Cologne 555: How coronavirus revived Egypt’s favorite perfume

Last week, crowds of people were seen lining up outside the various branches of perfume maker Kesma and Chabrawichi, producer of the storied Cologne 555. The renewed surge in public demand for the Cologne 555 did not arise out of a sudden nostalgic yearning for Egypt’s most famous scent. Made with 70 percent alcohol, the cheap perfume has rather become the disinfectant of choice in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kesma and Chabrawichi are a pair of factories owned by the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company (ESIIC). Many of us have fond childhood memories of ESIIC products: Cologne 555, Lavender, Secret, Free Man, Star, Jasmine Cologne and May Fair. They evoke memories of our family elders, of old-fashioned hair salons, of the gifts our mother’s bought for our grandmothers on Mother’s Day.

But how did these products fall out of view to become a part of our past? How did they disappear (if they ever really did) and how have they made a comeback?

Kesma and Chabrawichi are two perfume producers that merged with a third factory — the Cairo Company for Food and Aromatic Extracts. The three factories joined together to form a new entity, the ESIIC, a state-owned subsidiary of the Holding Company for Food Industries, which is overseen by the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade.

The Chabrawichi factory — the oldest of the ESIIC factories — produces what grew to become the most famous perfume in Egypt and throughout Arab world in the mid-twentieth century: Cologne 555. 

The Chabrawichi factory was founded by self-made Daqahlia businessman Hamza al-Chabrawichi. His experience with essences helped him succeed in setting up a perfume factory in Dar al-Salam. Chabrawichi planted lemons in his home garden to use in his products, the most famous of which was Chabrawichi Cologne. The legendary singer Om Kolthum — known as the ‘Star of the East’ — promoted the products in ads that carried the slogan: “To be charming, use Safia Zaghloul’s essence,” a reference to the Chabrawichi fragrance Safia Zaghloul Essence.

A photo of the Om Kolthum ad from Kesma and Chabrawichi’s Facebook page.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser refused to nationalize Chabrawichi’s factory at the beginning of the nationalization wave in 1960, given the self-made history of its owner who started out without any real capital. Nevertheless, the factory was eventually nationalized in 1965. Two years later, in 1967, ESIIC bought the factory from the state entity that oversees seized assets. In 1992, the factory was moved from its original home in Dar al-Salam to its current location in Hawamdiya.

Chabrawichi’s factory was the first in a series of public sector perfume factories. It was joined in 1980 by Kesma and later by the Cairo Company for Food and Aromatic Extracts. All three were merged into ESIIC in 1986. Even though the new entity with its three factories had production lines for over 15 different fragrances, baby powder and various cosmetics, it was the Kesma and Chabrawichi trademark, which produces Cologne 555, that left an indelible mark on Egyptian culture.

While Cologne 555 is mostly an object of nostalgia for many of us, the scent did continue to have a market presence through to today. The President of ESIIC, Mohamed Abdel Rahman, tells Mada Masr that the factory making this cologne and other products never stopped production. Yet the level of production has been “modest” in recent years, Abdel Rahman says, as consumer demand has increasingly shifted towards imported fragrances.

According to the ESIIC’s official website, the production capacity of the perfumes and extracts factory with its various production lines – perfumes, cosmetics, flavoring, coloring and aromatic pastes – reaches up to LE10 million in consumer products and an additional LE10 million in producing necessities sold to factories. The numbers are a small fraction of total market size. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egyptian imports of fragrances and cosmetics between January and the end of September 2018 totaled US$48.4 million, which amounts to LE758.9 million in imports alone.

Kesma and Chabrawichi has managed to carve out a small niche in the market as a low-cost brand. Yet Montasser al-Heeny, who heads the sector overseeing ESIIC’s chemical and organic industry factories, says that the low price of their products — particularly Cologne 555 — is a double-edged sword. Their low prices in comparison to other fragrances on the market lend the products a stigma of being cheap and low quality. But if they were to raise prices, they would lose many of their long-standing consumers.

Workers say that marketing efforts have been kept alive by the personal efforts of factory employees, who set up a Facebook page for the brand in 2013. Pharmacies do not sell all of the factory’s products and the company has a total of 14 retail outlets in five governorates.

The head of the cosmetics division of the pharmaceutical chamber in the Federation of Egyptian Industries, Mohamed al-Bahy, believes that the decline in the popularity of Kesma and Chabrawichi fragrances is a result of ESIIC’s increased focus in producing and exporting pure alcohol over producing the alcohol for use in perfumes. ESIIC is one of the biggest producers of alcohol in Egypt, Bahy says, and 90 percent of its production is exported.

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Egypt, everything changed.

As soon as the Health Ministry began confirming coronavirus cases in Egypt, Kesma and Chabrawichi announced that Cologne 555 was 70 percent alcohol and could be used as a disinfectant to protect against the virus. People rushed to buy it and retail outlets were quickly sold out, prompting Supply Minister Ali Meselhy to pledge to increase production and make 10,000 bottles available for sale.

Abdel Rahman says ESIIC is also supplying the market with 300,000 liters of alcohol for sterilization and disinfection operations, in addition to producing large quantities of Cologne 555 and distributing them to retail outlets in the coming days to combat the coronavirus. Additionally, the Ministry of Industry and External Trade has decided to stop the export of alcohol and all its products for three months to fulfill domestic demand. 

Since it first hit the market many decades ago, Cologne 555 has been sold as a perfume — a unique scent to wear. But with the spread of the pandemic and a shortage of disinfectants, Chabrawichi’s advertisements promoting Cologne 555 as a way to protect against the virus have become the most successful marketing campaign in this brand’s storied history.

Omaima Ismail 

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