TAKE THE WATERS
IN A FURIOUSLY CROWDED AND COMPETITIVE GLOBAL FRAGRANCE MARKET, ACQUA DI PARMA HAS A DISTINCT IDENTITY AND PROFILE, THANKS TO ITS SUPERIOR INGREDIENTS, EXCLUSIVITY AND, WELL, SHEER ITALIANNESS.
Acqua di Parma’s signature scent, Italy’s first cologne, was created 100 years ago and has been an A-list favourite almost ever since.
There’s something pleasantly disorienting about feeling like you are immersed in perfume before you even get a whiff of it. When Acqua di Parma launches its new fragrance, Colonia Pura, on a balmy night in Milan, it is an assault on the senses. As the Veuve Cliquot flows, more than 200 wellheeled guests are invited to step inside a cubicle shaped like a bottle as the sloshing sound of perfume washes over them. On the other side of the cubicle guests discover the intoxicating aromas of cedar, citrus, patchouli, musk and petitgrain in glass bowls that dangle from the ceiling, before being treated to a candle-lit dinner where the pasta has traces of citrus zest and the cheese cake comes with bergamot-flavoured ice cream.
Acqua di Parma began with a simple concept in an essential oil workshop in the heart of the northern Italian city of Parma in 1916. Carlo Magnani, heir to a local noble family, created what was hailed as Italy’s first cologne, known as Colonia. “Years ago when the tailors were selling a beautiful bespoke suit, a spray of cologne was the final touch,” says Laura Burdese, Acqua di Parma’s president and chief executive. “It still represents the last touch of typical Italian style.”
In the 1930s Colonia began to gain international attention. It was not only the cologne but its Art Decoinspired bottle that became a style icon. Hollywood legends Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn made the classic cologne their own. Now a new generation of A-list celebrities including Jude Law, Kate Moss and Sandra Bullock have fallen for the brand. “Acqua di Parma is much more than a fragrance or a beauty brand,” Burdese says. “It really represents the most elegant and effortless understated Italian style.”
From humble beginnings Acqua di Parma has become a global empire with a range of fragrances, skin care and shaving products, scented candles and leather goods, as well as its own signature stores and beauty spas from Venice to Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda.
The company’s latest launch has given its new fragrance a face. Will Chalker, one of the UK’s hottest models who has appeared in major campaigns for YSL, Valentino and Louis Vuitton, adds a personal dimension to Colonia Pura with his ease and elegance. Colonia, inspired by nature and simplicity, is “an icon that we have remastered in a more modern contemporary way”, Burdese says. “It is a different interpretation of freshness which is perfect for a new generation.”
Taking a break from greeting the glitterati, Burdese grabs a gin and tonic, flops into a deep armchair and shares her insights on what it takes to create a successful fragrance. “It looks like a very simple fragrance but to be honest it is one of the most complicated,” she confides. “There are many ingredients but it is really about choosing the best, in our case Italian, ingredients and combining them in a new way.”
After nearly two decades in watches and jewellery, Burdese was chosen to take charge of Acqua di Parma by the French conglomerate LVMH, which acquired the brand in 2001. She started in the beauty industry and later joined the Swiss watch brand Swatch as a marketing manager. In 2012 she was named president and CEO of Calvin Klein watches and jewellery lines before she joined the Italian perfume brand last October.
Across the room François Demachy, the “nose” behind Acqua di Parma’s new fragrance, offers his perspective on how he and the brand’s marketing director Paola Paganini developed Colonia Pura. “For me the name was really inspiring because purity is inspiring,” says the silver-haired Frenchman, who also designs fragrances for Christian Dior. “I had to use some of the usual materials for Colonia – like bergamot, lemon, orange, mandarin, petitgrain. And I had to bring something else, something pure. After many attempts I saw that the pureness was like clear water in the mountain, like a stream. I tried to bring this watery smell and these minerals inside the framework of a cologne.”
Demachy is a legend in the industry and divides his time between Paris and Grasse, the world-renowned fragrance capital in the south of France. He has made other fragrances for Acqua di Parma: Gelsomino Nobile and Colonia Intensa. In an intimate video portrait on the LVMH website Demachy describes his talent this way: “I know how to speak a language that everyone understands but hardly anyone knows how to speak. I translate something in the air into a scent.” His desk is covered in tiny glass vials and he stares out at Paris rooftops while lifting scent strips to his nose and conferring with his team using the inscrutable language of the perfumer like “too green” or “too much wood”.
“When you work for a project you always try many different proposals because you are never sure,” he says. “The creation is very lonely at the beginning, but you have to share your creation very fast with the people around you – I share with my wife and the marketing people. If they say ‘oh, that’s good’ it doesn’t help!”
Unlike other perfumers Demachy says he had no particular connection with scents or odours as a child. His father, a pharmacist, had wanted him to become a doctor. “At that time children did not choose what they wanted to do,” he recalls. While studying dentistry, he began working in a perfumery to pay the bills and suddenly a whole new career path opened up. “You have to be very analytical, very precise, and on the other hand you have to be creative,” he says. “When you do a good perfume you have to have the right balance.”
Demachy has created perfumes for Chanel, Emmanuel Ungaro, Givenchy and Tiffany. He returned to product development at LVMH in 2006 and appears to have lost none of his passion. “Perfume is emotion, otherwise it is nothing. Perfume is so abstract. The smell is so abstract it is only a question of emotion.”
Paganini and her team spent more than a year collaborating with Demachy on Colonia Pura, with months of meetings and tests. “You need to test it on the skin, wear it for a few days,” Paganini says. “It is really important to wait for three or four days so all the ingredients mix well together.”
Paganini says the ingredients are fundamental and Acqua di Parma sources its raw materials from Italy wherever possible. “We have good flowers in Italy, as well as excellent citrus – orange, bergamot, petitgrains, mandarin, all these citrus notes in Italy are top quality. This is a gift we have from nature.”
British fragrance expert and writer Michael Edwards says access to superior raw materials through LVMH gives Acqua di Parma an advantage in an increasingly competitive global market – more than 2200 new scents were launched last year. “You ask me if it’s crowded?” says the author of Fragrances of the World and Perfume Legends. “You’re not kidding!”
But he says the Italian brand has a unique profile in the market and that adds to its elegance and allure. “It’s like the Hermès of perfumery. It’s one of those discreet fragrances that smells of money. To wear Acqua di Parma means you are not trying too hard.”
The brand’s products are found in a handful of exclusive hotels and it has also opened monobrand stores in Italy, France and the US. There are plans for more in the UK and the US markets and Burdese is already looking to Asia and Australia for further expansion. “We are growing very fast in some countries like the US and Australia and we are entering Asia and China,” says Burdese. “They love the brand wherever we go.”
Marika Gervasio, fashion and beauty editor for the Italian financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, says the brand’s identity and recent growth has been driven by its attention to quality and personal service. “The customer feels pampered and supported by the personal service the brand offers together with the high quality of the products,” she says. “I think the brand will flourish in future if it continues down this path, differentiating itself with its originality, craftsmanship and quality as a symbol of excellence made in Italy.”
Acqua di Parma’s new spin on a favourite scent, Colonia Pura