When Frederic Malle, the French perfumer who lives in New York, launched his brand, Editions du Parfums Frederic Malle, in 2000, he was set to fight an uphill battle. It was a time when the entrenched conglomerates were churning out bland scents with celebrity faces on them, using inferior ingredients and superior marketing. The purist essence of perfumery has been dispensed with in favor of product pushing, and Malle, as any purist would, felt quite dispirited. But he also saw an opportunity. Any market is divided into the mass and the niche, and he would take the latter over the former in a heartbeat.
Malle was no newcomer to the perfume business. He was an industry insider with extensive connections and pedigree – Malle’s grandfather founded Parfums Christian Dior, and he had spent decades working in the perfume business in France. But the industry was changing – the fragrance world was falling victim to the same forces as the fashion world – increasingly it was the dispassionate business managers, who often came in from other industries, who dictated what would be produced, and not the perfumers.
Malle’s idea was deceptively simple. He would build a company that would give back creative control and freedom to the people who actually concocted the scents – called the “noses” in the perfume business. Malle would enable them to use the purest natural ingredients and have a no-holds-barred approach, financial considerations and industry conventions be damned. Malle himself would serve as the curator and the idea generator, and each scent would be a dialogue between him and the nose. Each perfumer would be treated as an author, and Malle’s packaging would reflect that. Each bottle would be a simple glass cylinder, and the label would bear the perfumer’s name. He designed the packaging in such a way that opening the box would remind one of opening a book. Each of Malle’s stores have portraits of the noses, and when you go to his website, the first link is to the perfumers, and not the perfumes themselves.
The result was that Malle, against many odds, has built one of the most successful niche perfumeries today. And though he is technically no longer independent (Estee Lauder acquired the company in 2014), he continues to operate in the same vein. What’s more, along with his contemporary Serge Lutens, Malle has given birth to an entire industry of luxury, niche perfume, giving the likes of Le Labo and BYREDO (which have also been snapped up by large companies since their inception) fertile ground and the blueprint for success. And as today the sales of the mass-market perfumes dwindle, with selection-fatigued consumers seeking quality, not quantity, Malle’s approach has been thoroughly validated.
It takes Malle a year on average to bring a new scent to the market. That year is spent in a continuous conversation with the designated perfumer. Malle has worked with a dozen of noses, such as Hermes’s Jean-Claude Ellena and IFF’s Dominique Ropion, and he is as loyal as he is selective.
I met Malle two weeks ago at his small office on Madison Avenue, next door to Barneys, one of his first retail clients, to learn more about his approach. Malle’s passion clearly comes through in his animated way of talking, and is contagious in how he can carry on about the way tuberose smells at different stages of its life and at different times of day, which somehow becomes an exciting fact that you want to learn more about.
Our conversation veered off into many directions, but what I liked most was what Malle called “living with perfume.” He spends weeks with each version of a new scent, adapting it to different situations, different rooms, and different people. Below is our edited conversation.
Eugene Rabkin: The first thing I wanted to ask was how you decided to start the label. And not just how, but why?
Frederic Malle: In my case, the why is the how. It was partly out of frustration with the whole business, which was going down the drain. It was being run by product and marketing people who used to sell dog food or whatever, and now they were being hired to create and market luxury fragrances.
So, perfumers, some of whom were my friends and the people I was working with everyday, grew very frustrated, because they were dealing with people who didn’t understand their language, who didn’t know anything or didn’t care much about the product itself. Their budgets were slashed, because most of the money would go into image-making, and these managers wanted a one-size-fits-all bland perfumes with celebrity faces on them. There was not a day where I didn’t hear someone saying, “This is so boring. They are asking me to do J’adore (Dior’s classic perfume) with raspberry or coconut.”
And then the same frustration was seeping into my private life. At dinners in Paris I began to notice that, unlike in the old days, no one cared about my job anymore. When I said I’m in the fragrance business, I might as well have said that I’m a plumber. One day I was at a friend’s house with several prominent Parisian women – one was a writer, another one a famous doctor, and another one a fashion designer. At some point their conversation turned to perfume. They were talking about how they stopped wearing perfume because they did not want to smell like their mothers or like everyone else. And that one conversation really gave me the courage to start on my concept.
