Interviews The Viewpoint of the Artisan Businesswoman and Perfumer: An Interview with Mandy Aftel of Aftelier

The Viewpoint of the Artisan Businesswoman and Perfumer: An Interview with Mandy Aftel of Aftelier

11/12/13 16:34:44 (19 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

As perfume lovers, we're often wrapped up in the artistic aspects of perfume or the pleasure principle involved that we forget it is business with all the challenges it involved. Lately I have been dissecting this later aspect of the matter, with the precision of the scalpel of someone who has genuinely loved and bought perfume all her life.

Business is not (should not be) a dirty word, when there are people willing to go the extra mile to reconcile the market and the craftsmanship, the practical and the ethereal. In this path, I felt it was crucial to question on this subject the guru of natural perfumery, Mandy Aftel.

Her unique position as an all naturals perfumer, a businesswoman catering to the rich and famous as well as the humble online fan, self-distributed solely online and insisting on a theoretical background for her work which is varied, meant that everything she had to tell me would be juicy indeed. And she didn't disappoint ...

Elena Vosnaki: Mandy, it's so good to have you sharing your expertise with us. Let's start with something that's been bothering me personally. I find that the perfume online community is going through a jaded phase. Although interest is still strong in what is apparently a keen interest for many, there is less of a buzz regarding new releases and people sort of fall back on the brands they know and trust. One of them is your own. What do think about this assessment? Do you agree or not? Do you have any feedback coming from your own share of the market?


Mandy Aftel: In my experience as a perfume maker, I don't find the online perfume community jaded—I see them as educated, careful shoppers for whom perfume is an important delight. They greet it with a passionate seriousness, which I find totally charming. When a person stumbles onto my line of perfumes, I can usually see that they carefully choose which perfumes of mine they want to sample, perhaps just one perfume they’ve read about in a current review. I have always thought that what makes or breaks a brand is not just customers, but *return* customers. It is easy to make an initial sale, but takes many years to build up a base of return customers, and continuing to attract their repeat business is crucial. Many people will buy perfume samples and never come back for a full bottle, but some will. And those who buy a full perfume or body oil or face product and like it enough will come back and buy other things.
 

Elena Vosnaki: Dealing with all naturals presents its own challenges from a technical standpoint, but it also creates a challenge from a business standpoint: the sourcing of materials can be unstable, the pricing on those can go up unannounced (due to erratic crops, farmers' problems, droughts, agreements that went awry, small distributors of raw materials closing down, IFRA challenges on skin-sensitizing ingredients), but also the distribution channels are different than other niche. You have chosen to be the sole proprietor of your brand and to distribute it yourself. What is that like? Tough? Liberating?


Mandy Aftel: I have chosen to now be only a web-based business; I previously also sold my perfumes in Henri Bendel’s and several small boutiques. I've been approached by almost every prestigious department store to sell my perfumes—when I turned down Neiman Marcus, their response was to ask me if I knew who they were? I personally like knowing that my customers are well taken care of and that everything is perfect about my products. When I sold in stores, I would see that the presentation of my perfumes was not up to my standards, which upset me. I take a lot of pleasure in individually wrapping each order and writing cards to people—I like having this relationship with my customer.

I never want to grow any larger than what I can produce myself, and I feel incredibly lucky to be doing exactly what I'm doing and supporting myself. I don’t want to become a production line and get pressured by those kinds of constraints. I love making things in small batches and having a well-edited very small line. In fact I've designed my perfume business pretty much as I've designed my perfumes—in a way that pleases me, honors my aesthetics, and is in harmony with my values. I do not think I could do that if I grew larger, and for me that would be a huge loss. As far as the instability of being able to find the same aromatics, I just accept that it comes with the territory, and find that slightly thrilling. I accept that things come and go, and I always look forward to finding something new and beautiful in the future.
 

