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Notes on notes with Mr. Frédéric Malle – Smell before seeing

Frédéric Malle’s mother created fragrances at Christian Dior maison de parfums. «I never remember my mother taking me to the park, she took me to the Louvre».

Musac. The air is heavy with patchouli. «It has been the raw material of choice over the last few years, quick and easy to cut into pieces, hence the ‘patchouli hearts’ wherever you look. I don’t believe we can speak of trends in perfum ery. Instead I think that since the dawn of time, perfumers have copied what worked. Looking back at the history of perfume in the 1950s, the 1960s, many of Guerlain’s scents were copies of fragrances by Coty. Mitsuko is a copy of Chipre, Shalimar of Emeraude, L’Heure Bleue of L’Origan». Copying, pre cisely what they warn you against at school. Aren’t you afraid of making a poor copy? «Mitsuko is one of the best perfumes ever made, it transports Chipre into another dimension. Creating something from nothing is a very rare thing. Green Tea by Bulgari and Angel by Thierry Mugler, despite being two opposites launched at the same time, both worked». There must be a shared something. «It’s hard to explain, it’s called musac. A fixed formula which lies at the base of a fragrance. Twentyfive ingredients. It’s like an artist’s canvas, on to which you can then add other colors. Giorgio, for example, was the scent of modernity in the 1980s  I remember when I first noticed it on the street, on Madison Avenue, worn by a girl of color. Beautiful, sexy. It exalted the musac of those years – but today that musac is reminiscent of the scent of an old goat, it no longer works. Today’s musac is more floral, fresher, with notes of patchouli, of course».

The grandson of Serge Heftler Louiche – one of the founders of the Christian Dior maison de parfums, where his mother created fragrances. «I never remember my mother taking me to the park, she took me to the Louvre». His was a world in which creator perfumers could express their creativity freely, without constraint. Assessing the status quo in contemporary perfume compared to the creations of the past, it soon became apparent to Frédéric Malle that in the modern perfume industry, marketing requirements take precedence over quality. «The pace at which products are launched has become crazy. There’s a limit, too, on information transfer. Mass market perfumery has killed this environment. The message is brief, focused on the new. And as a result, cosmetics firms feel obliged to produce again and again, to continually feed the market, behind a franchise that always has the same name». Quantity, not quality. «When I started out, brands like Chanel and Dior would launch a fragrance every three years. L’Oreal only launched one per year. If you think how many fragrances are launched by each brand today, you will see how it’s easier to feed people with endless novelties, rather than with an inimitable tuberose, or a fine rose, or a unique patchouli». Have the raw materials involved changed too? Not much. What have changed are the rules and regulations. The fact that IFRA – the International Fragrance Association – in every sense, is focused on allergies, is very restrictive, especially when it’s all about using ingredients to copy nature». That which is natural should not cause harm. «It seems paradoxical, but considering that nature is the source of allergies, using equivalent products is not permitted, because they make one or two percent of the population sneeze. Every year these European laws change and get more complicated, so when we create a perfume, we are increasingly more restricted than we were before».

Cologne Indelebile by Dominique Ropion.

Parfumeur, ton nom est personne – perfumer, your name is no one. «I decided to return things to how they should be. To return the fragrances to centre stage, and to present the ghostwriter that is the perfumer. People said I was mad, that I was a megalomaniac. Then so many of them followed my path, including great brands who rediscovered selective perfumery». Does ‘niche perfumery’ still exist? «‘Niche’ doesn’t mean anything. Chanel started out small, Dior too. I decided to start small, with the aim of becoming big, whilst maintaining the very highest quality standards. For those not in marketing, ‘niche’ equals luxury, but in reality, a niche is just a little nook in a wall. That’s what it is. A little market, of a few people. I’ve never thought of it that way. People see it as a compliment, because they believe small equals beautiful. But I don’t think small is beautiful at all».

Frédéric Malle store in Milan.

