Scent of a Winner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He had no samples to give away, no promotional displays, not even a business card.

But without the slightest hesitation, Andre Barnwell told anybody who asked: "I'm a fragrance designer."

And he paid no mind to the barbs and good-natured teasing that followed.

"At that time, I was listening to a lot of Les Brown motivational tapes," he says. "If that's what you want to be, claim it. I just claimed it, and claiming it mentally put me in the mind-set to achieve it."

That was seven years ago.

These days Barnwell, 33, is the Spike Lee of the fragrance world--and nobody's laughing.

His cologne, Raks (pronounced "rocks"), sells alongside the big boys and on some days even outsells them.

"We try to carry exclusive lines," says Marlowe Brooks, a "certified fragrance sales specialist" at the Nordstrom in Montclair. "When people come in here they want something unique and different. That's definitely what Raks offers us."

On display counters, where packaging is as important as product, Raks is distinct: a gold-tinted cologne in a clear square bottle, with a layer of earth-tone rocks lining the bottom. The scent itself combines citrus, spice, amber and musk.

How Barnwell and his brother Harold managed to successfully design and market a fragrance without a financial backer, without a celebrity name and without experience is a classic David and Goliath tale. Most of the 30 fragrances that enter the marketplace each year are created by multimillion companies that pay dearly to make their names known, says Annette Green, president of the New York-based Fragrance Foundation, the educational arm of the industry. Bijan's promotional budget for the new Michael Jordan cologne, for example, is reportedly $20 million.

"It's really hard to make a mark for yourself in today's world unless you really have an idea that's unique, packaging that's unique, a fragrance that's unique, and you have some way to promote it," Green says.

But what the Barnwell brothers lacked financially, they made up for in hard work and a belief that the impossible is possible.

"This is not about luck," Andre says. "When you start going down certain roads, things start coming into your life."

Launching a fragrance in the $5-billion industry typically involves developing a "perfume profile," or list of the target buyer's characteristics--say, a 30-year-old outdoorsy, fashion-conscious man. A scent that he might buy is then selected from submissions created by fragrance suppliers like Givaudan-Roure in New Jersey.

This was not the path that led to Raks, however.

Before venturing into the world of fragrance, Andre Barnwell worked in the marketing department of a Fortune 500 company in Washington, D.C., earning good money and learning the intricacies of corporate America.

To satisfy a creative urge--and to stretch his wardrobe--he spent evenings at home designing and sewing neckties on a borrowed machine. He found no real passion in sewing. And no passion at work.

"But I was on the right track," he says. "I was thinking creatively."

While browsing at the library, he came across a book on potpourri that included a how to make cologne section, which led to other books on the subject.

"And I started envisioning myself," Andre says. "Then it hit me, "I'm a do this."

He returned the sewing machine to his sister and began to spend evenings playing chemist. On weekends, when friends were going out, he planted himself at a table in his studio apartment with the tools of his trade: an eye dropper, a composition book, water, denatured alcohol, orange, coconut and other oils.

"All I wanted to do was finish where I left off," he recalls of his new hobby.

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The more serious he got about his creations, the more he realized he had to relocate. His short list of possibilities included Paris, New York and Los Angeles. The latter, he reasoned, is a city of outsiders, a place where people without connections can make it big. And on top of that, Harold lived in Bellflower.

In September 1992, he quit his job, gave his furniture to his sister and packed up his 1986 Mercedes 190. For a week he traveled across the country, and through the years of experiences that had brought him to that point. "Driving that far you rehash everything in your life," he says. "All the memories come back."

Along with fear and anxiety, the same kind he felt when he left home for Howard University. He kept driving--and praying. "All right, it's me and you Lord. Let's do this."

The sons of an Army sergeant major and a schoolteacher, the brothers Barnwell learned early on to be at home with themselves and in the world. "We developed the ability to communicate with anyone. I don't care if I'm in Africa or with Mayor Richard Riordan or with boys in the 'hood," Harold says.

He is the people person in the pair, always ready, the man you want watching your back. "My nickname for him is 'Indiana,' " Andre says. "As in Indiana Jones. He tends to just go."

Andre is pensive, the creative spirit. "Even if he wasn't my brother he would be just a real cool brother," Harold says.

The boys were brought up to believe in their own potential. "If there's something you want that badly--within your own means--you can do it," Andre recalls his mother saying. And she always preached family togetherness.

So together, Andre and Harold worked the business. Once he had a settled on a scent, Andre turned to a Northern California company to find a precise, safe formula that could be mass-produced. Next, it needed a name and packaging.

A rock is a symbol of masculinity, and it's enduring, a natural part of the landscape, Andre says of the concept. "When you think of a river, rushing over stones--that's the connotation, clean, smooth, gentle."

The phonetic Raks, complete with an umlaut inspired by Chanel's Egoiste, was also designed to make the cologne stand out.

When Andre chose to reveal his ethnicity on the box, some well-meaning people cautioned against it. What others saw as an unnecessary risk, the Barnwells viewed as an asset.

"We should acknowledge differences as a positive thing," Andre says. "In this business, diversity is a good thing."

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In response to letters seeking partners for a joint venture, the brothers received stacks of rejections. "I guess there were some kind no's," Harold recalls.

Like film director Spike Lee, the Barnwells ultimately worked around the establishment, raising their own funds for the initial production run.

At Dion Scott, an African American clothier in Beverly Hills, and at the now closed store Spike's Joint West in Hollywood, customers liked Raks.

"That gave me the encouragement to keep going," Andre says. So did a note of praise from former Ambassador Andrew Young, who sent a check for three bottles.

But the real turning point for Raks came last winter, when preparation met destiny.

The week before Christmas, Andre was on a plane headed to Philadelphia to visit family. The man next to him asked about his items--some Raks samples and a portfolio. Andre explained. "Then I went back into my own little zone. . . . Whenever I have quiet time like that I just reflect on how I can do things better."

The man wanted to know more. As it turned out, he was the boyfriend of a Nordstrom buyer. He liked the fragrance and promised to pass along a sample. Then he gave Andre his girlfriend's number and suggested he call.

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In January, the buyer invited the Barnwells to give a presentation. And in February they were invited to make a personal appearance at the store in Redondo Beach.

At that event and a subsequent one, Raks sold in surprisingly large numbers. The store kept the cologne in stock, but with no money to advertise, news about Raks spread mostly via word-of-mouth. Another personal appearance at the Black Expo, a convention of African American business owners, unleashed a stream of women who had received samples from Nordstrom.

In June, after brisk Father's Day sales, the Barnwells signed on as vendors at the Redondo Beach store. Raks is now sold in seven locations, including Cerritos, Montclair and Brea. And this month, the brothers will introduce a body shampoo.

But the Barnwells' plan to take things slowly. They envision Raks as a classic on par with Chanel.

"It isn't a quick scheme for me," Andre says. "I don't want to be a trend. If you can come through the hills and the valleys and remain true to your product then you become a classic," he says.

See, they've already claimed it.

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