Launching her own brand was a dream for Veronique Gabai-Pinksy — but the reality was anything but. The industry veteran, who most recently was chief executive officer of Vera Wang and global brand president of the Estée Lauder Cos., had long desired to launch her own fragrance brand based on her memories of growing up in the south of France.
That vision became reality in 2019, when she launched her eponymous brand.
Even before the worldwide pandemic — Gabai-Pinsky faced a hurdle when rumors started circulating about the fate of Barneys New York, her launch account. She pulled the brand out in November, just weeks before the retailer filed Chapter 11. She quickly regrouped and introduced her line in Bergdorf Goodman on Feb. 28, 2020. Just 14 days later, New York City, and much of the rest of the world, went into lockdown.
“When something of this magnitude happens, you can’t just say, ‘oh, my god,’” said Gabai-Pinsky. “You have to accept it. It’s way too big for you to fight it. You have to ride with it.”
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And she did.
Step one was to reassess the brand’s digital strategy. With stores closed, Gabai-Pinsky focused on her sampling program by driving the purchase of her discovery set. The plan worked — 58 percent of the people who bought the set returned to buy a full-size product. “That’s now an amazing point of data that I have,” she said. “I had time to focus on that model because it’s all I could do.”
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At the same time, she focused on growing her social media following and database. Now, one year later, she has the resources needed to step on the gas. “The e-commerce business is small, but tracking positively, and after a year of really fine-tuning everything, I’m in the position to accelerate it through advertising,” Gabai-Pinsky said. “I didn’t do much before, because I’m self-funded, and it’s a balancing act of what you do to improve your business and grow and what you do to conserve cash.”
While online hasn’t historically been considered the optimal way to sell fragrance — Gabai-Pinsky now considers her business model forever altered. “The trend was there, but COVID-19 accelerated it. My model is now e-commerce first, and a couple of spaces along the way that create the expression of the brand and a connection with consumers,” she said, noting the brand will test the waters with a pop-up in the fourth quarter this year. “I don’t see going back to a traditional brick-and-mortar model.”
Gabai-Pinsky is also planning for a significant shift in which shoppers come back to stores. “I don’t think people will go back to the structure of working full-time in an office away from their home — so maybe not so many people need to be in big cities anymore,” she said. That will lead to the rise of more local communities, and an increase in the move toward shopping local.
“You will see very interesting store formats in smaller cities around the U.S.,” she said. “I still believe there is always an amazing opportunity with big retail partners, but for a brand like mine, these wonderful local shops that know and are very close to their community will become an element of interest.
“Post-COVID-19, we’re going to have lives that are both local and global,” she continued. “The internet gives us access to the world, new ideas, new concepts, culture, information, like never before. But our physical life will be a little smaller — we will travel less, stay more in our local communities.”
That will impact the structure of the company, necessitating a sales team that can help the brand connect at the local level, Gabai-Pinksy said, while reconsidering her international approach.
While the brand will continue to sell in its launch partners of Liberty of London and Le Printemps in Paris, she has also signed distribution agreements for Russia, Italy and a few other key markets.
“We need to accelerate international, because the U.S. is shifting dramatically. We all need the time to see how the high-end business model here pans out” she said. “It’s important to maintain a beautiful relationship with the people who have trusted me from Day One — Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Net-a-porter, to stay the course and support that business and at the same time, open international and concentrate on direct-to-consumer.”
Like others, Gabai-Pinsky is predicting a “roaring ’20s” post-pandemic celebratory period, which will help fuel categories like cosmetics, fragrances and condoms. “People will need to liberate their bodies after having been so restricted and introspective,” she said.
And while she does have a new scent launching called Le Point G (The G Spot), her product development going forward is focused on much more profound changes that she sees happening in humanity overall and the fragrance industry, too.
While she always used natural elements and ingredients from the South of France, her homeland which inspired the development of the brand, Gabai-Pinsky believes that sustainability will become even more integral to growth in the years ahead.
“Sustainability today is the sine qua non of existence,” she said. “People are seeking the safety and reassurance of nature, and they want to protect it. The question I’m asking is how do you answer this need for naturality, safety, sustainability in scent?”
Gabai said that when she launched, the idea of escapism through the brand didn’t really click with consumers. No longer.
“It’s funny that some of the components of the brand that were already there were not the most important pre-COVID-19, but they now are,” she said. “People love the glamorous aspect of the brand, but what they care about is generosity, well-being, escapism.”
Already she is at work on Veronique Gabai 2.0, which will address those questions head on. “There is a real appetite for people to go deeper into the understanding of fragrance and its impact on their mood,” she said. “People really suffered this year. Our mental health was challenged. I want to use my knowledge of scent and raw materials in the service of the well-being of people in a much deeper way.”
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