Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Notes On A Meeting With Thierry Wasser (London, November 2012)

Thierry Wasser doesn't hold back. Or at least, he doesn't appear to. With every expletive, wry quip and dropped name, he gives the impression of someone who speaks first, thinks later and regrets never. But I have no doubt that he'd be able to run rings around most diplomats. He's private and circumspect even when seeming to throw caution to the wind.

That said, I certainly don't expect people to reveal all their secrets and bare their soul within mere minutes of meeting me, especially not in the context of a busy restaurant at a hotel in London. And although he doesn't let down his guard, Wasser is certainly great company, entertaining his audience with the sorts of stories I expect him to conclude with the words, "But you can't write about that," which he doesn't utter a single time. So if he chooses to remain reticent about certain matters, then that's his prerogative. And to his credit, he never descends to brainless, simplistic PR cliches.

I just wish I'd recorded his voice, so that I could quote his words verbatim. Sadly, that felt like it would've been an inappropriate move in the context of a genteel afternoon tea shared in a very public space. But I did make detailed notes soon after our meeting ended, some of which I've tried to kick into readable shape below. Next time - if there is a next time - I promise I'll try to shove a mic under his nose.

On his Cologne Du Parfumeur
He'd originally made it for himself. Guerlain's head of PR hounded him and pestered him for a sample. After several months, he relented and let her have a small amount. She took it straight to the firm's directors and insisted it should be released commercially.

On release schedules
He questions the wisdom of 'dragging out' a single perfume across several flankers and different versions, citing Idylle as an example. He seems annoyed by Guerlain's trend for 'Eau' editions of certain scents: Habit Rouge L'Eau; Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau; Guerlain Homme L'Eau. He jokes about whether these have been sparked by the fact that his name means 'water' in German, but then claims he should start putting his foot down and saying 'No' to certain ideas from the marketing department. 

On the Désert D'Orient trio
He says he had great fun making these. The idea for them partly came from suggestions made by his friends in Dubai, a place he visits at least once a year. They told him that European perfumers don't know how to make real Arabian perfumes because they insist on creating formulae which work on skin, whereas people in the Middle East tend to apply scent to their clothes. Wasser says that as he was working on these three fragrances, he evaluated them on cotton, a process he found interesting and enjoyable.

On trying to protect the formulae of older perfumes
Little progress made here. His drive to seek some sort of 'cultural heritage' status for older scents hasn't attracted much support from within the industry. He says there would be tons of bureaucracy involved and that no-one wants to take responsibility for the situation or join forces with him (not even Chanel's Jacques Polge). He acknowledges it is difficult to decide which incarnation of a classic scent to protect: that made in the 20s, 30s, 40s...? For instance, he says that if he made Shalimar with bergamot that isn't free of photo toxins, it would smell so different from the current version that people probably wouldn't like it and would demand refunds. He also doesn't know how he'd source materials which simply aren't made any more.

On being part of LVMH
He says he enjoys the fact that Guerlain is often able to slip beneath LVMH's radar. The fact that, relatively speaking, Guerlain is less lucrative than the other brands (for instance, Dior's turnover is 5 times larger) allows Wasser a certain amount of freedom.

On his work routines
He says he's a "lab rat" most of the time: Mondays (or Tuesdays), Thursdays and Fridays are his lab days. He spends a great deal of time travelling and sourcing ingredients.

On perfume blogs
He thinks they're very important: if perfumers want to call themselves artists, they have to open themselves up to criticism. However, he believes some blogs are written by frustrated industry insiders and he'd like to throw "piles of s***" on their "personal attacks".

On going through Guerlain's old formulae books
He found a few surprises when delving into the brand's history. For instance, he was astonished to discover that Jicky contains a substantial quantity of bitter almond oil. (As an aside, he says there isn't a great deal of truth to the story that Shalimar is just Jicky plus a dose of ethyl vanillin. For one thing, he says, the animalic notes in the two scents are quite different: Jicky uses civet; Shalimar uses castoreum). His Jicky discovery prompted him to play with combinations of bitter almond and a synthetic raspberry material, and this eventually led to the black cherry note which became the heart of La Petite Robe Noire.

On Idylle
He says it is very much an autobiographical perfume. It is somewhat naive and reflects his state of mind when he was creating it. So now that time has passed and he's aged, I ask, has he become cynical and bitter? No, he replies. Maybe he's just become 'bitter almond', I suggest. He chuckles and says he'll save that line for future use.

On the advertising campaign for La Petite Robe Noire
There was considerable opposition to it within LVMH. It was eventually given the green light because Bernard Arnault personally supported it.

On the future of La Petite Robe Noire
He wonders if he's going to be asked to make a sport version: Little Black Spandex, perhaps? The conversation then descends into titters about Little Black Spanx, which Wasser says he'd be happy to model...


[For Judith Brockless' account of the evening, please click here.]


  1. Am I being indiscreet in asking what he smelled like?

    1. Joy, I don't think that's indiscreet. But I'm afraid I don't know the answer. He certainly wasn't wearing anything strong enough to detect from half a metre away.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate Wasser's candor and I must say from his public statements he seems like a person I would enjoy sharing a glass of wine with!

    Really intrigued by his remarks about the Arabian collection. Those are probably my favorite of Wasser's creations.

    1. Susan, yes, he was very skilled at keeping his audience entertained.

      I was equally intrigued by his comments about the Arabian trio. I wonder if the scents turned out to be successful in the Middle East.

  3. Sounds like he would be a wonderful dinner / drinks companion! I also enjoyed hearing about how he tried the Arabian collection on cotton instead of skin.

