Meet Johanna Monange, the founder and CEO of Maison 21G. Maison 21G is a new concept to the old industry where Johanna has made it possible to remove all manufacturing intermediaries from the traditional perfume industry. Read on to find out more about her expertise and journey in the realm of perfume blending!
How did you come up with the idea for Maison 21G?
After 20 years in the glamorous world of fragrance, I found that too many people had the same problems with their perfumes. They were all coming to me, saying, “Johanna, all perfume smells the same to me, how to find something different!” Correct – they are all floral fruity. Or “Johanna, my perfume doesn’t last, it fades very fast, I have headaches when I enter in a department store selling perfume all together!” Correct – they’re all made with low concentration, and they contain less and less natural ingredients and a lot of synthetic sweet molecule. All the new launches have been through hundreds of consumers tests where they try to fit the French, the German, the American, the Chinese and the Japanese taste at the same time! Mission almost impossible, and we always end up as perfumers doing the same mass recipe that can fit everybody to win the test and close the business deal with the big groups: “floral fruity musky.”
Another question I was getting a lot was “how on Earth can I choose a perfume new; I want something that fits me, can you help me to choose a new one among the thousands of them? Indeed, we have gone from 500 products coming out a year in the ‘70s to 5000 products launching each year with tons of flankers. All perfume brands are now fighting to fill up the space of the shelves and gain more visibility in a department store and duty-free, and people end up completely lost! The beauty advisors in the shop are also lost and are very poorly trained. They are just guilted by the most luxurious brands to push their latest launches, without taking care of the personality of the consumer they have in front of them and their preferences.
These are the main reasons I created Maison 21G to answer to all these pains! I want to get closer to our consumers and help to discover what they like and put back a soul in this industry! We need to shake the current business model in a quasi-monopoly. I want to empower each person to mix and match high-quality natural ingredients to create their unique scent according to their preference, intimate desires and unique personality. And you don’t need to be incredibly rich to have this privilege. Everyone deserves a little luxury and quality to feel more confident and seductive in their life. This is the mission I have given to myself and my team.
We needed to bring back high quality in perfumery at an affordable price but also education, experience, connection and transparency, sustainability with real authentic experience. The consumer should be at the heart of our enterprise and not the brand! I remember going to some prestigious launch, and everybody was talking about the star endorsing the brand, the millions invested into the commercial amazing movie but what about the product, the soul, the perfume itself! We lost our why!
Moreover, Millennials are not loyal anymore to one scent, and they love to change perfume according to their mood and the circumstances of their life. They had more than six perfumes in their bathroom when our mother used to have one for her entire life! They have a good olfactive education, trying a wide range of products and want to be able to match their habits with their scent like they do with their makeup, their hairstyle, their clothes and their skincare routine. You are in constant change and evolution in your life. You don’t need the same perfume when you are 18 going out every night with your friends as when you are married with three kids and a solid, serious career! We also need to work with the tools of our time, especially leveraging the power of AI and digital communication. These new tools should support our effort to educate, advice and bring transparency in our well-kept secret perfumery. Why Netflix, Amazon, Spotify can curate to us new music, movies, books every month that fit your taste and desires of the moment perfectly, help you discover new worlds you haven’t thought about? They facilitate your choice, understanding each of us unique preference and habits. With Maison 21G, we aim to have the same modern approach revolutionising perfumery, to be faster and more accurate in our scent recommendation. and advice to consumers. Therefore, I have created Maison 21G to bring modernity, education transparency and high-quality product to the consumers so they can to feel more confident, seductive and empowered in their life.
Did you start the venture alone?
I came up with the concept by myself and thought deeply about it the last three years of my career before making the big jump and leave my comfortable well-known corporate world.
But I couldn’t have started this company without my brilliant co-founders Maxime Patas and Dylan Breugne. Maxime was my trainee at IFF, and I began to share secretly with him some of my ideas to test his millennial feedback on my forward-thinking and crazy ideas. He pushed me to make it real and to stop just talking about it. He supported me during my fundraising with his financial background, and now he makes sure our operations are running with the right financial eye and helping with business development. Dylan is a talented young engineer who has help me to transform my idea of La Source (my patented blending technology) to a tangible reality! He loves to learn and take challenges; nothing is impossible for an engineer. There is no question, just answers! He helped me to design and manufacture our revolutionary patented blending technology La Source. It took us more than a year to come to a solid prototype and most of my stock options! It was a crazy bet!
