An Evening With Frederic Malle At Liberty Of London – January 16, 2013

By Tara

When you read about Frédéric Malle’s background, it does seem as if he was born with perfume in his DNA. His grandfather founded Christian Dior Parfums and his mother became their Art Director and collaborated on Eau Sauvage. Frédéric himself worked as a consultant in the perfume industry for many years before starting his own perfume house in 2000.

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Editions de Parfums Frèdèric Malle put the perfumer centre-stage and indeed they were the first brand to put the perfumer’s name on the bottle. The perfumers were given artistic freedom without the usual restraints of marketers and focus groups and. The line started out with fragrances by nine of the world’s top perfumers.

The evening’s event was held in Liberty’s wood-panelled Heritage Suite which was once the office of its founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

Liberty-London-Hertiage-Suite-12

From his photograph, I had imagined Frédéric Malle to be very well groomed, but also quite serious about his work and possibly a little aloof. However, in person he is talkative, down to earth and witty. Lila Das Gupta of Olfactory Events asked the questions and I have reproduced these below along with Frédéric’s answers.

I hope that the both of them and you will forgive me for paraphrasing and condensing what was said to some extent. During the evening, cards were handed out to everyone which were sprayed with the fragrances being discussed .

Lila: You started a perfume company at the age of just 38. How did that come about?

Frédéric Malle: In the past, a perfume would be launched first in France and it would be some time before it was released in other countries. However, there was a move to launch a new perfume all over the world at the same time. As a result of this globalisation, the perfume had to appeal to the lowest common dominator in order to sell in huge quantities in many different countries.

There was another change in around 1997/98. Prior to that there were about 2,500 independent perfumeries in France. The staff would talk to the customers and help them find the right perfume. Then they were bought up by the big chains that were more like supermarkets with a “self-service” approach.

Perfumers were complaining to me that they were being asked to make the same fragrance over and over again. They were working with people who had no knowledge of perfumery and only looked at the numbers. I was also bored of being a go-between for the designers and perfumers. So I discussed the idea of a fragrance publishing house with Pierre Bourdon. It would be like a club of top perfumers who all respected one another. It was a modest start…we only became pretentious later!

Several of these perfumers decided to give me the jewels from their drawers. However Pierre Bourdon wanted to develop a perfume from scratch using top quality ingredients that couldn’t be copied by other brands, the way his Cool Water had been. This led to the creation of Iris Poudre, which contains a large amount of incredibly expensive iris absolute. This acts like a kind of key or code which prevents it from being copied because it would be so costly.

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Lila: When creating a perfume, how do you get the balance right between something that is daring yet still wearable?

Frédéric Malle: Very simple! I like to refer to a quote by Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”! I feel perfume is closer to design than art. Musc Ravageur is a good example. Maurice Roucel had it in a drawer for a long time. Whenever he would show it to someone they would say it was disgusting, but I immediately knew it could work. It is really a classic ambery oriental. However, when he first gave it to me, it was a bit rough with few top notes, so it needed some adjustment. It was like your lover coming to you already naked. There was no foreplay! It was a big success straight away, even though it went against the trends at the time.

Lila: Isn’t that risky though?

Frédéric Malle: No, because I only produce several thousand bottles and they are sold in my stores, or replicas of my stores as within Liberty, which have highly trained staff who will help you to find the perfect fragrance for you. We have perfumes to suit 18 different types of personality. The way we sell is so small and personal that we have built our own freedom. I hate the word “niche”; my quest has always been to create a luxury, contemporary fragrance company.

Lila: How do you know when a fragrance is complete?

Frédéric Malle: Dominique Ropion says good perfumes are evident. Once you get to the point when it clicks, it seems obvious. I went to dinner with my wife in New York when she was wearing what became the final version of Portrait of a Lady. No less than four people asked her what perfume she was wearing. The previous week she had worn a version that was only very slightly different but no one had commented on it at all! Portrait of a Lady is one the biggest head-turners. You know when you know. It’s instinctive.

