationally and why it's so hard to find employees who are passionate about fragrance.
You base all of your perfumes on neighborhoods in New York. Walk me through your process for creating each one.
We pick a neighborhood in Manhattan, and once I pick the one I like, I spend a lot of time there and try to [understand] the soul of it. Every one is different, like a village with its own spirit, ambiance and characteristics. Harlem is not like Wall Street, and Park Avenue is so different from Madison [Avenue]. Once you know the differences and the styles of people who live there you say, "Okay, well this person on Park is very discreet." So you want a very quiet fragrance. On Madison, you can have a loud one, because there's lots of shopping there. You sit down and work with the perfumer, who's an organic chemist. For Park, I wanted a quiet white flower, so you go into the ingredients that fit the style.
Do you have a perfumer in-house, or do you work with external chemists?
We work with different perfumers from different companies. There are about five to six major companies we work with. Depending on the project or neighborhood I select a different perfumer. They all have their own style, so you have to pick the one who's better at florals or citrus or woods.
How long does it take you to move a scent from idea to production?
I need a year. We act pretty fast. Big companies need more time, but as a small company, we're happy with one year.
A lot of those big companies, too, are doing a lot of research and focus groups before putting something on the market. Do you do anything in the way of consumer testing?
No. I only do what I like. Some people love it and some don't, but that's part of the creative venture. Not everybody's going to like what I like. Big companies are doing testing, and they have to because they spend so much on advertising. They need to be more exact. For me, I'm not looking for exact.
I design the bottle, too. It has to be one person designing from A to Z. I believe in that. Otherwise you don't have [creative] unity.
Who is your consumer?
It's two different customers: New Yorkers who love their neighborhood, and then tourists. The American ones, from places like Miami and Chicago, are buying it as a souvenir. When they get home, they replenish it. Then you have the foreigners, which we've always had a lot of in New York. They like it for different reasons. We're very big in the UK, because it's really a cousin of America. Then Italians because they love New York and Germans because they love the history of the city. Middle Eastern tourists love perfumes [on a whole]. We sell wholesale in 25 countries.
How many stores are you operating now?
We have five of our own boutiques and then 2,000 wholesale outlets worldwide, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Retail is small. But it's okay to be small.
What's the biggest challenge in running a perfume business of this size?
The biggest challenge is not the creativity, and it's not the consumer. The biggest challenge is to find passionate salespeople to represent my brand. It's very hard to find people who love what they do; often they're there in between jobs or they're there because they need money, which I respect, but they're not there for the love of it. It's hard to find enough people to be passionate about this business. So right now we're missing about 20 people. If I didn't have this, everything would be easy.
Are you looking for people who are really educated about perfume?
I need passion more than knowledge. We can teach that if they want to work hard and do their homework, but we can't teach someone how to be passionate. I think the younger generation doesn't really like retail because they buy a lot online or on mobile on their iPhones. We need to be in the stores; with perfume, you have to smell it. Not many young girls or boys are very excited to be working in a department store or a boutique.