Wednesday, 22 January 2014

You Have To Be Modest Sometimes - An Exclusive Interview With Frederic Malle (part 2)

The first instalment of this exclusive interview ended with Frederic Malle commenting on the pressure he places on his perfumers - and on himself - to aim for the highest possible standards.

Persolaise: Any perfumer who works with you now is aware that whatever he or she makes will have to stand next to Carnal Flower and Portrait Of A Lady. That must be a bit worrying.

Frederic Malle: You're right. There’s one perfumer - I won't name him - who doesn't want to do a perfume for us. I said to him, "Why don't you do something with me? My door is always open." I think he's quite good. But I know for a fact that he doesn't want to compete with Dominique [Ropion], basically. Because it can be a trap to work with me. If you work for a big, fat marketing brand, and you're given no money and no time, and you know the thing is going to be butchered by tests, you have every excuse in the world to make something insignificant and mediocre.

P: I gather that when you were working on Dries Van Noten with Bruno Jovanovic, you went through hundreds of modifications with him.

FM: Yes. I think Bruno Jovanovic is probably one of the best young perfumers in the industry, technically. He had the resources to do work on the development of our perfume for a year and still have ideas and still be good at it. The guy is capable of running a marathon.

When I first walked into Roure Bertrand, I had spent three or four years in advertising. And believe me, advertising in the 80s was not exactly a place for modesty. And all of a sudden I met Edouard Fléchier and Jean Guichard and all these people - the reigning kings in the business - and they were all so modest, especially in comparison. I was gobsmacked. A great part of their charm was their modesty. If I'd gone back to an ad agency and said, "Oh, the client didn't like the visual," they'd go, "Oh, that f****r etc etc..." But if I went back to the perfume lab saying, "So and so at L'Oréal would like this modification," the perfumers would smell it and say, "Maybe they're right." And it was a very different mentality. So I think that, in general, perfumers are always open to suggestion.

P: One of the most prolific perfumers in the industry is Bertrand Duchaufour. Have you considered working with him?

FM: Our paths haven't crossed.

P: When you were working on Portrait Of A Lady with Dominique Ropion, at what point did you realise that you had something truly special on your hands?

FM: When we added the rose. Portrait Of A Lady is very typical of the way I work with Dominique. It started in my shower. One of the best products in our range is the Géranium Pour Monsieur shower gel. It's an extraordinary product. I love it. As an eau de toilette, Géranium keeps its freshness continuously and then ends with this musky, woody note with a lot of benzoin. In the shower gel, you have the freshness and then you hit the back very fast. And the back is lovely and the musky accord is super nice. I noticed this and always liked it. I gave one to Dominique and said, "Wash yourself and see how nice it is. Maybe we should go back to the formula and isolate that part and jump back from it, and try to create a new type of oriental." So we got into trying to do that, and we added patchouli to it, and it became quite sexy, but it missed a dimension.

We were having lunch at a pizza parlour next to IFF in Paris, and we were talking shop, and we talked about this new rose that Laboratoire Monique Rémy were doing. It was a rose essence distilled in a copper container rather than the regular stainless steel system. It's done how it used to be done. So we thought we should try that rose. But we wanted to do the whole shebang. Not 0.001%, but more like 10%, to see what happens. We're like spoilt brats. We're almost like daredevils, which pushes us to spend more, as if we have borrowed someone else's credit card. And that's how we did it. And all of a sudden - bam! - it worked. We knew then that we had something extraordinary. The rest was a bit frantic. I went back to Paris three times in less than two months, working like a madman with Dominique. At one point I was in this little hotel room, with the floor covered by bottles, because we were so excited by finishing this. We knew we had something great.

P: So what is the price of the juice?

FM: You know what, I'll be very candid with you: I have no idea. When I work on something, I almost know the formula by heart. With most of the perfumers, most of the time, I know the formulae. Not with every one. I have a different relationship with each perfumer and I work differently with each perfumer. With someone like Sophia [Grojsman], I don't know the formula. And she'd lie anyway, she'd never tell you. With Jean-Claude [Ellena], I didn't really know, and it didn't really matter. When we finished Carnal Flower, I asked Dominique how much it was. I'd never seen somebody blush so much. He turned the computer screen with the formula towards me and he pointed at the price and he just said, "Do you want to sell that?"

P: As you know its formula, you should be able to solve a little mystery about Portrait. Is there any oud in it?

FM: There is none. You've probably never smelt a fragrance that has real oud in it. None of these oud fragrances have oud. 'Oud' has become a concept, like 'oriental' was a concept. It's a note pretending to be oud, but it has nothing to do with oud. So what people think is oud is this strange mixture of patchouli and sandalwood and other things. Portrait Of A Lady reminds you of that accord, but it doesn't have oud.

P: Is it true that Fleur De Cassie has been changed?

FM: Yes, Fleur De Cassie has been slightly reformulated. That was something we wanted to do with Dominique for a long time. Laboratoire Monique Remy had made a rectified version of the mimosa absolute. I think it's a captive at IFF, but I'm not sure. It's a Distillation Moleculaire version. And so we thought that Fleur De Cassie would be better with this mimosa than the one we used originally. That's the only thing that we changed. It was for ourselves. We do that sometimes. But let me answer the question behind your question.

