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Published March 22, 2021
Published March 22, 2021
Joost Crop via Unsplash

The fragrance industry has had a turbulent history with inclusivity. The fragrance category “Oriental” had been called out for the term’s colonialist heritage and problematic fetishization of Eastern culture, but it continues to be used. Fragrance brand Jo Malone replaced its ambassador, Black actor John Boyega, with a Chinese actor in an after-shave advertisement reshot for the Chinese market. Chris Collins is the only Black-owned fragrance brand ever stocked at Bergdorf Goodman throughout its entire history (for reference, the store currently stocks 83 different scent companies in its online shop). One undisclosed world-leading fragrance house with thousands of employees has no Black representation whatsoever.

“The traditions of perfumery are so tightly bound to Old World ideas of what a perfumer is that sometimes this breeds unconscious bias,” states Gwen Gonzalez, a junior perfumer at Givaudan. “To me it is no surprise that people of color are grossly under represented in mainstream perfumery as the commercial fragrance industry has always been built on elitism,” says perfume expert and author Karen Gilbert. Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, founder of perfume house Pink MahogHany, notes that in the business of fragrance “a lot boils down to lineage. If you didn’t come from a family in France or Switzerland, you weren’t taken seriously. And small indie brands need resources to compete.” Clearly brand representation in retail stores and advertisements is only the end of a supply chain which has multiple points of required overhaul.

Given the international distribution network of raw materials in perfumery—vanilla from Tahiti, olibanum from Ethiopia, rose from Turkey, balsam from Peru—and its broad customer base (for example, Black consumers constitute 22.37% of women’s fragrance purchases), it feels bizarre that the industry’s predominant visual narrative is one of Western whiteness. The rich olfactory histories and practices of other countries outside of the Parisian perfumery realm are rarely seen or heard.

According to Gilbert, while the large manufacturers creating a more diverse staff is one way to ignite change, “there is a huge opportunity for the indie and artisan fragrance movement to make a lasting impact on true diversity.” Examples of such brands include Maya Njie, Motif Olfactif, Kimberly New York, and Therapeutate Parfums, to name a few. Sustainable perfume house Sana Jardin developed a Beyond Sustainability model, which supports the female harvesters of its raw materials in Morocco with business skills training, upcycling the flower waste from the harvest into consumer products, of which the women keep 100% of profits. In terms of larger corporations, IFF recently celebrated the Black female talent in its ranks for Women’s History Month and created a Black Excellence employee community, while Estée Lauder’s Global Talent and Inclusion and Diversity teams launched a sponsorship and mentorship program for Black talent, created in collaboration with NOBLE ERG.

“The traditions of perfumery are so tightly bound to Old World ideas of what a perfumer is that sometimes this breeds unconscious bias."
By Gwen Gonzalez

The Pull Up or Shut Up campaign was instrumental in spotlighting many of the diversity gaps within the beauty industry, but has yet to explore diversity issues within individual fragrance brands, although conglomerates like Coty and L’Oréal have divulged the racial makeup of their companies. Including fragrance houses in this initiative could be a key turning point. While a few companies have launched inclusivity and diversity statements, there is a lack of numerical and results-driven plans to turn these words into tangible outcomes. Educational efforts for supporting tomorrow’s fragrance talent were often limited to ISPICA and the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (both based in France), and while self-taught perfumery has become more widespread and accepted for the most part, there is still much to be done in this arena as well.

Indie effort is once again showing promise. One example is Future Olfactives, “an intersectional collective of independent perfumers and fragrance industry professionals dedicated to uplifting underrepresented BIPOC members of the fragrance community” and looking to reframe the industry’s Eurocentric approach. This would include changing industry terminology, as well as providing educational opportunities and more inclusive hiring processes. Individuals can join the collective’s talent database by submitting a short application form.

In order to ignite lasting change, the industry needs to become more transparent and willing to adapt its narrative to a 2021 world, to look outside of a Western-centric view of perfumery. As fragrance journalist Persolaise writes in “The Changing Face of Fragrance” for The Perfume Society’s magazine The Scented Letter: “Awareness. Positivity. And definite action … these are the three main factors on which brands should focus, and in which we should find hope for the future.”


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