What does it take to capture the scent of gold? Can one even begin to describe its olfactory qualities to begin with? What about those of a book, wool, or perhaps velvet? Such a task might prove daunting, but the mystique and allure of said scents is what has given niche perfume brand Commodity the cult-like following it has today. A luxury, gender-neutral, and very minimalist brand, Commodity is tailor-made to the modern consumer looking for a fragrance as individual as themself.
What started as a direct-to-consumer strategy in 2014 burgeoned into a worldwide phenomenon that’s still true to its roots, which are as unique as the Commodity concept itself. The anti-marketing and pro-creation brand is putting perfumers behind the steering wheel to truly shine a light on scent. Birthed merely a handful of years ago by two men with no prior beauty industry experience – what might arguably be a secret strength – Commodity quickly broke the mold, flying off the shelves at Sephora stores in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Going from only 26 to 600 stores within the span of a few years, the lifestyle brand’s concept is as unheard of as its rapid rise to success.
However, despite all this mass adoration, Commodity still feels authentic and bespoke as a result of its core identity – the packaging isn’t flashy, there are no celebrity endorsements involved. Laborious market research doesn’t guide the compositions, while sleek design and attention to quality are cornerstone values. And, for CEO Ash Huzenlaub, those key components have been part of his vision from the very start. Carefully curated and created without restraints – those of time, money, or current trends – each fragrance comes from a master perfumer, one who can even turn liquid into gold when given free reign.
With a concept so distinct, it’s no wonder that Commodity has become, well, a commodity in its own right. So how exactly does a man with no experience in the beauty industry spearhead one of the fastest growing perfume brands in the world? As Commodity prepares to launch in the UAE on December 2nd, Huzenlaub sat down with Savoir Flair to let us in on which scent is a best-seller, which scent was inspired by an iconic literary institution, and which scent will soon be available exclusively in the Middle East.
Can you tell us a little bit about Commodity?
What is the whole thesis for the brand as a whole? Commodity is a platform where artisans – here it is master perfumers – can come and create whatever they want, unbridled. There are no guard rails. Typically, when perfumers create for big brands, they go by trends with a celebrity attached to it. They’re told to create a fragrance around certain guidelines within a limited amount of time. What we wanted to do was create a brand not only in fragrance, but also skincare, cosmetics, and other essentials that placed the spotlight on the people who actually created these products.
Was it difficult to go against the norm in such a disruptive way?
It was very difficult at the beginning. I would make calls to fragrance houses or perfumers, and they would hang up the phone. Starting out as a “no name” brand that has never been heard of is tough. But, like with anything, you get one perfumer – like Stephen Nilsen, who created ‘Bergamot’ – who shares the free range of exploration they had in terms of time and creativity with their perfumer community, and comes back with their best work. This helps encourage others to join.
So how quickly did things happen for Commodity?
We got to launching what is Commodity in October 2014, and we launched our first 26 test stores unsure of whether we’d see another one. It’s fun to look back and see the fear we had in the beginning! Those stores sold out of what was supposed to be six months of inventory in five weeks. I thought I had six months to prepare for the next few stores, which might have been 20 more. Instead, we got a purchase order for 100 more stores. I was the only employee of the company until July 2016. We had consultants that would come and go, but to really build a team just from having one retailer was very difficult at the time.
Today, it’s a very different story. We’re now crossing new doors into 600 stores around the world, 15 countries for retail, 30 countries for direct e-commerce. We’re up to 26 fragrances in our collection. It’s been a fun journey. We’re still a small team; we’re now 15 people based in London, with offices in New York and a few employees in Paris. We went from zero to 600 stores in three years! That’s unheard of for a start-up. We’ve built this with a limited team of hardworking people and, sometimes, the speed of growth isn’t a good thing from a business perspective – but we’ve been smart by taking our time and developing at the right speed.
Not many brands can succeed while implementing one strategy on a global scale. What makes you think Commodity will work in the UAE?
We’ve heard so many stories of people traveling to New York, Los Angeles, and London, and practically buying out stores. We’d see spikes in sales in these cities and find out that somebody from Abu Dhabi or Doha had walked in and bought every single one of our products. Their family member might’ve seen something on Instagram, but they don’t know exactly what they like, so they’d buy it all – clean out the store, essentially.
So it was only a matter of time that you came to the UAE then?
What excites me about the UAE is that people will try different fragrances, but wear them often. We wanted to bring a little bit of the world to the Middle East. Typically, what a brand will do is create fragrances that it thinks will work in the area. We’ve done that and it will be launched in 2019, but for now, let’s bring people the scents we’re known for.
The names are so interesting. What was the inspiration behind ‘Book’?
The inspiration behind ‘Book’ was an old tome in New York Public Library. Ketrin Leka came up with it when she cracked open a book and the smell of paper drew her in. We now equate it to curling up with a good book and the comfort you have when you smell it.
So back to the names, what’s the process of naming like?
The master perfumer starts by creating the fragrance, which is the opposite of what big brands do. The perfumer gets to suggest what the name – eight letters or less, one word to fit on the label – will be. Gold has always been a commodity, so what Donna Ramanauskas has created is its essence in liquid form. We’ve seen it around the world and done surveys – people love its smell.
So is ‘Gold’ one of your more popular scents?
It is definitively our number one seller worldwide.
It seems like you’ve given master perfumers their dream job!
It’s really about getting to sit side-by-side with them and, instead of instructing them like other brands do, learning from them. How do you best create? And what can I do to make sure that you don’t have any restraints? It’s been a great experience. I get rewarded every time they come to me with an idea. I’ve learnt that there’s a real eagerness in these master perfumers who create these massive blockbuster scents to do something really unique and creative.
We noticed that along with being minimal, you’re also big on sustainability. Is that important to you as a brand?
In 2019, you’ll see that all of our packaging is fully sustainable. I’m taking everything out of foreign markets in terms of sourcing. We’ll no longer source from around the world. Everything from the sand in the glass to the pumps and the caps will be made in France, and it will all be made in the same area so there’s no need for extra travel. I will have met every employee that makes everything, which is not typical as brands tend to buy things in bulk. For me, though, integrity is not just giving the master perfumers the freedom to work; I also want to put that into something we’re proud of. Sephora has a big sustainable-packaging initiative that will be pushed out to other brands in the next few years – and we’ll be ahead of that curve.
What do you recommend to somebody trying out Commodity for the first time?
I think everyone should get away from impulse buying when it comes to fragrance. People often go into a store, rushing, smelling four things, and going with the safest option – often something advertised on the side of a building. I suggest you take a moment and spray the fragrance on yourself. I’d even recommend not trying the test papers because the way it might smell on one person’s skin is different to how it will smell on someone else’s. We also have sample kits online that can help people become familiar with the different scents so they can see what they prefer.
And what’s your favorite scent?
That’s tough, that’s like asking to pick only one of my three sons. Right now, my favorite is one that’s not out yet: Commodity ‘Oud’. It’s one we’ve developed for the Middle East and it will be coming out in 2019. The scents I usually wear are ‘Wool’ and ‘Leather’. My wife’s favorite is ‘Velvet’.
Commodity fragrances are now available exclusively at Sephora Middle East.