“I remember my grandfather in his house in the middle of the mountains of Spain with his Agua Lavanda, a product he had designed during the civil war, when he was forced to develop something using only local ingredients,” Marc Puig says of his earliest recollection of scent. “He would put this on top of our heads! I have so many memories of that place in the summertime.”
Puig, the Chairman and CEO of PUIG, is the much-deserving Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame honoree for 2017. A member of the third generation of this esteemed dynasty, he is also a man who can tell you a thing or two about the mystery and magic of fragrances – the stories they tell, the unique way they animate our feelings and our hearts.
“From very early on, I knew I was going to work for the family business,” Puig says. The famous house that he now heads was founded in 1914 in Barcelona by his grandfather Antonio Puig i Castelló, who, in addition to his trademark Agua Lavanda, introduced the first lipstick in Spain, called Milady, in 1922.
Marc Puig’s father, one of four brothers who inherited the business, was intent on expanding the company in ways that plenty of their contemporaries thought were kind of crazy. Puig relishes telling the tale: “Fifty years ago if you wanted to sell in the United States you really needed to have a French brand. So they went to France, where they met this very creative guy named Paco Rabanne, who had launched a fashion collection called ‘Twelve Unwearable Dresses.’ They signed a contract with him in May 1968 – for them it was a big amount of money, and as they left the office, in the streets everybody was rioting, big demonstrations, people throwing rocks in the street. ‘My God,’ my father thought. ‘We made a mistake! We invested in the wrong country!’ ”
The student revolution of May ‘68 was roiling Paris, but PUIG had hardly invested in the wrong place – now, a half century later, PUIG and Paco Rabanne maintain a thriving relationship.
It is that kind of willingness to take a chance, to go out on a perfumed limb, that has kept the company vibrant even after 100 years. Puig says that above all, it is the “story” a particular fragrance tells, the myths it creates, that distinguish the most successful brands. “The story of the fragrance comes first, and then you start putting all the elements together … you want people to say, ‘I want to look like that woman, I want to smell like that woman!’ ”
Sometimes the character in the backstory of a PUIG scent is purely imaginary, and sometimes he or she is a vivid flesh-and-blood presence, as is the case with the sexy carefree image of Jean Paul Gaultier, or the elegant figure of Carolina Herrera. The latter designer’s relationship with the company goes far beyond fragrance – in 1995, Herrera’s entire fashion business came under the PUIG umbrella.
Don Enrique Puig, Don Antonio Puig, Don Mariano Puig (Marc’s Father), and Don José Maria Puig
Since the company is composed of both fragrance and fashion lines, Marc Puig is in a unique position to understand the relationship between these two sectors. “In fashion, you take ideas from the past and you want to reinvent them and still be relevant, and with fragrance you do the same thing,” he says. “There’s always change – you have to propose new things that people don’t know that they like – they smell something new and have to adapt to that, and then at some point the old starts to smell old.”
The danger, of course, is for a company to begin to “smell old” as well. Of the challenges facing luxury businesses today, Puig says frankly, “Probably the most radical change that we are seeing worldwide, and in many industries, is the digital revolution changing the way young people look at so many things.” Unlike previous generations, who sowed their wild oats but then settled down and pretty much lived the way their parents did, Puig says, “Now, even when the millennials become [the age of the] baby boomers, they will be influencing the older generation rather than the other way around … everything is in question, because the revolution of the net is transforming everything!”
He observes that fragrance – invisible, ephemeral – is in its own special category. “With makeup, say, you take a selfie in the morning, you have a blogger on the Internet that tells you how to paint, you can see it all on Instagram. But you cannot see fragrance, and it is difficult to even have words to describe it. So yes, there will be changes – changes in the way we talk about fragrance and in the way we buy fragrance.”
The challenge of how you market scent in settings that go far beyond the department store model, how you entice customers to try a new product when they are trading store visits for an online shopping experience, are just a few of the conundrums facing the industry – riddles that Puig says he looks forward to solving.
But of course, some things will never change, even if we get our fragrances delivered to us by flying saucer or dropped down our chimneys by drones. A commitment to quality, profound pride in one’s heritage, along with an ability to sniff – if you will – the winds of change, will no doubt continue to define Puig the man and PUIG the company for decades to come.
“They say the first generation builds, the second creates and the third destroys! So far, it’s not true, I hope,” he laughs, then turns more serious. “It is true that nothing is stable. Sometimes you wish for predictability, but that would be very boring. The changes that we are seeing – so dramatic, such tectonic shifts! There are threats and risks, but also paths for new ideas, and that is always exciting.”
Lynn Yaeger for The Fragrance Foundation
Photos courtesy of PUIG