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, Paris Hilton and Indian cricketer MS Dhoni are few of the high-profile names Mr. Stephen has worked with to launch personalized 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 from the day he arrived 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 Indian Mr. Stephen, who is 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.” He jumped at a chance to work at Al Tayer Group, although the only jobs on offer were in the beauty division. He knew nothing about the industry but enthusiasm helped him treble his salary.
“I got lucky, worked hard and quickly became a brand manager for a lot of North American perfumes, and launched one of his first lines of Creed, “he says. “I worked on introducing fragrances such as Jaguar, Benetton, Alfred Sung and Oscar de la Renta. “There were very few malls then.”
In 1993, he travelled to the US, Canada and France to test and launch the latest fragrances.
Two years later, was offered a general manager role at Rivoli fragrances, in a new dawn for celebrity perfumes.
“I was working with some really big brands like Hermes and La Prairie, “he says. “I launched their new perfumes at big events in Dubai, at Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah hotels.
“It was quite a glamorous time with travelling, meeting designers and famous people.” Mr. Stephen’s took his greatest gamble yet by setting up is own distribution company. A trip to the US to meet some old contacts connected him with Parlaux Fragrances, an international company with a stable of celebrities.
“I was connected with stars such as Paris Hilton, Rhianna and Jessica Simpson, “he says. “At the time, celebrities were driving a lot of success behind fragrances.
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“It became aspirational for many people – but the reality is [the celebrities] 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 s fragrance, but it did not do very well.”
Mr. Stephen spent time with Paris Hilton at a launch event in Switzerland for her latest fragrance. “Paris is very sweet and certainly not arrogant, just a hardworking businesswoman, “he says.
“When she launched her fragrance it was a tough time, because 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 s challenge, because 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 “excellent to work with”, he says.
As the enduring appeal of celebrity fragrances began to fade, Mr. Stephen took yet another risk to design and sell his own high-end scent. After two years of hard work, he developed and launched a trio of perfumes under the name Pierre Precieuse, “precious stone “in French.
At $200 (Dh734) a bottle, they are not cheap – but Mr. Stephen claims he offers something not even the finest fashion houses of Chanel and Hermes can replicate.
His perfumes are sold in nine countries, and are becoming popular in Paris with a launch planned for a limited edition $2,000 scent in a crystal and gold bottle at Harrods, London.
“The biggest change in consumer behavior has been loyalty, because people no longer stick with the same fragrance,” he says.
“The impact of celebrity has declined over the past 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 bis 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.”