Women We’re Watching: Cynthia Korman of Clean Perfume Company PHLUR
The world of fine fragrance has long been about trade-secret formulas and a lack of disclosure, on top of incredibly flowery, unattainable advertising. But now that the awareness of the hazards of some synthetic ingredients has risen, coupled with a demand from consumers for transparency, the fragrance market has broken open to reveal not only safer, less toxic formulas that utilize natural and safe synthetics, but also a new era of resonate and beautiful design.
PHLUR, the clean perfume brand that began only online and has sold more than 200,000 of their sample sets, is one of those brands. Led by co-founder and Creative Director Cynthia Korman, the brand is as much about making the world a better place as it is about helping people smell good. Cynthia comes from magazines, where she worked as an editorial art director at various Condé Nast and Hearst Publications, before moving into the digital space. She received her B.A. from Princeton University and studied graphic design at the Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. Cynthia’s eye for visual design, along with the company’s recent investment of $7 million, make her one of the Women We’re Watching. Keep reading to find out why Cynthia and her husband founded the line, and what one thing she’d do if she could change the world today.
Fragrance is a bit of a mysterious industry—you’re setting about to change that. Can you tell us the story of discovering that potentially dangerous ingredients were hiding in your fine fragrance?
It started by simply reading the ingredients on a bottle of perfume, and seeing only three listed: water, alcohol and this really opaque word “fragrance.” That word is an umbrella that can contain just about anything, and the FDA doesn’t require companies to reveal more. After many years in Southern California, and having kids, we’re pretty careful about the food we consume and the products we put in our house, so that triggered an instant red flag. Shouldn’t we know what’s in a product we’re spraying on our skin? We expect that, so we imagined other people out there might as well.
And, what drove you to decide that you had to be the one to help change the industry?
Eric [Korman, my husband and the company’s co-founder and CEO,] has been in e-commerce almost since the very beginning (the late 90s), and I spent many years as an editorial art director of women’s fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazines, and we’ve always talked about doing something more meaningful than just taking a paycheck.
And while there were a lot of folks trying to make a positive difference in many different categories, at the time, no one really seemed to be focused on fragrance. And yet the art of perfume can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt, and has this incredible power to elevate every moment and add such a beautiful dimension to life. That spoke to us. And we thought: This can be done a better way, so let’s try and do it.
Where did you get the capital to start PHLUR and what’s been your process for bringing it to market in a changing consumer environment (online fragrance shopping)?
We’ve been fortunate to attract capital from a variety of sources, including the venture firm Next Coast Ventures, one of the largest fragrance and cosmetic ingredients players in the world, Symrise Inc., and Belcorp Inc, a leading beauty player from South America.
Our biggest departure from how fragrances have been sold for the past 150 years is that we went digital first. Neither Eric nor I were really big fragrance people most of our lives, and a major reason for this was how much we disliked the traditional fragrance counter experience at a department store. So while it was really unconventional to discover and purchase fragrance online, we were confident we could successfully translate the stories behind each of our scents online with captivating editorial, and that people would be really open to sampling fragrances at home in their real life, if given the right opportunity. We’ve sold more than 100,000 sample sets since we’ve started, and tens of thousands of full bottles, so fortunately our instincts were right!
As a former art director at Glamour, you have an eye for design. How did you approach the creative direction for PHLUR?
Working in women’s fashion and beauty magazines, I was surrounded by mass market fragrance advertising that just never resonated for me. I mean, how often am I on a balcony in a ball gown holding a giant bottle of perfume? Or naked in high heels in a box? And is that really what I want to put on in the morning before I go to the office? Or to hang out on the weekend with my friends and family?
Each of our fragrances is inspired by a moment in real life and our visuals remain grounded in reality as well. For example, Olmsted & Vaux was inspired by a walk through New York City’s Central Park on one of those perfect spring mornings, when you feel energized by the city and invigorated by nature, and Sandara was inspired by a meditative walk through a Redwood forest in Northern California.
Think of all the beautiful moments you’ve had in your life, be them happy or sad, nostalgic or joyful… the real world is full of evocative moments that have so much more meaning and power than some fake portrayal of “sexy.”
And then the obvious practical challenge for us was: How do you tell someone how something is going to smell through a screen? Again, it goes back to our process, which is different. We don’t give our perfumers any olfactive direction, and instead we give them visuals and words and music to illustrate a moment—the same information we later give our customers on our website. We are visually dominant as a species and so the right visuals really can conjure up other senses in a pretty amazing way.
What’s been the most difficult thing you’ve had to do as you brainstormed, launched and managed PHLUR?
From a creative perspective, having big budget tastes with a startup budget! But constraints do force you to be scrappy, and that can have a silver lining. When I worked in magazines, there were always a lot of people weighing in on the photography, and sometimes [having] too many voices in the mix waters down the overall vision. Instead, I can get an idea and really see it through to completion, often doing the styling, art direction, product photography and post-production myself.