Elena Vosnaki: Many perfume lovers are complaining about the steep rise of prices, focusing on the perfume niche and luxury segments of the market. From what I can gather myself, this has to do with a realization that they can no longer either own as many perfumes as they like or the purchases can be less of a "trial and error" experiment than before, due to the initial outlay becoming more of a financial risk. Perfume makers and distributors, however, insist that only the luxury and high-end market moves really well, selling to rich patrons who are not necessarily aficionados but are lured by the presentation and luxe positioning, and that only that approach allows for a satisfactory revenue, therefore the prices won't go down any day soon. What do you answer to that, in light of your brand holding the unique position it has? (artisan/indie but for that reason, true luxury)


Mandy Aftel: As far as the industry justification for overpricing, that seems like a complete dodge at best! It reveals those perfume companies’ values—those are not my values and I don’t pay any attention to them. Yet there can actually be a blessing-in-disguise from high prices, since I like to encourage people to “buy less, better”—to have a meaningful connection with what they’ve bought and not be swayed by status concerns and marketing.

As for the packaging itself however, I do always love working on it! Great packaging is definitely part of the luxury experience that a perfume customer deserves, but it doesn’t need to be a huge expense, especially compared to the cost of using quality ingredients. Also, some of the ideas about what makes “luxury” packaging are completely wasteful and stupid, so I’m against catering to a taste for outlandish deluxe packaging for packaging’s sake. As for my own pricing, besides selling affordable samples, it’s always been very important to me to have a way into my brand for $50 or less—mini perfumes, body oils, teas, etc.
 

Elena Vosnaki: Will the aggrandizement of the luxury segment engulf and stifle the indie sector? I have noticed that some prior breakthrough players have reverted to somewhat tamer, more sedate output. I have noticed that the luxury sector has increased in players and volume produced in the last few years; briefly, everyone positions themselves as luxe these days (via price, promo and presentation) because this is what sells (more importantly, it sells to the loaded customers who view $200 as inexpensive and apparently these clients are many, especially in Russia and Middle East). This creates a sort of pressure to the artisan makers, such as yourself, I should gather (or if you disagree, I'm very interested in why and how).

I was therefore wondering: if almost everyone aims their wares at that influencing the core niche market into following, will indies be left with "crumbles" on the table and will it make some of them inevitably turn into a more commercialized output with less risks and more "glam" presentation instead? (For instance, as you read in my Tauer interview [Perfume Marketing & Prices: A One-To-One with an Indie Player, Tauer Perfumes], he's divided and is thinking of catering to the two different demographics via two different lines, so as not to compromise on his vision for the passionate clients.)

To give it a political and philosophical spin: indies especially in the US have benefited by the Berkeley and West Coast "free spirit" which is the antithesis of bourgeois establishment reigning in such traditional cultures such as the French. What is the future of that "free spirit?" Taking over the world seems to have missed the mark, for now at least, though it looked like it would have a short couple of years ago.


Mandy Aftel: I have only had two experiences with selling my perfumes in the Middle East, and they could not have been more different. One was when they took my entire line of perfumes at a luxury department store in Bahrain, and they were a crashing failure. My kind of all-natural perfumes were not what people were looking for and almost no one was interested in them. On the other hand, the royal family of Oman has repeatedly bought huge quantities of my perfumes. In the beginning they wanted a different kind of packaging, something not as simple as what my perfumes come in, but in the end they took my perfume in my packaging, and seemed happy with it. Again since I have no interest in growing, or having a larger line, or having more products selling in more outlets—many of the things that my other colleagues are interested in—I don't see any need for me to make changes to my perfume line. I feel extraordinarily lucky to do my perfumes in exactly the way that I want to. For me my perfumes are not a stepping stone to anything else, I'm very happy with the way things are now. Having the amount of freedom aesthetically to create what I want to create and miraculously to find people who like it seems to me a wonderful way to be in the world—I can hardly believe it!
 

Elena Vosnaki: One of the things that has fascinated me in my perfume consulting business has been my experience that people, even experienced people with a genuine appreciation of fragrance, are influenced a lot by the things said about perfume rather than what they actually smell. This is especially pertinent with all-natural compositions, where the label of "all natural" when divulged can perform in a quite interesting way: a tentative apprehension for the person accustomed to commercial perfume or the aficionado who has read on the naturals vs. synthetics debate online, whereas there is a positive expectancy for the person who has the general desire to break away from what is being "pushed" to them or who is influenced by the "green way of life" movement. What's your experience with that?


