CREATIVE EXPRESSION: ACTOR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELENA MUDD
“The first thing you have to figure out is, ‘What is the core value?…What is the core message of the fragrance?…Whatever that core essence is.’” That is the first thing that Sue Phillips considers when designing a fragrance. Sue is crystal clear about her core essence. She is the queen of scent. Her company is “Scenterprises.” She calls herself a “scentrepreneur.” She offers “scentertaining” experiences. She even signs her emails, “Scentfully Yours.” Sue is all in. And she has a serious and illustrious pedigree that anchors her playful branding. Sue’s iconic fragrance creations include fragrances for TIFFANY & CO (Tiffany for Women, Tiffany for Men), and BURBERRY (Society by Burberry for Women and Society by Burberry for Men). Sue has also spearheaded key fragrance initiatives for Avon, Diane Von Furstenberg, Lancaster and Trish McEvoy.
We meet at Sue’s perfumery in TriBeca, New York: The Scentarium. Our interview starts a little later than planned as Sue wraps up some urgent meetings. “I am extremely time-challenged and put in a great many hours in the day. However, I am totally passionate about what I do, and I’m forging all kinds of alliances to build a team around me,” she would later say. We descend a flight of stairs to an elaborately adorned salon. This is the space where Sue has worked with notable celebrities to design their custom fragrances. Her client roster includes Jamie Foxx, Katie Holmes, Zendaya and many other entertainment and media personalities. So, how did this all begin?
“As a little girl, when my mom would kiss me goodnight, her perfume would linger. And I would always remember her leaving, and her fragrance was in the air. I always felt comforted by that,” Sue says. “I always loved perfume but never thought that I’d be in the fragrance industry. I always wanted to be a singer and an actress. I was singing and acting in South Africa. Moved to New York in my very early 20s,” she adds. Sue came to New York on vacation and fell in love with the city. She worked with an immigration attorney and over time secured a green card. Sue obtained three job offers: one at a bank, the second at a design company, and the third was in cosmetics at Elizabeth Arden. She took the job with Elizabeth Arden to be the executive assistant to the President of the company
“When I got the position at Elizabeth Arden, I thought, ‘That’s very similar to showbiz, as the idea of cosmetics is very akin to showbiz!,’” she says. “Because of my acting background, I was able to speak and make presentations to people, so the management at Arden felt that I’d be good in training. And I said, ‘What’s training?’ They wanted someone who could inspire and motivate the consultants who were selling behind the counter. Teach them…about the product…and how to sell. …I ended up at Macy’s for 3 months as an orientation to learn about retail and motivating consultants. It was the best training I ever had because it teaches you to never judge a book by its cover. Never think that just because someone isn’t well dressed that they don’t have the money to spend. Or that if someone is well dressed they will shower you with thousands of dollars. It was a way of understanding who your customer is and talking to your customer in a thoughtful and compelling way,” Sue adds. She rose the ranks to become the national training director at Elizabeth Arden, and then in a sequence of promotions, moved on to Marketing in Color Cosmetics, and then later to Marketing Director for Fragrances.
After 6 years at Elizabeth Arden, Sue received a call from Lancôme. The president at Elizabeth Arden was not at all pleased to be losing his rising star. “I said to him, ‘Joe, I started at this company as your executive assistant. I will always be remembered as your executive assistant and will never be fully integrated into this company as a senior executive.’ And he agreed with me,” Sue says. She was at Lancôme for 4 years before receiving a call from another head hunter to be vice president of fragrance at Tiffany.
It was while at Tiffany that Sue developed the iconic Tiffany fragrances. But not until making some initial major strategic changes. When Sue joined Tiffany, the team there had been working with two independent consultants to develop the Tiffany fragrance. The entire process had been going on for two years. When Sue tested the fragrance prototypes, she realized that they were “awful.” “They seemed synthetic and chemical. They didn’t typify or represent any of the hallmarks of the quality of what a Tiffany fragrance should be,” Sue says. It was a difficult starting position at a new job but she proceeded with a politician’s prowess. Sue reached out to industry veterans and asked for their candid feedback on the fragrances that were under development. These well respected, industry hands sided with Sue. Armed with this data, Sue approached her future boss before her first day on the job and diplomatically told her what she thought about the fragrances. Her future boss marched Sue to the chairman of Tiffany & Co, “‘Sue doesn’t think the fragrances that we’ve been working on over the past two years are good enough,’ my new boss told the chairman. The chairman goes, ‘Well, we hired her to fix it. Go fix it!’” Sue says laughing.