I can’t tell you how many of our product photos I shot on our bedroom floor! We have a bay window with amazing natural light, but unfortunately many days Eric comes home and finds that once again the bedroom has turned into a photo studio. So yes, I’d like a bigger creative budget so we can have our bedroom floor back!
Talk to me about the certifications PHLUR has (B-Corp), and the organizations you work with to ensure ingredient, planet and animal safety with your products and packaging. Why are those important to you?
When we founded our business, one of our first decisions was that we would be a values-based organization—one that always takes into account all of our stakeholders when making any decision. This means that we consider the perspective of our customers, our partners, our team, our investors and our planet, with everything we do. When you’re looking for funding, investors are naturally concerned with short-term profitability, but we believe making thoughtful and balanced decisions that reflect our commitment to conscious choices in everything we do will in turn create the best outcomes for all of our stakeholders.
We are a Certified B Corporation, which means we meet the nonprofit B Lab’s rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (That last one is especially important to us, as we are one of the few fragrance companies that disclose all our choices and decisions, including ingredients.) We don’t use any materials on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened plants, or animal products and are certified cruelty-free by Leaping Bunny.
And we are recognized by One Percent for the Planet for donating more than one percent of our annual net revenues to environmental organizations worldwide. (Specifically, $5 from every bottle goes to either the IUCN or the Central Park Conservancy.) As I mentioned before, Eric and I got into this looking for more out of the journey than just a paycheck. If we were going to build something, it had better have a purpose and meaning beyond just profitability. And hopefully, one does not have to preclude the other.
What’s your favorite PHLUR scent and why?
I’m not a big proponent of signature scents—I think fragrance is more like wardrobe, and some days (or nights) call for a different scent, just like you may dress differently for a summer Saturday night out than for a cozy winter Sunday. But my go-to on a regular day is usually Améline. It’s a modern twist on a classic rose, with Italian bergamot, pink peppercorn and hint of patchouli so it’s not overly sweet and has more nuance and depth. And it just makes me happy whenever I smell it
You just received $7 million in investment, an amazing achievement. Can you walk us through the steps you took to secure that, including how you knew that you wanted to go after outside investment?
We wanted to raise additional capital to do three things:
- invest behind the success of PHLUR and extend into new products and marketing channels;
- accelerate the development of Explore Naturals, our aluminum-free deodorant brand and
- increase the manufacturing and product development capabilities of The Goodkind Co. for the benefit of its existing and future clients.
Two of our existing investors, Symrise and Next Coast Ventures, have always been supportive of our broader vision, and we’re thrilled they were willing to up their investment in PHLUR. Belcorp, a new investor, is the second largest beauty company in South America and has been looking to invest in clean beauty and digital first brands like PHLUR. We’re excited to have the industry support to accelerate our growth and take advantage of new opportunities more quickly.
Why acquire Texas Beauty Labs (now The Goodkind Co.)? What steps do you hope to be able to take with a manufacturing company in your portfolio?
We had the unique experience of working with The Goodkind Co. initially as a client, working together on PHLUR body care products and then teamed up with them to create Explore Naturals. As a company, we have always been committed to the development of safer, better and more sustainable beauty and personal care products, and acquiring a leading independent clean beauty developer and manufacturer, who also happens to be on our home turf of Austin, was a natural fit (pun intended!). It allows us to accelerate new product development for PHLUR’s own brands, and to help other independent clean beauty brands develop amazing products and bring them to consumers.
You’ve both seen the clean beauty industry advance and PHLUR has been instrumental in helping make it more mainstream, yet there’s also not a lot of transparency/regulation in the industry, and “clean” is not a certification that means anything (companies can use that marketing term, but products can still contain unsafe ingredients). How will you maintain transparency and safety of ingredients now that you’ll have access to produce more products, by owning The Goodkind Co.? Is safety/non-toxicity of products a priority?
Transparency has always been a core value at PHLUR, and part of that is to hold ourselves accountable for the safety and sustainability of our products, and part of that is to allow our customers to make the best decisions for themselves. Decisions around some ingredients can be a real gray area, as there are often competing priorities based on different perspectives, human safety versus environmental sustainability being a good example. So as we make decisions on ingredients, we will always be transparent and as clear as possible, to empower customers to then make the right decision for themselves.
Now with Mary and The Goodkind Co., we have an even greater ability to drive positive change, as our focus with Goodkind is to work with brands with aligned values and mindsets. There are a lot of amazing entrepreneurs and leaders at other beauty brands with great ideas, but not always the capabilities to bring those ideas to fruition from an actual product perspective. Our goal with Goodkind is to invest even more heavily into product research and clean beauty practices, to support these brands and help bring their ideas to life.
If you had a magic wand and you could wave it and change one thing about the world, what would you change?
I would reverse all the damage we as humans have done to the environment. Then it would be up to us to start over and not make the same mistakes again.