Mandy Aftel: I’m sure there are times that people buy my samples because they’ve read something about me and think it would be a good idea to try a "natural perfume," but aren’t really aware of what they’re like. They may purchase a few samples and then go away when they don’t find the synthetic perfumes that they’re used to. If by some chance they call up and get me on the phone and they tell me they love a particular Coty perfume or Marc Jacobs perfume or some other commercial perfume, I tell them that I have nothing like that and wish them luck elsewhere. As I said earlier I'm interested in people who love what I do and want to come back and get more, and I feel badly if people buy my perfumes and don't wear them.
 

Elena Vosnaki: Last but not least, your work encompasses food and beauty; scented materials and compositions for the enhancement of both fields. This dates back further than I originally thought and is not necessarily tied to either the move for "slow food" or the "green beauty" concepts. Tell us a bit about your inspirations for that.


Mandy Aftel: One of the things I realized when I toured the country for my book Essence and Alchemy over 10 years ago was that many people at that time had very little understanding of quality in perfume. Where I live in Berkeley is called the “Gourmet Ghetto,” and there is an enormous interest in fresh, beautiful, simple food from my neighbor, the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. I realized people were much more interested in creativity and high quality of what they put *into* their bodies as opposed to what they put *onto* their bodies. I also realized that chefs were like artists, and like perfumers they made things that were very labor-intensive, with beautiful materials, that then disappeared —this similarity spoke to me. I felt I had a lot in common and wanted to do something creative in the world of food. The other part of it is that the essential oils that I was using for perfume had been used for flavor for hundreds of years, so the crossover seemed quite natural to me both in terms of the aesthetics and the materials.
 

Many sincere thanks to Mandy of Aftelier perfumes for shedding light on the matters that pertain to her indie business outfit and the world of artisans. More strength to her for continuing on her path!

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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feelhot
feelhot

Wow-I found this interviev just during reading fragrantica-what a great gem:) Thanx Mandy Aftel and Elena for such great interview. Luv perfumes and because of that some people think I am crazy. So what-luv being crazy:) Luv work within perfumes, but it is not so easy to find such job. Great some people are able sometimes do what they love-it would be dream to create fragrances-but have no idea how to do it-how even start. I think I was born in wrong part of the world-such perfumery schools I would love to go and have work after them/even own my niche perfumery shop/ are in France, so ...sorry:( Anyway-will be living my life with passion and love into perfumes:)

May
26
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Mandy,

thanks again. I find that it reads like the complete antithesis to the Roja Dove interview posted on the site right now.
Two fascinating viewpoints, surely, and one can choose where to side on.

:-)

Nov
18
2013
aftelier
aftelier

Thank you city park and john for taking the time to read the interview and leave such lovely comments. I really appreciate it.

I so appreciate you, Elena, for these really thoughtful questions that allowed me to think about these issues that I respond to intuitively but had never put my thoughts into words. It was very special for me.

Nov
17
2013
citypark
citypark

A wonderful interview, it gives so much insight. I appreciate the attitude to do what one has to do, something every artist is driven by.

Nov
17
2013
johngreenink
johngreenink

I really appreciate such openness about perfume making, about the business, about creating - too often, I think there is unnecessary obfuscation and mystery around perfumery, and it prevents some of us from really exploring and knowing more about what we smell. This freshness and straight-forward approach is really endearing. Thanks to you both for a great read, and a peek inside the thoughts behind natural perfume.

Nov
16
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Thanks everyone for the nice words and to Mandy of course for answering my questions, questions which I know not many would have replied to with such honesty and openness.
I appreciate that artisan brand owners are doing what they believe in and that they choose to control their brand in a way that is deeply personal; to me this is true luxury, but also freedom.

Nov
16
2013
aftelier
aftelier

Drift Perfumes and April Aromatics ( Jennifer and Tanya) --- I feel such a kinship to both of your perfume businesses. I am so grateful that our kind of perfumery is finding its way into the world and into people's hands. Such a meaningful and beautiful thing to be a part of. thank you so much for taking the time to leave comment here and for your gorgeous work.

