Why This Fragrance Brand Founder Refuses to Call Her Scents "Sexy"

Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.

There's always a lot of running in fragrance ads. It doesn't matter if the campaign is set on a beach, city street, or meadow full of flowers, the model in it is always trying to get away from something — or someone. But the vibe isn't a fit-and-energetic kind of running, it's almost always an incongruously ethereal or sexy jog. Floral Street, a line of clean fragrances, is one brand that's decidedly staying away from dramatic jogging and that four-letter S-word to market its scents. Instead, founder Michelle Feeney built the brand's nine fragrances around feelings that modern women want to feel throughout their lives.

To do that, she started with mood boards. These collages feature words like "courageous" rather than "sultry," photos of divas like Diana Ross, and tear-outs of fashion shoots from British Vogue.

The beauty industry veteran's approach to creating fragrance is refreshing, and the way Feeney has packaged Floral Street's scents is equally innovative. The brand's formulas are all vegan, cruelty-free and made with responsibly sourced ingredients. The recyclable bottles come in compostable boxes made of pulp from a former paper mill. It's a smart move when many big brands are playing catch up in order to become more sustainable. No surprise, in less than two years since its launched, Floral Street has become a cult-favorite brand in Europe and Australia. Now, it's available stateside exclusively at Sephora. 

Here, we caught up with Feeney to talk about why it's important for modern brands to be clean and sustainable, the challenges of making biodegradable packaging, why Floral Street doesn't use the word "sexy" to describe its scents, and more. 

Tell me about how you got your start in the beauty industry. 

I started off doing fashion show production in London in the '80s. I got to work with incredible makeup artists and hairstylists and I became more interested in the beauty side of things. I loved the way beauty combines art and commerce, and how it can genuinely make a difference in people’s self-esteem and the way they live their lives. My first big beauty job was with hairstylist Trevor Sorbie, where I helped him launch his products into Boots stores. 

After working with Sorbie I went into PR. Once I started my own agency in New York, my first client was Bumble and Bumble. I worked on rebranding them and developing their in-house product line with hairstylist Orlando Pita. I eventually got headhunted by Estée Lauder Companies, where I worked on a lot of big brands' launches, including the Tommy Hilfiger fragrance and Crème de la Mer; when Estée Lauder acquired MAC Cosmetics, I worked on that brand for seven years.

After that I moved back to London and got married, and then took a job with St. Tropez tan. When that brand was sold, I stayed on with its previous owner to work with Sanctuary Spa. The spa was on a street called Floral Street in London's Covent Garden. I looked up at the street sign one day and thought that it would be a great name for a fragrance brand. Now, here I am.  

You've worked with so many brands. What was it like to start your own? 

I’ve always been interested in fragrance since I was a child, but I started working for Estée Lauder, I had the privilege of learning what goes into making fragrance. The joy of doing this brand is that I’m not really a fragrance expert, but I knew what needed to be changed in terms of how customers relate to fragrances. All of the brands I spearheaded in my lifetime have become been cult brands or game-changers, so when it came to making Floral Street, I knew what was missing from the fragrance industry. I really think that the modern consumer doesn't want a signature scent; they want to be able to express themselves and how they're feeling on any given day through different fragrances.  

We started developing the line's scents by creating mood boards first to figure out what feelings they evoke. None of these mood boards included the word "sexy." We do not use the word in our brand at all because I’ve lived through a lot of decades in fashion and beauty, and I’m denying anyone having that feeling, but there are so many better words to express fragrance and how they make you feel. We use things like "powerful," "resilient," and "courageous." These are words I think most people can relate to, and how they want to feel at certain times in their lives. 

The brand just launched in the US. Have you noticed a difference in how people in the U.S. approach fragrance than in the U.K.? 

I think the U.S. consumer is more educated and much more open to trying new things. While people in the U.K. are open to new concepts and experimentation, I don't think that the fragrance industry there has caught up to that. They haven't taught them about what ingredients they're smelling in fragrances and why they like it. 

What are some challenges that come with making clean, responsibly sourced fragrances? 

I think the consumer is still confused about what the word means because they think that if a product has a clean formula then its packaging is recyclable, but that's not always the case. For us, we wanted to be really open about what ingredients we're using in the fragrances and to try to be as clean as possible. We do use natural ingredients, but we also had to use synthetic ones in order to keep the formulas vegan. For example, instead of using musk from deer, we used one created in a lab. So, it’s about educating the consumer about what ingredients are used and why. 

With our packaging, it was imperative that we make it reusable, recycle, and compostable. I was not going to come back into the beauty industry and start a brand that I couldn't feel good about putting out into the world. The beauty industry hasn't embraced sustainable packaging quickly enough and I think that bigger companies are now playing catch up. I wanted sustainability to be at the heart of our brand from the beginning.  

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What was it like to source the sustainable materials for the packaging? 

We found a pulp manufacturer in the UK and went to them and asked if they would be able to create a package with us. They were an old paper mill that had gone into pulp and were willing to work alongside us to break into the beauty industry. It wasn’t easy because we didn’t use something off the shelf, which we could have done. Once we got into the process, it was very collaborative with the manufacturer. When my husband first saw the packaging, he asked me what on earth I was doing putting the beautiful bottles into these boxes. I told him to wait and see because this is the direction the world is going in.

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