"Phil's like, 'That smells awesome.' It's this white tea, citrus, bamboo," laughs Brian Jeong, co-founder of Hawthorne. "Just these two bros." He, along with childhood friend and business partner Phil Wong were replaying the epiphany moment when they decided to shake up the established and pretty static — until now — luxury men's fragrance market. Launched just last year, the direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand lets customers tailor two scents, for Work and Play, via an ingeniously fun biometric online quiz. (And the fragrances will only set guys back $100.)
"Broing out," adds fellow co-founder Wong, without skipping a beat, about how the two bonded over the delightful notes of Bamboo Harmony by Kilian, which Jeong received two years ago from his girlfriend. "You smelled great, bro."
The two 27-year-olds have been "bros" since they were 12-year-old Hunter College Elementary School students (i.e. really smart kids) spending weekends (and the occasional skipped class) to peruse Stussy, Supreme and Reed Space downtown. They effortlessly riff back and forth in fragrance vernacular ("an aquatic and a citrus," "sweet aromatic woods") and tend to finish each others sentences with that cool, rapid-fire New York City kid banter. And the two clearly have a knack for entrepreneurship. Right after high school graduation, with Jeong the business brains and Wong the creative — a dynamic that continues with Hawthorne — they started a streetwear line that ended up selling on the racks of those stores they visited as kids. After college, Jeong cut his teeth in e-commerce project management for Boston Consulting Group, while Wong continued his fashion career and is currently a creative at Hood By Air.
After realizing neither of them wanted to pay $260 for a fragrance, no matter how enticing, the two set out brainstorming and researching, and discovered a business opportunity. "The fragrance buying experience for guys today was just fundamentally broken," says Jeong. Men tend to wear cologne gifted to them or just co-opt the Armani Acqua di Gio or Polo Sport that dad wore. (Jeong's first cologne was, in fact, Polo Sport and Wong's was "probably" Old Spice.)
"Guys don't buy for themselves," he explains. "They don't go to Sephora. They don't go to department stores. They don't want to try a bunch of samples. They just want to wear something that smells good and they want all the people to be like, 'You smell good.''
After extensive research and a few beta rounds, the two perfected a men's fragrance concept, aimed at "young, modern, working millennial males" that perfectly utilizes the skills and talents of both founders. To tailor one's ideal Work and Play scents, a shopper (or gift-giver) answers a set of "grounded," refreshingly fun and most importantly quick questions, such as, work environment (start-up or corporate?), your diet ("lots of meat"), drink of choice (beer, wine, cocktails or whiskey?). The answers allow Jeong's proprietary algorithm to drill down and determine the perfect combination of bouquets. Certain crucial questions, like what kind of brown liquor, narrow the focus further on preferred fragrance notes.
"We go a level deeper because we found that there's bourbon, there's rye and there's scotch," Jeong excitedly explains. "We found people who like bourbon enjoy sweeter woods. People who like rye really like drier, spicier woods because there are spices in rye." The algorithm is currently honed to a "92 percent hit rate," with a pretty impressive return rate at just 3 percent. (Returns and replacements are free.)
The Hawthorne user experience and e-commerce interface is also visually hip — but just hip enough. "Tastefully neutral," says Wong, who designed the elevated and understatedly masculine aesthetic of the website, product packaging and Instagram content, which all aim to be welcoming (and non-intimidating) to the target audience. "It's not pushed too far niche or too far startup-y — minimal-y — so I think a lot of people identify with it. Just dark, clean and feels confident."
Wong's design work with Shane Oliver's radical fashion-beloved Hood By Air also helped prepare him to position and establish Hawthorne's messaging to break into the aspirational fragrance market. "Just knowing that brand goes way further than the actual product," he explains. "It brings about this brand story, a visual identity, this lifestyle story."
The two sold the Hawthorne story convincingly to Givaudan, one of the world's largest fragrance manufacturers responsible for iconic fragrances, like Paco Rabanne 1 Million, Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male and Dior J'Adore. When the two pitched their idea from a "humble" and "outsider" perspective, Givaudan execs were so impressed with their revolutionary concept that they assigned three of their top "noses" — Olivier Gillotin (Balenciaga Cristobal), Rodrigo Flores-Roux (Clinique Happy) and "up-and-coming star" Quentin Bisch — on the project.
"We call these 'modern classics,'" says Jeong, about the finished products. "We want to make these classic scents for our generation, not our dad's generation."
Hawthorne also aims to change the American male perception toward wearing fragrance for situations other than dates, weddings and other special occasions. "It's not in the cultural norm [for men to] wear fragrance, and smelling good should be a regular thing, right?" Jeong asks. "We wanted to tell guys it's okay to wear fragrance to work. One of my favorite fragrances is Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille, but you don't want to wear that to work. That is strong. That has a great, huge radius." Hence a "fresher, crisper lighter" option for the office, but appropriate to the person's relevant work environment, per the questionnaire, of course.
And it's not just the hi-tech, algorithm-driven, direct-to-consumer — and purchase on faith, not physical sample — model that makes Hawthorne a fresh, innovative newcomer. The men's fragrance industry is traditionally thought of as a pretty white, European male populated one. And Jeong and Wong, who are both of Asian descent, aren't just bringing diversity to board rooms and investor meetings.
"It's always been one of our direct missions making [Hawthorne] accessible for everybody," explains Wong. He refers to a recent Hawthorne commercial lifestyle video starring three ethnically and creatively diverse influencers on the New York City scene: model, stylist and Kinfolk creative John Erick Ramos, photographer (and restauranteur Keith's son) Harry McNally and James "JPatt" Patterson of EDM DJ duo, The Knocks. (Video above.)
"We made sure to really portray these three very diverse characters," adds Wong. "They're still these accessible guys, but more aspirational people who exist in the city. We want to show that our customer really embodies everybody. It's aspirational, yet it's attainable."