At the 2016 Canadian Fragrance Awards, Ottawa-based entrepreneur Michel Germain was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of his impact on the fragrance industry in Canada over the past two decades. Germain has achieved a very rare feat: he has built a widely popular, family-owned fragrance brand from the ground up.
Raised in a military household in Quebec City, Michel founded his fragrance company in 1990, despite not having a background in the beauty industry. Previously an electronic engineering technologist, he started with just one desire: to create a perfume for his wife, Norma. That goal would become his first eau, Séxūal, launched in 1994. Today, Michel Germain Parfums has a whole range of provocatively named scents, for both women and men, carried at Hudson’s Bay, Macy’s and Bloomingdales.
Cosmetics sat down with Germain on the eve of the Canadian Fragrance Awards to talk about his against-the-odds success story. Here, five things you may not know about his made-in-Canada fragrance empire:
1. Germain started the brand at just age 25, self-funding it with the help of family money, and cold-calling people in the fragrance industry to get his concept off the ground. “I started from nothing,” he says. “In New York, I was practically kicked out of offices,” he recalls of some early meetings with doubtful industry insiders. But he was undeterred: “I was like, Get out of the way, I’m doing this. There was no studying [the business]—no ‘what is the market?’” says Germain. “The fragrance industry is highly competitive, and the fact that we can sit here today, having survived after being on the shelf for 22 years, is a miracle.”
2. For his debut fragrance, the floriental Séxūal for women, Germain’s “market testing” entailed personally spritzing hundreds of shoppers at the mall. “Random people. I know now that security would kick you out for that,” he says. “Back then, I didn’t know, didn’t ask, didn’t care.”
3. Germain’s wife, Norma, isn’t just the original inspiration for Séxūal, she also appeared in some of the steamy early ads. An English grad, she still contributes to the brand’s creative as a copywriter and runs the social media.
4. The scent’s explicit name came from his wife, too. “Norma said, ‘I can’t find a fragrance that makes me feel sexual and attractive.’ That was in 1989, and for a woman to say that then, it was very expressive,” explains Germain. “But as a name, ‘Sexual’ is a little hard, so bringing in a bit of French phonetics softens it and adds an element of romance.”
5. Over the course of 20-plus years, Michel Germain Parfums has employed and trained thousands of Canadian demonstrators, including 300 in the past year alone. In every aspect of his operation (design, manufacturing, production and sales), Germain is proud to have a 100 percent Canadian company.