I haven't had many opportunities to meet Givaudan's Rodrigo Flores-Roux (Neroli Portofino, Anima Dulcis, Oeillet Bengale, amongst several others), but each time our paths have crossed, I've bemoaned the fact that he doesn't fly over from the States very often. Not only is he an entertaining character, but he's able to engage in discussions about perfume with equal measures of concrete detail and more abstract, conceptual input. He's also adept at being reflective about his own work, an attribute not frequently found in scent-creators. So when I interviewed him at the London launch of Dark Rebel from John Varvatos (the brand whose entire fragrance range has been created by the Mexican perfumer) I knew he wouldn't mind becoming quite technical with his descriptions of his newest baby.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: With Dark Rebel, John really wanted to push the envelope. He wanted to organise a bigger budget. As you know, the trend right now is for perfumes to smell expensive. People are getting to be a little bit more discriminating. The Oud fragrance was the first one where we pushed the envelope. In general, the formulas for these fragrances are not cheap; they are above the average. The most expensive is the Oud. But Artisan Aqua is quite up there too; it has a lot of naturals. With the Oud, John was basically responding to the necessity of having something for the Middle East. It contains natural oud essential oil and it is basically the only American perfume that has it.
Persolaise: Are you going to tell me exactly how much oud it contains?
RFR: No, that I can't tell. But it's claimable, let us say. It's neither a big slug nor a homeopathic amount. And it's a sustainable quality of oud that is part of Givaudan's innovative naturals programme. It's from Borneo. Going back to Dark Rebel, John Varvatos loved its structure from the beginning. But he wanted to push, push, push. He was being quite assertive, saying, 'That note that I like here: can I see something crazy being done with it?' It was a dark, brooding, smoky wood. Pensive. Assertively sexual. A little bit dirty. And into that he fused an element which is present in all his perfumes: leather. That's a note I enjoy working with. It's very me, and it's quintessential to this brand. Here, it has that very important, quinoline-like, harder leather quality. It's not suede. It's not an iris kind of leather. As an ingredient quinoline had been... not completely forgotten... but had become a note that was not frequently used. Look at the 90s. Trésor has quinoline. The note is very important in Antaeus.
P: So is Dark Rebel like a 21st century Bandit?
RFR: A little bit. It has some mossiness. John said he wanted a bad-ass fragrance, a fragrance for a bad boy. We talked about grittiness. And olfactively, he wanted to smell it and go, 'Oh s**t! What's happening here?'
P: Okay, all that sounds genuinely compelling, but I'm curious about something. With your words, you've just described a scent that's quite large, quite loud, almost outrageous. But when I smell the final creation, my impression is of something that has been designed to be calmer and quite accessible. So is that how you have to work for the Varvatos brand: you put in lots of 'daring' elements, but then somehow try to make them more accessible?
RFR: We were treading in funny territory, because we didn't want to make it 'nice'. But we were not going to make a completely crazy perfume, because we also wanted to have an interesting balance. We didn't want to make it smell too niche.
P: What does that mean, stylistically?
RFR: That word has become a little bit dangerous, because it's like a huge umbrella. In a niche approach, you can have a lot of darkness in a perfume. Very big incense fragrances. Very big, burnt leather, or patchouli. There's always amber floating around in niche.
P: Okay, but at what point does Dark Rebel pull back from entering into the realms of niche?
RFR: I think freshness is important here. We didn't add a big, chunky, clunky amber. A lot of niche perfumes are accord-like, but this one has modulation. I did an accord of three kinds of styrax. And they turn around the leather. One of them has an almost rubbery, latexy feel. The other acts with a very good vanilla extract used here in order to do something like Cuir De Russie, but not quite.
P: What else goes into the Dark Rebel mix?
RFR: At Givaudan we have a pretty big programme called GIN: Givaduan Innovative Naturals. We want natural fragrance materials that are sustainable, sympatico to the ecology, that can bring some kind of benefit to the people who produce them or harvest them. With some of the raw materials we've been working with, we have done some transformations of naturals: we've either concentrated something about them, or stretched a characteristic. We've been investigating the chemistry of patchouli for many, many years. I think everybody has been. And we found some specific parts of the molecules in patchouli oil, and isolated them and gave them a little bit of a boost. It's basically something a little bit like fermenting. It became a raw material that is extremely powerful. We call it akigala wood. It's robust, heady, extra-deep. It's one of those materials that has synergy, like a catalyst. You put a little bit inside a perfume and it helps with radiance and so on. It's not the first time we've used it, but it plays an important role in Dark Rebel.
P: What do you think other people would say if they were asked to describe your perfumery style?
RFR: I know for a fact what they would say about my work. Actually they have said it. 'Rodrigo works in chiaroscuro,' which I think is very true. I can do extremely light and luminous and I can be very dark and brooding. Right now there's a word that's fashionable to describe perfume: tension. I kind of manage tension in a perfume. But I think there's also another thing they would say: 'Rodrigo finishes beautifully.' My fragrances have a lot of polish. And I don't mean polish to make them pretty or nice or too smooth. I like working in details.
P: Do you sometimes get frustrated by what is written about perfume?
RFR: Using the word 'frustration' would be going a little bit too far. When you put a perfume on the market and suddenly somebody talks about marine notes in the perfume, you know that person doesn't know what they're talking about, because there are no marine notes in that perfume. If somebody saw a perfume as linear and I actually wanted it to be linear, even if that was a criticism, I take it. Not everybody knows exactly how to articulate perfume. It's all in the eye of the beholder. And I can live with that. Perfume is a form of expression. And expression can be read on many levels. You know, in One Hundred Years Of Solitude, there's a moment when one of the characters, a woman, is very sad because of a rumour floating around the town about someone in her family, and about something she'd done, which she hadn't done. She's very worried and very distressed. And her husband says, "Listen, let them talk. Because, first of all, you know it's not true. And second, you're in the mouths of the people. You're not being ignored."
P: What would your message be to people who write about perfume?
RFR: Well, I think, in general, generosity is important. Criticism is good. And I take it like a big boy. I'm not worried about it. But this craft is very difficult. It's quite unforgiving. Sometimes you put your gonads inside a bottle of perfume... and then it doesn't sell and the whole thing becomes a catastrophe and everything collapses. Harsh criticism for the sake of being harsh is not healthy, it's not good. You know, in the New York Times, they don't like anything. They don't like restaurants. They don't like movies. They don't like fashion shows. And you just think, 'Come on, guys. We're putting our blood, sweat and tears into this! Our gonads!'