Monday, 24 March 2014

Taking The Highway - An Audience With Frederic Malle (part 1)

At the end of my interview with him at Liberty, Frederic Malle - the niche world's foremost 'scent editor' - faced an audience of admirers who wanted to ask him all about his work, his relationship with his perfumers and - surprise surprise - his views on oud. Given the tremendous response to my interview (please click here for part 1 and here for part 2) and that Malle is just about to release his next fragrance, I've decided to transcribe the highlights of his interaction with the audience. Enjoy!

If someone comes to you with an idea for a perfume, but you personally don't like it, would you still go ahead and develop the perfume?

Frederic Malle: Yes, as long as it's original. There's nothing worse than someone coming to you saying, 'I've had this great inspiration,' and then they give you Ambre Sultan by Lutens. This happens. I receive things in the mail sometimes, which are just knock-offs.

Out of all the ideas you get, how many would you say are good?

FM: Creating a fragrance is like taking the highway. Generally, when we start on something, and we take the highway, one out of two ideas turn out to be good. Most of the time, we get on the right highway. But we miss the correct turn-off so often. Sometimes, we miss it a hundred times. I'm the back seat driver saying, 'I want to turn left,' when, in fact, we should turn right. So that's why it takes a lot of humility from perfumers and from all of us. But they're good at that, because they know the business is so difficult.

Making perfumes is completely illogical, otherwise they would be made by computers. We don't really know how a perfume formula works. That's the truth. It's so complicated that no machine can figure it out at all. If you imagine the amount of chemical ingredients in it, the chemical reaction is something which is very difficult to foresee. So that's why we work in steps, in a very logical way. Here's an example. You might have a dosage of 1% of an ingredient and you think it's not enough. So you change it to 5%, but that's too much. So then you think, 'Oh, I'll put in 2.5%.' But it turns out to be worse than 1% and 5%. This happens all the time. You have to try everything and you have to go step by step. It's very difficult, because sometimes you lose your perspective on things.

You say you don't revisit a perfume once it's completed. Is that because you're sick of it?

FM: No, it's because I'm working on the next one. I worked so hard on Portrait Of A Lady with Dominique Ropion - it’s one of the fragrances on which I worked most intensely since I started in this industry - that for a month, I couldn't smell a thing. I had physical disgust, because I had smelt so much. I didn't want to hear about fragrances for a month. But also, you don't need to go back. You're on to the next one. It's like, your children are grown up, and sometimes, you have them over for lunch.

Do your perfumers retain any relationship with their fragrances after they've given them to you and you release them into the world?

FM: That's very different for each of them. You would have to ask them. I know for instance that Pierre Bourdon rediscovered French Lover; apparently he hadn't smelt it for a while and he found it incredibly good.

Are they curious about who's wearing their fragrances and how they're performing?

FM: Yes, they are. Sometimes we work for almost two years on these things; it gets a bit obsessive. When these guys work for a big brand, they have no time, no money, and their work is killed by tests. When they work with me, they put their name on the label. They really put a lot of themselves into it. It's a very different job. I think they put all of their ego, art, persona, whatever, into these fragrances. So of course they care whether it's successful or not.

Do you ever phase out any perfumes from your line, for instance, the ones that don't perform very well?

FM: No, no, no, they're generally the ones we like best! And it's actually becoming a problem, because we have too many. The deal that we have with perfumers is that we'll never discontinue anything. We owe it to the public and we owe it to the perfumers. And even if it's a less successful fragrance, there are still thousands of people buying it. It's their personality. It becomes a part of themselves. We'll discontinue a perfume only if the rules and regulations force us to modify it too much. All our fragrances have to be tweaked - and have been tweaked - by the original perfumers. We started with 9 fragrances. We now have 20 and we're going to have more. So maybe what we'll do in the future is that there will be some fragrances which will be found only at our own boutiques.

If your perfumes are modified only by their original perfumers, how do you deal with the Jean-Claude Ellena fragrances, now that he's tied into an exclusive contract with Hermès?

FM: It's very friendly. We're all friends. We do our thing. Jean-Claude does not work for other companies. But Jean-Claude is a very faithful person. And his name is on the bottle.

What was the inspiration for the shape of your bottle?

FM: It's a funny story. I wanted a bottle that could contain opposites: both a Shalimar and an eau de cologne. Remember that when a commercial brand makes a bottle, it has to express the fragrance. So Poison was very dark and mysterious, L'Eau D'Issey was very pure etc etc. I wanted something that didn't come in the way of the fragrance, because, as always - and this is why I'm not going to make colourful boxes every 5 minutes - the stars of this company are the fragrances and the perfumers. It so happened that I had been thinking of creating a publishing house for perfumers for a while and I knew that I wanted to do something where the name of the perfumer would be on the bottle together with my name as the publisher. And one day I was in front of a photographer called Irving Penn, and we had an argument about something, and he said, 'A perfume bottle should be like this.' [draws outline of a basic bottle shape in the air] And I thought, 'Fine...' and that's how it happened.

Would you say that, nowadays, the best perfume writing is to be found on the Internet?

FM: I think the Internet is the best and the worst of everything. On the Internet, you have amazingly self-entitled people. But you also have wonderful things from people who really know their stuff. The Internet is a great source. Some magazines are a great source. They both have different diseases. The Internet has the problem of self-entitlement. Magazines have to make a living and so sometimes they talk about their advertisers. In France, for instance, there are some super-good magazine writers. In Russia, one of the things that really amazed me was that when we launched in Moscow, we had the eight best writers coming to see me, and I spent two days with them. They were amazing. They were so knowledgeable. You have good writers everywhere. But is there one great magazine that's my idol? No.

For part 2, please click here.



  1. Fascinating! I really enjoyed reading this. I think his concept behind publishing and authoring a fragrance in regards to the label is such a great idea, especially with the results he has gotten in the frangrances. How refreshing also to find someone not keen on discontinuing even if it's not a top seller! Although, I dislike the idea of boutique-only strays too close to the annoying habits of Le Labo and I refuse to support that business model.

    1. Hi Goddess, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I certainly could have listened to him for hours.

      I understand your point about boutique-only scents, but I think what Malle was trying to say was that this would be one way of coping with the range becoming too large and unwieldy. It's a little bit like Serge Lutens' policy, right?

  2. I read the other 2 posts with great interest and this was just as informative. I too like the concept that they don't discontinue because a perfume doesn't "perform well" - they are honoring and recognizing that perfume is so subjective and not being pressured/dominated merely by sales figures. Thanks for this great series - I look forward to Part 2 :-)

    1. SallyM, thank YOU very much for reading :-)

      Yes, Malle's statements on discontinuation are certainly encouraging.


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