- From the sheikh on a mission to scent the world, to the man in the souk who copies Western perfumes for a fraction of the price, fragrance-blending in Kuwait is everywhere. And with some spending up to £6,000 a year on smelling good, a centuries-old tradition has become big business
Above: Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, photographed at his family bach house, July 2013 by Donald McPhersonWords Rocky Casale
Photography Hamad AlSarraf
1. Over a cup of Cardamom-intense Arabic coffee, Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah wants to talk about his plan to become the Louis Vuitton of perfumes. “I like to think of The Fragrance Kitchen as a fashion line. Rather than holding on to one or two fragrances the way Calvin Klein has done for years – Obsession, for instance – we are constantly creating and introducing something new each season: each month, as it were. But this type of demand for fragrance has been part of the Kuwait tradition for ages.” He says this without batting an eyelash.
A tall, slender, serious man, Sheikh Majed gestures infrequently and is intensely focused, occasionally thumbing a set of prayer beads when answering a question that he’s been asked a million times.The Fragrance Kitchen, Sheikh Majed’s new company, opened one year ago and is infectiously being exported to Europe. TFK, as his company logo reads, is also serving as something of a vehicle for him to enlighten fragrance consumers the world over about top ingredients (precious oils, spices and aromatic woods), not to mention the delights of Kuwaiti fragrance-blending, one of the country’s most prized and peculiar traditions. It is a pleasantly surprising national talent that disqualifies the notion that Kuwait, like many oil rich Middle Eastern countries, operates in a vacuous cultural limbo of SUVs and shopping malls.Before launching his perfume empire, Sheikh Majed, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, was best known for founding and developing the company Villa Moda, a Kuwaiti luxury department store à la Barneys in New York, with a huge presence in Kuwait and plans to open in Bahrain and at London’s imminently developing Battersea Power Station.
But these days you mostly find him buzzing around his several floors of bright, open plan offices that are built next to Kuwait City’s 360 Mall, (yet another) 82,000 sq m of designer shops, movie theatres, department stores and restaurants. The mall itself is so big that when Kuwait City temperatures exceed 50C, joggers relocate here to run 10Ks. TFK’s offices have curvy white bauhaus style walls, Patrick Blanc-esque vertical gardens and are lumped together with other administrative appendages managing his various business investments and real estate holdings.
“The first thing you should understand is that almost every family and every private house in Kuwait blend their own fragrances,” the sheikh says. “My family has for hundreds of years.” Slender with a shaved head and big brown eyes, if he were working in London, Milan or New York, he might wear a fitted black suit with a perfectly-tufted silk pocket square in his jacket. But at his Kuwait office, he sports a long sleeved dishdasha and plain keffiyeh on his head.
“When I was a child, I made my own fragrances with my grandmother. I remember the Agarwood and all the fragrances that she loved. Saying that, TFK is in many ways, for me, a company based on these sensory memories with her. And the fragrances we are creating now, the names we give them, evoke memories about people and places too. I also thought that the timing was right. I think affluent western consumers are bored with mass fragrances. They want something unique and special. Most of our clients encourage us not to expand and to keep our products exclusive to a few cities. To do otherwise would somehow dilute the tailor-made nature of TFK’s fragrances.”II. Drive 20 minutes away from the Gucci and Prada boutiques in the air-conditioned esplanades of the 360 Mall and into Kuwait City’s traffic snarled downtown for a very different shopping experience at Souk Al-Mubarakiya. You will find this vibrant centre of exchange among a dimple of low-rise buildings spared from the ever-increasing corporate glass towers that engulf it. Proud souk entrepreneurs here tend to separate into tribes and rule over specialised turf: fishmongers here, gold merchants there, with some restaurants and coffee shops huddled together in the centre of it all. Astonishingly clean and well ordered, Souk Al-Mubarakiya is something of an anomaly compared to business dealings at Middle East souks that can feel almost predicated on chaos. There are wide avenue-like passages and brand new pitched timber roofs to block the punishing sun from the nearly 300 stalls here that blend and sell fragrances. But unlike the fishmongers and goldsmiths, the fragrance stalls seem to be everywhere. The posh, legitimate looking fragrance shops cobble together in new boutiques at one end of the souk; while the dodgy looking, fluorescent lit fragrance stalls occupy older, crowded spaces the size of newsstands. Those of the latter ilk are spread out around the souk in every direction.