A fragrance editor, as if they were books: Editions de Parfums is a declaration of intent. He founded it in 2000, after working at Roure Bertrand Dupont for many years (a place which gave rise to classics such as OpiumPoison and Ob session), to give the world’s finest noses the freedom to create the perfumes they had always wanted to achieve. Frederic Malle is the editor, the noses are the writers. Together they make an olfactory editorial series. How do you know when a perfume is finished? «You just know. At a certain point, it’s obvious. There is nothing else you can do. You must be candid, and strict, especially regarding where you want to go». Establish your destination before you start. «That’s one of the secrets of making a good perfume. Deciding to make that type of per fume in a certain way. Sometimes it evolves. Portrait of a Lady started in the background of Geranium pour Monsieur, made bigger and trans formed into an oriental fragrance. But during the process, something was missing. So Dominique and I de cided to add something. Rose, which would change its journey. We are always clear on where we are going, we are loyal and everything else is systematic»

Smell before seeing. «I’m rather shy, but I liked to court the pretty girls. I looked at their eyes. Their perfume told me the rest». It captured their quintessence. «It’s part of me. It’s part of a presence. When I didn’t know someone and I had a few minutes to figure them out, I would stand and take in their scent. It was a natural thing. That’s why at the beginning, it didn’t feel like work». Out of the blue. «Dries was made for you”. He pauses. «I mean the Dries Van Noten that you’re wearing. Portrait of a Lady might work, but it’s too dark, I see something lighter for a deluxe gypsy girl like you». What perfume does your wife wear? «Portrait of a Lady. My wife chose it. I was working at Dans tes bras, I was addicted to it. Intimate. Quiet on the skin. Strong, magnetic. She wore it for a bit. Then she worked at Portrait of a Lady. I was undecided between two similar versions, but it was completely obvious to my wife». 

Let’s talk about proust «Miss Dior. My mother used it when I was a child. And then she created some thing for me, Baby Dior, which was a cascading effect of something else called Eau FreshMy grandfather worked for Coty and asked Roudnitzka to create a fresh version of Chipre for him, Eau FreshEau Sauvage was what led me to discover the art of perfumery. I wore it before it was launched, it was my mother who created it. It gave me a feeling of power. When I played sport, I would sweat, and that scent was part of me. It was at that moment that I under stood how perfumes add a dimension to your character. When I saw a scent on a woman that was not Dior, Mitsouko. Then Guerlain. I grew up in perfume». 

Evoking an image, that’s never made sense to me. «When I smell, I see different types of people. In Portrait of a Lady I see two things: elegance. There was a woman, a friend of my mother, who was one of the most beautiful ladies in all of Paris. My grandfather gave her Miss Dior. That woman is now eightyfive years old, she’s still spectacular, and she still smells of Miss Dior. She always was and al ways will be my ideal of elegance». Is Portrait of a Lady the evolution of Miss Dior«It has the same grace as the woman who wears it. It’s not an image, as such, it’s more a sensation. The second thing I see in this perfume is a photograph by Avedon. Dovima in a Dior dress between two elephants». That’s a black and white im age. «In Portrait of a Lady I see deep pink, plunging into amaranthine. The background is darker, there’s some brown. The deep pink is a rose, but with red currants too, the dark part is patchouli. Then there’s an embrace, the oud in the middle. When I work with Dominique, I tell him: ‘we need toaddmorered’–it’sawayofnot naming a specific ingredient, because he might have a different idea. By saying add some red’, we might think of a rose, but also of a raspberry». 

Proust, as if it were a lullaby. «There’s a story about vetiver. I remember one of my father’s best friends, who was ‘charm personified’  a true gentleman. Unpretentious, pleasant. A ladies’ man yes, but subtly. My whole life, I felt like that man owned all the vetiver scents possible. From the Guerlain to the Carven, he always had the same ambience around him. He was a kind of Mar cello Mastroianni: I thought of him whenever I worked with vetiver. One day he came into my shop and asked me to go to lunch with him. He commissioned me to produce a vetiver fragrance. A year went by. Dominique was having some problems. There is a magical place in Paris, the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, one of my favourite spots. The bottom floor is a DIY paradise. He worked there. One morning I went to see him, and asked him to help us complete the fragrance. So he did, we finished it together. For years vetiver has been one of my favourites. My best friend wore it. Then my son. All of these people close to me smell of vetiver  yet I can’t associate it with any one of them. For me, the strongest perfume has no image».


In 2020 Editions de Parfums by Frédéric Malle celebrated 20 years of creativity. A year that has marked a historic date for the maison. Twenty years of paradigm shifts in the demanding world of perfumery.