People in the industry always hide and lie and pretend that things don't change. I think it's very irresponsible. It so happens that for the last 47 years, IFRA have been making recommendations. They used to be recommendations, and now Europe, China, Japan, and soon enough America, will turn these things into law and will make the laws worse. So you have to change. Otherwise in France it's a crime to sell your product. You can go to jail for that. So certain products have to be changed. Now, some products haven't been changed in 40 years. And 40 years' worth of modifications have to be applied in 1 year. So it's like Chinese whispers. In the end, 40 years makes a huge difference. The other thing is that not all the products are born equal in front of the law, because some are made with materials that have never been limited or forbidden, but some are full of them, and it's just bad luck.

It so happens that we started our company in 2000. All our fragrances were made after this date - apart from Parfum De Therese - and I always followed IFRA, because I always thought that my company would grow, I always believed in it, and I thought it was stupid to go against IFRA. So we're very lucky that we started so late, because the few modifications that we've had to do were very small. We're also lucky because we didn't have one big change to do. But yes, every fragrance that had oakmoss had to be reformulated. And I work with the perfumers that made these fragrances; we know them better than anybody. It's the original artist reformulating his own thing. And sometimes we play with the rest of the formula, so the formula changes, but the scent is very true to the original. The other thing is that what we told each other is that should a fragrance be really changed, we'll stop making it. But so far, we haven't done that. There are modifications that have been done to follow IFRA, but they've been done in the last 13 years, and it's been completely seamless.

This whole thing today is generated by the fact that lots of houses all of a sudden had to change things in a big way, so it cast a very funny atmosphere on this business. And then everybody is saying, 'Oh no, we haven't changed anything.' Yes, we have changed things. But I won't tell you which ones we've changed, simply because I don't think we have to communicate about our formulae. We don't communicate about our formulae to begin with. A lot of these changes that we do are little technical jewels. In one of these fragrances the thing that was changed took us a year to get right.

P: Not too long ago, a few rumours were flying around that your next perfume would be a lily of the valley.

FM: Yes, I know that. And I don't know how the rumour started.

P: I realise that En Passant displays a prominent lily of the valley note, but as someone who grew up with Diorissimo, would you be interested in adding a lily of the valley composition to your range?

FM: It's a fascinating subject. I'm not sure we have all the raw materials and that the legislation is helping us much on this. I think if we were to make a new Diorissimo it would have to be dramatically better or more modern. I mean, I love tuberose, I love Fracas, but I didn't want to launch Carnal Flower until 3, 4 years after launching the company, because it really needed a lot of concentration and work to get it right. Diorissimo is one of these. I'm not sure if we know how to make our interpretation into something that we would really like, as we did with Carnal Flower vis a vis Fracas. It's a fantastic theme. It's extremely difficult. There's a lot to be done around Diorissimo. But it's a bit frustrating... you know, there are lots of raw materials that are not allowed any more. So a lily of the valley is a tough nut to crack. And you have to be modest sometimes.

P: Finally, back in 2000, your decision to adopt minimalist packaging was fairly novel, but it's wonderful to see your scents in these colourful, limited edition, Liberty-print boxes. Do you think it's time for your brand to change its look or will you stick to red and black?

FM: Chanel does white and black; it's brought them luck. Be true to yourself. I love diversity. I studied Art History at school. I had a field day going through all these original Liberty prints. And I love doing these projects. It's fun. But the company has a colour, it has a code and I want everybody's attention to be drawn towards the juice and towards the perfumers. I made this company for perfumers. That's why we're not going to do another Dries Van Noten within five minutes, because the stars in this company are Dominique Ropion, Edmond Roudnitska, Edouard Fléchier, Sophia Grojsman, Jean-Claude Ellena... all that lot. It's made for them and around them. And that's the reason why I'm always late for launches, because the perfumers are always late. It's designed around them. So if we start doing pretty packaging, yes, it's fun. But I want to keep the focus on the perfumers. The company is theirs.



  1. Thanks again for a great interview. FM manages to come across as very honest, although he is very charming at not telling what he doesn't want to tell...
    But that is perfectly understandable. As a big PoaL fan I was surprised that it wasn't meant to be a rose from the very beginning. I hope we will see a new FM fragrance in the near future.

    1. Sabine, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. And yes, it's funny to think that Portrait hadn't been conceived as a rose!

  2. Brilliant take on Oud. Part 3 please, surely there is more? Good to know that the Dries Van Noten direction will be periodic. It must have been tempting though to do a brand or two.

    1. Jordan, thanks for your comment. As you've mentioned part 3...

      After we concluded our interview, Malle got onto the hot seat in a private room at Liberty and proceeded to respond to questions from a small audience. I'll do my best to record the Q&As in a separate post.

  3. I liked the oud comment too - is anyone using real oud then?

    My favourite line in this was 'little technical jewels' - how true, how lovely, and how little we lay people know of the alchemy that goes on. I am still not callling it 'olfactory art', mind. ;0

    1. Vanessa, yes, I like the 'jewels' line too. I can just picture Malle et al, trying to figure out a minuscule solution to a knotty problem.

      As for oud, yes, I'm sure several houses use the real stuff... but then, 'use' is a deceptive word too, isn't it? One tiny drop in a 100 litre barrel still constitutes 'use'.


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