Maybe it’s the rosé, but when I meet Robert Gerstner at a noisy bar at London’s St Pancras Station, he starts chatting away as though we’ve known each other for ages. The words tumble out of his mouth. His hands flit through the air, punctuating all that he says. His facial expressions span an impressive range, from ‘arched-eyebrows appalled’ to ‘pursed-lips conspiratorial’. And when he wants to lavish anything with particularly high praise - like the rosé, for instance - he looks towards the ceiling and declares that it is “faaaaabulous.”
The German-born co-founder of Aedes De Venustas - one of the USA’s most beloved perfumeries - is in the UK to promote what has become an increasingly high-profile aspect of his work: the Aedes perfume range. Since it was re-booted in 2012 - with a rhubarb-inflected scent composed by Bertrand Duchaufour - it has enjoyed considerable acclaim and now features no fewer than 5 fragrances, as well as a collection of candles.
What is perhaps most interesting about this output is that it has been produced by some of the fragrance world’s most respected names, including Ralf Schwieger, Olivia Giacobetti and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, in addition to the aforementioned Duchaufour. This may, in part, stem from the fact that the Aedes perfume brand enjoys substantial backing: it is, effectively, a collaboration with Beauty Enterprise, a company which also creates scents under the Fragrance Republic banner. Or perhaps it’s simply because the world’s top ‘noses’ want to work with Gerstner and his partner in scented crime, Karl Bradl. Unsurprisingly, when I broached the issue with Gerstner, he took another sip of the rosé and opted for the latter explanation.
Robert Gerstner: You know, with Ralf - and with Rodrigo too - it took a while until he understood that he really could be like a kid in a candy store. He asked us many times, 'You really want to work with that iris raw material? It's so expensive,' and we'd say, 'Yes! The juice is very expensive, but that doesn't matter. We want that raw material.' It took a while for him to let his guard down, because it's not like the standard, run-of-the-mill brief they get from other people. And now, as we're creating more fragrances, we're getting approached more and more by perfumers who say, 'We really want to work with you.' But in general, François Duquesne (of Beauty Enterprise), our licensing partner, is really the one who filters it all down for us, 'cause he knows the industry and is very well-connected.
Persolaise: Since you raised the subject, what is your most expensive juice?
RG: 400 euros per kilo. That’s for Iris Nazarena.
P: You say all these perfumers want to work with you, but why has Olivia Giacobetti only done a candle for you so far?
RG: Trust me, she knows we're dying, dyyyying, to work with her! She didn't even want to do the candle. But when Karl did all the mood boards and we sent them to her, she couldn't resist. She was like, 'Okay, I've got to do this for you.' The one perfumer we would really love to create a fragrance with is Olivia. Absolutely. We admire her. But she doesn't do as much any more. I know that she's quite upset about all the new regulations, 'cause they limit her, obviously. But I hope that one day, something will get her attention.
P: Do you feel pressure from the people at Beauty Enterprise to release more scents?
RG: No, not at all. We were very clear from the get-go: we don't have a marketing plan, we don't say that we have to create two fragrances a year. None of this applies. François leaves us alone. The objective is to create a fragrance which hasn't been done before. We only approve a perfume once Karl and I are in love with it. There's no pressure whatsoever.
P: Okay, but at this stage, do you already know what you’ll be releasing in 2018?
P: But you must know about 2016, right?
RG: No! We're working on 5 different fragrances. We love the initial accords we got from the perfumers, but we don't know when they'll be ready. We thought we would have another release this year, but we decided that we won't, because it's just not ready.
P: When I met Karl Bradl, he said that your perfumes were greeted quite coldly by a few other retailers. They didn’t see why they should carry another retailer’s product. How are things now in that regard?
RG: There are still a few, but not that many, retailers who have an issue. I don't think it's an issue. I think everyone should think outside of the box. None of the brands we carry in our store ever had a problem. We treat our brand in our store the same way we treat every other brand. Actually, I think our own display is the smallest one. The important brands understand us. If a few retailers have a problem with it, so be it.
P: Have you managed to crack the French market yet?
RG: It's the most difficult market in the world, not just for us, but for a lot of brands. French people are still stuck in the thinking that Paris is the centre of the universe. But slowly, stores are opening up, like Jovoy, for example. But you know, if the French don't get it, then they don't get it. It's a French product, at the end of the day. It has French artisanal craftsmanship.
P: What are your views on what’s happening in the perfume industry at the moment? I’m thinking particularly of recent acquisitions, like Lauder buying Malle.
