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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

UAE Portrait of a Nation: The Indian perfumer to Kim Kardashian and the stars

Alwyn Stephen once sold buttons for Dh800 per month, now he launches fragrances for Hollywood's brightest stars

Indian perfumer Alwyn Stephen with Kim Kardashian, whose fragrance he launched in Dubai in 2014. Courtesy: Alwyn Stephen
Indian perfumer Alwyn Stephen with Kim Kardashian, whose fragrance he launched in Dubai in 2014. Courtesy: Alwyn Stephen

From selling thread and buttons to developing fragrances for the rich and famous, Alwyn Stephen has come a long way.

Some say it is a true rags to riches story: from humble beginnings, his current social media profile picture is him smiling alongside Kim Kardashian, flashing a peace sign.

'Kim K', as he calls her, as well as Paris Hilton and cricketer MS Dhoni, are just a few of the high profile names Alwyn has worked with to launch personalised fragrances in the Middle East, while rubbing shoulders at events with the likes of Paula Abdul and Indian actress Daisy Shah.

But life is very different to the day he pitched up in the UAE in 1985 with little more than a suitcase and a working grasp of English.

“I was 21, and my dad used some of his contacts to get me a job in Dubai selling hosiery items, threads and buttons for a local guy,” says Alwyn, who is Indian, and married with a daughter of 11.

“He took me on because I could read English text on the imported goods.

“I began selling, even though I had no experience, and was earning just Dh800 a month.”

When a friend said jobs were available at the Al Tayer Group, Alwyn jumped at the chance, although the only jobs on offer were in the beauty division.

Despite knowing nothing about the industry, his enthusiasm shone through and he soon trebled his salary.

Alwyn Stephen arrived in the UAE from India selling buttons and thread and now launches celebrity perfumes and has designed his own scent for the rich and famous. Antonie Robertson / The National
Alwyn Stephen arrived in the UAE from India selling buttons and thread and now launches celebrity perfumes and has designed his own scent for the rich and famous. Antonie Robertson / The National

“I got lucky, worked hard and quickly became a brand manager for a lot of North American perfumes, and launched one of the first lines of Creed,” he says.

“I worked on introducing fragrances like Jaguar, Benetton, Alfred Sung and Oscar de la Renta.

“There were very few malls then, so it was very different to now.”

In 1993 he travelled to the US, Canada and France to test out and launch the latest fragrances.

Two years later, he was offered a general manager role at Rivoli fragrances, in what was the new dawn of celebrity perfumes.

“I was working with some really big brands like Hermes and La Prairie,” says Alwyn.

“I launched their new perfumes at big events in Dubai, at the Burj Al Arab and Jumeriah Hotels.

“It was quite a glamorous time with travelling, meeting designers and famous people.”

Indian perfumier Alwyn Stephen with Kim Kardashian, whose fragrance he launched in Dubai in 2014. Alwyn has now designed his own line of scents. Courtesy: Alwyn Stephen
Indian perfumier Alwyn Stephen with Kim Kardashian, whose fragrance he launched in Dubai in 2014. Alwyn has now designed his own line of scents. Courtesy: Alwyn Stephen

Now well established in the perfume world, Alwyn took his greatest gamble yet to strike out on his own, setting up his own distribution company.

A trip to the US to meet some old contacts connected him with Parlux Fragrances, an international company with a stable of high profile celebrities.

“I was connected with stars like Paris Hilton, Rhianna and Jessica Simpson,’ he says.

"At the time, celebrities were driving a lot of the success behind fragrances.

“It became aspirational for many people - but the reality is they had very little involvement in designing and creating a fragrance.

“But having a celebrity on board did all the marketing I needed.

“Even Donald Trump had a fragrance, but it did not do very well.”

Alwyn spent time with Paris Hilton at a launch event in Switzerland for her latest fragrance, and was pleasantly surprised as she was different to her public persona.

“Paris is very sweet and certainly not arrogant, just a hard working businesswoman” says Alwyn.

“When she launched her fragrance it was a tough time, as it clashed with a private video of her that was leaked.

“Everyone was making fun of me and said I had made a big mistake. I took it as a challenge, as her name was all over the internet.

“A month later, sales picked up and it started selling very well and demand increased.”

In 2014, he launched Kim Kardashian’s sixth fragrance in Dubai, another star who was also "excellent to work with", says Alwyn.

As the enduring appeal of celebrity fragrances began to fade, Alwyn took yet another risk to design and sell his own high end scent.

After two years of hard work, he has developed and launched a trio of perfumes under the name Pierre Precieuse, meaning precious stone in French.

At $200 a bottle, they don’t come cheap - but Alwyn claims he offers something not even the finest fashion houses of Chanel and Hermes can replicate.

His perfumes sell in nine countries, and are becoming popular in Paris with a launch soon planned for a limited edition $2,000 scent in a crystal and gold bottle at Harrods, London.

“The biggest change in consumer behaviour has been loyalty, as people no longer stick with the same fragrance,” he says.

“The impact of celebrity has declined over the last decade.

“Social media has led that - if they make a mistake it is all over very quickly and their brand becomes damaged.

“Fashion designers feel less inclined to attach themselves to the big names, but I’ve found if you don’t take risks in life you will never go forward.

“Without risk I would still be selling buttons for Dh800 a month.”

Updated: March 14, 2019 05:49 PM

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