To understand why fragrance blending is such a salient feature of the Kuwaiti people, and therefore such an important and highly represented niche market at the Souk Al-Mubarakiya, Sheikh Majed points to Islam. Recurring passages from the Quran stress that adherents keep their bodies clean and use perfumes before prayer: and also profess that the prophet Muhammad was sensitive to offensive smells. Somewhere along the line, Islamic folk wisdoms like these became rote practice and that in turn became big business. Think of how French monks, for example, procured a sacrament – the blood of Christ – from their Burgundian vineyards. The way religious rites dictate daily behaviour and shape big business are, the world over, often not that dissimilar.Why there should be 300 fragrance blenders in the souk begins to make more sense when you consider that nearly 2.4 million Kuwaiti are accustomed to smelling nice.
One of the souk’s posher shops, which is run, as most shops here are, by an Indian man who asked not to be named, gives weight to Kuwait’s obsession with keeping perfumed. This particular shop is ablaze with colourful rugs and beautiful marble inlaid wedding chests called Dessa, which are given to brides when they marry. A blast of perfume that clocks you in the face when you enter is enough olfactory stimulation to cancel the ability to smell. It’s like being inside an ancient apothecary, with its thin glass jars in neat rows along the walls filled with tawny, lemon pigmented oils from Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are bowls of sandalwood and massive glass pots that hold mango or saffron scented greasy sludge the colour of tar and pistachio. The shop’s owner says these are khamrya, a hair oil that Kuwaiti women buy bi-annually from him by the hectolitre.
“There are over 300 fragrance blenders in Souk Al-Mubarakiya, catering for the 2.4 million Kuwaitis accustomed to smelling nice”
His other big seller is Agarwood chips, commonly known throughout the Middle East as oud. Over the last five years oud seems to be the ‘it’ ingredient found in hugely successful western perfumes like Tom Ford’s Arabian Wood: which, incidentally, Sheikh Majed had a hand in blending. Agarwood acquires its delicious smell when the tree becomes infected with a fungus that triggers its heartwood to defend itself with a dark aromatic resin. It is hard to come by and consequently a pricey commodity.
Four bins of oud, all different grades and sizes, rest on the Indian man’s counter top next to an electric scale. He piles two heaping scoops on the scale and the price comes to 4,000 Kuwaiti Dinars or about £9,000; nearly three months income for a Kuwaiti earning minimum wage. Next he selects a piece of oud the size of a raisin and heats it in a crucible with a tiny blow torch until it bubbles and smokes like a hash ball on fire. People in Kuwait burn oud in their homes with obsessive frequency; often the best grade of oud is burnt for prestigious houseguests before their arrival. According to the shop owner, it is not uncommon for some Kuwaiti families to literally burn through over a £1 million of this stuff each year.
Not all of the fragrance blenders in the souk sell oud; most of the less-glamorous fragrance stalls are in fact busy blending knockoff fragrances. These tiny fragrance stalls are crammed floor to ceiling with hundreds of white plastic tubes of essential oils.
There is typically a man standing behind a display case of colourful glass vials and atomisers and he will to a point to a rack of small perfume bottles behind him all labeled with designer brands. “Do you want Bulgari? Very good. Very good price. I make it here for you now,” he says. In these shops you can counterfeit almost any fragrance out there. Ask for J Lo’s Glow and most blenders can make it. Madonna’s signature scent requires a few drops of this and that oil and a glug of phenoxyethonol alcohol to become Truth or Dare incarnate. There is a bottle of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid already made. It smells almost identical to the original and its price point, instead of upwards of £100 in London, is a mere £15.Illicit fragrance-blending at Souk Al-Mubarakiya is so rampant and accepted that it brings to mind that Kuwait’s fragrance industry is more like an national symptom than, on its own, an intrinsic evil. Sheikh Majed does not go into finite detail about the legitimacy of Souk Al-Mubarakiya’s 300 strong fragrance blenders. Isn’t there a bit of redundancy in the souk, one wonders? How can these guys keep it up?