When this big revolutionary piece was achieved, we patented it, he just took on the challenge of the e-commerce and built from scratch our website. It was one the most difficult things of my life to build. How to sell a bespoke perfume online? How to transform my idea to something easy to understand and realise in a few clicks. That was an all-new world for me. It is like building a house from scratch with the electricity, water system, decoration… We spent so many time to build, destroy, redo, retry, fail and succeed to get something quite solid now. You have thousands of hours, coding, tears, pain and joy in front of you when you surf on our website! Buying a real bespoke perfume online and being able to manufacture it within a day is the biggest challenge of this decade! Who thought 15 years ago we will buy our bespoke shoes, clothes and now perfume online!
We are now a team of over 15 brilliant people who are all bringing great value to the company and I consider all of them part of the founders. This team has been through with me to the toughest part of this business: building from scratch and making it work! Now we are in the phase of building together the foundation of a unique multi-cultural creative team spirit that will be the value of the company for the future.
What was the hardest part in the early stages of the company’s growth?
You need to build everything from scratch. You have no product, no office, no shop, no website, no organisation, so sourcing channel, no money but just an idea! It is the biggest challenge of anyone’s life. You cannot imagine how big the mountain to climb is and it is endless. Every day has new pain, new challenges but amazing rewards. Each stone is important and means something unique to you and your team.
My team is getting bigger now, the challenge is to make the people working together, put process and accountability in place, structuring departments, managing the cost and pushing the sales at the same time. I need also to learn to delegate and empower my team. It is not my baby anymore. It is a family and each member has a key role and needs to be trusted and empowered. We should trust each other and put our culture in place for the future. This is the foundation of the soul of Maison 21G.
When you start you really need to touch all the key areas of a company where usually in the corporate world you have the support of a large range of experts, well-paid and trained. In a start-up, you have to understand and learn fast: legal subject, patent filing, HR contract, finance, logistic, marketing, business development, PR, retail, accountant, digital, e- commerce, SEO, Facebook ad, product development, sourcing. You cannot imagine the number of skills you need to develop at a super-fast pace. You fail, you learn, and you try again but FAST. There is no time for respite. You are morally and physically exhausted and it is the hardest part. It is like a marathon full of hundreds of 100m races! You need to have a very strong mental and physical health when you start a start up! Everybody dreams about having a successful start-up, but they don’t realise what you need to put on the table to achieve your goal. Resilience, hard work, team spirit, strategy, reactivity and focus are the fundamentals for me to succeed.
Do you think luck played a role in the success of Maison 21G?
I don’t think so, I think the time is ripe and you feel consumers are ready for change and revolution in the perfume industry. It depends of your amount of work, your commitment, your resilience and you listening to your consumers to learn and adjust fast your assumption and intuition. Agility and flexibility are key. I think luck is just how you grab the opportunity in your life, how you leverage the people around you and embark with people on your story. You need to be open for help and put your pride aside. People want to be part of something, they love to support a great story. it is a snowball effect if you are passionate and tell your story with authenticity.
People are looking more than ever for an individual, bespoke experience, we listen to them, to their pains, to their desires. Perfume is something very intimate, you develop a unique connection with your consumers during our workshops for instance. For me the biggest challenge is online, how to develop this unique connection with your consumers, this feeling of belonging. This month we are launching Club 21G where we will curate each month 2 new scents to discover for only 21SGD. I want people to feel part of a community of scent designers who want to learn and discover. When the Covid is over, I would like to put some tutorials online, to share my knowledge and passion with a much larger group of people around the world. I receive encouragement on social media from all around the world. It gives you a lot of courage. Our retail experience works in Singapore and Sydney. I always want to make it very special. I want them to learn a lot when they step in our house, about perfumery, about what they like but also about themselves or their partner. I love to have couples at our workshop. It is very touching to see how they connect so well around scent and share a unique moment. Sometimes I am exhausted but when I see people with stars in their eyes, I feel so fulfilled. I love to offer champagne and wine to my guests at the end of the day. It is such a convivial time; I really feel like at home with new guests every day and probably people I would never have met in my corporate career. I see so much diversity and richness in human beings when they are happy and feel in good hands. That’s why I believe we are doing the right thing and we will able to reach our dream.
