Monday, 5 May 2014

We Want To Dare More - An Interview With Guerlain's Sylvaine Delacourte At The Masters Of Fragrances Exhibition

I wonder if Sylvaine Delacourte is thinking what I'm thinking. I've never met Guerlain's long-standing Creative Director before, so I daren't make any assumptions about what might be happening behind her inscrutable expression. But I suspect that, on some level, she must be musing on the incongruousness of the situation in which we've both found ourselves.

We're at the launch of the new Masters Of Fragrances 'exhibition' in Abu Dhabi's Manarat Al Saadiyat gallery. Put together by DFS - the organisation which owns several high-end airport duty free shops across the globe, including the one in the UAE's capital - it is effectively an opportunity for several major brands to showcase blinged-up, one-off or limited edition bottles and, most importantly, to try to sell them to folks with deep pockets. Dior are here with a gold-necklace-wearing, diamond-encrusted J'Adore L'Or (which'll set you back US $109,000). Mugler have brought a couple of bejewelled versions of Alien (one of which costs US $15,000). Amouage are presenting a duo of flacons shaped from a single piece of rock crystal (US $151,000, to be filled with a perfume of your choice). And of course Guerlain are present as well, primarily to show off the last of their large, Baccarat bee bottles (price upon enquiry) and a smaller, brooch-cum-flacon bee, made of platinum, rock crystal and diamonds (price... take a deep breath... US $544,000).

To describe the atmosphere as 'glitzy' would be an understatement. In fact, there's a point at which it tips over into nouveau riche tastelessness of the gaudiest order. But then that's a question of personal preference, and if someone wishes to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a bauble that, to my eyes, looks like it could have fallen out of a Christmas cracker, that's entirely up to them. What is indisputable is the scarcity of any talk about... you guessed it... perfume. Sure, there are a few token mentions of 'notes' and 'exclusive raw materials', but this is not an event which celebrates the skill of scent creation.

Which brings me back to Delacourte and her unreadable face. I wonder if, as a representative of a brand which has traditionally paid scrupulous attention to the contents of its bottles, she feels any sort of tension around her presence at this particular event.

"No, never," she replies straight away, "because for me, the bottle announces the fragrance. There's no opposition. Guerlain has always done the most beautiful bottles. The Shalimar bottle is at the service of the fragrance. It talks about the fragrance: it talks about India, the sapphire, the love story of Shah Jehan. You get the story from the first glimpse of the product."

So what does she see as the purpose of Guerlain's participation at such a gathering?

"It's to upgrade the level of luxury brands. I think it's important to be here, because we were the first to launch an exclusive line. After us, there were a lot of people who did the same. We have also done a lot of re-editions in the past. If you're a fan of Guerlain, you will know that, for example, we had the re-edition of Champs Elysees in the turtle bottle, and Vega. We've done bespoke perfumes forever, for the Empress Eugenie, for Balzac, for Baudelaire, for Josephine Baker, for the King of Morocco, for the King of Spain, so this is not something new for us. It is in our roots, in our DNA. For us, it's an opportunity to say to everybody, 'We are still here.'"

After this PR-friendly opening act, I'm keen to move our conversation onto topics which are dearer to my heart and, I suspect, to the interests of those who visit this site. So I ignore the glittering jewels and I try to fire off as many questions as time allows about the work of what remains one of the most beloved of all French perfume houses. What follows is a rapid, friendly chat, during which Delacourte becomes increasingly animated, until she's halted by a sign that I'm to be whisked off to my next interview...

Half a million dollars of Guerlain bee

Persolaise: I guess Guerlain has a particular relationship with the Middle East at the moment, what with the recent release of the Désert D'Orient trio. Thierry Wasser told me he enjoyed creating those scents because he evaluated them on fabric rather than on skin, which was unusual for him. What was your experience of their creation?

Sylvaine Delacourte: It's a funny story. When I used to go to Dubai, Thierry Wasser said, 'Test the perfume, ask for some feedback.' For me, in Paris, it was too powerful. It gave me a headache. But when I came to Dubai, I put some on my skin, and it disappeared in five minutes. It completely evaporated. And I said to Thierry, 'You know, your perfume is not very strong.' And he said,'Are you crazy? You just told me it was too powerful!' So I said, 'Please go to Dubai and smell it yourself. You will smell that it is completely different.' So he went to Dubai and he saw that it was true. He agreed that it was not strong enough.

P: I suppose you must be aware that Dior have just released four perfume oils, aimed specifically at the Middle Eastern market.

