But he’s nothing if not modest. The table at which he was sitting when I greeted him was piled high with the gorgeous, special edition, Liberty-print packages of his scents which were the ostensible reason for his presence in the UK. When I pointed to them and said, “Thank you for giving us all of these,” he graciously replied that my gratitude ought to be directed to the perfumers.
He was also very generous with his time, which is why the record of our conversation will be split across two separate posts. He gave me his full attention, he listened to my questions carefully and he seemed eager to answer them comprehensively. In short, he displayed all the characteristics one might have expected from the editor of a brand renowned for its stylish, intelligent appreciation of detail.
Persolaise: I'd like to start by reminding you of a sentence in your book, On Perfume Making. You wrote that "one can create extraordinary perfumes without turning to the past." You claimed this was something you wanted to prove with your brand. Could you expand on that?
Frederic Malle: There are several elements to that. First of all, I thought that even modern fragrances, when they were made by smaller houses, were packaged in a very old-fashioned way, conveying the idea that good fragrances were a part of the past, as if modern perfumery was rubbish. So they did make modern perfumery, effectively, but they packaged it in a ‘turn of the century’ style. If you think of all those small French brands that existed before 2000 - maybe with the exception of Serge Lutens, which was, in my book, a few notches higher than these - all these other brands were all, sort of, playing ‘old-fashioned perfumery’... although some of them were sometimes showing very modern, interesting fragrances. My thought was that you can talk to people as though they're adults. And you can say, "We're making modern fragrances in a modern container." And you can say, "We're not making fragrances which are 100% natural" You can say, "We use chemicals. And perfumery is made by perfumers." So I was going back to the reality of the business. My belief was that the reality of the business was much more interesting than the image that companies were communicating. In other words, what was supposed to be the embellishment was less interesting than the truth.
P: So are you now happier about the state of modern perfumery?
FM: Yes. I think what Lutens and myself have done is that we have brought back luxury perfumery to the world. Not to sound too pompous, but we have shown to people - and mostly to the industry - that you can still make interesting fragrances, and that you don’t have to make cookie-cutter crowd-pleasers to make a buck. I think what we also proved is that the content of the bottle is more interesting than the star who sells it. Now, my little personal contribution is that I have unravelled the identity of the best perfumers. I don't know what people will remember of what we have done - or if they'll remember anything - but I know for a fact that once my brand was launched, all the perfumers were invited to press launches. And I think this is a very good thing, especially if they have made the fragrances themselves. Now, it's sort of in reverse. There are star perfumers who sign things so that the brands can say, "This is a great product." Now the public and the press have to understand that the same perfumer can make a cheap fragrance to be sold somewhere in a Duty Free, and they can also use their more artistic side and make something with us.
P: Again, in your book, you describe a shift which took place in the industry, whereby more creatively-minded people were taken out of positions of power and were replaced by marketeers. What’s your explanation for how and why this was allowed to happen?
FM: I think it went in two steps. My reading of the business is that there were two revolutions in our industry, one in the 70s and one in the 90s. The first one was Charlie. It showed that one could launch a fragrance using marketing. In the past, we used to have companies that looked for a juice in Grasse, and on the side, they built an idea from that juice. But they didn't think of a target. They didn't strategise. They were nice brands making a perfume. And then they realised that they had to be a bit more organised, that they had to target certain people, that image was important and that everything had to work together. I think this was a very good thing. And so the best people, like Chantal Roos, made Opium and Obsession, which were very coherent fragrances made to be launched worldwide. It was a signature juice working hand in hand with a very strong image. I believe that the best marketing people, then, did wonderful things because they also knew how to smell. Maurice Roger, who was Chairman of Dior and a very good marketing person, could smell very well. And he knew how to work with a perfumer.
You had this great wave of products in the 70s and 80s. When you think of Trésor or Fahrenheit or some of the Calvin Kleins - some of them are still around, and alive and kicking, and they're classics now. Yes, there were masterpieces made before that, in the past, but it was a much smaller market. Shalimar was made at a time when the business was much smaller and when it wasn't bigger than my brand. And some perfumes stuck because they were extraordinary products, like Shalimar or Jicky or L'Heure Bleue. They survived, but most of the other perfumes died on the way.
Then the 90s arrived. Ouch! That's when two things happened. Companies like Douglas were invented: they brought self-service, with brands organised in alphabetical order. Sephora came after them and followed their concept; they just changed the colour of the carpet. That changed the business. And then there was a worsening factor. In the old days, fragrances were launched over a period of several years. For instance, it was very legitimate to launch a fragrance in France first - if it was a French brand - and then in the rest of Europe, and then America. Rolling out a fragrance throughout the world would take two, and sometimes three, years. Now it's an immediate thing. So those two factors put together meant that you had to have a world crowd-pleaser that would sell in a self-service environment. Therefore fragrances were made like consumer products, like dog food. So the people that were most capable of launching consumer products on a worldwide basis were the heads of marketing teams.
