The Chinese heritage mansion in Georgetown, the capital of Penang island in Malaysia, may not have been the most obvious place to reflect on François Coty had it not been for the perfume flacons on display. The vanity tables in the ladies’ quarters featured L’Aimant scented talcs, cream powders, soaps and colognes. Some boxes were barely touched, with the bottles still set into the artfully rumpled peach satin. That these bottles traveled from France to this Southeast Asian town in the interwar era is a testament to Coty’s marketing genius.
The man who gave the multi-million dollar fragrance empire his name was a renegade. Decades before Estée Lauder purportedly made it acceptable for women to treat themselves to a bottle of perfume, he revolutionized the industry by breaking some of its rules. Coty cleverly matched the packaging to scents and created eye-catching designs and logos. He offered budget alternatives and scented products, from oils to creams and powders. He didn’t shy away from using new materials, and to this day, the accords he favored qualify as classics. Most of his fragrances charted new avenues in perfumery and set lasting trends.