If a fragrance is too perfect or too pretty, it becomes boring. Fragrances – like people – have to have some kind of imperfection. If you are a nerd like I am, there is a tendency to keep modifying a fragrance, so when it’s right you have to be humble and stop. Angéliques Sous La Pluie is a good example. You could alter it and increase the concentration, but its imperfection makes it charming. I think that is the most interesting period of Jean-Claude Ellena’s work, when he was working with the imperfection of nature. He was creating watercolours, like perfume poetry, which he has continued into the Hermessences. Actually he was one of the most enthusiastic people when I was starting the company.

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Lila: Could you tell us about the development of Carnal Flower?

Frédéric Malle: When we created Carnal Flower I knew it would do well in America. Americans always loved strong sweet perfumes, particularly big white florals and orientals. This is because they like to be noticed and appear attractive. I could say they lack the French refinement but..! The last “atomic bomb” was Eternity. That trend was to change because of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Eau de Thé Vert for Bulgari. Ann Gottlieb (the highly influential fragrance consultant) was working with Calvin Klein at the time and decided she wanted Eau de Thé Vert “on steroids” for the Americans. This is how CK One came about and a new squeaky clean trend took off. It went from one extreme to the other. There are general trends, but we make fragrances for people who love perfume.

Dominique Ropion has the best knowledge of nature, particularly white florals such as tuberose. With Carnal Flower, firstly we wanted a tuberose that was very close to nature and secondly we wanted something that was modern and not like Fracas. I won’t name names but there were perfumes like Fracas being released every year.

One thing links all classic fragrances; they mingle with the wearer so that they become one. We exaggerated the milky part of the tuberose to meld with the skin and then mixed in musk to meld with the human. It took 690 trials over 18 months.

Lila: How do you regard skin?

Frédéric Malle: Not an issue. I test perfumes on myself and those close to me. Some people with dry skin will swallow perfume but you can’t account for everyone. Perfume that is made-to-measure for one person’s skin is BS. Perfume really doesn’t smell vastly different on different people. Someone might smell a perfume on a friend and find it smells different in the store. However they smell it on the friend at a distance and after several hours of wear.

Lipstick Rose doesn’t seem to vary from person to person, however a perfume like Le Parfum de Thérèse is more fragile and a person’s skin can be a factor in how it smells.

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Lila: We are going to try Portrait of a Lady now, could you tell us about it?

Frédéric Malle: Portrait of a Lady started with Geranium Pour Monsieur which is a personal favourite of mine. I wanted a modern oriental that wasn’t ambery or spicy. Musc Ravageur is as good as that gets. I wanted to tackle it in a different way so I talked to Dominique Ropion about using Geranium Pour Monsieur as a base and he said “That‘s not stupid”! So we added patchouli and incense notes but it needed sparkle. Dominique told me about a Turkish rose essence that was distilled using copper, creating a much better result. We put in a huge amount of it and it came alive all of a sudden.

Lila: Is there any mystique left when it comes to naturals?

Frédéric Malle: Honestly? I don’t care! Our view is always that the end result justifies the means. I never think of giving preference to naturals, although we use much larger quantities than most. French Lover/Bois d’Orage has a lot of naturals but you have to have some chemicals. We also use “nature identicals” which can be very expensive. Working with naturals is like writing with ready-made sentences. They are like mini perfumes. With chemicals you get a more precise result.

Lila: Is a new perfume coming soon?

Frédéric Malle: Yes! Maybe it’s not good but I’m quite proud of the fact that we haven’t released a perfume for two and a half years. After working so hard on Portrait of a Lady, I had a sort of hangover. I felt burnt out. So I worked on other projects, such as my book and the candles. Now I have several fragrances that are close to fruition. They have got to the point where they will definitely be produced.

Many thanks to Liberty, Lila and M. Malle for a fascinating and entertaining evening.

What do you think of Frédéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums? Do you own any? What is your favourite?

Images: by Tara
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58 Responses to An Evening With Frederic Malle At Liberty Of London – January 16, 2013

  1. Madeleine says:

    Hi Tara,

    Thank you so much for the wonderful write up! Gosh, I wish I had been there. I looove FM’s line, in fact I am a bit of a junkie as I have full bottles of Carnal Flower, Portrait, Lys Med, Therese, Une Fleur de Cassie, Lipstick Rose and Musc Ravageur and appreciate all the others. If I HAD to pick ONE *gasps* it would have to be Carnal Flower.