Over dinner at his sister’s labyrinthine, oud-perfumed house, he broadly comments about the resiliency of the souk’s fragrance blending business. There will always be a customer for every product, especially perfume. The demand is so high for fragrances of every shade, potency, and legality that 50 people selling the same oil or oud or hair grease on the same street in the same souk will always have customers. He is reticent to discuss counterfeit products and the darker side to the fragrance industry; though he suggests that these unsavory questions be put to one of his business acquaintances, a Mr Abdulaziz Abu Shanab, vice president of Wahran Trading Company, one of Kuwait’s largest importers of beauty and personal hygiene products.Wahran Trading Company’s headquarters are in a massive industrial park not far from Sheikh Majed’s 360 Mall offices. It is an immense swathe of factories and warehouses in the middle of a dustbowl. Hardly any of the streets are marked, which seems to be a reoccurring theme with many of the big factories and warehouses: the kind of place that location scouts for Breaking Bad would get off on – spectral, avoided, and anonymous. Abu Shanab is a stocky, somber man with buzzed black hair and a shadow of a beard. The warehouse’s air conditioning is on the blink on one of the hottest May afternoons in memory and Abu Shanab’s office feels a little suffocating. “Let me show you something,” he says, while reaching into a tall cupboard behind his desk full of plastic wrapped perfume boxes. He retrieves a box of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid to aptly illustrate questions about counterfeit fragrances at the souk and in global fragrance industry generally. He opens the box and pulls out a ridged black bottle, exhibiting it like admissible evidence as he talks.
“I know this looks like the real bottle. It’s a very good copy. Right down to the packaging and the font. Though I can tell that this is a fake. There are little giveaways, like the way the plastic is sealed or the way the bottle’s seams are a little too rough. When you spray this on yourself it does smell similar to Black Orchid, and whoever made this: the Chinese, the Taiwanese, possibly even someone in Europe; they know to flood the bottle with Black Orchid’s highest fragrance note. But it is synthetic stuff. After you spray yourself, the scent doesn’t linger and in fact, fades away in minutes. The fragrance blenders making Black Orchid in the souk in smaller amounts, well…they do more or less the same thing, only the process is cheaper and the packaging isn’t identical like what you have in your hand; though you also find this anywhere in the souk.”
- Abu Shanab explains that even though some Kuwaiti households spend astronomical sums on Agarwood and other fragrant woods and oils, the same people might buy Black Orchid knockoffs because it looks like the real thing. Much of it boils down to maintaining appearances. Because houseguests will recognise highly-visible brands, and associate them with luxury, and because a deal is a deal and the cost of these knock offs is considerably cheaper in the buyers favour.
This in mind, Kuwaiti women are generally known to use more than a bottle of perfume a month and have up to 20 on the go at all times. A financial consultant working for Abu Shanab who tracks consumer spending on beauty products, particularly with women, says that Kuwaiti women will, on average, spend £6,000 on fragrances annually and twice that amount on luxury cosmetics. They stock guest bathrooms with five or six bottles; even Kuwaiti men keep handy a bottle of their favourite fragrance blend that they will apply generously several times throughout the day. A cramped elevator rammed with a dozen Kuwait men wearing different layers of their own personally designed scent can feel like being back in the souk.
In 2012, The United States Border Control intercepted 183 shipments of counterfeit perfume, 66% of which originated from China. Put into real figures, this suggests that the total loss at the manufacturers’ suggested retail price on these seizures alone amounts to nearly $32 million – a drop in a very fragrant ocean.
III. TFK’s flagship store is in Kuwait City’s new Al Hamra luxury shopping centre. To be clear, the Al Hamra shopping centre is actually Kuwait’s tallest skyscraper. It’s a May morning just before noon and the temperature outside is nearing a dry, intense 40C. But inside the shopping centre it feels arctic: the air-conditioning is cranked so high that people are wearing coats. The TFK boutique is up a tall flight of escalators across from a Kuwait outpost of New York’s Magnolia Bakery. In the jet-black room, two thin light boxes flank the walls. On top of these stand 40 white or black matte and clear bottles of Sheikh Majed’s Signature and Exclusive fragrances. Wavy wooden installations designed to look like incense smoke arch gently toward the ceiling above them.