But how would Sue handle the fact that there would be displeased consultants and a new team to deal with? A team that had spent two years designing the previous Tiffany prototypes? At that time, Tiffany was in a joint venture with Chanelwho would be manufacturing and distributing the fragrance, and so Sue set up a meeting with the owner of Chanel, Alain Wertheimer, who tried the original submissions and agreed with Sue. “‘Sue, I want you to work with my chief perfumer in Paris, Jacques Polge.’ So that was my leeway to working in Paris, with a perfumer. …I spent 4 weeks in Paris,” she says. After returning from Paris, Sue, the chairman of Tiffany, and Sue’s future boss selected the fragrance that Sue brought back from Europe. Sue and her team then arranged for focus groups so that they could compare the newly developed Parisian scent to the two previous scents that had been developed by the independent consultants. The focus groups were comprised of 300 typical Tiffany clients and included qualitative and quantitative assessments. The fragrance that Sue had developed with Jacques Polge in Paris clearly won out. It ended up being a favorable outcome for all involved. “I wanted to be fair to the consultants, the house, and the brand,” she says.
The art of designing a scent is subtle but deliberate. “What is the core brand positioning?” Sue asks. “I was asked to spearhead the fragrance design for Burberry, and the company has a tremendous heritage and history,” she starts, holding the bottle containing the Burberry fragrance that she designed. “Burberry’s bottle was based on an antique toothbrush holder. It was very much a symbol of British tradition. …Whenever royalty would travel, they would have their little grooming kit. …So taking the idea of heritage and history. …At the time, Burberry was considered a men’s brand. We wanted to launch a woman’s fragrance first to ‘shift’ the positioning of the brand so as to make it more ‘female-centric.’ So we developed a distinctly bold floral, with some bright sparkling green notes…Thinking of the English lawn, and fields, and lavender,” Sue continues. Sue created Burberry fragrances for men and women which became “Society by Burberry.”
Designing fragrances for individuals follows a similarly detailed inquiry. Sue sets out to understand the core values and personality of the individual. “To develop a fragrance from scratch can typically take about a year or two,” she says. However, at Sue’s perfumery in Tribeca, she takes clients through a “scentertaining” creative experience over the course of an hour or two. This is because Sue has developed a range of 18 perfume blends which can be combined and matched so that she can tailor a fragrance to an individual’s style and palate. “I give clients a scent personality quiz…Based on your answers, I can tell you what fragrance direction you should be heading into,” she says. The quiz assesses lifestyle preferences and is comprised of 12 questions that range from, “what fabrics do you prefer to wear against your skin?” to, “what is your favorite time of day?” After completing the quiz, Sue categorizes your scent preference among four categories: Woodsy, Oriental, Floral, and Fresh.
The next step in creating your custom scent is a tour of scent profiles. Sue walks the scent creator through 18 blends that range in spectrum from fresh, fruity florals to warm woodsy, musky, and spicy perfumes. The creator then picks 4 out of the 18 that most resonate with him or her. After selecting your favorite scents, Sue prepares a custom fragrance which you get to name. And there you have it. You now have a signature scent. Sue’s goal is to create a “fun, enjoyable, and scentertaining experience.” Throughout the fragrance creating experience, Sue speaks about her passion for scent, “Our most powerful sense…after sight, is our sense of smell…It’s the only sense we have that connects memory and emotion, and correlates our sense of smell to taste ….so food and flavor are totally related,” she says. “You know, when you get a cold, you can’t smell or taste!”
“With the construction of fragrances, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you first spray on a fragrance, you get the top notes; then it mixes with your body, the middle notes come out; and then finally, the base notes are longest lasting,” Sue says. The base notes from her childhood still linger on. Sue still remembers the lasting scent of her mother’s perfume as she faded off to sleep as a little girl in South Africa. “I do a lot of work in the area of Alzheimer’s because scent and memory are so entwined, and sadly my mother had Alzheimer’s. Those are her paintings on the walls,” she says, gesturing wistfully towards her wall art. For Sue Phillips, scent is more than just smells, business, and clever wordplay. It is how she remembers herself. Her mission is “to take fragrance out of the bottle, and to create magical and memorable experiences for [her] clients…drop by drop.”