As the world went into lockdown in March 2020, the last thing people were thinking about was wearing fragrance.

But as it became clear the world was going to be in this for the long haul, there was a shift in the market; and by year’s end, fragrance sales in the U.S. were up three percent over the previous year, according to NPD.

Robin Mason

“We began to see so much more consumer interest in the scent category,” said Robin Mason, SVP of Shiseido Fragrances. “Even though nobody was going out, and nobody was entertaining, a spotlight was placed on mental health, and on people wanting to take care of themselves. And fragrances can lift spirits. They serve a purpose greater than getting dressed up and going out. They bring self-confidence and comfort. There was a big rise in home fragrances during this moment. People felt the connection between fragrance and tranquility.”

It was National Fragrance Day on March 21, a global event created by The Fragrance Foundation to “celebrate the artistry and importance of fragrance and the perfumiers who mastermind these beautiful olfactions,” said Robin.

It was a particularly opportune moment given that it happened to dovetail with the first days of spring, and the gradual re-opening of parts of the world – including the U.S. – after a year of being shuttered indoors.

“As we move into 2021, there is hope and an end (to the pandemic) in sight,” said Robin. “People want to get out and spend and see what’s new and celebrate.”

That sense of revitalization is particularly impacting the fragrance business, said Robin, who has spent more than 25 years in the fragrance and beauty industry. She remembers being fascinated with scents from an early age, playing with tiny sample vials, and starting her career standing behind a counter at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street in Manhattan. Spraying perfume on shoppers put her through college. She got into the Macy’s executive training program, was recruited by The Estée Lauder Cos., and she said she was able to hone her craft “in a very structured manner.”

At Shiseido, Robin oversees prestige fragrances such as Ferragamo, Tory Burch, Issey Miyake, Narciso Rodriguez and Dolce & Gabbana. The familiarity that consumers feel with those brands kept sales going throughout the pandemic. Sales of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue soared, said Robin.

“In the early days of the quarantine and lockdown, the natural progression was to go with what you know. There was a strong rise of pillar fragrances that people felt comfortable with and that they could buy online.”

It’s also been a time when some fundamental changes in the fragrance industry took hold: purpose-driven brands, sustainability, inclusivity. Robin said those themes will continue to drive fragrance sales, and have the opportunity to become permanent hallmarks of an industry that has gone through a number of cycles in the past few decades; the loud, bold scents of the 1980s, the celebrity-created brands of the 1990s. Today, she said, fragrances are “about personalization, about speaking to who the customer is, about sourcing ingredients in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. That is a part of our ongoing daily conversations.”

Robin said it’s an especially exciting time in the industry because there are fewer rules than ever when it comes to scents. The drive towards gender-neutral fragrances now means that anybody should be able to wear anything if they like how it feels, whether it’s woodsy – once associated with men’s fragrances, or floral – which previously only women would wear. Robin said there is also a tremendous rise in popularity of fragrances that “speak to a particular audience or cultural movement, where that is female empowerment or celebrating diversity. To enter the fragrance market today you have to have a purpose, a reason for being,” she said. “Then you will find who your audience is.”

Upcoming launches from the Shiseido fragrance portfolio include a new scent from Narciso Rodriguez, For Her Musc Noir, which Robin said is “built around the heart of the musk note, which is comforting and familiar.” And from Ferragamo is it’s Intense Leather Eau de Parfum offering, which will incorporate woodsy, spicy notes. There will be further launches across 2021, she said.

“After a subdued year,” said Robin, “we’re coming back with innovation and conviction.”