SD: We were the first to do that, in 2005! But it was not successful, because the bottle was ugly. It was a disaster in terms of packaging. There was one for women and one for men. It was the only product from the exclusives which didn't work well. But the perfumes were great. They were done by Randa Hammami*. We will launch a new fragrance for the Middle East very soon.

P: How would you describe your working relationship with Thierry Wasser?

SD: There are three noses now at Guerlain: Thierry Wasser, Delphine Jelk and Frédéric Sacone. There are three because Thierry is working a lot. He is developing a lot. We develop about ten perfumes a year, plus the bespoke perfumes, plus the perfumes for the creams and the make-up. So, it's a lot of work. Thierry creates fragrances, plus he has to travel to buy raw materials, and he does the PR, he is the face of Guerlain. He can't do everything, it's not possible. He asked me to work on the exclusives, because I did the first ones. I continue to work with that line, and the Aqua Allegoria also. Thierry is more focussed on the major line, like Shalimar, Idylle, Habit Rouge, and the new masculine fragrance which we will launch very soon. But we work together on all the projects. It's very fluid. I give my opinions and some criticism.

P: Would you say his style has changed since he joined Guerlain?

SD: Yes, I think so. Before, he was more focussed on green notes. When I used to work with him when he was at Firmenich, his work was fresher, more green. And now it's beginning to show more roundness, more body, more of the Guerlain touch.

P: The subject of anti-allergen regulations is becoming more prominent again, and it nearly always leads to a discussion of Guerlain... 

SD: Yes, because we have the oldest and the most beautiful patrimony. So many natural materials and so many perfumes. The new reformulation of Mitsouko is really good and we have just received a prize for it. Thierry took a lot of time to reformulate it. For example, he didn't replace the oakmoss with synthetics. He made a recipe with a lot of naturals - like natural mosses - and he added some other things to make it perfect. For him, it's really important.

P: You've made the reconstitutions of some of the old perfumes available at your Paris boutique on a smell-only basis. Do you think you'll ever be able to sell them?

SD: No. People can smell them, but we couldn't sell them, even to connoisseurs.

P: Do you think this will ever change, as far as the effective 'banning' of older perfume formulations is concerned?

SD: If the perfumers could connect with each other and fight, then maybe something could happen. Thierry is fighting, but he is alone. But maybe the other perfumers - at IFF and Firmenich and the other brands - will fight together to protect our patrimony.

P: I had a lucky Guerlain find at the Sharjah Souq the other day: an eau de parfum of Samsara, with only 'water', 'alcohol' and 'perfume' listed on the packaging! It must have been sitting on the shelf for quite a few years, but it smells wonderful.

SD: All Guerlain perfumes improve with time. For example, I wear L'Heure Bleue extrait. I put it in my fridge. And I wear it after two years. It's much better. Like a good wine.

P: I'd say Samsara is definitely one of Jean-Paul Guerlain's best creations... although my loyalty rests with Habit Rouge.

SD: You know, Jean-Paul Guerlain doesn't like Habit Rouge. He hates it. For him, it's a bad memory. It was the first oriental for men and when he launched it, his uncle, the boss, said to him, 'What have you done? What you've created is a fragrance for women, not for men! Men don't wear perfumes like Habit Rouge.' So Jean-Paul Guerlain was obliged to make something less sweet: Habit Rouge Dry. It was a disaster. He had a lot of problems with it, because at the beginning, it was not successful. Little by little, it became successful. But at the beginning, he had so many complaints from his uncle, that for him, 'Habit Rouge' equals 'problems'. He used to wear Vetiver, which is the opposite of Habit Rouge. If you wear Vetiver, then you don't wear Habit Rouge. It's rare to wear both.

P: What does the future hold for Guerlain?

SD: I think, little by little, we are going to upgrade the level of our perfumes, the level of our bottles. We want to dare more. We could go further. Now, we have so many niche brands as competitors. So we always have to keep ahead and be the leader.

P: Finally, would you say that you work for Guerlain or LVMH?

SD: Guerlain. Definitely!

* To find out more about Guerlain's Arabian perfume oils, please click here to be redirected to an article by Victoria Frolova on Bois De Jasmin.

[The Masters Of Fragrances exhibition can be viewed at Abu Dhabi Airport Duty Free until 12th June 2014. For more information, please click here. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new perfume department at Abu Dhabi Airport Duty Free, notable for the fact that it stocks offerings from brands which don't normally venture into travel retail, such as Diptyque, The Different Company and Penhaligon's.]

