Elizabeth Hagopian-Gaynes’s strangelove is a game changer in the luxury perfume market
Scent is one of the most powerful ways of evoking emotions, manifesting memories, and communicating without words. For centuries, perfumes have possessed an aphrodisiac power over humans tapping into the sensorial realm of the olfactory sense. Elizabeth Hagopian-Gaynes had a unique vision when creating strangelove as she sought to create a perfume house built on transparency using ethically sourced and sustainable pure, concentrated ingredients to formulate luxury fragrances that are unlike anything else in the market. Today, strangelove is flourishing with a loyal and growing customer base, a demand that warrants a waitlist, and a product so intoxicatingly desirable it receives “love letters.”
In the male-dominated world of the fragrance industry, Elizabeth, the CEO, and founder, and Creative Director Helena Christensen have taken a unique approach to an archaic industry and are leading the world of bespoke luxury perfume. Besides their website, strangelove is sold at Harrods, Bergdorf Goodman, and various high-end boutiques around the world. The journey of bringing all of this to fruition is unique, inspiring, and began with a trip to Borneo to a family-owned farm of agarwood trees, whose precious oil cost can cost over $100,000 per kilogram. Impact Wealth spoke with CEO and founder Elizabeth Hagopian-Gaynes on her personal evolution and the progression, growth, and future of strangelove.
When you ask Elizabeth for her thoughts on strangelove today, she says, “We’re doing it for the love of scent and beautifully crafted products, if you maintain the integrity of the products, the business will be successful.” When asked if she always knew she would be in the perfume business, she says, “I’ve always loved perfume; it fascinated me. When I was a kid, my mother would have these little vials of pure oil. She wouldn’t mix them, she would just wear them pure.” Though she started off wearing designer fragrances like L’air du Temps by Nina Ricci and Fendi, she gradually became disillusioned as she found that the scents and quality had changed as more brands focused on celebrity spokespeople. “There’s a lot of mass marketing for fragrance, and I became disillusioned with that, which is one reason why I started my own company.” This is one of the key reasons why Helena Christensen is not the “face” of the company despite being a supermodel and celebrity. Elizabeth states, “We agreed we didn’t want a “face” for the brand. We wanted the perfumes to speak for themselves.”
Elizabeth admits that the industry was new to her when she founded strangelove. Before strangelove’s inception, she had been working with start up companies in the US and Europe. She moved to New York with her son in 2008 after living in Rome for several years. “A friend called me when I moved to New York and said she would love my help raising awareness for sustainable farming and assisting with new product development for her family farms in Borneo. And I thought, that’s pretty amazing. Where is Borneo?” After some research, Elizabeth started working with her and her family. She reflected on those early days: “Over the course of several years, I learned a lot about the industry. On their sustainable farms, there was a tree called agarwood that produces oud and is used in incense, perfume, traditional medicine, and Chinese medicine.”
She says, “Part of the problem with agarwood in the wild is that those trees are very valuable and are part of the rainforests. Poachers would come in, chop down the trees and could get upwards of $100,000 for a tree that had oud resin in it. That’s why this family decided to start sustainable farms so they could replant and not destroy the rainforest.” She learned their farms had the perfect climate for patchouli, a very tender shrub. “It only grows in Indonesia, so we started talking with the five largest fragrance houses about developing a 600 acre farm exclusively for a major fragrance house, and there was a bidding war to partner with us.” At this same time, there was a shift in the industry: clients, customers, and the public wanted to know the source of ingredients and put a larger focus on products that were fair trade, sustainable, and transparent.
After securing a deal with one of the top perfume houses, she learned more about the industry. “I was going back and forth between Borneo and Geneva, meeting with the heads of the fragrance houses, and I learned a lot about the industry. I began speaking with perfumers and people in marketing, and I found it fascinating. I fell in love with the idea of quality ingredients because we were producing them ourselves.”
“During that time, Helena and I became good friends through mutual friends as well as our sons’ close friendship. I shared a sample perfume oil we had made using oud from Borneo, and she fell in love with it and asked to be part of the company. She then became our Creative Director. She’s been involved since we first founded the company. We develop samples together with our master perfumer and she also helps with branding and packaging design. She’s got a great eye — I feel that she perfectly represents our brand, which embodies authentic luxury.”
How do you name a new perfume that expresses an unspoken emotion? Elizabeth explains, “We create perfumes for people who want something high quality and special. We are not a commercial brand, but there is a huge market for niche perfumes, which is the fastest growing sector of the overall fragrance industry, projected to exceed $52B by 2025. We like to have scents that are distinctly different. We didn’t want to create anything that reminds someone of ‘this or that.’ As people discover the ingredients in our perfumes, they find that they are daring, edgy, potent, and you have to have a certain confidence to wear them. We had such a significant response to the first oil that we did I knew we could create more scents with the same overwhelming acknowledgment. I just was so passionate about it.”
Hagopian-Gaynes continued, “The pandemic put a major strain on retail, and we had to quickly pivot to our only remaining sales channel: our website. The challenge was that new customers couldn’t first test our fragrances before making a purchase. We focused more on social media and shared messages from our customers. We worked hard on our website and just relaunched it last fall. We wrote poems to go with our scents; we created a discovery set, which led to purchases of larger bottles. We wanted people to understand who we are and why we are at this price point. I source a lot of ingredients myself directly from farms around the world, including ambergris, red champaca, and orris butter — for me, it’s like a treasure hunt.” The brand also uses the finest French glass for their bottles, and their perfume caps are custom made with 24-karat gold plating. They even created custom perfume necklaces that can hold different vials of perfume oil. Each fragrance tells a story: “As you spray it, all of the layers come out as it develops on your skin. That’s what we call the top, middle and bottom notes. We strive to have scents that are long-lasting and highly concentrated.”
Since its inception, the company has seen continuous growth. “We launched in Harrods in 2014 after I sent them a sample. Oud’s scent is cherished in the Middle East, and we developed a following with royal families who told their friends about it. We didn’t advertise; our budget was focused on keeping up with production and expanding our collection.”
Elizabeth continued, “I love maintaining connections with our customers; some people tell us they met their future partner while they were wearing deadofnight. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the ripple effects of our work…I sent a TikTok creator a bottle. We knew nothing about what he would say but he just fell in love with our scents, and we started getting a mad influx of orders. We sold out of some products immediately and then had another 1,000 people on our waitlist.”
We asked Elizabeth if she had advice for female entrepreneurs who want to launch a company. She said, “It’s definitely challenging. You need to believe in what you’re doing. I’ve been told, just follow your passion. But it’s not that easy — you also have to be prepared. There are going to be sacrifices, and you just really can’t give up. I believe so much in the quality of our product and the wonderful reactions we were getting that I knew it would catch on. There will be people who don’t love it, which doesn’t bother me at all. The ones who love it tell their friends and are loyal, repeat customers. I also think you need to surround yourself with good people and not try to micromanage everything. As a founder, you must know every single part of the business and bring in good people that you trust. You need to have honesty and integrity. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help.”
As for the future, Elizabeth says, “We survived the pandemic, which was a tremendous feat. A lot of stores have reached out to us in the past few months as they have customers requesting strangelove. We recently launched a body oil, which we plan to expand to all five scents, and we’re developing a line of candles. We also plan to launch a completely new collection in the near future. I foresee an enormous increase in our revenues between now and next year, we are excited for the new adventures ahead.