On a recent afternoon in the Le Labo boutique on 29th Street in Manhattan, a well-dressed professional woman sought out the sales associate and wasted no time getting to her point. She was visiting from California, she said, and wanted to buy the scent (Tubereuse 40) sold only in New York. “We don’t have that in L.A.,” she said, sounding a bit pouty. Fortunately for the woman, it was nothing that $175 for 1.7 fluid ounces couldn’t fix, and she left happy.Witness the sort of scene that happens at Le Labo—and possibly no other fragrance store anywhere. The affluent woman in this story was asking for one of Le Labo’s “city exclusive” scents, which is just one of the many features that’s helped Le Labo shake up the fragrance industry.
“Le Labo speaks to a different kind of customer,” said Jamie Rosen, beauty director for Town & Country, “to someone who’s sophisticated when it comes to fragrance but also wants a sense of discovery. In all their boutiques, they make one fragrance unique to that location. For a global brand to do something like that makes you feel like you’re getting something special.”
You’re certainly getting something different. Since its 2006 founding, Le Labo has carved out a fiercely loyal following by breaking with every convention the fragrance business has. It turned its nose up at the likes of Sephora in favor of selling at its own stores. The brand has no paid celebrity endorsers—no marketing to speak of, really. Its prices are essentially double that of mainstream brands. Even the naming convention is different. All of Le Labo’s fragrances feature the name of the principal essence, followed by the number of ingredients in the formula—a practice that frees the scent of what co-founder Fabrice Penot calls the “poetic bias” of names designed by marketers to manipulate a customer’s buying decisions.
Indeed, Penot and his business partner Edouard Roschi (Armani veterans, both) dislike the use of any words to describe their scents. “Choosing your perfume by reading an olfactory description is like asking for someone’s resume before falling in love,” they say. Penot and Roschi insist that would-be customers come into stores to try the scents personally. Once they do, it’s all over. Le Labo literally means “the lab,” and that’s just what the stores look like—a mating of old-world apothecary and prewar industrial plant where a customer’s fragrance is blended before their eyes, then labeled with their name.
Gimmicky? Maybe. But can you get this sort of attention at Macy’s? Ten years ago, industry giants wouldn’t give Le Labo a cent of startup capital. Today, Le Labo is part of Estée Lauder, which snapped it up in 2014 for an undisclosed amount. “They’re still niche,” Rosen said. “But at the same time very clear, very approachable. To me, Le Labo represents the epitome of pared-down luxury.”