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Close your eyes and picture the following scene: a dry desert landscape somewhere on the West Coast. You’re cruising down a dusty, remote road, seated on the passenger’s side of a convertible next to an extremely attractive designated other. On the stereo, there’s a soft guitar strumming and the raspy voice of American folk singer Ray LaMontagne crying, as he does, through the chorus of “Forever My Friend.”
As you take in the mountains and the music and the dry desert brush, do you have any idea what this experience would smell like? According to Phlur, a new e-commerce fragrance startup, it would smell like Moab, its spicy scent that’s a blend of jasmine, vanilla, long pepper, tonka bean, and clove. According to the Phlur website, Moab is a “translation of the feelings inspired by the desert’s sun, wind, and openness,” and the fragrance “seduces, like the vastness of the West, emanating an invigorating dry heat.” And since the internet still hasn’t figured out how scent can be transmitted through laptops or cell phones, you’ll have to take Phlur’s word for it.
Phlur was founded in July by Eric Korman, a former Ticketmaster executive who’s also worked at companies like RetailMeNot and Ralph Lauren. The company’s name is a pun — “fleur” means flower in French, and the brand is taking a knock at France’s self-appointed authority of the fragrance market (“We like to poke fun at them, and there’s nothing more annoying than making fun of their language,” he says). The “PH” also stands for the pH level of your skin, since Korman says scent smells differently on each wearer.
As a brand that’s attempting the impossible — selling fragrances online — Phlur’s method is pretty innovative. Shoppers are encouraged to browse each scent’s accompanying photos and music and then choose the scent that speaks to them most. In the case of Moab, for example, if you jive with a hot desert aesthetic and the soft, sensual tunes on its Spotify playlist, the Austin-based Phlur thinks you’ll dig its spicy scent.
Is that not your vibe? Well, maybe there’s Phlur’s Greylocke, “an expression of nature and New England heritage” that has imagery like a colorful hiking trail in the autumn and a couple walking into a beautiful, colonial house. Its playlist includes the soft jamming of the Allman Brothers and a not-so-soft ballad from the Foo Fighters, which is supposed to go with Greylocke’s earthy blend of birch leaf, sea salt, bergamot, and pine resin. But if rock and roll and New England-esque imagery isn’t your thing, perhaps you’ll like Hanami, a floral scent with fig, white florals, hazelnut, and sandalwood with “fresh, airy sensibility” that has crisp, minimalist imagery of a woman in structured blazers near modern and geometric-shaped silhouettes set to a playlist of buoyant but downtempo music from Death Cab for Cutie and Tosca.
Korman says he got the idea to start a fragrance company after spending his lunch breaks during his time at Ralph Lauren browsing Barneys, where he says the fragrance shopping experience was seriously lacking.
“Barneys has all of these high-end products from brands I’d never heard of, but I didn’t like that the area downstairs had so many fragrances that I couldn’t isolate what I was smelling, or that I was supposed to get to know the smell from a paper strip,” he says during a recent phone call. “And then there was the price. They want you to spend $300 on a bottle? I spent enough time at Ralph Lauren to know that no bottle needs to cost that much money!”
Phlur fragrances arrive in white, unfussy packaging with a similar aesthetic to Goop. Shoppers can opt for two possibilities: Either take a chance on a scent whose music and imagery you subscribe to and buy it $85, or pick two scents and order samples of them for $10, a price that can later be credited to the cost of a bottle if you end up ordering it. Phlur’s goal, he says, “is not to sell you a whole bottle, but to drive a sample experience at home.” Sample kits come with a flyer that explains what each scent should smell like after it’s been worn for five minutes, one hour, and eight hours. All scents are unisex, falling in line with the general direction of the retail industry.
While many fragrance brands try to reconstruct the formulas of blockbuster scents like Clinique’s Happy or Chanel’s Mademoiselle, Korman says each scent from the brand “comes with a story.” He works with several New York-based fragrance houses, where perfumers are “given storyboards and played music so that each fragrance that’s developed is fully unique.”
According to BCC Research, the highly lucrative global fragrance industry could surpass $33 billion by 2019. In the US alone, more than two million people spent $500 or more on perfume in 2016, according to Statista. There are so many fragrances on the market, and they are all usually owned by the same key players — that is, Coty, Estée Lauder, LVMH, and L'Oréal. And yet, Korman points out, “We’ve been adorning ourselves with perfume since ancient Egypt, and the category hasn’t really evolved since World War II. When I thought about the messaging and distribution model and the brands out there, none of them seemed relevant to a young, modern consumer.”
Half the industry’s most popular fragrances hail from a popular fashion brand — think Chanel, Dior, Calvin Klein, Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, Giorgio Armani — and while “these companies might have artists associated with it, they aren’t fragrance lovers,” he says. The other half is slapped with a celebrity’s name through licensing deals — Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, Antonio Banderas, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tim McGraw, Jennifer Lopez — but Korman says a smart generation of shoppers “isn’t interested in smelling like Ariana Grande and doesn’t buy into the misogynistic marketing that has a narrow, sexualized messaging.” Phlur, he says, is more interested in how a customer might connect to a scent through an experience.
“We believe fragrance can play into important moments. It can tap into something powerful, which is the visceral nature of olfaction; it can trigger a psychological response.”
This brings us back to the photos and music Phlur wants shoppers to explore its scents through. While it might seem like just a clever way to hack the obstacle of selling fragrances online, Korman points out that there’s actually scientific proof behind connecting sight and sound to scent. During Phlur’s development, Korman sought the counsel of Dr. Rachel Herz, a researcher at Brown University who studies emotion, sensory, and olfactory cognition. According to Herz’s research, scent influences emotions, memory, and social behavior. It’s also intertwined with other senses, which Korman says was Phlur’s basis for providing the photos and Spotify playlists.
"We can also portray scents with visuals of sensory touch points and convey the feeling you’d get when you smell that fragrance," says Korman. In other words, since we are familiar with a rose, a photo of it would conjure up how it smells and feels.
Phlur has raised $4.5 million in funding to date and is stacked at a team of ten, in addition to receiving guidance from fragrance expert Chandler Burr, the former Times scent critic that takes olfactory as seriously as doctors take biology. Next up, its perfumers will roll out some new scents for fall 2017. It’s also eyeing the luxury candle space, because of course it is.
Eventually, Korman says, Phlur will expand “through a different kind of store experience” — whatever that means — but for now, it remains direct-to-consumer. While the company steers clear of all the typical sexualized imagery he referenced earlier, some of its copy leans cheesy, like suggesting Greylocke if “you're looking to project the carefree ease of the Kennedys playing touch football,” or promoting its “hand-crafted and artisanal” Hepcat scent with the intro “Maybe you live in Bushwick.”
Still, the marketing is pretty polished for the most part, and it's fun to imagine the mood of each fragrance as it corresponds to the photos and music. The scents themselves are creative, original, and nothing like the Flowerbomb knockoffs that are rolled out on the reg. Plus, it boasts sustainable and ethical sourcing for its packaging and ingredients, so there’s that.