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Introduction: by Peter Marshall


Welcome to 2023 and to our first blog of the year. And it’s very different. I had the pleasure of meeting with Etienne in Paris late last year. A self-styled trouble maker and perfumer, he is quite an extraordinary character. Philosopher, poet, business radical, his unconventional approach to the business of perfume is very different from every other player and that has clearly helped generate the success of the brand. It’s a great interview.

Peter Marshall (PM): Etienne, I believe you like to consider yourself something of a revolutionary when it comes to the perfume business. Can we start by you telling us a bit about yourself and how you entered the business? 

Etienne de Swardt (EDS): Well, I was born in South Africa, where it all began. Then, more childhood, friendships and the sea on an island paradise – New Caledonia. After that, a new world to conquer – Paris.

After studying at one of the most prestigious business schools, Institut ESSEC, I went on to pay my dues at LVMH, Givenchy more precisely.

A few years later, I took my first independent steps and made some noise with Oh My Dog! and Oh My Cat!, luxury fragrances for pets. Having established myself with animals, it was just a hop, skip, jump and a massive leap of faith to an act of sedition: the creation of Etat Libre d’Orange. It takes a dangerous man to make a dangerous perfume.

Then, I was joined by my two partners, first Olivier Mariotti as the General Manager in 2011, who will answer some of your operational questions,  and Eric Cardenoso as Chief Operation Officer in 2014.

PM:  So what are the origins of the name: Etat Libre D’Orange? What exactly makes your brand philosophy and approach so radical? 

EDS: In South Africa, Etat Libre d’Orange, the Orange Free State, was an autonomous sovereign republic which declared independence from British rule in 1854. The name was derived from the royal family of the Netherlands, the homeland of the region’s pioneers. It was a land of staggeringly rough beauty and colour and unforgettable smells, a nation of contrasts, strong feelings, and mixed emotions. The rainbow mosaic of people and cultures gave it an unpredictable, sometimes savage nature. And it was independent — unrestrained, unrestricted.

Unity, beauty, conflict — and freedom, the hallmarks of our company.

The Orange Free State ended in 1902. But its attitude still lives on at Etat Libre d’Orange. As a company, we like to be on the borders, being at the crossroad, a perfume house with imagination.

PM: OK, please walk us through your portfolio. How do you differentiate your products from others in the marketplace? Other than the somewhat radical naming which help  makes the brand so unique.

EDS: Etat Libre d’Orange is a different kind of perfumery — intelligent, with a point of view. I would say we are different from the others thanks to our philosophy, our olfactive signature but also thanks to our packaging signature.

We often use irony to hone the names of our scents. We are a spirited perfumery that shakes up prejudices and stirs up ambiguities. A perfumery that plays with ideas and reinvents the pleasures to be found in the sense of smell, through sublime, delicately composed juices. These are juices composed from first-rate, living matter that fuse with the skin so they can only belong to the person who wears them. Our fragrances are designed without constraint or compromise, but to disturb, to touch, to tempt, to thrill. To seduce.

PM: Who buys your products and what strategy do you adopt in your overall marketing approach?

EDS: We like a strategy of sincerity and creativity. This is the philosophy and the approach I have so far, since 2006, and we keep walking this path. In the meantime, we develop our business all over the world, so we do our best to adapt ourselves to our international customers while remaining audacious and singular.

Our consumers? All fragrance lovers, amateurs of scents, ready to explore uniqueness on their skin.

PM: Olivier: It’s tough being an independent, weighing up against the might of the larger players in the category as well as standing out in the burgeoning crowd of the independent market itself. How do you manage to fund the business? Just how agile do you need to be?

Olivier Marrioti (OM): Being independent gives us a lot of opportunities. We’re not bound by any other decisions or politics than ours and that’s a lot of freedom in our business! Having started in 2006 gives us a head start vs others in our micro segment and we work hard to maintain this advantage. Financially, the tough early days are behind us, and the freedom I was referring to allows us not to obey any diktat – whether imposed by the market or by a self-inflicted road map or agenda.

We’re slow and cautious but, most importantly, we never forget to which market segment we belong to avoid any disproportionate investment mechanics.

PM: So where exactly are you now enjoying distribution?

OM: We are now distributed all over the world, on each continent, through 86 countries and not less than 900 doors. We are actually really proud of what we have achieved so far!

Way more than 50% of the brands’ business is digital, the rest is curated Niche retailers, elite and indies fashion stores and concept stores.

Asia, and China in particular, is our number one market, followed by North America and Europe.

PM: The next question is obvious. How do you see expanding your own distribution, especially in Travel Retail?

OM: There is no plan to really widen the distribution except in Latin America where we have a very limited presence. TR is, of course, a tempting adventure. Covid and its slow international travel recovery plus the current crisis in Central Europe have not helped boost our expansion in the channel.

We  have yet to find a retailer who will be able to combine, on the one hand, a daring strategy to bring the consumer something else than a rebated product widely available.  In other words, a true desire to propose an alternative category to the consumer. And on the other hand, a profitable exercise for all parties.

It’s really a partnership discussion to have with the TR actors – a fascinating and very interesting one.

PM: Your latest launch is called Frustration. The name is interesting enough. What’s the story behind it?

EDS: Scent and love (plays) work in exactly the same method: they need space to blossom. It keeps the distance, stays in the desire, protects from the absolute, because the full satisfaction burns and destroys all things from the naive love to the delicate flower.

With a garden  rose or a vanilla, you have to satisfy yourself with a furtive “few”, the recipe is “contentment”. If you eat the rose, swallow the vanilla, it won’t give you more excitement – the elusive pleasure is gone with the wind.

This was the main message of a scent. Same with a lover, keep the distance, respect the desire and the movement towards happiness will remain intact. Yes, teasing and distance are key.

A frustration is what we need, my friend. A recipe of life, the final destination of a scent.

PM: You are in Travel Retail. Do you think that the retailers are generally a match to what we can see in the domestic market? What learnings are there for them in your opinion?

OM: It is a totally different ball game for the Travel Retailer to approach the category than our domestic market indies. It’s hardly comparable. If the formula is Sales = traffic = brand recognition, then maybe there’s no perspective in TR for the true actors of the Niche segment.

We believe that we can generate revenues if the retailers create the right conditions for our type of brand to express their universe and appeal to some of the passenger traffic. Certainly, this will not work in every hub or store because, as our current domestic distribution, it will have to be rare and well chosen – something that a gondola with a Niche board on top won’t produce.

PM: So, one last question, Etienne. If there are three things you wanted to say to the industry, what would they be?

EDS: First, we keep on enjoying the diversity of our Niche segment, it allows each one of us to be different, to be singular. Then, our product segment cannot exist everywhere, but it can certainly be an assortment and revenue opportunity in some locations. And, to finish, please be sure that we will keep on being at the crossroad and continue to surprise you in our future projects!


Peter Marshall

Founder: trunblocked.com/Marshall Arts

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