First, I thought, let’s try to turn things around and bring some creation back to the business. It was obvious to me that the most interesting people in the industry were the noses, but they were also, unjustly, its most hidden part. So my idea was to become a link between the perfumers and the most demanding public.
One of my long-time customers whom I regularly interacted with came from the publishing world, and I realized that my relationship with the perfumers was very similar to the one they have with the writers. And I had the epiphany that I can say that these perfumers are no longer ghost writers, but true artists in themselves, and that I simply become the publisher of these authors’ work.
ER: Do you feel validated now that the mass-market consumer seems to finally turn away from celebrity fragrances and towards niche perfume?
FM: Yes, I do. Let’s say that perfumery was fine dining, and at some point it became McDonald’s. And now it’s back to fine dining. But what I am most proud of is not to have reinvented luxury in this business, because if it was not me, it would be somebody else, but to be the person who has shed a little ray of light on the perfumers. Jacques Polge, the Chanel perfumer, told me the other day, “You put the church back in the center of the village.”
That said, not everybody is equal in the luxury perfume world and not everything that’s small is beautiful; there are niche brands that have jumped on this bandwagon. There is a certain naïveté in this, and you have marketing people who are pretending to be cool. But the good thing is, apart from these, you now have some very good niche brands and healthy competition.
ER: Can you tell me more about your perfume making process?
FM: (Smiling) Oh, that’s very easy to explain, but not very easy to do. First, I have a great intimacy with most of the perfumers I work with. And, then it’s really an exchange of ideas. I remember going to Dominique Ropion with an old hair product for men, something my father used to use. And I thought maybe he could generate a new freshness from it. He liked it and that became Geranium pour Monsieur. Then after we made the Geranium pour Monsieur shower gel, I told him that I liked one part of it that might work for a women’s scent if we add something very oriental, and making it warm. And that became Portrait of a Lady (one of Malle’s bestsellers).
So, sometimes an idea can come from an existing scent, more precisely a piece of it that I try to put in a very different context. Or it can come from nature, from the way a certain flower smells at a certain time of day. Or it could be a new raw material coming out that piques one’s interest.
Because we all know what different accords smell like, we can first build them conceptually, in our heads. Then we make a sketch to validate where we are and we have a conversation around that, to see if we are making it too complicated or too simple. With Dominique (Ropion), when I do or say something right, he’ll say “pas con,” meaning “well, that was not totally stupid,” which is the highest praise you can get from him.
And then, once you have your general shape, it’s very much like sculpting. The perfumer will send me a version of the fragrance and I live with it, so I can answer questions like, is it complex enough? How does it diffuse with time? What kind of a trail does it leave? Are the proportions right? Is there something upsetting one of the accords at some point? You work by methodical elimination, and it can take a year a two of smelling things everyday to get to the point where we are satisfied.
Another thing that I think is very important, and very subjective, is to make fragrances rather than smells. It may sound strange, but what I mean is, a smell is what you have in a candle, it’s a one-liner. But a perfume is something that becomes part of you. What every classic has in common is that although they’re very different from one another when you smell a classic on someone, you think that it’s of that person. There’s a complete fusion between the person and the perfume. Real perfume smells human and it’s very difficult to get right.
ER: You draw inspiration not only from scents, but from other creative disciplines, like art and architecture.
FM: Of course. Perfumery is a very big part of my life, but it’s not everything. I think it’s important to keep your eyes open, to meet interesting people, and to see good art, and this has always informed my life in general. My father has instilled the love of art in me. I don’t read much, but I listen to music, and I look at as much art as possible. Culture becomes the air I breathe, and its influence is in a more or less subconscious way.
I think the big difference between most people in this industry and myself is that I don’t take inspiration from other perfumery. I don’t go to Sephora or Barneys to smell other people’s work; I do my own thing. I’ve lived and breathed this whole business for a long time. I channel things from outside the business and interpret them in my own way.