RG: I don't know the insides of the industry. One thing I've realised in my professional life is that there are always small, young entrepreneurs coming up with something new, different and innovative. And there are always big companies in the same commodity who don't have access to the small entrepreneurs. So they swallow those people to be able to tap into that market. And then eventually, there are more new, innovative entrepreneurs coming up. It's a cycle. You probably see it everywhere. I think that Estée Lauder realise that this is a very interesting, growing market. They don't have access to it. So in order to get into that market, they need to get those brands to grow their business. That's just my personal opinion. It might be wrong. But there's a reason why they're doing it. Look at Jo Malone. They've done a great job and within 10 years brought that brand to a completely different level.
P: But are you worried about what might happen to, say, Frederic Malle as a brand?
RG: I admire Frederic tremendously. I love what he's doing, his perfection. As soon as the news came out, people instantly said, 'The formulas have already changed,' or 'The formulas will be changing soon.' And so I asked him about that. His answer was very simple: changing any formula would be the death knell for the brand. So I'm sure Frederic Malle made sure that this will not be compromised. That's what I've heard and that's what I think. So it doesn't worry me at all.
P: Tell me a bit about your latest scent, Pallisandre D’Or. I understand it’s by Alberto Morillas, which means it’s your first Firmenich creation.
RG: We've known Alberto for quite some time, 'cause he has a candle brand called Mizensir. When we were in talks for doing our own brand, he visited us and we said, 'Look, Alberto, we're going to make a brand. Could we possibly work together?' And he was like, 'Robert, I'm going to pour my heart into this. I would love to.' Years ago, for fun, he gave us two accords. He was just playing around and wanted to show them to us. Years passed by, and when we were ready to make our brand, we remembered that one of them was a rosewood accord, so we revisited it with him. Now, we were originally told that when he makes something for you, basically, you have to take it or leave it. So, we were sitting together, smelling it, chit-chatting, and suddenly he's like, 'Okay guys, what are we going to do?' And we were like, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Don't you want to work on the fragrance?' And we said, 'We thought that's not an option.' And he said, 'Robert, I told you: I'm going to pour my heart into this. So let's go!' He took out a piece of paper and a pen and he said he wanted to try a new patchouli captive that they just got at Firmenich.
P: So do you work directly with the perfumer on your scents? You don’t go through an evaluator*?
RG: No! No evaluator at all. So anyway, he kept writing on his piece of paper. And I kept watching him. And when we were done, Karl and I went outside, and I said, 'Maybe it's me, but while Alberto was writing, I just saw that fragrance, like a hologram, coming to life.’ It was one of the most fascinating moments to me. It just happened. Without smelling anything!
P: How would you say the scent fits into the current Aedes portfolio?
RG: Every fragrance must be very different from all the other ones. There's an incense theme, but we don't worry. We don't say, 'Okay, now we need a rose or something citrusy.' There's no agenda.
P: Both you and Karl are German. Would you say there’s a particular German-ness in your scents?
RG: I've never thought of that, but no.
P: Would you say there’s a European quality?
RG: I certainly hope so. They're made in France.
P: If European-ness is part of your identity, I guess that’s what sets you apart in America; it’s what makes you distinctive. So how do you create a distinctive identity in Europe?
RG: We don't. And we don't want to. Look, when we started the store 20 years ago, we were in the basement. Everybody said that we created a recipe for failure. A basement store. An unpronounceable name. Carrying products no-one knew about. But we didn't care. And ever since, we've done the opposite of everyone else. Always. And guess what. It works! We don't care what people say. We are who we are. We do what we want to do. I honestly hope that people appreciate and enjoy what we do. It's a fun commodity. You're not buying a car or a house. It's a fragrance. Enjoy it! Have fun! It doesn't necessarily matter what's in there. It's the story that matters. There's got to be a good story. My niece in kindergarten can write better stories than some of the ones you see in press releases.
P: Okay, but ‘story’ can mean lots of different things. What does the word mean to you?
RG: There has to be legitimacy. I asked Olivia Giacobetti, 'When you created En Passant, what were you trying to do?' And she said, 'Robert, it's the first day of spring, walking along the Seine. That's what I wanted to do.' I tell that story to the customers, because that's what the perfumer told me. And I show the customer the fragrance, and they're like, 'Yes.This is the first day of spring in Paris.' L'Eau D'Hiver is my favourite fragrance from Frederic Malle. I love it. Jean-Claude Ellena loves to do watercolours: light and airy. That's him. You smell the fragrance, that's what you get. That's a story to me.
P: Right, so you’re talking about a true story, a description of the perfume’s development.
RG: Yes, a true story.
P: And finally, I have to ask… will you be making an oud scent?
RG: No! Ain't happening! There are all these oud collections catering to specific markets. Everyone has an oud fragrance! Wow! Don't people have their own ideas, their own innovations, their own style? No, they don't! The hardest things to copy are taste, style and new ideas. Is there oud in some of our fragrances? Yes. But we'll never call them oud perfumes. It's so boring.
*For more info on the role of the evaluator in the perfume-making process, please click on this link to Bois De Jasmin.