Frédéric Malle is something of a legend: He commissions the finest noses in the world tocreate distinctive scents.
A conversation about sensuality, individuality and what makes a perfume the right gift
The twin smells of fresh paint and new furniture meet us as we walk into Frédéric Malle’s freshly refurbished office in Paris. The perfumer and entrepreneur, who actually lives in New York, begins by complaining of jet lag, but before long, his enthusiasm for perfume overcomes his weariness. It’s been almost 20 years since the now 57-year-old founded Editions de Parfum Frédéric Malle in a bid to (re)focus attention on the perfumer’s art. Malle cannot abide the random “faces” of advertising, but he does know how to sell perfume: with sensual allusions and subtle associations that leave room for the imagination – just like a good scent.
Monsieur Malle, your grandfather and your mother were both famous perfumers who worked at Christian Dior. What did your family discuss over meals when you were a child?
The conversation usually turned on the arts or politics, but my mother often talked to us about her work on the way home from school in the car, often grumbling about the people in the marketing department. She was always determined to avoid compromise – both in quality and creation.
Is it possible to hold a constructive debate on scent?
I’ve been working with perfumers for 30 years and we’re always very frank in our discussions of perfume. Is it interesting or not, original, a clean, straightforward composition? We care about the architecture of a perfume. Professional noses converse in their own secret language, and I’m very lucky to be able to speak it.
Is there such a thing as an objectively good or bad perfume?
A good perfume doesn’t aim to say ten things at once. It’s a precise scent, comparable with the cut of an elegant dress. It’s one that surprises and looks ahead. But most importantly, a good perfume becomes a part of an individual’s personality so when you smell it, you always associate it with that person and not a brand. A good perfume combines with the wearer’s skin. That’s the magic perfumers must be able to conjure up.
A good perfume doesn’t aim to say ten things at once
But we are generally given to believe that we need a different perfume for every occasion and hair color. Are you a defender of the “perfume for life”?
In a way, yes. That would be the ideal. On the other hand, while having breakfast at the Café de Flore in Paris recently, I looked around at the people there: Most of them were wearing jeans and T-shirts, but with the added touch of a stylish jacket or purse. A perfume can also make a good accessory, like a color that you can change now and again.
Aside from a distinctive scent, packaging and the good name of its creator, what else does it take for a good perfume to be successful?
A name and a story that tells people what the perfume is about. Take Angéliques sous la Pluie, for instance: Smell it, and you will find that it’s not a colorful fragrance – and if it does have a color, then it’s a delicate lilac. It’s a subtle scent that reminds me of a Scottish landscape, a bouquet of angelica lying out in the rain. Portrait of a Lady is one of the loveliest perfumes we have ever made, but it was so incredibly chic, I wasn’t sure whether it would catch on. I wondered whether it would even be suitable for everyday wear. In a case like that, I have to picture the person who would wear the perfume.
Names like Portrait of a Lady and Monsieur give clear hints.
If I smell something that reminds me of a gentleman, I call it “Monsieur.” But a woman can still claim the perfume for herself, just as she can wear an oversized blazer. It’s more difficult for a man to wear Portrait of a Lady, but some do. I don’t always get it right, of course. From the very beginning, I considered our perfume Musc Ravageur to be a classic and a very sexy scent – for a woman. But then I realized that men were buying it, too. It’s a genderless perfume. Everyone thought it was scandalous because it bucked every trend, but everyone likes its sexy undertone. The term “unisex,” on the other hand, describes something quite different. Unisex perfumes are very clean fragrances that are neutral rather than sexy. Our perfumes are certainly not unisex, they are profoundly sexy.
How often do new aromatic substances come out?
Good perfumers are always on the lookout for new, natural ingredients. Jean-Claude Ellena, for example, once came across timut pepper, which tastes of grapefruit. He found it so interesting that he had two kilos of it distilled in a lab. Chemical discoveries are much more rare. Obtaining a license for them is complicated, so they are expensive. That’s why the big chemical companies that bring out new fragrances also plan how to market them from the very beginning – and why these new molecules all have a similar smell.
What’s it like?
Dry, woody, with a hint of amber. Each has some little facet that’s different, but the bottom line is that they are all boring. The great discoveries that led to the use of chemical compounds in perfume compositions were made in the late 20th century, and included the molecule calone, which smells of the sea and oysters, musk molecules, and the isolated scent of cotton candy.
Do you commission research?
No, my perfumers are like the Formula 1 racing drivers; they have access to the best materials. The producers send them all the new aromas because they want them to be used.
How do young perfumers get a foot in the door?
It’s very difficult to get ahead in this business. The path is long and there’s no system to it. The best newcomers have to overcome many obstacles to train with the best perfumers. And then it takes them another 15 years to develop their own style. Only candidates with a real personality can become top perfumers. Otherwise, they are just excellent technicians.
Why are there so few great female perfumers?
The profession originated in southern France, where family knowledge was passed down from fathers to sons, who would then attend the academy in Grasse. But this started to change more than 30 years ago when I began my training. Not only women, but also students from outside the area began attending the school. Today there are just as many women perfumers as men, but they are still quite young.
Do perfumes have to be expensive?
Sometimes a high price is justified, sometimes it is not. Just as with sports cars and couture dresses, the relatively high price of a good perfume can be justified by its ingredients and how it is made. It takes 400 roses to produce a single bottle of Portrait of a Lady, for example. I make sure we follow the restaurant principle and don’t charge the same for scrambled eggs as for caviar. But as a buyer, you have to be careful, because if you are unlucky, you may only be paying for the marketing – hot air, in other words.
Many people like to give perfume as a gift. What’s important to remember?
I’d say the same applies to perfume as to any other gift: Don’t make it one for yourself. Also, you have to go one step further with perfume. You have to consider who the person really is, what they love, how they dress, what interests them. Describe them to someone who can advise you. The greatest faux pas possible is to present someone with a perfume that says: I want you to be someone else. People usually choose their own perfumes instinctively: A boring person will usually wear a boring perfume.
But the ads tell us that by wearing the right perfume, anyone can become a sex god.
That kind of marketing is boring and only appeals to boring people who buy boring perfumes.