    Cheers,

    Madeleine

    • Tara says:

      Hi Madeleine

      Glad you enjoyed the write-up.

      I can totally understand being a bit of junkie for this line! I totally agree about being able to appreciate them all too. There’s not a single dud. They are all such top quality and so imaginative that you can’t help but respect them, even if they are not to your taste.

      Thanks for taking a deep breath and picking just one! Carnal Flower is a stunner.

  2. ariane says:

    Oh thank you so much for this,it’s made my day!A new perfume coming out-WHEN,WHAT???I love and adore Iris Poudre and Carnal Flower,really like Parfum de Theres and Une Rose,but don’t wear them very much,and once in a while give Dans Tes Bras a go,a challenging one,but so interesting!Loved that line “we started humble,became pretentious later”!

    • Tara says:

      So happy to hear the post made your day, ariane! I’m afraid the exact details of the new fragrance/s are top secret so he couldn’t tell us any more. I do wonder if one will be an oud because I know he and Dominique Ropion wanted to do one if they could get some of high enough quality. We shall have to wait and see!

      Hope you get more wear out of the ones you own this year. They are all gorgeous. Challenging but interesting is a good way to describe Dans Tes Bras! I loved it too when he said they became pretentious later :)

  3. Tatiana says:

    So many gems in the Malle line. The news of a new scent being produced soon excites me!!! Thanks for the write up!

    • Tara says:

      You’re very welcome Tatiana!

      So many gems is right and I’m excited about a new one too. I’m glad they take their time instead of churning them out. Although this time it’s a long wait!

  4. andreawilko says:

    A NEW FREDERIC MALLE??? Chomping at the bit now.
    I started out not liking Carnal Flower but now own a full bottle, I could appreciate musc ravager but it still scares me to wear out in public. I have Dans de Bras, Bigarade Concentree and Lipstick Rose so you could say that his line in general is a hit with me. :-)

    • Tara says:

      Andrea, it gives me hope that you came round to Carnal Flower. I admire it so much and would love to be able to wear it. I just feel intimidated by it somehow, like I’m not “womanly”enough!

      I’m glad the line is such a hit with you.

  5. Olfactoria says:

    Thank you for your fantastic reporting, Tara!

    I’m a huge fan of the Malle perfumes, even if I don’t wear them all, I love them all.
    I was a bit wary when it came to Monsieur Malle himself though, since I was holding a grudge against him because he said very unflattering things about perfumistas in an interview once. But you painted the portrait of a very charming man, so maybe I can forgive him (I won’t forget though!). He will be so glad. ;)

    • Tara says:

      Ha ha! I had forgotten about that, although I don’t remember what he said. He certainly came across very well. Considering his perfumes are designed for people who love perfume, i.e. people like us, it wouldn’t make much sense. Anyway, I’m pleased it doesn’t stop you enjoying the fragrances.

  6. Zazie says:

    Loved reading this interview!
    Parfums Frederic Malle is one of the few houses that I really “follow” and respect: I’ll always test their latest fragrances, and happily re-test older ones…
    My favorites from the house are Carnal Flower, Iris Poudre and Une fleur de cassie – but I also enjoy Musc ravageur from time to time.
    I also find their range of candles and diffusers incomparable: the gardenia and tubereuse candles are really outstanding. The 80’s design of the fleur mechanique fits my home decor tastes to a “T”. I might splurge, one day, candle-wise or diffuser-wise…

    If you meet Monsieur Malle again, Tara, could you please beg him from my part to release a perfume versione of their Gardenia candle? ;)

    • Tara says:

      So pleased you enjoyed reading the post, Zazie!

      I agree that a new release is a must-try, whatever it is. Une Fleur de Cassie is one I need to get to know better. I understand it can really grow on you.

      As for a gardenia scent similar to the candle, this is reproduced from the Frederic Malle website –

      “Transforming a scent designed to generate an atmosphere in a room into a perfume to wear is no small task. We would need to create a proper link between someone’s skin and this Gardenia scent, like we did when working on Lys Mediterranée and on Carnal Flower. We might do it eventually but it isn’t in the works today. Carnal Flower, although very different from Un Gardenia la Nuit is a Tuberose with influx of Gardenia. It is the closest perfume in our existing range.”

