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Cécile Zarokian: “It’s possible to compete successfully with the big fragrance houses”

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Cécile Zarokian is an independent Paris-based perfumer who founded her own company, Cécile Zarokian Parfumeur. She works with a wide range of brands and knows how to adapt to different clients and target markets, from South America to the Middle East and Europe. Interview.

How did your work as an independent perfumer develop? 

I’ve been working for seventeen years, including the years I spent at Robertet, and I’ve been independent for eleven of them. I spent a long time on my own juggling between creation, paperwork and logistics. I had to expand my business if I wanted to stay efficient when the workload piled up: now there are three of us onboard. My right-hand woman is Pauline Zimer, who trained at ISIPCA after four years working on product development at Hermès Parfums. She deals with the assessment side as well as managing raw materials and communication, among other things. Laetitia Loviconi helps us with the administrative and sales tasks. The company is taking shape and we’re planning to move to larger premises. Clients include niche brands of different sizes, such as Amouage, Nishane, Masque Milano, Jacques Fath, Jovoy, Jul and Mad… The goal is to consolidate and build on our growth, working with niche as well as mainstream perfume brands. Our latest major successes include the Bossa adventure for Brazilian brand Granado, which is part of Puig. 

You competed for the project with Firmenich and Givaudan. And you won.

It could well point to a shift in the industry model. These days it’s possible to compete successfully with the big perfume houses. It was the first time an independent perfumer – and a French independent perfumer besides – won that kind of project in Brazil, the second biggest perfume market worldwide. The challenge I had was appealing to consumers from the target country while ensuring I stood out. Bossa is now close on the heels of the brand’s best seller and the Brazilian press describes it as “the solar floral the market was missing.” That’s sending a strong signal to the industry!

Between the desire to win a project and the need to impose your creative approach, what’s your attitude and where do you draw the line?

I don’t work with a perfume library [a collection of existing accords]: a personalised creation always starts with a blank page. You then need to know how to explain your approach. And be capable of going in a new creative direction if necessary. It doesn’t happen often, but it can. I prefer only submitting one proposal that I believe in 100% than two I only half believe in.

What are the keys to successfully responding to a brief?

There are two of them in my view. First of all, you have to be flexible and help the client describe what they want, by learning to read between the lines. The other key is understanding that you can’t please everyone: the creative director, the sales department, and all the rest. The fewer intermediaries there are the better. Because I see the relationship as a partnership, not a power struggle. On the other hand, tensions may arise when deadlines are too tight. So you have to know how to set boundaries. Taking on work that was wanted yesterday is no good for anyone. When I need more time and a higher cost price, I don’t hold back from telling the client.

In what way are you involved in the project or launches for the brands you work with?

This is another area where flexibility and responsiveness are crucial. In November 2020, France went into lockdown again. Zoom meetings had become the norm months before that. There was very little travel. I found out that in Brazil, Granado was going to put Bossa in its window displays for Christmas. Without thinking twice, Pauline and I hopped on the first flight to Rio so we could be part of what was a major launch. That meant the brand got to shoot a video at Sugarloaf Mountain, the city’s symbol which appears on the Bossa bottle.

Just before our last trip to Brazil, in March of this year, I realised that one of my clients, Nishane, was distributed in Neeche, Sao Paulo’s only niche shop. I told them both I was arriving. So an impromptu event was organised to promote an independent Turkish brand!

You create for markets with huge variations in how perfume is used and what needs it meets. How do you deal with these cultural disparities?

For Brazil, I had to compose a summery, cooling perfume with a fairly low concentration, around 10%. The Middle East is the opposite: strength and concentration are essential criteria. For Epic 56 Woman by Amouage, I ramped it up to 56%. As for attars, the traditional alcohol-free, oil-based fragrances, they reach 100% concentration. That makes it very tricky to respect IFRA norms. But the challenge is stimulating and the result very intense in olfactory terms. For instance, I recently created four attars for Amouage, released last January: Rose Aqor, Oud Ulya, Saffron Hamra and Leather Sadah.

You seem to have a special bond with that particular perfume house…

It’s true that I created my very first perfume, Epic Woman, for Amouage when I was learning the trade at Robertet. It’s still their second best-selling women’s fragrance. I’m also proud of the fact that Silver Oud, recognised for its strength, has become a benchmark for oud-based perfumes – and that it went from a limited edition to featuring in the collection because demand was so high! And Rose Aqor earned me the praise of Dominique Ropion, someone I greatly admire.

As well as fine fragrances, you create for other olfactory, or even edible, concepts…

For the party launching the range of Amouage attars in Cannes, I created three fragrances – Rose Aqor, Oud Ulya and Saffron Hamra – as edible scents to be sprayed on carefully chosen cocktails. Mixology is a world that fascinates me; it seems to me that mixologists essentially do the same work as perfumers. They can spend hours wondering if lemon should be used in the form of zest, perfume or essence in a given creation. But I also develop olfactory identities for hotels, malls, spirits brands…

In 2011, you worked with an illustrator on a project where the visuals and fragrances mirrored each other. If you had to leave your comfort zone again, what direction would you take?

I’d love to work with several artists from different worlds, particularly a choreographer. But what I’m really excited about at the moment is the aim of developing a perfume with a creative director from a couture or jewellery house. That’s something I wouldn’t have dared to dream of a few years ago!

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