You never know who you're going to bump into at Harrods. A few weeks ago, I had some time to kill in London, so I decided to pop up to the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie on the fifth floor. And who did I find engaged in conversation with Marcel and Haven, the Sales Assistants? None other than Carlos Huber, founder and Creative Director of Arquiste, one of the most praiseworthy new brands of recent years.
Until then, we'd only ever exchanged a few emails and had never seen each other face-to-face, so the coincidence was especially fortuitous. I said I was very pleased to meet him, but that it was a shame he hadn't told me he'd be in the UK, as I would've liked to have arranged an interview with him.
"Why don't you interview him right now?" asked Marcel, pragmatic as ever.
Huber had some time to spare. So did I. The relatively quiet East Dulwich Deli is right next to the Haute Parfumerie. So that was that. We decamped to the Deli, ordered some drinks and started chatting.
I'd always wondered where the name 'Arquiste' had come from, so it was useful to be able to get the information straight from the horse's mouth.
"'Arquiste' is between 'architecture', 'history' and 'archives'," said Huber. "I liked that it sounded a little bit like 'artiste'. I liked the 'ar'. I wanted something that you could say in French, in Spanish, in English. I have to say I'm still pleasantly surprised when people say they love the name."
An architecture graduate with a colourful ethnicity - he was brought up in Mexico by a half-Polish, half-Russian father and a quarter-Polish, quarter-Spanish, quarter-Greek, quarter-Turkish mother, and he comes from a family that traces its roots to Jewish, Germanic-Swiss origins - Huber said that he had enjoyed delving into the world of fragrance as a consumer years before the idea for setting up a brand came to him.
"I've always been a fragrance... I wouldn't say 'addict', but it's my favourite thing to buy, along with shoes! I've always loved fragrance and I am very sensitive to smells. I always appreciate smells very much. That said, my nose is broken. I actually breathe only from one side of my nose. I have do idea how it happened. It was when I was a child. I think that maybe because I've always had so many problems with my nose, that's made me more sensitive to smells."
In an interview published on this site, Rodrigo Flores-Roux - one of the two Givaudan perfumers behind the scents in the Arquiste collection - offered his own take on the story of how he met Huber and began working with him. In a nutshell, the two were brought together by fellow Givaudan employees Sophie Bensamou and Yann Vasnier, who once had lunch with Huber and thought he and Flores-Roux would hit it off. I asked Huber if this fits in with his version of events.
"I met Sophie in Mexico through friends. She lived in Mexico for 11 years. I went to school in France, so I had a lot of French friends. So in New York, I had my French clique, which is how I met Yann Vasnier. And it turned out that Yann was very good friends with Sophie and that they worked together at Givaudan. And one day, I finally met Rodrigo, and I was like, 'Oh, you're the Mexican guy.' Yann is wonderful, but he's more quiet. Rodrigo is very chatty, he's very charming, and he's very generous with his personality. So we started talking a lot about fragrances and he asked me what my favourites were, and, coincidentally, it turns out that I had just bought Champaca Absolute from Tom Ford, which he made. And he said, 'Who gave you that?' and I said, 'My mom.' And he said, 'Your Mom has very good taste. I made it.' And I was like, 'Really? That's incredible!' So we were talking and he said, 'Come to the office one day.' And our friendship developed. He says that I was the one who asked him to give him perfumery classes. But I said, 'I would never ask you to give me classes. That's an obligation. I could ask you now, because we're close. But at that point, you offered.' And he always says, 'Well, I don't remember.'
"So then we started with the classes. And it was so fun. We had an hour and a half of analysis of everything: ingredients, raw materials, accords, iconic fragrances, history of perfume, methods of extractions, ins and outs. And then my way of paying him back was to invite him for dinner. And that was mixed in with the development of the friendship. But the thing that really connected us was also the interest in history, so when I would say, 'I'm working on this building, or I'm reading about this, or I'm interested in this or that,' he'd give me a connection to perfume through that. He explained how the name neroli came about with the story of the Princess Of Nerola and all that. And that's why it became such a passion project."
|image: Ilan Rabchinskey|
How did this interest switch from being a weekly pastime to a career option?
"There was a moment when I decided I'm going to try to come up with something. I didn't know what it would be. It was a moment when I thought I'd try to make perfume more than just a hobby for Thursdays after work. I was bitten by the bug. On Sunday nights I'd dread the office work on Monday, and it was very clear to me that the day I was looking forward to the most was the Thursday and the perfume classes. I knew I had to listen to that. I had to have the openness of mind to say, 'Why not?'
