Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Risk And The Reward - Richard E Grant On The Creation Of Jack


In his engrossing online account of the birth of his perfume Jack (I'd urge you to click here and check it out) Richard E Grant describes a creation process rich with twists, dead-ends and unexpected developments. So when his scent was awarded this year's Fragrance Foundation UK prize for Best Independent Perfume, I decided the time had come to reach out to the actor and try to fill some of the gaps in the story. I'm pleased to say he readily entered into the following email correspondence with me...

Persolaise: The story of Jack - as documented on your site - begins with gardenia, but the smell of the flower doesn't seem to have made it into the final perfume. I read that you presented some gardenia to the perfumer at your first meeting. Did she try to incorporate it into the scent? Did it perhaps not work with the other elements? Were you perhaps warned that it's considered to be too old-lady-ish?

Richard E Grant: When I met 'nose' Aliénor Massenet of IFF with all my favourite ingredients, she confirmed that the gardenia has so far, eluded science and that every gardenia fragrance is a synthetic. The closest I've found to a true gardenia scent is made by Kai of Malibu. So that is why I abandoned the idea of trying to incorporate a synthetic version. The fact that gardenia resists extraction makes it all the more desirable and why it remains the Holy Grail of fragrance for me. I have always found it to be the most potent, sexy scent of them all and in no way 'old lady-ish'. Frank Sinatra's funeral featured over 2000 gardenia flowers and he was the least old lady-like of men!

P: I take your point about the near-impossibility of obtaining a natural gardenia ingredient, but I must ask what your attitude is towards synthetic materials. Modern perfumery wouldn't exist without synthetics. Are you opposed to the usage of synthetic materials? Is this something that came up in your conversations with IFF?

REG: I perfectly understand that synthetics are an integral part of perfumery, but I try as far as possible to use natural oils.

P: I'm very curious about the practicalities of the process of making Jack. How often did you meet the perfumer? How many modifications of the scent did she have to create? What were some of the aspects you asked her to amplify or tone down?

REG: We only met twice as she lives in Paris and I was always filming in England and all over the world. However, it was a seven month process of back and forth testing, through all of which, Aliénor was supremely patient and completely collaborative. It was an amazing experience for me as an amateur to be taken seriously by a professional. In the middle of the night I combined the final two 'almost but not quite' favourites of all the tester blends and had my 'Eureka' moment. I could barely wait till Paris awoke and I could call Aliénor and say 'This is it'. Luckily she obliged and combined the two, which is what Jack is. Precisely what I had imagined for so many years.

P: Did you communicate with Massenet directly or did you have to work through an evaluator?

REG: We had meetings via Skype and conference calls in Catherine Mitchell's IFF office in Roehampton. Catherine is brilliant at diplomatically translating what I want into language that made sense to Aliénor. We were brutally honest with each other throughout the whole process and Aliénor and Catherine never took umbrage if I said I couldn't stand something. Equally, it was very obvious when I loved a mix as I am an unequivocally love or loathe it, black and white personality!

P: One of Jack's most distinctive features is the grapefruit note. Whose idea was it to the push the fruit into the foreground? Was its inclusion a conscious attempt to go for the 'love it or loathe it' Marmite factor?

REG: No grapefruit note, I'm afraid. Lime and mandarin are top notes in Jack. I love citrus fruit for their sharp, clear scent which has an incredible zingy quality that renders them edible and lickable. My sole objective was to try and create a fragrance that translated what I had long imagined in my head into a bottle, and hopefully not smell like a mere variation on a hundred other established brands. So being awarded best new Independent Fragrance at the Fragrance Foundation Awards was incredible vindication and proof that if you follow your 'nose', you have a much better chance of being original rather than a facsimile of something else. That's the risk and the reward of it.

P: To what extent did you have to worry about the cost of the 'juice'? Were there some materials whose use you had to rein in because they would have made the composition too expensive?

REG: As I am a wholly self-financed 'One Man Brand', the ingredients I chose governed the retail cost it would need to sell at in order to make it financially feasible. During the finalisation of the follow-up perfume, Jack - Covent Garden, Aliénor found an alternative to the original rose oil I was experimenting with as it was way too expensive and I was determined to match the retail price with the original Jack.

P: I have to ask: how much does it cost to set up a perfume brand these days? Ball park figure?

REG: It's a 6 figure sum.


P: In your online diary, you state that opening a business account wasn't as easy as you'd hoped. What other practical obstacles did you encounter on the way to creating Jack as a company?

REG: Every other person advising not to self finance, not to take the risk when there are 1100 new fragrances released every year, threatened with a court case by a big USA corporate claiming Jack sounded too like one of their fragrances. The list was long and time consuming.

P: What have some of your favourite perfumes been over the years? Which brands do you admire?

REG: I have been loyal to only three brands. I wore Eau Sauvage as a teenager until I was 26. When I emigrated from Swaziland to London and worked as a waiter in Covent Garden, I discovered Penhaligon's round the corner and bought Blenheim Bouquet in 1983 and wore that for almost three decades. Like Eau Sauvage, it has incredible citrus notes which I can't get enough of.
Then I had a 'coup de foudre' moment in Tuscany four years ago when I was dancing with a total stranger at a party who was wearing Kai. She generously gave me a miniature vial of the oil and it is the closest scent to a gardenia I've yet come across. Since creating my own brand, I have of course switched allegiance to Jack!