      Let’s hope they’ve found a way to do it since!

  7. poodle says:

    I don’t own any of his perfumes and the only one I’ve tried is Portrait of a Lady. Thankfully I did not love it enough to want a bottle. I’m sure I’ll get around to trying a few others. I enjoyed reading your interview with him.

  8. One of my favourite fragrances houses for sure. I started with Vétiver Extraordinaire and it was the only one for several years. Then maybe two years ago, I continued with Musc Ravageur and Dans tes Bras and Bigarade Concentrée quickly followed.

    In my thoughts Bigarade Concentrée is often regarded as THE fragrance. So elegant I can hardly think of something better. Dirty perfection.

    • Tara says:

      Ha! “Dirty perfection” is a good description!

      It’s very hard to stop at one FM fragrance, they are so special. It’s one of my favourite houses too.

  9. Dubaiscents says:

    I love the Malle line! I own Dans Tes Bras, Iris Poudre, Carnal Flower and my newest one, Musc Ravaguer in the special Barney’s anniversary box. Thanks, Tara for the great write up, it was interesting to see how he thinks MR was so against the grain at the time but, he released it and it has been a huge hit. i wish more houses would take risks like this. I can’t wait to see what they have coming out next!

    • Tara says:

      You have a gorgeous little FM collection there. Congratulations on your special Musc Ravaguer addition!

      I love that the line is focused on great perfume rather than marketing trends. Otherwise perfumes like Musc Ravaguer may never have seen the light of day. It would be great if more perfume houses took similar risks.

  10. Tara,
    Your report makes me sigh! Malle perfumes are among my favorites. The boutiques and department store sections also offer some of the best sniffing and chatting. So many of them are to me the best of their kind: Une fleur de cassie (eerie, unsweetened, and for that reason, *believable* mimosa) ; Iris poudre; l’eau d’hiver; Musc ravageur (which I think of as an amber); Noir épices.. I’m not much of a tuberose wearer, but Carnal Flower is a gem.
    Cheryl

    • Tara says:

      Completely agree. I think Editions de Parfums is a good line for budding perfumistas because it showcases such high quality perfumes in a number of different styles.

      Carnal Flower is undoubtedly a gem and I have issues with tuberose too.

  11. Vanessa says:

    Fantastically thorough coverage as ever, you London correspondent, you! I was especially interested in learning more about the origins of Musc Rav and Carnal Flower, and also his opinon on skin (he should smell my friend Sharon if he is in any doubt about the skin difference between people, and he seems to play it down here!). And his description of the difference between naturals and chemicals was a nice summary. I like L’Eau d’Hiver and Cologne Bigarade most I think, not that I own any of the line. Musc Rav has its place, possibly not on me in public, mind… : – )

    • Tara says:

      It was nice to hear a bit about how those scents came to be, wasn’t it? I have no doubts about differences in people’s skin but I guess that is quite a pain for perfumers which is probably why they play it down!

      And yes, I think saying that working with naturals is akin to “writing with ready-made sentences” was a nice and fair comparison. They are so complex.

      I can totally see that L’Eau d’Hiver and Cologne Bigarade are your style. As good as it is, I feel much the same way about MR!

  12. Julie says:

    Thanks for the write up–it was wonderful! I love the Malle fragrances, and have grown to appreciate them more as i tire of the excitable fad scents that come out all the time, and now have become more of a collector of fine perfumes (many of them old names or even vintage bottles). I bought Carnal Flower last year and LOVE it, and have had a bottle of the Musc Ravageur oil for about five years, which is totally wearable and even seeps into the skin and emerges with an almost powdery element–if the powder has a red cheeked-tousled hair-Mona Lisa smile spin to it! I don’t think the oil is available anymore, which is a shame, as it means MR can be worn in public without averting people’s eyes lol. These juices are genius!

    • Tara says:

      Very pleased you liked the write-up Julie, it was rather long!