"I was reading Nuptial Fictions by Abby Zanger, which is about Louis IV and the French Court and the Spanish infanta. It's a whole historic and political analysis. It's about the propaganda behind that moment, the importance of the moment. It was a very well-documented episode; it made the headlines everywhere. I found a wealth of details in everything: the description of the fashions, of the space, of the moment, the emotions. And I was talking to Rodrigo about it, and I said, 'Look, there are so many references to scent.' The cousin of the King mentioned that it was a new pavilion and it was so freshly built that it still smelt of pine. And she mentioned that the ladies in waiting of the new French queen seemed too made-up, they had too much rouge on their cheeks. Little things like that. And then you find that the rouge at that time was perfumed with rose. And I said to Rodrigo, 'You could almost make a perfume from all this.' And he said, 'Try it.'
"Then summer came and I went back to Paris and I decided I needed to find 17th century sources and documents. So I went to this library in front of the Louvre and I found so much more information and I actually found a catalogue of the products from the very perfumer of the woman who'd made all the comments in the Zanger book. It turned out that the woman commenting on all these perfumes was very much interested in fragrances. I started finding out which were the most popular fragrances at that time. And then I came back to New York and I started typing everything into the computer. This was the only way I knew how to do it, because I'd just graduated from Columbia two years before. The only way I knew how to write a brief was like an essay. So I wrote an essay with a bibliography and everything, and with bits and pieces of this book and that book, and I showed it to Rodrigo and Yann. Sophie, Yann and Rodrigo called me two or three days later, and they said, 'We've all just read your thing and we think it's really good, and we not only think that you have a fragrance here, we think that you have an idea for a brand. So we want to bring you into Givaudan.' And I was like, 'What do you mean?' And they said, 'You have a brand here, so you need to wow them now. You need to make a presentation. You need to finish your business plan. And then hopefully they'll open the doors.'"
In practical terms, how did he make that leap? For instance, how did he find the cash?
"Asking around!" Huber said. "As far as investment goes, that came from my family. I said to my father, 'I want to build something with this. I have this idea.' I don't have any outside investors. That's also why it's a small venture. I do everything. I write the orders and invoices. I answer the questions. I visit the stores. And I sell on the floor if I need to. And work on the briefs. And work with the perfumers. And I do the little envelopes of samples."
How did his parents react to his decision to strike out in this direction?
"My Dad's first reaction wasn't so positive. He said, 'Well, we've invested so much in your architecture.' And I said, 'Yes, but I have this passion, I have this opportunity, I have two thumbs up from two very, very successful, very professional people that I respect. I have the world's largest fragrance company opening their doors to me.'"
Now that the brand is a few years old and has travelled around the world, how does he describe it and its perfumes?
"Very defined fragrances that are based on a story," he said. "Like with any story, you can like it or not. But these are based on the real cues, the real codes behind the sources. So, for me, they're very personal, very specific fragrances. They're not necessarily the easiest, because they really have a lot of character. For example, I don't find L'Etrog a difficult fragrance to wear, but the more I learn about what's out there, the more I visit stores and see what does well and what doesn't do well, I realise that L'Etrog is certainly not that 'Escentric Molecules, Iso E Super, amber, oud, foody, rhubarb' story that is so prevalent right now. My perfumes are certainly not that. I feel that they're all very focussed. And they're quirky. They seem more traditional than they actually are. For example, with Infanta, everybody thinks, 'Oh, it's so pure and virginal, it's so pretty, it's so girly.' But it's not. It has a very thick, heavy suede, leather accord in the back that I think makes it quite different.
Has his understanding of the industry changed as his brand has grown?
"It's fascinating, because you learn so much so quickly, and of course, you're still going to make mistakes. There are a lot of markets that you think you've figured out, and then you realise you haven't figured them out at all. Every single market that I've launched in is completely different. Some stores will say to you, 'Why don't you do a 100 ml bottle?' but then another store will say to you, 'No, we only do well with 50 ml bottles.' If you listened to everybody, you'd become schizophrenic. If you try to please everybody, you'll completely lose yourself and lose your mind.
"One thing that I'm happy with is that different perfumes really represent different markets better. For example, France does really well with Aleksandr and Boutonnière and Flor Y Canto. L'Etrog is good throughout, as far as sales go. It's like my entry level perfume. In the US, Anima Dulcis, Flor Y Canto and L'Etrog do well."
Finally, does he think that part of his success stems from the fact that he had the endorsement and support of perfumers working at one of the most powerful perfume creation companies on the planet?
"Actually, as time passes, I realise more and more how important that was," he said. "It definitely simplified so many things. The regulation stuff, the testing. I have the best materials in the world accessible. I have it all packaged and ready for me to use. The labs that my fragrances are made in are the best in the world. And I think that maybe that's what made the fragrances go a little bit further than other niche brands that don't have that access. At Givaudan USA, I'm the only niche line. I came in at just the right time. I had two senior perfumers saying they wanted to work on this. They're making the best perfumes in the house right now. Rodrigo had won two FiFis. And luckily they things they've made for Arquiste have been the best creations out of Givaudan, so we keep getting their support. Anima Dulcis was voted Best Creation out of Givaudan for the FiFis in 2011 and Boutonnière No 7 for 2012. So, since we've been in existence, we've created the best quality stuff that Givaudan has done for the last two years."