P: I'm curious as to your thinking behind the inclusion of a marijuana note in the composition. What sort of effect were you hoping to create with its inclusion?

REG: Swaziland is the premier grower of what is called 'Swazi Gold' - the best marijuana on the planet. Perfect climate and soil conditions. As I grew up there and 'partook', its peppery, earthy scent is both very nostalgic and potently sexy to me, so wanted to include it as a top note. I did not realise at the time that it is only used in three other perfumes and would provoke so much press interest.

P: Were you worried about the fact that it might cause too many associations with grotty student digs?

REG: Not at all. I love the peppery, earthy, sexy smell of fresh marijuana leaves.

P: I think I once read somewhere that Catherine Deneuve always bought a new perfume to go with whichever character she happened to be playing at the time. Did you ever do anything of this sort? Have smells/scents been important to you in your acting career? If not, have you now looked back and wondered what sorts of perfumes some of your characters would have worn. Dr Seward? Larry Lefferts? Cort Romney??

REG: Funny you should ask that because with every character I've played, I've had an imaginary perfume in my head and then found a combination of ingredients and existing brands to fulfil the character brief. With Dr Seward being a drug addict working for Van Helsing, I imagined a medicinal aspirin-ish scent to try and disguise his addiction, whilst Larry Lefferts being a New York, Edith Wharton snob and dandy, had to have an overpowering and expensive scent to underscore his upward mobility. So I mixed two well known brands to achieve this effect. Cort Romney in Pret A Porter had his own brand and as my 'designs' were in fact Vivienne Westwood clothes, I wore her signature scent. Withnail would always spend his last penny on booze and drugs, so I resolved that he would have shamelessly rummaged through every perfumery spritzing himself for free without ever buying a bottle. Anything and everything to cover up the smell of booze and fags.

P: How have people responded to Jack so far? What have some of the more surprising reactions been?

REG: I have been frankly amazed and overwhelmed at the positive response, which has been reflected in the incredible reviews and sales figures. I rented a 2 by 1 metre stand at the House and Garden 'Spirit of Christmas' Fair at Olympia last November and had phenomenal sales. Meeting customers face to face was an extraordinary learning curve. Over and over again I was asked who I was representing or 'fronting' for, as people found it hard to believe it was all self financed or that I had built the display stand myself. Seeing Jack instagrammed and tweeted about from all corners of the globe by customers has been a real treat.

P: In your diary, you point out the very international nature of the Jack project, and yet one of its selling points is a sense of Britishness. What do you think makes it British?

REG: I wanted the the packaging to be the quintessential British red that can be found on London buses, post boxes, Red-Coat Uniforms and the curtains of the Covent Garden Opera House. Like London, whose population is made up from nationalities from all over the world, we all live and thrive under the symbol of the Union Jack, so for me it is a very powerful image that welcomes all cultures and creeds, yet somehow sustains an identity that is quintessentially British. So my brand, packaging and ingredients are for me a synthesis of Britishness - where individuality is both tolerated and celebrated without any censorship.

P: So if Jack were a person, would he vote for Britain to stay in or leave the EU?

REG: Stay in the EU.

---
Persolaise

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post, D.
    Between Jack and Covent Garden, I found the former the more accomplished. If I had to guess though, I'd say Covent Garden probably has a higher percentage of natural oils. Which ties in somewhat with your questioning about the use of synthetics in Grant's perfumes. It was one of the great victories of Romanticism to equate nature with goodness and thus make natural vs non-natural a moral issue. We see this so much still in perfume advertising (as well to a degree in Grant's response), which I think is a great shame. If only more people in the industry would take a leaf out of Mathilde Laurent's book and actively celebrate the wonders of modern chemistry and all it has to offer perfumery.
    As for the fresh grapefruit note you perceive in Jack, it's there to my nose too and is very clearly in the direction of methyl pamplemousse. I actually thought it a nice feature of the perfume, so I'm not sure why Grant would dismiss it. No biggie, though.
    I hear a third perfume is is the works, so let's see what that will be like.
    I admire Grant for turning his passion for perfume into a business and give him props too for being so open about working with Alienor Massenet and IFF.
    L.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with asking why the grapefruit approximation of Jack is not seen as a big selling point: it's what make sense of the perfume for me- I see it as the prodigal son version of Terre D'Hermes.

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    2. L, thanks for stopping by... and I'm pleased you spotted some grapefruit too!

      As for the whole natural/synthetic issue... yes, it's a bit of vicious cycle. The industry will remain reticent about synthetics until the general public becomes more knowledgeable about them, which won't happen until the industry becomes less reluctant to talk about them...

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    3. Anon, the prodigal son of Terre! I love that description! :-)

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  2. I like Jack (not so keen on Covent Garden), and yes, a grapefruit note is there in Jack, but I think it's a combination of the citrus plus a compound using sulphur used for the marijuana note, so "intellectually" it might not exist. I liked the interview nevertheless and admire Reg's approach.

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    Replies
    1. Anon, thanks for your comment. I'm tickled by the fact that the grapefruit issue has generated some comments. I actually asked Alienor Massenet about this and she confirmed that she did, in fact, use a grapefruit-derived material in Jack :-)

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