Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!
The '90s and 2000s are back, baby, and it definitely smells like teen spirit. Gen Zers can't stop resuscitating the era's trends, much to the dismay of millennials who remain aghast that their Juicy Couture sweatsuit is technically considered "vintage."
In those days, your outfit wasn't complete without a frosted lip gloss and a few too many spritzes of Curious by Britney Spears or Glow by JLo. So, in 2022, we're seeing Gen-Z influencers and celebrities follow in the footsteps of these early-aughts icons and launch their own fragrances in rapid succession, including Charli D'Amelio's Born Dreamer, Addison Rae's trio of eponymous fragrances, and Billie Eilish's Eilish, among others. So, what makes the TikTok set think they can be the ones to introduce the next Beyoncé Heat?
A whole lot of precedence, actually.
The first commercially successful celebrity fragrance was Elizabeth Taylor's iconic White Diamonds, which was released in 1991 and popularized the trend of celebrity-branded perfumes that continues to this day. Taylor purportedly earned more from White Diamonds than from any of her roles in Hollywood films. As of 2018, its total sales were estimated at $1.5 billion.
The trailblazing success of White Diamonds and all of the iconic celebrity fragrances that came after it — from the likes of Paris Hilton, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, David Beckham, Beyoncé, and Naomi Campbell, to name just a handful — proved to celebrities then and now that fragrance is a lucrative business. One could argue that celebrity perfumes were the blueprint for celebrity makeup and skin-care brands, and we all know how that turned out. If celebrity beauty brand fatigue felt too familiar, you were probably around to experience celebrity fragrance fatigue, which occurred after too many celebrity-backed fragrances flooded the market in the early '00s.
"Celebrity fragrances are the epitome of affordable luxury," says Judah Abraham, founder and CEO of Slate Brands, a perfume-focused incubator for celebrity brands. He's been in the celebrity fragrance biz since the trend first emerged in the '90s and has seen the category through all its ups and downs.
When it comes to celebrity makeup brands, at this point it's safe to say that the train has left the station. They can't be stopped. And when it comes to celebrity perfumes, a single signature scent simply isn't enough. If a celebrity finds success in fragrance, they milk that cow for all it's worth — and it's worth a lot.
Take Ariana Grande and Paris Hilton, for example. Grande has released a total of 11 perfumes since 2015 after grossing $150 million on in the first two years. Hilton has a whopping 28 fragrances to her name (!) that have reportedly earned nearly $3 billion in revenue since 2004. (Taylor would be so proud.)
While celebrity fragrances never truly went out of style, they had been on the decline in the 2010s, going from 12% of the total U.S. fragrance market in 2012 to 4% in 2016, according to Euromonitor. That trend reversed during the pandemic, when perfume sales overall skyrocketed by as much as 45% in 2021, as reported by market research firm NPD Group. That sharp increase in sales comes despite the spike in perfume prices by 15% as a result of the supply-chain crisis.
Abraham actually argues that the rise of Gen Z is correlated to a decline in celebrity fragrances, which at one point were little more than a name licensing deal, with celebrities having little to no creative control in what their fragrance looked or smelled like. Slate Brands wants to reinvent the celebrity fragrance for the Gen-Z audience, which can smell bullshit from a mile away. The company recently worked with Hayley Kiyoko on her debut fragrance called Hue, and has additional celebrity partnerships queued up to launch soon.
"Gen Z sees right through inauthentic products," says Abraham. "Having them actively involved in the creation of the fragrance is essential. Being transparent about ingredients and creating fragrances that provide value while remaining authentic and transparent is also important."
During the pandemic, new perfume was an affordable luxury that people were more than willing to spend their stimulus checks on. According to Abraham, Gen Z wants "a fragrance wardrobe" instead of a single signature scent. This desire to curate a cohesive fragrance assortment has fueled the rise of #PerfumeTok.
It's here that Dallas-based content creator Funmi Monet found a community of people she connected with based on a mutual love of all things fragrance. Known as #PerfumeTok's "fragrance auntie," Monet parlayed her educational content and fragrance reviews into her very own perfume called Exalté Eau de Parfum, created in partnership with Bella Aura Skincare. In the process, she became one of a few Black women to create a perfume in France.
"When creating Exalté, I thought about what makes a fragrance a signature scent for someone or has an iconic status," Monet tells Fashionista. "The base of this fragrance contains vanilla, amber and musk which provides a rich, sweet and creamy quality to this perfume that hugs the skin like a sensual embrace. I wanted every person who wore this perfume to experience these feelings when they have this on."
Scent temporarily transports you somewhere new, or allows you to seek comfort in nostalgia, as is the case with D'Amelio's Born Dreamer. The scent was developed to unfold in combination with your own personal body chemistry to create a scent that's "uniquely you," which the brand claims makes it universal in its appeal.
"As a girl growing up with two amazing grandmas I looked up to as well as many aunts and my mom, fragrance and beauty were all around me," D'Amelio tells Fashionista. "I remember the women in my life always having beautiful bottles on their nightstands. And unlike makeup, fragrance really is universal — where not everyone can pull off a red lip or a cat eye, everyone can wear and enjoy fragrance."
Launching a fragrance is also a strategic career move for these Gen-Z influencers and celebrities. Traditionally, celebrity fragrances have helped cement a celebrity's place at the top — so long as the fragrance didn't immediately flop (looking at you, Wonderstruck by Taylor Swift). The timing of the fragrance launch is key, as it needs to be at the very height of their career to maximize the chance of success.
Fragrance expert Sue Phillips helps explain why: "Celebrity fragrances have always had an aspirational aspect to them," she tells Fashionista. If an influencer or celebrity launches a fragrance before their fame is fully cooked, they might be inadvertently devaluing their own stock. Stardom is the secret ingredient to a successful celebrity perfume.
But how do you capture something as intangible as fame? And do influencers even have enough of it to bottle? Phillips is hesitant to predict whether or not we'll see some of these newer stars succeed in their sensory pursuits.
"With this new wave of influencers, the aspirational aspect is not as strong," she says. "The new thing is being approachable. People who are on TikTok and influencers are not strangers or untouchable. They're very much immediate and approachable."
Today, the celebrity fragrances that sell are the ones that speak to Gen Z's desire for self-expression. They're designed to react a little differently on each person's skin, a scent feature popularized by Glossier's You perfume that can be seen in D'Amelio's Born Dreamer and Kiyoko's Hue.
"There's an element of subtle musk, but it's not overpowering," explains Abraham of these types of perfumes. "It's really there to help enhance one's natural scent."
If fame is the ultimate long con, celebrity perfumes are my personal favorite famous-person grift. Bottling and selling an implied psychological closeness is a bonkers concept that many celebs have come to accept as just another merch opportunity, akin to selling locks of their hair. On the flip side, buying celebrity perfumes in order to "smell like a celebrity" is the first step in becoming a bonafide stalker, so perhaps this trend towards individualized scents is healthier approach. Plus, $50-$100 seems like a fair tax to pay for all the shit we let Deux Moi say about famous people.
The celebrity fragrance industry is still relatively new, and yet there are still so many iconic celebrity scents that are instantly recognizable in their nostalgia. Like it or not, there will be a scent that defines this generation. Will it be Ariana Grande's Cloud? Chill AF by Addison Rae? One Moment by One Direction? I guess we'll just have to wait another 20 years to find out.