A few months ago, when he was in London for an IFF event, I managed to have an all-too-brief conversation with one of the undisputed masters of scent composition: Dominique Ropion, author or co-author of Dune, Pure Poison, Alien, Amarige, Jungle and, of course, several acclaimed creations for Frederic Malle, including Carnal Flower and Portrait Of A Lady. What's it like working for one of perfumery's most exacting creative directors, I asked him. Who has the ideas?
Dominique Ropion: Both of us, in fact. We've known each other since 1988, I think, which is a long time. We used to work together in Roure Bertrand Dupont. From time to time, I whisper some thoughts to him - it's all very informal - and I say, "Frederic, what do you think of this or that?" He says it's bad or he tells me to work on it more.
Persolaise: Have you now reached a stage in your working relationship where you don't need words to make yourselves understood?
DR: Yes, yes. And when we talk, we know exactly what we mean. You know, it's not easy to have a language to talk about perfume. It's very, very difficult. Between perfumers, it's easier, because we have all the same references, of course. Even though Frederic knows raw materials and perfumery very well, he is not a composer. But when he says something about a perfume, it's always directly connected to something in the formula. It makes sense. He is not abstract at all. He can be conceptual from time to time, like when he says he wants a cologne which is not really a cologne. That's very conceptual. But behind that, he is very, very realistic and concrete. He has the words to talk about concrete things.
P: Was there one particular perfume you made with him for which it took you a long time to understand exactly what he wanted?
DR: We don't know what we want. We start... and then we see. When I start something, I don't know what the end will be. Not at all. I have no idea. And Frederic doesn't either. I don't like to make things which are too figurative. Even though the oud in The Night is evident, you don't smell just the oud. There is exactly 21% of oud in The Night, but it's not the only thing in the perfume.
P: What are your thoughts on Malle being bought by Estée Lauder? Will the brand stay the same?
DR: Yes, it should be the same. It will be, for several years. In 10 years, probably it'll be a little bit different. I know Frederic very well and I know that Lauder went to see him first. He didn't go to them. He didn't really want to sell. So, if he has sold his company, he knows that he will do all the developments he wants, and that he will be the only one who will do that, for several years. It will give him some strength.
P: What's your favourite of the perfumes you've made for Malle?
DR: Difficult to say! I would say that Portrait Of A Lady is one of them, of course. Carnal Flower also. The Night was fun. I was very surprised that I had put 21% of oud in it!
P: I know you've been to the Middle East a few times. Was the experience of discovering the region's perfumes an education for you?
DR: Yes, exactly. The perfumes there are more animalic, which is something that we've lost a little bit in the Occident. They use a lot of oud, castoreum, civet and also synthetic animalic notes. I found that very interesting. And also, their perfumes are very evident. There are some beautiful pieces there.
P: Finally, what's it like when someone walks past you and you realise they're wearing a perfume you composed many, many years ago?
DR: I'm very happy, of course. From time to time, I think about what people may link with different perfumes. For me it's the same. Some perfumes are very linked to someone, to a place, to a situation, to sex... mainly to sex!