Friday, 26 April 2019

"Now Everybody Is An Artist" - An Audience With Frederic Malle + Next Episode Of Love At First Scent On Sunday 28 April 2019

A few months ago, Frederic Malle popped into London to be interviewed by The Guardian’s Sally Hughes about his work in the perfume industry. Sadly, at no point in the conversation were any questions asked about the consequences of his decision to sell his company to Estée Lauder, but this may have had less to do with any attempts to brush the matter under the scented carpet than it did with the fact that most people probably couldn’t care less about brand ownership and acquisition. That quibble aside, the man was as interesting as ever to listen to, not least because he was in characteristically unrestrained mode when discussing the work of others, as you’ll see below.

Are your childhood and history relevant to what you do now?

Frederic Malle: My mother worked in the business. She was an art director for Dior. Her father had created the company and had worked with Coty, who had actually invented this industry. [Growing up] I heard a lot about Dior, I heard a lot about my mother’s job. But I was always taught, since I was very, very young, that things smelt of something. So my attention as a toddler was drawn towards smell, which I don’t think happens with most people. When I discovered girls, when I was fifteen, I also realised that I was more attracted to the good smelling ones. And I remember there was a fragrance called Halston Z14 which I absolutely fell in love with, and wherever I wore it - it was not sold in France, so I only had so much - it was like a magic potion. So I understood the power of perfume. And that’s what led me to being here today.

Are you frustrated by the situation in modern perfumery?

FM: Yes, in a way. Going back to my childhood, I always heard that 'those marketing people don’t understand.' I worked in a lab, then I became a consultant. I was translating designers’ work into perfume. And I realised that distribution was changing in such a way that there was no room for originality, because of the arrival of self-service perfumeries, duty frees and all that. So yes, I was frustrated, but it was not only me who was frustrated. Every day, I heard Pierre Bourdon, Edouard Flechier, Jean-Claude Ellena, all these people, complaining about the fact that they were dealing with people who had no idea of what they were talking about, that were selling bicycles or cat food the year before, and now they were the head of major French brands thinking that they were kings of luxury. It was ridiculous. Not only did they not understand the difference between rose and jasmine, but at the end, they were making focus groups to choose perfumes. And all of us knew that this was not the way to create an interesting perfume.

What was that creation process, exactly?

FM: What happened was that, first of all, everything was image driven, not perfume driven. The way I see marketing people is that they are playing a very strategic battle against each other. The first thing they do is to look for a star, or some image. They work on imagery. Then they work on a bottle. They work upside down, in fact. And then, ‘Oh, wow, eureka. We have to put something in the bottle.’ They call the lab. And the lab know that the endgame for them is to win the market test. They have a few bases that are pre-tested, that they know are going to do well in the tests. They come with those pre-mixed potential contenders, that they show to the marketing people. And sometimes they just buy the stuff, or they tweak it.

How did you decide to start your own brand?

FM: It was simple. I like the idea of go-betweens. When you talked to noses, they were complaining. All day long. It was really boring, in fact. And also, the magic had gone from the industry. People didn’t give a damn when I said I worked in perfumery. And I realised that the most interesting people were walking away from perfume. I remember vividly listening to a conversation between friends saying, ‘I don’t wear perfume any more, because I don’t want to smell like my mother, or my grandmother, and I don’t want to smell like people that I’m not interested in.’ Basically they had a choice between old classics and crap. And they wanted neither. This business is a part of me, I really adore it. And I thought maybe there is a way to show these people that we can still make interesting modern perfumery. It doesn’t have to be crap. We just have to go back to what we used to do. Using new, innovative materials. Freeing talent. And working on truly novel ideas. So I had the idea of being the go-between for these two complaining bodies. Deep down, I was absolutely convinced that there was a different way. I believe in people. People aren’t stupid. People see the difference between junk and beauty. 

Is there a perfume from another brand that you wish you’d made?

FM: There are many perfumes that I admire. I hate a lot, though. I was on the Eurostar yesterday, and I thought, ‘How much ethyl maltol can you put in these perfumes?’ But anyway, Feminite Du Bois by Lutens is a fantastic perfume. Pierre Bourdon worked on it, who I’m very close to, and it’s very influenced by Roudnitska. The way spice is used in it is very, very good. And the fact that he merged that with some of Sophia Grojsman’s work speaks to me, and I would have loved to have it in my collection. But I’m also really interested by perfumes that make our business move forward. If you take Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, for instance, it’s not a precious perfume in terms of ingredients, but I think it has taken the business elsewhere. And I admire that.