      It’s nice to hear that your appreciation of the FM line has grown and grown. Fashions come and go but true quality is timeless. Too bad you can’t get the MR oil anymore. I love your description of it and it does seem the perfect way to wear it in the day.

  13. AnneD says:

    I really enjoyed this interview. Thanks so much! I have total admiration for F. Malle and all that he has accomplished. My experience with his fragrances is tragic. After being recommended MR through the website, I ran to buy a bottle and loved it. Of all the cheap and unloved fragrances I posses, wouldn’t you know I had to drop and break my MR! I simply have not had the heart to buy another although I have sampled. My bathroom however still smells of MR!

    • Tara says:

      Nooo! That’s such rotten luck! Those bottles seem so sturdy too. I can totally understand how you would feel so gutted that even going to buy another bottle would be too painful.

      That questionaire on the website is really useful for getting samples etc and it obviously worked for you. Hope you can work yourself up to getting another bottle of MR at some point.

  14. Lady Jane Grey says:

    I’ve loved FM since I smelled his EdP the first time (and since I saw him the first time – unfortunately on a photo only…). There are some among his EdP I wouldn’t want to wear – nevertheless, I still feel how perfectly they are done.
    I was devastated I wasn’t able to go to the meetup – so thanks a lot for your report, Tara.

  15. Dionne says:

    This was a great interview, and now I want to explore more of the FM line. I love L’Eau d’Hiver and own a decant, and have also tried Iris Poudre, Noir Epices, En Passant and Musc Ravageur (so many perfumes, so little time….) I was especially intrigued by his statement that “perfume is closer to design than art.”

    • Tara says:

      That was the line that got me too, Dionne! His house seemed to me to really advocate perfume as art so it was surprising to hear him say that. I think it’s a really interesting concept though and it makes sense, particularly in the way he works. It sounds like on occasion he and the perfumer will be trying to design a fragrance that will work on the wearer. The way he tries to connect the material to the skin. It’s like he’s coming up with design solutions.

  16. Suzanne says:

    Another wonderful London report from you, Tara. Thank you! I was so excited to read what Monsieur Malle had to say about Iris Poudre, as that one is a favorite of mine (even though I don’t own a bottle). The FM’s in my full-bottle collection include Bigarade Concentree, Geranium Pour Monsieur and Carnal Flower. I fantasize a lot about adding Le Parfum de Therese, Iris Poudre and Lipstick Rose to it, but so far have managed to abstain.

    Oh, and when I think of the beautiful Portrait of a Lady, I think of you. That’s a compliment to both you and the perfume. :)

    • Tara says:

      Oh thank-you so much Suzanne! You say the nicest things :)

      Isn’t it nice to hear the story behind a much loved perfume? I can completely see you in Iris Poudre and Carnal Flower, in particular. They are such glorious, sophisticated and sensuous perfumes.

      Portrait of a Lady is the woman I want to be, so I wear it in the hope it will work like a magic potion and transform me!

  17. brie says:

    Fantastic interview! I have only tried Carnal Flower as I am terrified of falling in love with a FM perfume I just cannot afford a full bottle of!

    • Tara says:

      Lila asked such great questions and Frederic had such great answers that it was a really good evening. I can understand not trying the full range for fear of the cost of a full bottle but they are so worth exploring!

  18. Dominic says:

    How I love such a great interviews with the perfumers!!! I enjoyed it and keep waiting for more. Haven’t had a chance yet to try any of these perfumes, but… better days ahead:-)
    There was one bit that kind of intrigued me, the one about Americans how much they love big strong florals. It’s slightly opposite to what is normally said about them, namely that they love fresh and clean scents. And here we have another impression. Anyway I’m glad they are successful in US, I’m sure these compositions are amazing.

    • Tara says:

      Yes, that was interesting about his view on the taste of Americans. He thought that they had always liked strong perfumes until the early 90s when the fresh laundry trend came in with CK One. I guess he feels Americans like to make a statement at heart!

      I hope you get to try the Editions de Parfums line soon.

  19. It was a pleasure reading this interview. Malle’s line was my first experience with a “luxury” brand. My favourite of his is Vetiver Extraordinaire. This was my introduction to this note that I love. My second favourite of his is probably Musc Ravageur.

