Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Luxury Is About Privacy - An Audience With Frederic Malle (part 2)

For part 1 of this record of Frederic Malle's Q&A session with an audience at Liberty, please click here.

Could you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Dries Van Noten.

Frederic Malle: As a person, I've always liked collaborating with others. Working with Dries was like a natural evolution, in the same way that working with Pierre Hardy was a natural evolution. In 2000, just a few months after we had opened, Dries came to see me at my shop on a Saturday afternoon, to see what we were doing, and we became friends. A year after that, he sold my fragrances at his very beautiful shop in Antwerp. I believe he was the first person to sell my fragrances outside my store. Whenever he opened a Dries Van Noten store, our whole fragrance collection was a part of that world. He didn't want to have a fragrance of his own, because he didn't want to sell his soul to the devil, I suppose. He's very precise about what he wants and about controlling his image. So it was like a natural invitation to do something for him. And it was also a way to get inspiration from someone who doesn't know anything about our business. Every now and then, we're going to make a series of portraits of people that we think are inspiring and interesting. But I don't know when. It's a matter of opportunity.

Is it real Mysore sandalwood in the perfume?

FM: Yes, it is. But it's not from Mysore. It's real santalum album, which is the same variety as the Mysore sandalwood. It's grown in Australia, but it's not Australian sandalwood, which doesn't smell very good at all. There are now huge plantations of sandalwood that have been planted in Australia, apparently with Qatar money, from what I hear. We tried the Mysore sandalwood grown in India and the one grown in Australia, and we found the Australian one slightly better.

What are the bestsellers in your line?

FM: There are 6 or 7 fragrances that are doing slightly better than others. And then there are 7 or 8 others that are just below that. And then there are some that are more difficult, but they are bought by fragrance super-connoisseurs. And that's why a company like ours does what it does. There are fragrances that we do for our private pleasure, literally. We know that they're like private jokes, almost, but we're happy that some people understand them. Carnal Flower and Portrait Of A Lady sell in the thousands. Cologne Bigarade sells as much, but it's not recognised so much on the street, because it's been copied so much, and Jean-Claude Ellena's writing has been copied so much. Although we are a very small company, we are probably one of the biggest clients for tuberose in the world; the tuberose is so concentrated in Carnal Flower so that no-one can copy it. I know for a fact that a lot of celebrities wear Carnal Flower. The reason I know that is that some of them sell themselves to these big brands to do celebrity fragrances, and they go to my perfumer friends and they say, 'I want a Carnal Flower.' But no can do: if you don't have the right amount of money, it's not going to work. And that's why Carnal Flower isn't being copied.

Where does Une Fleur De Cassie come in that hierarchy?

FM: Une Fleur De Cassie is a very difficult fragrance. To me, it's one of our best fragrances, by a long shot. Dominique Ropion would agree fully. It's not high in the hierarchy. But this is very revealing about our times. If you think of the elegance of the 30s and Jacqueline Delubac being able to wear Madame Grès so easily, in an effortless fashion, and all these actresses who knew how to walk... it's another era. They used to have really large brooches. Why? Simply because the cloth of their dresses was so thick that it could hold the brooch. Today everything is so thin, if you wore one of those brooches, your clothes would fall off and you'd find yourself in your panties. Une Fleur De Cassie has all the best absolutes of that time, it has that type of writing. But we're living in the 21st century and no-one dresses like that. And no-one has the culture to wear that kind of perfume, apart from people who really know perfumery very well, who really understand the materials. How many people wear couture today? It's the same thing.

What are some of the other scents which aren't too popular?

FM: You know, there are two silly questions: 'Which of your perfumes don't sell?' and 'Who are the celebrities who wear your fragrances?' I'm never going to answer them. What for? I see myself and my team as matchmakers. The freedom that I give to the perfumers comes from the fact that we have a very, very personalised service, whether it's at Liberty - with people who are trained by us and who work for us - or at my store. These guys listen to each individual and match them to a fragrance. Now, some people are rarer than others, and if we were to say, 'It's wonderful on you, but it just doesn't sell,' that wouldn't work.

The beauty of this company is that we don't have huge launch expenses. When these large companies like Dior and Chanel launch a new fragrance, how many do you think they manufacture? It's about 3 million bottles. Imagine 3 million bottles coming out of a company. To launch them, you have to spend gazillions for a big story and a film with James Bond or whatever. The risk is huge. So you have to hedge your risk like crazy. But our company is completely us. And when we launch, we're always convinced that what we've made is lovely. Then, people adopt it or they don't. But we use the same bottle and the same label and we just make a few thousand. If it works, great. If it doesn't, then another one will work. It doesn't really matter if it doesn't work.

I know you think it's a silly question that people want to know which celebrities wear your perfumes, but actually, it's a profound question.

FM: Oh, really! Tell me more.

As you said yourself, perfume is so intimate and...

FM: Who wants to know about the intimacy of these people?

It's because we're wired to be curious about beautiful people. And to know that they've made this intimate choice about how they want to smell is very compelling. It's not so much, 'Oh, I want to be just like Daniel Craig or Charlize Theron.' I'm talking about when someone intriguing actually chooses to wear, say, Carnal Flower.

