The Artisan Series: Andy Tauer (Part 2)
It’s an interesting experience to write about Andy Tauer, as my comments section usually crackles with an extra jolt of energy in response. The deep personal loyalty that Mr. Tauer elicits from his customers is more than just breathless desire for the latest status symbols pushed by affiliate-heavy fashion sites (i.e. “The top ten Fall looks you need right now!” peppered with an abundance of e-shop links) — instead, it’s a direct result of the one-to-one relationship that only the DIY producer can offer in a world of assembly-line manufacturing, global distribution and pay-per-click marketing.
Not that this means independent artisans like Tauer are opposed to selling, but that selling his goods is only part of the overall transaction between customer and producer, an interaction that includes the exchange of ideas as well as the exchange of cash. “I could not do what I do these days if there were no market for my scents,” he replied, when I asked if he ever felt any tension between the concepts of perfumery as art and perfumery as commercial product. “So I look at commerce, in this sense, as an enabler. My online shop allows me to spread fragrant messages, and because there seems to be a market for these messages, I can continue doing what I really love to do: create perfumes.”
Christina Binkley wrote in the Wall Street Journal that indie designers were gaining a foothold in fashion because their non-mainstream offerings allow consumers to develop their own style rather than chase the latest trends — but she could just as easily be writing about indie perfumers, too.
I emailed Abigail Levin, who writes for I Smell Therefore I Am and runs the perfume shop Posh Peasant in Santa Fe, about whether she felt a greater sense of satisfaction wearing a perfume that was created, mixed and bottled by hand. She wrote back, saying that “All the top brands fall flat for me now — they feel impersonal and corporate and just plain expensive, which is not the same as luxurious . . . The former icons of luxury, such as Chanel, Prada, Guerlain and the like, no longer bestow this feeling of having purchased something individual, exceptional, unique or one of a kind.”
In a commercial marketplace saturated with sameness, analysts have recognized that a growing number of consumers feel the way Levin does, and that these consumers are willing to pay a premium to not look and smell just like everyone else around them. Marigay McKee, the fashion and beauty director at the London department store Harrods, told industry website WWD: “The whole trend we are seeing – from fashion through to beauty – is antimass, antifaux, antibling. What customers are looking for is heritage, provenance and embellishment” — which is exactly what the artisan movement supplies: the heritage of the handmade, the provenance of the individual mind and the embellishment of the uniquely personal. And all without having to run multi-million dollar ad campaigns to convince us of it.
“I envisage a world where, when someone says ‘I love your top,’ you won’t just say, ‘Thanks, it’s from Topshop’,” said Claire Hamer, a former mainstream fashion buyer who was quoted in an article for the Guardian UK about the mass-produced fast fashion industry and its often brutal exploitation of third world workers. “You’ll take pride in knowing who made it. The value is not just in the brand, it’s in the people who made it.”
But while there’s plenty of pride for indie consumers in the “knowing who made it” category, there’s one often repeated criticism of buying from small DIY brands: the unfortunately lackluster presentation. The prices are as high (if not higher) for a Tauer fragrance as you’ll pay for the average bottle of perfume from Chanel or Armani, yet up until his very recent brand overhaul, Tauer’s presentation was less than impressive, with a clunky website, drab shipping boxes and generic buy-in-bulk bottles that hadn’t changed much (if at all) since he founded his company in 2005.
But this is a common problem for many indie brand owners — they offer a quality product that’s arguably as good as, if not better than, their mainstream counterparts, yet precisely because the DIY brands don’t have the kind of corporate funding that can purchase a slick presentation, many consumers used to purchasing from market-savvy commercial brands won’t give the DIY’ers a second look.
“Some indie perfumers do need to better their packaging and branding in order to reach similar (or better) levels of luxury as mainstream brands,” wrote Levin, when I questioned if packaging ever influenced her purchasing decisions. “Liz Zorn’s (independent) Soivohle brand is presently leading the pack at this, but if a not so great package is a matter of keeping costs down, I do think most consumers will pay a little bit more for the look and feel of a quality presentation.”
Though even should their customers be happy to pay a little more at the end point, independent perfumers rightly note that the financial outlay required for the minimum orders necessary to get their hands on the good bottles is often more than their budgets can bear.
*NOTE: This is what’s commonly known as a Catch-22.
In early 2009, I posted a a somewhat harsh criticism of Tauer’s (now former) packaging. While Andy took the criticism in stride and actually initiated a conversation about it on his own blog, there was a small rush in his comments section (and on a few other sites) to defend the brand by stating that he does all his own mixing, bottling and shipping — as if #1) I somehow didn’t know that already, and as if #2) being totally DIY is an excuse for a brand to be bringing up the rear, especially when the customer is charged a higher than mass-market price, nonetheless.
“When I showed the cheap, bent bottle (of L’Air du Desert Marocain) to (my) boyfriend,” I wrote at the time, “he said, ‘Really? That’s what they sent? . . . How much did this cost you?’ I mumbled something about it being one hundred dollars, and he burst out laughing. ‘You’re kidding me, right? Tell me you’re kidding!’ Somehow, I don’t think that’s the response a perfumer should be shooting for.”
Andy has since accomplished a thorough overhaul of his image, website and packaging, which has coincided with new distribution opportunities and increased commercial interest in his brand (he said his perfumes are now carried in fifty stores in Italy alone).
“I finally figured out I needed to get a bottle of my own,” he remarked, in a video interview with Grant Osborne of Basenotes.net during a few minutes of downtime at the Esxence fragrance expo in Milan, Italy. “Where you immediately see, oh, this is Tauer — because I think that’s important . . . I wanted to have something that was somewhat unique . . . or special, because I like to have my things special.”
And while he laughed as he said that, he was conveying a point that he knew to be prime — his products *are* special and unique, and it was long past time that the packaging reflected his level of singular creativity.
*NOTE: Andy remarks in the video interview below that the packaging designers (Designers Club out of Zurich, Switzerland) had read a newspaper article about him and thought that his story and product line sounded great, but he definitely needed help in creating a professional identity — so they generously offered their services free of charge.
Andy Tauer talks shop in Milan
“Design, by its very nature, is not democratic,” said Andy, when I pointed out his blog post where he mentioned deliberately not telling his blog readers about the new packaging design process, as he felt that since it was his name on the bottle, then the decisions were his alone to make. “To discuss matters of design is difficult, and in a triangle of design firms, suppliers and brand owner (including issues of competition, lawyers and other stakeholders), a thorough discussion would have been virtually impossible.”
Which is one of the few instances where Andy didn’t invite his blog readers into the creative process, because the Tauer blog is ordinarily an atmosphere of free-wheeling call and response between Andy and his customers, with perfume concepts sent on world treks to be analyzed and reviewed, new fragrance names debated energetically and the formulae for his fragrances discussed openly and in-depth.
“The fragrance I’m presently pre-launching with Lucky Scent was originally christened ‘Gabriel’, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out, and my very interactive blog community helped settle on a new name (Carillon Pour un Ange) that’s much better than anything I was dreaming up on my own,” he said. “It is exactly this collaborative intelligence aspect that I look for in my blog.”
And it’s exactly this kind of open, collaborative relationship that makes the artisan experience so refreshing for today’s consumer, a generation raised on a retail diet of malls, department stores and discount chains. Is it any wonder that the rise of sites like Etsy and Indie Scents are receiving a warm welcome?
***NEXT: Part 3 (and the conclusion) of our Artisan Series featuring Andy Tauer, plus a giveaway featuring Tauer’s Carillon Pour un Ange and samples from all-natural brand Aftelier