You might not be aware of it if you're not already an avid beauty enthusiast, but sales of fragrance rose by 45 percent in the first quarter of 2021.
Forbes reports that Black consumers make up $151 million of the $679 million market for women's fragrances. MAIR and KIMBERLY New York are leading the way for black perfumers in a predominantly white industry. Black women are vocalizing their love of scents, shifting assumptions of who the current fragrance consumer is and who has influence in the beauty industry.
Black women have rarely been featured in perfume ads in the past 60 years, besides the perfumers. There have been a few breakthroughs for Black models, notably the Revlon Charlie ads in the 1970s, Beverly Johnson's Chantilly campaign in 1980, and a Black model for Faberge's Tigress in 1983.
Beyoncé sashayed for Emporio Armani's Diamonds in the 2000s. Lenny and Zoe Kravitz are become YSL ambassadors. Black people have been acknowledged as perfume buyers or depicted, but it happens far too rarely. Jourdan Dunn did recently model for Mugler's Alien and Valentino's Born in Roma. We’ll see how long it takes before we see another feature.
Given what is known, why aren't there more Black women in the fragrance industry?
The Current Situation Of The Black Perfumer
Mair Emenogu is one of the only famous Black perfumers working today. Her "soft, airy" scents are the only Black-owned perfumes in Macy's. People are surprised when they hear she wrote the line, she says. It "confirms representation's importance."
In 2020, after Black Lives Matter and long-overdue discussions on diversity and inclusion in the cosmetics industry, the paucity of Black perfumers became clear. Black-owned fragrance companies have been establishing outlier brands for a while.
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba designed gender-neutral Pink MahogHany. After starting the brand in 2005, she became a doyenne of Black-owned fragrances, functioning as a catalyst for peers and clients (many of whom are Black and people of color) for representation in an overwhelmingly white market. She established the brand at Texas flea fairs, then moved to Etsy and her own e-commerce platform. She claims, "I've experienced a lot of love" because PM was so rare. “I own the company. My signature scent doesn't come from a gas station.”
Dunlap-Mwamba self-taught, like many Black perfumers. Aspiring Black students are least likely to get a classical education at an expensive institution like Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse, France—the world's center of scent. (Though things are changing as Alexia P. Hammond's Eat.Sweat.Undress hair perfume is created there and Chris Collins was schooled in Grasse.)
Dunlap-Mwamba has known for 16 years that artistic freedom is rare in her field. "The Black perfumer's perspective is raw," she says. "We use instinct and how we feel about a note. We don't have conditioning-related tone dislikes. Self-taught perfumers may be open, interact, and approach fragrance as art, I feel.”
Kimberly Walker, another self-taught perfumer, launched KIMBERLY New York after a decade in department store sales (KNY). She was never allowed to advertise Black musicians' perfumes. Customers told her what the perfume counter lacked.
Fragrance Is Self-Care for Black Women
Why do so many Black female customers support a market that doesn't want more perfume manufacturers of color or more diverse advertising?
"Adaptability has helped me to stay connected to scents," says Kimberly Waters, proprietor of MUSE Experiences in Central Harlem. She distributes niche and independent businesses including Aspen Apothecary and Maya Njie. "We're proud of our grooming. We'll strive to be our best selves despite hardships. This culture keeps Black people and women going, in my opinion. Smell helps.”
Dunlap-Mwamba said Black women use fragrance to express themselves. "We use perfume for self-care and beauty. Fragrance is a way to demonstrate self-confidence. It affects today's and tomorrow's practices.”
Fragrance In The Motherland
Black women's use of perfume is another global phenomenon with a rich history. Waters learned this while on business in Senegal. Marieme Soda Ba Diagne, the owner of Parfumerie Bouton d'Or, and the Dakar-based, Black-women-run Olfactif by TR showed Waters how Black women in Africa and the U.S. want olfactory expression.
The Black Fragrance Lovers' Online Community
Given the modern journey of a Black female fragrance fanatic, it's no wonder that in 2021 fan accounts created by Black women are becoming popular online hangouts where devotees can connect, swap, and catch up. BlackGirlsSmellGood (BGSG) and "Your Fave Fragrance Auntie" (Funmi's TikTok, ISmellLikeChannel) are welcome spaces for Black women to discuss their perfume collections. The CherysTv, Perfume Fiend, and Andrea Renee.
Black women on #PerfumeTok are instructive and amusing with their imaginative images, smart commentary, and Black-girls-rock mentality. This shows that the narrative about who's driving sales and fandom needs updating.
Walker's prior experience talking with consumers one-on-one doesn't surprise her. "Fragrance fans find delight in comparing newness to old faves," she says of the shop network she developed.
This is an exciting time for Black perfume manufacturers. The perfume industry is shifting, social media experts are striving for inclusivity, and the Black female dollar will continue to dominate.