Linda Levy, B.S. marketing and management, has been called the “queen of fragrance.” She has spent decades as the brains of beauty and fragrance, working marketing magic at such industry powerhouses as Macy’s, Lancôme/L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Wella/Procter & Gamble, and Shiseido. Now she’s president of The Fragrance Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as a premier resource for industry expertise, innovation, and education.
Levy was recently honored with the New York Urban League’s first-ever Catalyst Award for her commitment and leadership in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the multi-billion-dollar fragrance industry.
You’ve had quite a career in the beauty industry. How did you get there?
I started at Lehigh as an English major in one of the early classes that included women, but thought I wanted to do something more. So I switched into the business school to do marketing and management. I was often the only woman in a class full of men, so they asked me for a “woman’s perspective” a lot.
I tried a couple of different marketing jobs when I first got to New York City after graduation, but my beauty career began at Lancôme (part of L’Oréal in the U.S.). I actually answered an ad in the New York Times business section.
A theme of my whole career is that whatever the job description was, I did that but also created new things, went beyond the boundaries of the job. I’ve always been a marketer at heart. I love the storytelling about the product itself.
What led to you receiving the Catalyst Award?
We’ve made diversity, equity, and inclusion a number-one priority for the industry — it’s part of everything we do at The Fragrance Foundation. We want to make sure the fragrance industry reflects the population in every color, religion, gender identity, and ability. That’s what the Catalyst is about. Receiving the Catalyst Award is one of the highlights of not just my career, but my life.
"We want to make sure the fragrance industry reflects the population in every color, religion, gender identity, and ability."
When I became president of The Fragrance Foundation, we redefined its mission and objectives. Our mission is now inspiring the world to discover the artistry and passion of fragrance, and to bring the storytelling forward with the perfumer, who has always been like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain. We want to bring that talent forward and share these magnificent talents with consumers.
We’ve brought in a lot of indie brands and nurtured them. We have the big companies as part of our 200+ members, but we have small entrepreneurs, too. We’re really trying to celebrate their differences.
What changes have you seen in the fragrance industry?
Fragrance now is much more a sense of self-expression — I call it the “invisible accessory.” Marketing fragrance used to be all about attracting someone at the club. Now it’s about enhancing your life and everyday experience.
During the pandemic, consumer thinking and attitude about fragrance changed. Smell was always the least important of the senses, the one you thought wouldn’t be so bad to lose if you had to pick. But lots of people lost their sense of smell due to COVID, and it became apparent that it affected the sense of taste as well and was really psychologically damaging. Smell became a very valued sense.
Also during the pandemic, people were spending a lot more time at home, so fragrance in the home — lighting candles, using diffusers, and creating a fragrance environment — became more important. And people who used fragrance found it transportive. A scent reminded you of the vacation you couldn’t take, or your mother or someone else you couldn’t see at the time. People used fragrance for a sense of well-being, like a spa experience. So the value of fragrance, and how it enhances people’s lives, truly has changed.
Do you have a favorite fragrance?
Everyone asks! And, honestly, being in this job is like living in a candy store if you have a sweet tooth. I match my scent to my mood, the season, the occasion. Of all the scent families, floral is my favorite.
I like to ask people what their first scent memory is, because fragrance is very evocative — there’s a very strong connection between your sense of smell and the memory part of your brain. Mine is my mother putting on Jean Naté in the cabana by the ocean every summer.
Being in the fragrance industry, do you have a good “nose?”
I have a pretty good nose, but people who are perfumers go through a tremendous amount of training. I’ve done a little training so I can identify things, but real masters study for many, many years — it’s like being a chef and knowing all the ingredients and how to put them together.
What did you love about Lehigh?
The first thing I loved was the campus — it’s why I chose Lehigh. But what I really love is that it was the beginning of a lifetime of learning something new every day.