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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?