How has the fragrance industry changed in the last year?
The fragrance industry has not changed these last years, except with the big arrival of all the niche brands. But it is still a hundred bottles sleeping on shelves with no emotion! There is no new experience in the retail industry. We give you a strip in the shop. You smell, you pay and go home with your generic scent. There is no advice, transparency about the percentage of natural ingredients contained in your product, the percentage of concentrate and naturals you have in your bottle! I am astonished how the perfumery industry is poorly ruled compared to the cosmetic industry where we have forced the big brands to display fundamental information about their formula, pushing out the phthalates, CRM, the endocrinal modifiers. The perfume industry stays perfectly opaque, and you have no idea about what you are buying, what is inside. People are always surprised when I show them a bottle without the perfume concentrate, explaining it is just 80% of pure alcohol! This is it! The magic is in the concentrate, the formula of the perfumer, the recipe and the heart he has put in his creative work, the quality of naturals he has chosen for his creation, how he has carefully blended them to make a magic recipe. You never see this part and that was my favourite part in the development of the perfume for the big brands. The passion of the perfumers! At Maison 21G, you have direct access to the concentrate for the first time in perfumery. Nothing is made; all perfume is freshly blended for you with the ingredients of your choice when you come to the boutique.
Everything is freshly blended for you by you. Same for online orders, we freshly blend all the orders coming from all around the world in the morning in our lab, and we UV print each personalised design on the bottle. Each day is a discovery for our lab director, Andrew, who blends the ingredients for each order and launches the printing of the design on each bottle. We have received amazing orders with super creative designs and blends I would never have expected to do in my career! We are here to fulfil each consumer’s desire. There is no push of ready-made perfume, but only pull of new creations! I love it, we have succeeded to empower our consumers in their creative act, and they are amazing!
The fragrance industry is in monopoly. Six groups own 80% of all the brands, and they make a lot of millions out of it so why will they change the game and work for improvement? When you are too successful, you can become lazy, especially if you have very few competitors.
My story is the story of Levy and Goliath and I hope to become the little Levy to shake this industry!
Many trends are re-hashed and product launches are reminiscent of past trends. I don’t see any creativity in the latest launches. All the fragrances continue to smell floral fruity gourmand, a blend that works in all the consumer tests around the world. There is no place for innovation with such way of selecting perfume creation! There are also no more strong designers like YSL or Coco Chanel to bring in their style and creativity. The brands belong to big groups and is managed by smart people coming from famous universities. They are in this industry to count and save and not by passion, very rarely, unfortunately! The number of new flankers is increasing every year, and consumers are lost in their choice. You kill your iconic fragrance with so many declinations, the fresh, the summer, the blue one, the red one, the sport one, the intense one…no more risk is taken, and therefore this industry has become very conservative!
Consumers are looking for a new experience, and personalisation is key; we need to rebuild a qualitative and engaging dialogue with them. The power of the community is amazing especially when it comes to creation and new ideas! They are my constant source of inspiration. That’s why I believe we have launched just at the right time to bring this revolutionary bespoke engaging experience to consumers.
What advice would you give to a fragrance company just starting their business online?
Do something unique and give people a new experience and not just a new bottle on the shelves, we are dying from that! You need to be able to bring transparency and re-assure people that you a) offer them a high-quality product with transparency, b) you have real expertise so that they can trust your brand and d) make yourself to be sustainable and responsible in all your development.
We need to rethink our way of sourcing, we need to save useless packaging and put the money in the experience and the quality of the product itself. I want people to be able to come to refill their bottles at la Source, I am trying to source packaging they can re -use like fabric pouches or leatherettes. You throw away instantly the box when you come home! What’s the point? I know it conveys a luxury touch, but I think the millennials and the Gen Z are changing a lot and they will challenge luxury companies that will continue to pollute the planet with no care under the luxury excuse. They are harder and harder on us to make us responsible in what we do, and they are right. Responsibility and engagement are the new luxury for me. Yes, it is difficult to master, it requires more imagination and effort, but I believe that we will achieving it at Maison 21G with my team.
We hope you enjoyed it and we thank Johanna Monange for this interesting interview.
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Website: Maison 21G