Which of your own perfumes are you most proud of?

FM:It’s like with children. Some of them are born polite. Something like Geranium Pour Monsieur, for instance, from the get-go started smelling good and we had to pinch ourselves and push ourselves to go further, because we knew it wasn’t finished, but it was actually perfectly good. Then you have perfumes like Carnal Flower which didn’t smell right from the beginning, although we knew exactly what we wanted to do. And it took us almost 700 trials to get it right. It was almost at the very end that it started ticking. It took a lot of dedication.

Are you the gatekeeper to true perfumery?

FM: No, I’m not a gatekeeper at all. I think this is an interesting moment because what we started, with Lutens - twenty years ago roughly - definitely started something. And then the larger brands, who initially did not believe in it, started making collections inspired by what we were doing. So that generated the market. Then those marketing people jumped on the wagon. And now everybody is an artist. Everybody who has a phone is a photographer, everybody who has a pillow is a decorator and everybody who has a salad is a chef. There’s a new brand with a new collection coming out every week. There are some new brands that are very interesting, but some of them are really not interesting and they are made by people who are completely entitled and don’t know the business. All I can say is that God will recognise his own children.

How do you know when a perfume is finished?

FM: It’s very strange. We know. And we generally know without even telling each other. Maurice Roucel came to me and said, ‘If you want to publish something under my name, this is going to be it.’ He showed me Musc Ravageur, saying no-one wanted it, it was completely out of the market, everybody was scared of it, but he said it was the best thing he had done in a long time. When I smelt it, to me it was like a classic, because I could link it to Coty and all that. But I thought it lacked foreplay and that it was like having a naked person coming to introducing himself or herself. It was a bit strange. So we just decided to put a little dress on it, some top notes. And we did ten trials and it was obvious which one we wanted. So that was easy. Then there are the longer ones, and at one point, with them, it becomes obvious. The way we work is that we make a sketch, then we look at it very carefully and make sure that every single part is perfect. We go around as if you were going around a sculpture or painting with a magnifying glass. And when it’s finished, that’s when I find the name.

Have you ever made a perfume and decided it’s gone wrong?

FM: Yes, absolutely. At the beginning, when I was still working in a lab, I was sometimes falling in love with originality, but in the sense that I was falling in love with what was wrong with the perfume. And when you try to fix it, you destroy it. So then it’s a choice between launching something that’s like a strange sketch or not launching it, because it’s really imperfect. Sometimes we abandon a perfume. We did that with Cologne Indelebile, because it’s so difficult to evaluate and you really get tired of it. We stopped for six months, worked on something else, then went back to it.

You work with some of the most experienced perfumers in the business, yet you often talk about needing to go through hundreds of drafts in order to finish a perfume. So what benefits does experience bring to the creative process if not speed?

FM: It’s not speed. Not exactly. Artificial intelligence cannot make a perfume. The logic of a perfume is something which is difficult to understand, even to a very skilled perfumer. And there is no other way than going step by step in a very methodical way. The only way to save time is to go step by step, to do all the trials. The young perfumers, or the lazy ones, think, ‘Oh, I’m so cool, I’m gonna change this and that, because it’s like a Jackson Pollock’. Except that after three trials, you don’t know what you’re doing. You have lost complete control of your work. Our method, which was created by Roure, is to work with small steps. That’s why I write everything. And that’s why I choose that type of perfumer. Because it’s the only way to make something truly creative. If you want to make a J’Adore with a banana effect, an ape can do that. You add a few things and you can do it quickly, with broad brush strokes. But if you go into unknown territories, with very complicated formulas - like Portrait Of A Lady, with an enormous amount of patchouli in it - you have to take small steps. It’s not a matter of experienced perfumers; it’s a matter of organised perfumers. That’s why I use these very methodical perfumers. Dominique Ropion and I have grown together, which is the biggest luck in my professional life. Fanny Bal has been taught by Dominique with our method, and she’s 28, but she works like a machine and she has an amazing technique. And I work with her because she has that method.


PS The next episode of Love At First Scent - a full-length edition this time - will be on Sunday 28th April at 12 pm UK time (7 am New York; 3 pm Dubai) on Facebook Live. Please try to tune in.


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