Nov
16
2013
april aromatics
april aromatics

Thank you Mandy. I very much enjoy your interview and your point of view.
Thank you for holding the standards high for us natural perfumers.
When we keep true to ourselves, we can run a successful, happy business and life.
You are a pioneer.

Nov
16
2013
Drift Perfume
Drift Perfume

Hollie ~ Mandy offers samples of her perfumes, which is wonderful because you can try them ALL without going broke before deciding which is right for you. I'm a solid perfume passionista, and every one of Mandy's solids is incredible. I also love that she encourages mixing and layering of her single notes to create your own signature scent :)

Nov
14
2013
aftelier
aftelier

Thank you Portia, Eos, cmagot, and Indigo Perfumery for stopping by and leaving such kind words of support and understanding of my path in the world of perfume. I feel extraordinary lucky to be able to do my work in this way that feels so deeply "right" for me.

Nov
14
2013
cmagot
cmagot

I loved this interview. Elena, great job! And also, kudos to Mandy, how rare it is nowadays, not wanting a bigger piece of the cake...

Nov
14
2013
Portia Turbo
Portia Turbo

Hey Elena
Very nice work. I enjoyed it and LOVE learning more about Mandy's ways.
Portia xx

Nov
14
2013
Eos
Eos

Thank you Elena, Mandy Aftel and Fragrantica for this great interview-article about natural perfumery, a subject that could use a little more exposure IMO.

Also, I shamelessly want to say hi to @lizzorn, @aftelier and @LaurieE because you ladies are amazing! Through your work, you are proving that there is a place for higher quality ingredients and interesting compositions within the perfume industry. Thanks for leading the way :)

Nov
13
2013
aftelier
aftelier

Thank you Jodi and Hollie for your sweet words to me.
Laurie and Liz, I have such great respect for for the way you create your perfumes and your businesses. We share values about the essential aspects of creative freedom in perfumery and that big is not necessarily better at all. You both are an inspiration to me. The internet has made it possible to create the kind of perfumes that thrill you as the perfumer and to find others who share your vision and passion and you both are that to me.

Nov
13
2013
Indigo Perfumery
Indigo Perfumery

Mandy is the very definition of class and high standards.
Thank you, Elana and Mandy.

Nov
13
2013
LaurieE
LaurieE

Great interview! It's very nice to see more talk about this type of business model that is tailored to artisans. We can choose to stay smaller as a way to protect the special quality of our handmade products. In the internet age there are other valid options besides the traditional model of working with distributors and many retail locations. It's always good to have more options to choose from, and it's wonderful to see Mandy setting such an amazing example for how artisans can follow a new business model if that is what suits them best.

Nov
13
2013
lizzorn
lizzorn

I totally agree with Mandy. We share a like minded approach to our art. It's not for everyone, particularly if the interest is not grounded in artistry. The desire to create, and to maintain a freedom over ones creations and how they are presented, as well as shared with the larger audience is paramount to the success of an artist. There are different forces at work here. You have the independent artist working in an area that also inculdes large scale industrial production. From my prespective they have very little in common. Dancing to ones own beat is vital to creativity as a whole. We all feed off the greatness of the creative that comes before us as well as those around us who maintain it throughout a career. Mandy has sparked a fire in a lot of people, not just budding perfumers. Her example is a testiment to the artisan spirit.

Nov
13
2013
Hollie
Hollie

What a great interview! I have had my own online business for several years and as an artist and crafter I can really appreciate what Mandy said about not having a desire to grow bigger. I think some people view that mind set as a negative but I find it very refreshing and insightful. To be able to produce something purely for the sake of creating something beautiful...to turn yourself inside out so that others can sense a part of you in your creation...is beyond beautiful.To have the desire to stay connected to the people that crave your art is a priceless gift that many won't appreciate. I commend Mandy Aftel for having the courage to live her dream just the way she sees it. Having said all that, I have never experienced her perfumes.....looks like I need to get on it!

Nov
12
2013
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

This article just reinforces why Mandy Aftel is one of my personal heroes. :-)

Great interview, Elena, and great responses from Mandy that are sure to be food for thought!

Nov
12
2013

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