Opening only a year ago, TFK’s product line already includes an astounding 40 fragrances. A boutique fragrance range that continues to grow by the month seems, especially from a financial or product development point of view, is not cheap or easy to pull off. Consider for example the New York based boutique perfume company, Le Labo, which opened in 2006. Their perfume range has only doubled to 18 perfumes in the last two years: a feat they have been working toward for nearly eight years. TFK’s current plan is to introduce a new fragrance every month, and Sheikh Majed believes the demand for authoritative, quality products like his is only in its infancy. It would seem that he is correct, considering that start-up fragrance companies like Le Labo and TFK conquered a huge share of market sales in the UK and Western Europe over the last five years, according to Selfridge’s fragrance buyer, Mark Tranter.The industry is so polarised at the moment, he says, that mass produced, celebrity-driven fragrances now compete to hold on to their 50% of luxury department store floor space. Le Labo co-founder, Fabrice Penot, speaks often about this consumer shift. He says that designer fragrances were just celebrity fragrances ahead of their time. Tommy Hilfiger perfumes, for example, were successful 15 years ago not because Hilfiger had great perfume taste, but because he was famous.
Sheikh Majed isn’t interested in the industry’s big business style, which he says is all about looking for a quick buck and producing scents with a minimal shelf life. Industry giants like L’Oreal or Inter Parfums Inc. go with cheap perfumes and packaging and rely enormously on their first shot at marketing a fragrance. They’re not in it for the long run. The TFK brand and product images are managed in house. Rather than coming packaged in outlandish bottles (Comme des Garcons’s Pearly Monster springs to mind), TFK scents come in sleek, essential bottles that you will never find on sale. Further turning its back on big business models, TFK doesn’t advertise in glossy magazines or produce million dollar commercials that play in loops between primetime television. And because Sheikh Majed has zero interest in stocking his fragrances at hundreds of high-traffic department stores, none of his creations have to be mass-produced. All of TFK’s current product-line is blended using premium, rather than synthetic, ingredients like roses from Bulgaria or oud and amber from Laos.
- Sheikh Majed was not in the shop but his brand ‘ambassador’ Marlon was. Although no one has said it, part of TFK’s business approach is clearly sex appeal. This becomes immediately clear when you meet Marlon, a six foot something Brazilian male model, who wears a tight, velvety white jump suit with an asymmetrical zipper up the front and soft white sock slippers. It’s skimpy. It clings. You get the point. This is a marketing approach that chimes with the homoerotic, but then what substitute is there for Marlon? Certainly not a female ambassador in a slinky black dress and spiked heals, or not in Kuwait, at least. But it speaks to some grander design.
TFK seems to have figured out that, where selling a sexy lifestyle is concerned, Marlon is a common denominator among consumers: women want to be with him, men want to be him (and presumably some of them wouldn’t mind his company either).What is certainly constant and compounding about Sheikh Majed’s marketing approach are his insanely attractive male fragrance ambassadors. All of his temporary or pop-up shops in Milan and Florence and those forthcoming in Moscow, Dubai and, this September, London, will be manned by beauties like Marlon.
“The demand is so high for fragrances of every shade, potency, and legality that 50 people selling the same oil or oud or hair grease on the same street in the same souk will always have customers”
The TFK model does away with over-made, Stepford Wives saleswomen, often robotically serving in big department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue or Harrods. TFK ambassadors are highly-trained young gentlemen that are essentially sex personified. In other words, the top models of TFK run the tills. That would be like Charlize Theron peddling Dior’s J’Adore Voile de Parfum. It would never happen.
Perhaps in the long run Sheikh Majed’s TFK vision will reshape Western ideas about what fragrances to use, blend and enjoy. He doesn’t conceal his determination for this to happen, as with his comment that he believes TFK will be the Louis Vuitton of perfumes in the next 20 years. A bold conviction that, given Sheikh Majed’s business track record, could very well become the case. Perhaps in the meantime our department stores might begin stocking their counters with amber and oud. Maybe all we need is Marlon to convince us.
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