Scents and Sensibility
We meet the man who turned his love for Provence into a unique Brussels boutique specialising in rare perfumes and home fragrances.
Pierre Donie is perfume mad
"I fell completely in love with the philosophy of life, the cuisine, everything," confesses the 54-year-old Donie, who is particularly fond of Saint-Rémy.
In 1997, about seven years after he and his wife made their first trip to Provence, he gave up a 20-year career with Fortis Bank to start a new business aimed at bringing a bit of Provence to the Belgian capital.
With the equivalent of EUR 25,000 in personal funds and EUR 32,000 in bank credits, he and his wife, Josiane, opened Senteurs d'Ailleurs at Avenue Louise 100 in Brussels.
Their goal? To sell specialty fragrances evoking the warmth and charm of southern France, starting with just three brands: l'Occitane, Comptoir Sud Pacifique and Esteban.
The idea was to fill what they felt was a sorely needed niche between a straightforward perfume store and a concept store.
Donie defines the latter as one that offers a selection of exclusive products under one roof.
Hard work pays off
The first couple of years were rough going, with the Donies – joined for a while by daughter Laurence - working seven days a week.
The fact that they made a conscious choice not to advertise so as to keep their shop exclusive made it all the more challenging.
But the hard work paid off, and within about five years the shop had developed a loyal clientele and reached the break-even point.
Chantal Desmet, a loyal client from the start, said she was attracted to the store by its display window.
"I am passionate about perfumes," says Desmet, who also scents her Lady Paname lingerie and "sex life accessories" shop in central Brussels with exotic aromas à la Senteurs d’Ailleurs.
Today, Senteurs d’Ailleurs is no longer solely Provence-focused and has about 40 or so brands from seven countries - the bulk of which are not available anywhere else in Belgium.
The store’s six employees (including Donie) are also constantly working on new projects.
Marketing manager Valérie de Winter is in charge of the recently launched corporate gifts programme, and hopes to have electronic commerce set up later this year.
The store already offers mail order, but through e-commerce customers will be able to order directly via the Internet.
Donie also envisions opening shops in Antwerp, Hasselt, Kortrijk and Knokke in the next three to four years.
Through the years the shop, which moved to its present location at Avenue Louise 94 in October 2002, has expanded its brands while keeping the selection special and rare.
It all began in Provence
The irony of the business is that when a product becomes too well-known, it is no longer exclusive - hence the need to constantly be on the lookout for new gems and attuned to customers’ wishes.
Senteurs d'Ailleurs only sells brands that avoid marketing campaigns, catering to clients looking for an alternative - at a price - to the offer at mainstream perfume stores.
The shop is obviously not for everyone, but there are some people willing to plunk down EUR 360 for that unusual 1/4 litre of perfume made from irises.
Still exclusive after all these years
Taking some time on a quiet Monday morning to talk to Expatica, Donie says his shop is still unique in Belgium, but says it’s "inevitable" that others try to copy the idea.
He notes that there are about a dozen or so other concept stores in the world, including Quartier 206 in Berlin, Skin Cosmetics in Amsterdam and Les Senteurs in London.
Senteurs d'Ailleurs boasts that 80 percent of the brands on its shelves are not available elsewhere in Belgium.
Clients come here to find scents that are personalized and not instantly recognizable by everyone.
The store prides itself on selling only hand-made products created by real perfumers or "noses," including many that completely buck the trend of the mass market.
Take for example Damien Bash's interpretation of the seven deadly sins in the appropriately named Lucifer line: he uses figs to depict greed.
"They've all got a little twist to them," notes employee Nathalie Grainger.
Among the oddest requests the store has ever received, Donie recalls one customer asking for a perfume that purposely smelled bad to get back at smokers in restaurants.
Another was in search of blood – or rather, blood-scented perfume!
Among the tried and true, the shop sells old Guerlain perfumes, first created for the Empress Eugenie in the late 19th century, and Santa Maria Novella, a scent created by Dominican monks in Florence for Catherine de Medici and still made in a single pharmacy in Florence, Europe’s oldest.
Above all, Senteuers d'Ailleurs also prides itself on the personalised service it offers customers.
None of the employees have trained as noses at perfume houses per se, but they can all tell you exactly what ingredients are used and about their properties, not to mention the interesting history about perfume.
"Once you get into it, it's like a drug," admits Grainger, who spends hours at a time at perfume stores even on holiday.
Her boyfriend is used to it by now, she quips.
Advising a customer is difficult and entails a very detailed fact-finding mission, starting from asking the customers whether they are looking for a scent to be their signature, to be noticed by the opposite sex or just something refreshing.
Donie admits that starting a new business was far from easy, necessitating both personal and financial sacrifice, but he has no regrets. "I am in love with the concept," he says.
And what advice does he give to other wannabe enterpreneuers thinking of making their own dream come true?
Above all make sure you have solid financial support, both from the bank and from one’s family.
Avenue Louise 94
Telephone 02 511 6969
Fax 02 513 8770
Rue des Grands Carmes 5
Telephone 02 514 3035
Donie Photo Copyright Renee Cordes
[Copyright Expatica 2005]
Subject: Belgium, perfume