What comes to mind when you hear Clive Christian? For me, it's opulent chandeliers and this brooding image of him.
As I keep swirling Clive Christian in my head, other, funny images come to mind. One of them is a video of his daughter Victoria demonstrating a new perfume release. Wearing a white magician glove she sprays the fragrance in the air and then fans it towards the audience.
I saw this video five years ago and it still makes me laugh.
If the way Victoria Christian demos perfume seems superfluous and over-the-top, you are correct. These eccentrities, however, are not uncontrolled outbursts of oddity. On the contrary. They are done deliberately and are part of the company's marketing strategy.
Most niche perfumers create fragrances for the sake of creating olfactory art (or at least pretend to do so). Clive Christian creates perfume for the sake of creating luxury. I don't think he cares much about perfume to start with. For him, it is just another luxury item he wants to sell to people who buy stuff just because it is luxury.
This fact became evident to me from my first encounter with the brand. The attendant at Holt Renfrew introduced Clive Christian's No. 1 the most expensive perfume in the world. She went on to explain the bottle was encrusted with diamonds and the ingredients cost $2,500 per ounce.
I thought it's an odd way to talk about a fragrance, so I interrupted her:
"Okay, that's nice but what about the perfume itself? Is it any good?"
She stepped back a little and after a short pause she said:
"Well, it's very long lasting and you have to put very little of it to last all day..."
"That's nice too but is the juice any good?", I pressed on.
"Some people like it. You know, it's a personal preference," she said as if she had to admit to a ruse. Then, she went on with the same spiel about how expensive the ingredients were and their heraldic origin of the brand.
I was dumbfounded by this whole interaction. After all, no one has ever tried so hard to bamboozle me about the qualities of a perfume. Companies and sales assistants often go on about the exquisite packaging of their product but they cut this short and focus on the actual virtues of the perfume. Even myopic designer brands know that people buy perfume primarily for the juice itself and less for the bragging factor.
I went home that night and googled Clive Christian. I found out the guy was an Officer of the OBE (Order or the British Empire) who made his money making custom furniture. To put it crassly, he was a carpenter.
Is Clive Christian the British version of Donald Trump? Equally delusional about his own grandeur but more refined?
The furniture business took off and Clive Christian opened a factory to meet the demand of his clients.
At some point, he decided to create the most expensive perfume in the world. What inspired him to do it and to get into perfumery in the first place is a mystery. Even today, 15 years later, Clive Christian's official website is vague about the designer's motivations. Here's what it says:
"Clive Christian became the custodian of a British perfumery first established in 1872, the only house ever to have been granted the image of Queen Victoria’s crown, and set about restoring true luxury to the world of perfumery by reviving the original values and heritage of the perfumery with no reference to cost under his principle to “Design first – to be the best that it can be – then cost it”.
If you find this description odd, you are not alone. To start off, it says that Clive Christian became a custodian of a British perfumery. As far as I know, when someone becomes a custodian of something, they are put in charge to take care of it. Their custodian privileges usually don't extend to branding the property or product with their own name.
Further, if Clive Christian became the custodian of a British perfumery, it means that someone else owns it. Does this mean that Clive Christian doesn't own his perfume house?
No, but it means it is all made up. I think Clive Christian may have acquired some rights or licenses from a perfume house so long-forgotten or obscure that he doesn't even care to use its name. What he was after was historical legitimacy. This way he can spin tails about heraldic orders, the crown of Queen Victoria and other nonsense. To put it bluntly, it's a tale for suckers ready to gobble up anything with a touch of aristocracy.
Clive Christian Perfumes talks about the world's most expensive perfume, No. 1, in the same hyperbolic way:
"The pinnacle of excellence in this golden renaissance of the art of perfumery was to be the Clive Christian No1 Perfume, named as such as it had to be the very best perfume in the world. The finest that could be made. The number one! Beautiful essential oils, natural ingredients and extraordinary absolutes were to be found no matter where they were. Rarity and cost were no barrier. This was to be the perfume of his heart.
Today Clive Christian No1 remains one of the finest perfumes of all time and the house of Clive Christian retains its majesty and the patronage of the rich and famous.
As they say, the rest is history, and to celebrate the 15 year anniversary a collection of unique gold, diamond and crystal bottle designs were exhibited at a glamorous event at the Victoria and Albert Museum."
The pinnacle of excellence? Golden renaissance of the art of perfumery? Is Clive Christian the British version of Donald Trump? Equally delusional about his own grandeur but more refined?
Clive Christian is not in the business of selling perfume. He is in the business of selling luxury.
The whole idea to make "the very best perfume in the world" is a fool's gold. I don't even know what "the very best perfume" means. The best smelling? The best in terms of performance? Longevity? Price?
If it's the best smelling, Clive Christian lost the game before he even started. Perfume is like ice cream. Everyone has their preferences. For you, the chocolate chip kind might be the best, but for me it is caramel praline. How can you objectively judge perfume as the best?
Leaving all the marketing gimmicks aside, is No. 1 any good? Here's what Luca Turin says about it:
"A nice woody floral in the manner of Amouage Gold but vastly less grand".
To me, this reads like the description of something I would find in the clearance bin at the local drug store. My impression of No. 1 was that it is a nice rich fragrance but I found it unimpressive. I have no doubt Clive Christian used top ingredients but the result is an average niche fragrance. Nothing special.
See, what Luca Turin, you and I think doesn't really matter. Clive Christian is not in the business of selling perfume. He is in the business of selling luxury. He follows the Kim Kardashian's business model but applies it to luxury.
The model of being famous for being famous has made millions for the Kardashian clan. Has the same model worked for Clive Christian?
Not so much. According to Independent, Clive Christian Perfumes posted a 2.9 million pounds loss (USD$4.0 million or EUR3.7 million) for 2014. My search for more recent financial information revealed nothing. Clive Christian Perfumes is a private company and they don't have to disclose their financial statements to the public.
Independent reveals that the 2013 pre-tax income was a meagre 95 thousand pounds. Take out corporate taxes (provided no carry-forward tax losses are applied) and you are left with a chump change - enough to cover a new set of fans for the next perfume launch.
Taking it for what it is, the company's bottom line doesn't match the image of a high end luxurious brand. It appears substance might matter after all. Now under new ownership, would Clive Christian Perfumes change its strategy?
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.