There are two types of marketing animals. You have the very fragrance-oriented ones, who really know the business and are strategic enough not to make things in a disorganised way. And then you have the ones who could sell a telephone one year, cat food another year, detergent a third year, and then all of a sudden, work for a major French perfume brand. They use the same technique to launch those products. Most of the large perfume houses were run by these people, who didn't know the difference between jasmine and patchouli. Americans are a bit more pragmatic when it comes to these types of people; in America, they have the modesty to hire a consultant to help them, like they did with Anne Gottlieb, for instance. In France, the minute you start working for a major French brand, you're an artist, even though you've been selling cat litter for ten years and you have no idea who Picasso is.
The last interesting product to be launched is probably Angel. It's fantastic. But it was done by a marketing team from the old regime. Today, unfortunately, those brands are run by people who don't have the culture. They have a culture which has nothing to do with perfume. It has nothing to do with our industry. And the truth is that most people running fragrance companies today don't know anything about perfumery, anything about perfumers and, despite what they pretend, anything about the raw materials or the classics. They don't know much about design. They try to use stars. They follow the market. Great art directors, like Jacques Helleu from Chanel - who is one of the people I admire the most in this industry - never looked at the rest of the industry, ever. They looked at Mondrian, Irving Penn, they always looked outside the box. No-one in the industry today looks outside the box. That's the great danger today. The industry is doing much better, because the Chanel Exclusifs are now here, the Hermessence, Tom Ford’s Private Blends, Serge Lutens is still doing beautiful things. Now this whole market exists, and is doing well. But apart from a handful of entrepreneurs within the big companies, there are hardly any who are good at making perfumes. And that's the Achilles heel in our business: people don't really know how to do it.
P: Moving on to your own brand, why is it that only one of the perfumes in your main range is by a woman?
FM: Why do people always ask about women perfumers? Who cares? To me, it's a non-issue. I was brought up by a father who talked to us as if we were 50 years old when we were 12. Maybe he shouldn't have: look at the result! My friends were always amused, because he talked to them as if they were adults. I suppose I talk to a man differently from how I talk to a woman. But is Zaha Hadid a very feminine architect? Did Germaine Cellier have a very feminine writing? Not really. Is Fracas very feminine and girly? No. Vent Vert? No. Bandit? No.
P: Perhaps some would argue that Fracas is made more interesting by the fact that it was created by a woman.
FM: But that's the story. That's not the fragrance. Everybody wants to sleep with women who wear Fracas, but nobody knows that it was made by a woman.
P: So maybe you could give us more female stories?
FM: But I don't work with stories. I make fragrances. And you know, if there is a girl, then great. If it's a guy, too bad.
P: I guess I feel slightly aggrieved by the fact that your only other fragrance by a woman - Sophia Grojsman’s Outrageous - is exclusive to New York.
FM: Outrageous will be available everywhere soon.
P: I often forget that it's part of your collection. For one thing, its name has always struck me as being quite non-Malle.
FM: Outrageous was originally a collaboration with Barneys and we found the name with Barneys. It was like a Dries before Dries, in a way. I thought it was a good name. But you're absolutely right, it's a bit different.
P: Changing the subject, I'm curious about the day when Jean-Claude Ellena contacted you to say that he wouldn’t be able to make any more perfumes for you, as he would be tied into a contract with Hermès. What was your reaction?
FM: Shit! (laughs) Jean-Claude is still a friend, we still talk. He has this unique writing, and I think we worked very well together. I miss our arguments. With L'Eau D'Hiver, he would say it's finished, and I'd say, "No, it's not finished. Look at this, look at that." And we kept on like that. He suffered for it. But he loves it now.
P: What did you ask him to keep changing in L’Eau D’Hiver?
FM: L'Eau D'Hiver was conceptual. We wanted to make a transparent fragrance which was warm. It was quite intellectual. We were going in the right direction, but there were things I didn't like in the drydown, little details. And then I became very picky. I read about Jacques Brel. If you listen to his songs, they’re a mix of poetry and music, they're all little, contained worlds, like a play by Pinter, where there's not one word which is unnecessary. I'm being very pretentious now, but I think that when you work with a Dominique Ropion and you do Carnal Flower or Portrait Of A Lady, they are little worlds of their own which are really, really accomplished. And also, the public and our clients are putting us under pressure - or we're putting ourselves under pressure - to make classics. I think we're much more demanding to ourselves, now, than we were in 2000. And I think that as time passed, I became more and more demanding. I really look at every detail. I suppose I take my job very seriously. And that's partly why L'Eau D'Hiver took a bit longer. We were already at that stage where we wanted to make something perfect.
P: Do you think Ellena has been pushed in the same way since he started working at Hermès?
FM: (smiles) I won’t answer that.
In the next instalment: lily of the valley, reformulation and the magic of Portrait Of A Lady.