FM: I'll tell you a story. I used to be very close to a designer who helped me design my first store; she was called Andrée Putman. She was much older than me and she was always in the know. The first time I went to LA for work, she said, 'Oh, you should see Fred Segal.' So I went to Fred Segal, jetlagged, and I saw all those celebrities there, having breakfast, in their Juicy Couture outfits, looking like cowgirls. Do you want to know about that intimacy? No, you want to see them in the whole glam thing.

I was incredibly lucky to have parents who gave me a very strong upbringing. They said: Don't name drop. The other thing is that I believe luxury is about privacy. All these people buy their fragrances at my store: none of them get discounts. So why should I use their name? I think it's so incredibly rude for these brands to literally keep an imprint of a credit card as proof, so that if they reveal the name, they're not going to be sued. I think it's wrong.

Is there a perfumer you'd love to work with that you haven't yet?

FM: There are two I would've liked to work with, from the generation of perfumers I've used. One is Michel Almairac, who is a fantastic perfumer, but it just didn't happen. Michel is the age of perfumers who are retiring. And I believe in longevity. The other one is Annick Menardo; she's very good.

Do you think you'll do an oud perfume?

FM: An oud perfume? [laughs] What is oud? In the Middle East, it's the caviar of perfumery. In the Middle East, perfume is such an important thing. Every woman learns how to perfume herself and has her own special blend. If you're really wealthy and have good taste, you put on a bit of oud and you then put your favourite perfume on it. So clever marketing people have decided that if you want to conquer the Middle East, you have to say 'oud' on the fragrance. But there's not a drop of oud in those fragrances.

At the turn of the last century, perfumers were making oriental fragrances. They thought they were making a description of the Orient, but the perfumes were a French dream of the Orient. Now there's this dream of the Middle East, so everyone calls everything 'oud'. But the 'ouds' that you find in many brands are made with a bit of patchouli, a bit of amyris, some ambery notes. To me, it's like modern Orientalism. Real oud smells very animalic. If you had real oud in a fragrance and you put it in any store in Europe, people would run away. So, will I make an oud? No. Will I use oud one day? Maybe. We're probably the only house that can afford to put a $20,000-per-kilo ingredient in our perfumes. We do that with Portrait Of A Lady, which has a rose which costs that sort of money. So, I would love to do it. But will I do it? I don't know.



  1. I'd forgotten half of what M.Malle said that evening, so thanks for the recap.
    Still waiting for the new Benaïm fragrance to join the line. Do you have any info ?

    1. L, good to hear from you.

      Sorry, no, I don't know anything about the Benaim fragrance. I think that, as far as the next release is concerned, all will be revealed in a few weeks.

  2. He seems of a different class than the typical perfumer who is happy to talk about himself and his creations. Here, the perfumes are the works of art and the artists, to a degree. He, as publisher, is very much in the background. I know that might be weird to say, with his name on the bottle and everything, but this interview especially highlights that fact for me. I admire him greatly for that reason alone.

    1. Perfumed Veil, I couldn't agree more. He is definitely his brand's figurehead, but he always seems to make a point of pushing the perfumes and the perfumers as far into the foreground as possible.

  3. Thanks for this article. I like how he talks about his brand - straightforward, fairly honest, but also with some realism and humility. I agree with him about celebrities. I wonder which rose extract he's talking about for Portrait of a Lady - the colour is still relatively pale so I guess it's an otto rather than an absolute.

    1. Sebastian, thanks very much for stopping by. If I'm ever fortunate enough to meet Monsieur Malle again, I'll see if I can ask him about the rose :-)

    2. Thanks ;-) I actually went on the Malle website and listened to Ropion talking about it - he says its a mixture of the Turkish otto AND the absolute, which is presumably the damascena from Isparta. Still, $20,000 seems excessive! Perhaps its a special molecular distillation like the one I heard they use in Une Rose. Yum.

    3. Ah, okay, thanks for letting me know.

      Info on prices is always... interesting...

  4. Really enjoyable, thanks. Luxury perhaps SHOULD be about privacy but often it isn't, if the houses and cars and clothes of the rich and famous are anything to go by. I certainly believe that elegance and good taste are about privacy - about picking the things that suit you best and not flaunting them.

    1. Annemarie, thanks for your comment. Yes, modern luxury certainly seems to be about anything but privacy. Look at those plastic handbags with the LV logo...

  5. Lovely reading. Thanks for it. I need even more of it. I adore Mr. Malle, his taste and his perfume work. A real figure!

    1. Marcin, thanks very much for taking the time to write. I'm a Malle fan too :-)

  6. There is something incredibly honest about someone who actually has atleast 2 perfumes (Bois d'Orage and Portrait of a Lady) that by anyone else would be called Oud something or the other - but refuses to call them so. I love Msr. Malle. Some of them just do not evolve well on me (too quick, too much white musk, hello Geranium Pour Monsieur) - but I am glad there is someone out there that has the gall to make something like Une Fluer de Cassie; my first and deepest love from that line.

    1. B, thanks for stopping by. I'm a Fleur De Cassie fan too, although I agree with Monsieur Malle that it isn't an easy scent to pull off these days.


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