    1. Dubaiscents, yes, that was fascinating. Personally, I'm not sure if people from the Middle East avoid applying perfume to skin, but that's certainly what Wasser's friends told him.

    2. Is it possible some Middle Easteners may feel that the religious prohibition against consuming alcohol extends to alcohol on the skin? So while one might apply an oil- based scent directly to the skin, a scent from Europe is likely to be alcohol-based, hence the application to clothing? Isn't there a whole industry of duping European scents into oil bases?

      -- Lindaloo

      PS Delightful interview.

    3. Lindaloo, thank you.

      I take your point, and yes, there are a few Muslims who object to using alcohol-based fragrances, but most of them don't seem to mind at all. And yes, absolutely, there are several Indian and Middle Eastern perfumeries whose 'bread and butter' business comes from oil-based knock-offs of Westerns scents.

  4. Lovely interview! I'd read Judith's article on Basenotes and was wondering when yours would come up. I think it's funny that he should mention the dragging out of a single perfume over many flankers, especially since Guerlain recently released news about Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau Si Sensuelle, which is a flanker of a flanker (Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau) of a flanker (Shalimar Parfum Initial). It's getting way out of hand!

    1. Joshuaang, great to hear from you.

      Yes, it would seem that Wasser isn't a fan of the endless flankers. He said that he's happy for a fragrance to exist in three forms: extrait, eau de parfum and eau de toilette. He suggested that anything more than this is overkill.

      As for Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau Si Sensuelle (what a mouthful!) my understanding is that it's simply Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau in a slightly different bottle. But I'm happy to be corrected on this.

  5. You really should do a special article on flankers of flankers of flankers (if you can find any such on the market!) I bet it would be hilarious given your wry (and very much appreciated) sense of humour.

    1. Now, THERE'S an assignment!

      Thanks for encouraging my feeble attempts at a career in comedy...

  6. Thanks for this - personally I rate the guy as much for his candor in the face of these ludicrous EU/IFRA directives as the substantial work he has been doing. I remember a couple of years back he spoke out and floated this 'Classic Heritage' approach and I wish someone, somewhere would get behind it. I would happily sign a waiver and expect to pay a premium to get Sous le Vent, Mitsouko and a few of the classics made as they were intended to be. This current dilution of a whole canon of work across the industry 'to keep us safe' is essentially challenging perfumers to 'try and make it smell like the original but without the things that made it smell like that in the first place'. In a way it's appropriate that it should be someone from Guerlain who is making some noise about it. I have spoken to a few leading industry perfumers and creative directors and they all roll their eyes when the IFRA and restrictions are mentioned but seem to say nothing - it's unfortunate. Anyway - Wasser has simultaneously kept the shareholders and the general public happy with the more accessible Idylle, LPRN, Homme et al stuff while managing to spring Les Deserts and Myrrhe Adente, L'Abeille 2012 and other wonders upon us - bravo.

    1. Anon, thanks very much for your thoughts.

      I find it bizarre that no-one wishes to support Wasser's 'cultural heritage' drive. Even if people were to look at such a venture purely in mercenary terms, then surely it would make sense to open up this other avenue of potential income.

      The fear of litigation, and the power of certain sectors of the lawmakers, appear to be immense.

    2. All credit to M Wasser for his honesty and this will ensure Guerlain receives my continued custom: we loyal Guerlain fans have to keep them going through these stupid regulatory times until common sense prevails, otherwise they will go the way of Dior which is one of the biggest travesties in the industry. One would have hoped that Dior with their great Roudniska legacy wholly destroyed by IFRA et al reformulations would have been weighing in behind Guerlain given they are both LVMH companies.

      As a lawyer, the answer to litigation fear is simple. Guerlain simply needs to issue a version of their classics accompanied by a couple of blotters and a little book explaining that this is a historic version for demonstration only: explain exactly what is in it that is now banned or restricted, proclaim loudly NOT FOR USE ON SKIN, USE ONLY ON BLOTTER OR FABRIC without skin contact. You can never eliminate risk, just mitigate and manage it, and one has to also look at the gravity of the potential harm. I have not seen any evidence adduced by the SCSC that consumers have experienced life-changing injuries even if they suffer a rash . I've had a look at the SCSC report and whilst I'm not a toxicologist, the analysis is full of holes. How many of the 'allergy tests' were carried out in pure controlled isolation? A lot of the evidence was anecdotal self-reported by patients. Who knows if it was the perfume that caused the rash, given the plethora of domestic detergents, laundry products, pets, food allergies? Surely the large companies have the technical wherewithal to challenge the scientific report? However, from my experience of dealing with EU entities in another industry sector the big problem is they are staffed by bureacrats who are totally ignorant of the industries they are regulating and have very little political accountability because there is little engagement or understanding of the European regulation and political system by voters all across the EU.

    3. Anon, thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed, thoughtful comment.

      I confess I've never understood why brands haven't gone down the route of using a label bearing the words 'Do not use on skin'. As you suggest, you'd think they'd jump at such a chance. Maybe the matter isn't as simple as we think it is.

      As for regulators having little knowledge of the industries they're regulating... don't get me started...

  7. Nice comments also on blogging. I really believe that Thierry Wasser has released and is going to disclose some of the best Guerlain's ever made and the line pour homme is a clear case here. He is an inspired talent and person.
    However -and this should be part of the communication campaigns of the industry- they should explain clearly if and when they are going to change formulas. This should be permanent part of the advertising, in their own interest. While for instance some perfumes are now even better than in the past (and Vetiver is among them), other are somehow..ruined and not sure for the IFRA rules only (the Guerlain L'Homme has been heavily diluted and it seems more a mktg move to free room for the EDP version, which however has a different appeal).


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