Guerlain's Baccarat bee

J'Adore L'Or from Christian Dior

Amouage's rock crystal flacons

Thierry Mugler's exclusive Alien edition


  1. Do you work for Guerlain or LVMH... - cheeky!!! But so glad you asked...
    As someone who wore Vetiver for years and then moved to Habit Rouge (and indeed wore both during the same time frame) I had to smile at her answer to the HR question.
    She's completely right about climate and perfumes - most of my Western fragrances vanish really quick in conditions of dry heat - and they often smell different, too So glad I live in cool European climes.
    On the off-chance that Ms Delacourte is reading the comments section here - please Guerlain, make it easier to buy/acquire samples of your perfumes in Europe (I gather US customers aren't faced with this problem). How the hell am I supposed to make a decision about buying one of the pricier exclusives (or indeed one of the other perfumes) if I can't try it calmly, sitting at home? Once a kind sales assistent made a sample for me of Rose Nacre - I discovered the evolution didn't work for me. But I can't very well keep going back and asking for samples of the other two Désert perfumes or some of the other exclusives - it's embarassing. Spraying in the shop is unsatisfactory - too many other factors competing for one's attention and too long a time elapses before one can come back home and appreciate the course of the perfume on one's skin. *sigh*

    1. Gimmegreen, thanks very much for your comment. I honestly don't know if Ms Delacourte is likely to read this. But yes, in a general way, I take your point about samples. Usually, when we buy something - a book, a DVD, an item of clothing, a household appliance - we're able to take it back if we're not happy with it. That possibility doesn't really exist with perfume, and I do think it's something of a problem.

      Would you be happy to pay for small sample vials: say, £1-£2 for 2 mls? I know I certainly wouldn't mind paying.

  2. As a die-hard Guerlainista, at least in terms of the "old" perfumes, this made very interesting reading for me. I love that Sylvaine immediately identified herself as Guerlain rather than LVMH. Now what I'd like to see is a return to the Guerlain values of the early part of the 20th century and less of the pandering to the lowest common denominator. Of course, the Middle-Eastern market is a potential goldmine so one can see how Guerlain would wish to pursue that in some way, but surely that shouldn't prevent the in-house perfumers from restoring those lost values. Of course, I am disheartened at the moment because of the loss of Sous le Vent and Vega, but I do hope to see some new fragrances which are worthy of this venerable House. Thank you for obtaining such an interesting interview with Mme Delacourte.

    1. Fiordiligi, thanks very much for your comment. I could have asked Ms Delacourte so many more questions, but our time was limited, sadly.

      Guerlain's position must be tricky at the moment: they have to appeal to current buyers and yet they must also be drawn towards the past in some way. It can't be an easy position to occupy.

      I look forward to trying Thierry Wasser's new masculine scent!

  3. Oh of course - I regularly pay for samples, particularly when exploring the wilder reaches of 'niche' - thank goodness for web businesses that offer that opportunity. However, these people do not carry the Guerlains perfume fans want to experience - if they carry some Guerlain, it's usually the best sellers.

    1. Gimmegreen, I buy samples on the Net too. But I was actually thinking that it would be helpful if brands sold small samples in-store. I guess that isn't likely to happen to any time soon, because the logistics would be tricky. If Guerlain stocked small vials of their exclusives, they'd probably sell out within a matter of days.

    2. Wouldn't that be lovely - to see the Guerlain counter selling samples! However, the 'tricky' logistics would probably rule it out - the unit size too small and the fiddly business of billing several small samples etc - not something bircks and mortar shops would be keen on. However the Net is ideal for such things. I regularly read people based in the US posting on sites about getting samples directly from Guerlain US - if it's possible there why is it a no-no for us peeps in Europe? C'mon Guerlain (and for that matter Chanel with their exclusives, too - same problem) - sampling is the trend the market will move towards especially as increasing numbers of people join perfume discussion forums.
      For the sake of comparison - beautifully presented carded samples from Amouage are easily available from a number of Net retailers. In terms of price point Amouage perfs are comparable to the Guerlain exlcusives. Result: I have managed to try them all and have bought two bottles with a few others lounging in the waiting room of imagined future perfume purchases. Much as I'd like to be able to say the same about Guerlain (many of the perfumes are breathtakingly gorgeous) I can't as I haven't been able to try the perfumes to my satisfaction. And that, I think, is a shame...

    3. Gimmegreen, 'try before you buy' would be wonderful. Now that more brands are moving towards e-commerce, perhaps we'll see a greater availability of samples.


Thanks very much for reading my site and taking the time to leave a comment.

Please note that whilst the full range of views is welcome on, comments containing expletives and/or abusive language may not be published.

If you're using Safari on an Apple device, you may experience some difficulties with submitting comments. Please consider using Google's Chrome browser on your Apple device; this may make it easier to leave your comment.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...