    • Tara says:

      I think it was my first luxury brand too. Vetiver Extraordinaire would be a great introduction. Musc Ravaguer is great and an instant love, but not something I can easily see myself wearing.

  20. Scent Bound says:

    Reblogged this on scent bound and commented:
    Excellent interview full of great insights. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

  21. Pingback: An Evening with Frederic Malle: A Lila Das Gupta Interview | scent bound

  22. Melis says:

    Tara, thanks for sharing your experience with Frederic Malle. Musc Ravageur was the fragrance that started my interest in luxury perfume. I have sampled many of the fragrances from his line and if money was not an issue, I would quite possibly own more than just my lone bottle of MR. I have given much thought to purchasing the 2012 Women’s coffret as I would be quite content with 5 mls of a selection of the line.

    • Tara says:

      You’re very welcome, Melis!

      I’ve seen those new coffrets at Les Senteurs in London and they are gorgeous. I think a lot of people have been hoping for a set like that for a while. MR is such a distinctive and enticing scent. I fell for it straight away.

  23. Alexandra says:

    What a lovely write up – I was very jealous I couldn’t be there, so thank you for reporting back! Lipstick Rose was my first foray down the rabbit hole and I do love it so (although it now stands rather brazenly among my army of Orientals!), it is the only FM I own although I would love to add Musc Ravageur at some point soon. I do find however that his perfumes are ones I can’t quite leave alone, I have returned time and time again to sniff Portrait of a Lady, Dans Te Bras and Carnal Flower and it wouldn’t surprise me if my admiration for them turned into deep adoration at some point in the future…

    • Tara says:

      Too bad you couldn’t be there, Alex. (Hope the wedding went well BTW).

      Lipstick Rose is a highly sophisticated first foray into Perfumeland! Completely agree that the FM perfumes are ones you come back to time and time again. I’m exactly the same. They are just so exquisite and timeless.

  24. Alexandra says:

    The wedding was wonderful thank you – and I wafted Mohur all day! x

  25. Hertmanns says:

    I enjoyed the evening very much, so I was happy to read this account of it, but who was this Gupta person who conducted the interview? She just wanted to keep the focus completely onto herself, and her questions were so bland. Next time, Liberty should get a more professional host.

    • Tara says:

      I’m pleased to hear you were happy reading the account of the evening – thanks for visiting O.T.!

      I was sorry to hear you weren’t so happy with the questions (Lila is a journalist and runs Olfactory Events/Perfume Lovers London) but I’m glad you still enjoyed the evening so much.

  26. jbarberlondon says:

    I was fortunate to get hold of a ticket to see Mr Malle. Very interesting talk. A member of the audience asked him why perfumers do make perfume using just essential oils rather than isolate aroma chemicals and his answer was very interesting – he said it would be like writing a book with pre-prepared sentences – you can be more creative with aroma chemicals. I can really see what he means by this. (He also said his perfumes do contain large amounts of naturals anyway.)

    • Tara says:

      Yes, that was a really interesting answer and I can also see what he means by that. He just wants to get as close as possible to the result he’s looking for. Although, as you say, his perfumes do happen to contain an unusually large amount of naturals.

  27. jbarberlondon says:

    Woops, I just spotted a typo in my above comment. I meant to say the word “don’t” instead of “do” – “why perfumers DON’T make perfume using just essential oils”

  28. Undina says:

    (I always get to all the posts – even if much later ;) )
    Tara, as always, enjoyed your reporting and I’m very excited for the possible new release(s). This was one of the lines for which I planned to make an exception from my “do not buy any samples” rule last year. This year it should be even easier since I do not impose that rule any longer :)

    • Tara says:

      Thanks J!

      Frederic Malle’s line is worth making an exception for, since it’s so exceptional :) Not sure if the Dries Van Noten fragrance is one of the new perfumes FM was referring to but nice to know there will be at least another one. It sounds good though.

      Yes to “no rules 2013″!

  29. Pingback: People In Perfumeland – Lila Das Gupta Of Perfume Lovers London/Olfactive Events | Olfactoria's Travels

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