Again, what’s more important to me is the ability to realize ideas, even more so than ideas themselves. If you don’t realize an idea yourself, someone else will. How many times you’ve seen that somebody writes something or does something and you say, “I had the same idea!” What’s important is to get things done, and that’s I love working with artists, whether it’s with perfumers or photographers or architects. Each store we do is an excuse for that. We are opening a store in Los Angeles, where I am thinking to work with an illustrator to paint the walls. We just did a store in Paris with Jakob + Macfarlane (Paris based architectural firm). A store is an opportunity to work with other creative people. And I learn from them.
ER: You have collaborated with a couple of fashion designers on perfumes. Can you tell me about your collaboration with the first one, Dries Van Noten?
FM: I have admired Dries’s work for a long time, and a mutual friend eventually introduced us. Dries came to my first store in Paris, shortly after it opened in 2000, and we have kept in touch thereafter.
At some point Dries asked to sell my collection of perfumes in his Antwerp store. Conversely, I went to see many of his shows. I love the way he mixes patterns and the way he mixes historical and cultural references. This eclecticism is something I very much relate to. So it was a very natural thing for me to try and do a perfume together.
One day I ran into Patrick Scallon, (Dries Van Noten’s long time PR agent and friend), and proposed the idea to him. And Patrick liked the idea and passed it on to Dries, so it happened, very naturally. Well, maybe not so naturally, because Dries by nature is a very reserved person, so sometimes it’s hard to get something out of him. And I don’t speak Flemish.
ER: Dries doesn’t speak French?!
FM: He does, but when he starts talking about feelings he switches to Flemish. Which can be grueling. You are having a good, productive meeting, ideas are flying, and then, all of a sudden he switches to Flemish. And I would ask him to explain either in French or English, and he would say, “Sorry, when I talk about feelings Flemish comes first.” But in the end I understood what he wanted. Also, for someone who does four shows a year, doing one object for an entire year, he must have thought I was crazy. But it worked out in the end.
ER: And how did the new perfume with Alber Elbaz come about?
FM: Again, it was through a mutual friend. Elie Top, who used to design Lanvin’s jewelry, introduced me to Alber years ago. She gave me Alber’s number, and I called him up and we went for lunch at Voltaire in Paris, and it was as simple as that. We just hit it off very easily.
We are both so much against the formulaic nature of our respective businesses, the recipes they require. Alber saw in the fashion business what I saw in the perfume business, that once you make a hit, you will be forced to make variations of that hit, instead of making something new. And we both thought that in fact, all you need to do is to make beautiful things.
So, at one point during that lunch, Alber asked, “Are you superstitious?” And I am very superstitious, because my father was amazingly superstitious and he passed it on to me. And Alber says, “You know, I think there should be more superstition in this world and less recipes.” And that’s how we named the new fragrance “Superstitious.”
I think you have to believe in yourself and be generous, and that’s one of the things I adore about Alber. Working with Alber takes you to a very high creative level, because he is so full of ideas. You know there are some people that you love dancing with? I have that sort of thing with Alber when it comes to exchanging ideas. We are really on the same wavelength. At one point, after trying some things, I decided to see if a formula that Dominque (Ropion) had already in development for more than two years would work for Alber. So, I introduced them, and Alber smelled the fragrance and said, “Maybe we can make it a little bit more punk?” Dominique looked horrified, but I knew exactly what Alber meant.
ER: Can we expect more collaborations with fashion designers in the future?
FM: Honestly, it’s not about working with fashion designers for me, but working with personalities, with artists. It so happened that the first two were fashion designers, but it could be an architect or a film director, as long as they have an aesthetic world of their own. Fashion designers? Why not? But if you look carefully, there are not that many fashion designers who are inspiring in the way Alber and Dries are. You have to pick your love affairs carefully.
Portraits by Dusan Reljin / Perfume and boutique photos courtesy of Frederic Malle.