Ate­lier Cologne has flo­ral top notes of ro­mance but fin­ishes with the zesty musk of am­bi­tion

▶ Ate­lier Cologne ex­pands mar­kets for its cit­rus-based scents ▶ In the U.S., “things hap­pened quickly. That’s not very French”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - Carol Mat­lack

When French na­tives Sylvie Gan­ter and Christophe Cer­vasel de­cided to cre­ate their own fra­grance busi­ness, they started in New York City. The cou­ple, who met a decade ago while work­ing in the U. S., dis­cov­ered a shared pen­chant for cologne, a style of fra­grance in­vented in 18th cen­tury Ger­many. Once fa­vored by Euro­pean roy­alty, it's suf­fered re­cently from a rep­u­ta­tion as a down-mar­ket cousin to French per­fume. Both are a blend of es­sen­tial oils and al­co­hol. The greater con­cen­tra­tion of essences in per­fume give it more stay­ing power. “I al­ways wore cologne, but I was frus­trated be­cause it didn't last,” says Gan­ter, who pre­vi­ously worked in the per­fume divi­sions of lux­ury groups LVMH and Her­mès.

The cou­ple be­came ac­quainted when Cer­vasel hired Gan­ter to work for a com­pany he owned that de­vel­oped per­fumes un­der li­cense for fash­ion brands. Soon after­ward they fell in love and quit their jobs to start a busi­ness. They sold their apart­ments to raise money and in 2009 in­tro­duced Ate­lier Cologne, a col­lec­tion of highly con­cen­trated colognes that ri­val per­fume's stay­ing power but still have the fresh cit­rus scents that are cologne's hall­mark.

Draw­ing on the ex­per­tise of lab­o­ra­to­ries in the French per­fume cap­i­tal of Grasse, they con­cocted their own for­mu­las, adding notes of cedar, ginger, jas­mine, and vanilla to the cit­rus. For each fra­grance, they wrote sto­ries de­scrib­ing the im­age it's meant to evoke. Or­ange San­guine, for ex­am­ple, re­calls coffee on a sea­side ter­race in Italy, with “the scent of fresh or­anges dif­fus­ing in the yel­low heat.”

Kelly St. John, who runs the per­fume and cos­met­ics divi­sion at Neiman Mar­cus, says she re­mem­bers Gan­ter's sales pitch for the brand, over break­fast in Man­hat­tan in 2009. Af­ter talk­ing about her pas­sion for cologne, Gan­ter brought out sam­ples, each wrapped in parch­ment and bound with a hand-tooled leather band. “It was a beau­ti­ful story, with tremen­dous hand­crafted de­tails, an en­tirely new way to do fra­grance,” St. John says. Neiman Mar­cus and Bergdorf Good­man be­came the first re­tail­ers to carry Ate­lier Cologne. St. John says it's been a hit with cus­tomer­scu who want “ex­clu­sive nichen fra­grances they can't find a any­where else.”

Al­though Ate­lier Cologne has head­quar­ters in Paris and its scents are French-made, Gan­ter and Cer­vasel say they fo­cused first on the U.S. be­cause Amer­i­cans are more will­ing than the French to ex­per­i­ment with new prod­ucts. “France is the most dif­fi­cult mar­ket in the world,” Cer­vasel says. With U.S. re­taile ers, Gan­ter says, “things hap­pened quickly. That's not very French.”

Ate­lier Cologne opened its first store in Man­hat­tan in 2011. Since then it's opened one in Brook­lyn, three in Paris, and an­other in Hong Kong. All fea­ture in­dus­trial- chic work­benches and metal stools, part of an ef­fort to po­si­tion the brand as a hip al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional per­fumes.

Most clients are in their 30s, still young but able to af­ford its prices: A 100-milliliter (3.4-ounce) bot­tle ranges from $120 to $250. Ate­lier Cologne's fra­grances are uni­sex, and some 80 per­cent of cus­tomers are women. “The whole am­bi­ence is re­ally at­trac­tive,” says Lora Lin, a stu­dent from Tai­wan brows­ing in the Ate­lier Cologne bou­tique near Paris's Place de la Con­corde on a re­cent af­ter­noon. Citrus­based cologne “has be­come my sig­na­ture scent,” she says.

Ate­lier Cologne posted €14 mil­lion ($15.3 mil­lion) in sales last year, more than half in the U.S. and Asia. Its scents are sold in more than 40 coun­tries by depart­ment stores and spe­cialty re­tail­ers such as Sephora. Armed with €8 mil­lion from an­gel in­vestors and a French state-run in­vest­ment bank, Gan­ter and Cer­vasel plan to open more than 30 ad­di­tional out­lets in cities in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco, Dubai, and Shang­hai. They're also work­ing with chains such as Man­darin Ori­en­tal Ho­tel Group to pro­vide cologne-based am­bi­ent scents in guest rooms and lob­bies.

Could Ate­lier Cologne be snapped up by one of the big lux­ury houses that Gan­ter and Cer­vasel once worked with? Cer­vasel says they've al­ready re­ceived a few over­tures. But, he says, “when you're cre­ative, you want to stay in­de­pen­dent.” The bot­tom line With mil­lions in fresh fund­ing, Ate­lier Cologne plans to ex­pand in the U.S., Asia, and the Middle East.

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