A luxury perfume, made for the few, doesn’t need to cater to everyone. Operating on this belief, Le Labo has won over the New York market: the success story created by a complete absence of communication
An anti-conformist brand
No ads, no videos with famous directors, no wooing of celebrities, and no testimonials. Le Labo’s strategy rebels against the conventional marketing tactics of the cosmetic industry and, despite the fact, has led to exactly the opposite results of what you might imagine. Indeed, it is hard to find someone or even something in New York today that doesn’t carry the faint whiff of Santal 33. The New York Times even wrote an article about the ubiquity of the scent in every bar, boutique hotel, and creative event in Manhattan.
Surprisingly, Santal 33—a smoky mix with a base of sandalwood and cedar—was originally created by Le Labo with the intention to evoke the atmosphere of cowboys, not the Groucho Club. The success of the brand has been met with ambivalence by the founders of the brand, highlighting the incongruity between a “personal” niche fragrance by an anti-conformist brand, and its worldwide success.
Clearly, there is somewhat of a contradiction when those who broke the roles go on to dictate them: “It’s the price we pay for success,” says Fabrice Penot. “This is what happens when anti-conformism breaks through and takes hold.” From a niche item for aficionados to a cult phenomenon: the brand today finds itself toeing the line between boutique perfumery and mainstream company.
If fashion sees perfume as an olfactory extension of their product—accessories that complement the catwalk, sold to the public as part of a comprehensive lifestyle—artistic perfumeries are geared towards audiences who don’t see themselves as followers. Instead, their audiences see perfume as a personal object, who don’t necessarily want to share it with too many people, and who aren’t searching for a perfume, but their perfume.
Artistic perfumeries communicate through history, stories, and memories—without the aspirational message often promoted by fashion houses but rather, with real experiences which audiences can relate to. At the center of the industry is the concept of “tailor-made,” recalling pharmacies during the 1950s where your medicinal remedies, which were recipes listing all of the necessary ingredients, would be prepared on the spot in front of your eyes.
The pharmacist would blend the prescription together with a pinch of herbs, seeds, ointments, and powders from the various vials, bottles, and wooden jars lining the shelves—each unique mixture a modern work of art. The founding duo of Le Labo, Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot, have brought this process to center stage in their retail stores, where sales assistants—dressed in a white chemist’s coat and latex gloves—prepare the perfumes on the spot.
Roots in Grasse
Le Labo was founded in 2006 in Grasse, and expanded to New York, combining the raw materials from Provence with the industrial design of Manhattan. Their first boutique, in Nolita, was opened without any financial help or sponsorship—which they most likely would not have gotten anyways, given the few offers they received.
Roschi and Penot could not afford an architect to renovate the store; in fact, the industrial interiors that characterize the boutiques today come from that first store, in its original unpolished form. Neither could they afford a communications or public relations office, not even a press kit. Instead, all of the energy and resources of the company were spent on the creation of the product, hoping that it would speak for itself.
The absence of communications, due to a lack of funds, became a policy. Customers are offered a wider variety of perfumes to choose from, and not necessarily the newest ones. Le Labo takes at least one year to create each perfume, without the anxiety of rushing to market or the pressure of not selling. “The worst thing that can happen to a perfume is the smell of fear,” Fabrice Penot told Fashionista. As with all artisinal products, the starting point for the process is the raw material—not a fantasy world or romantic feeling. Only during the finalization of the product does Edouard Roschi allow himself to declare to be inspired by his clients, not by their personalities but by their pleasure from wearing the perfume.
The meeting between two
Born in Switzerland, Edouard Roschi studied chemical engineering at university both for the love of science and to make his parents happy. Even before graduating, Roschi had begun to imagine a future for himself far away from that sector, but it was thanks to his engineering background that he was able to obtain his first job in perfumery at Firmenich (the Geneva-based company, founded in 1895, produces the second-most perfumes in the world as of 2017).
After completing an MBA, Roschi began to work for L’Oréal, where he met Fabrice Penot. French by birth and New Yorker by adoption, Penot loved (and loves) books. At twenty-two, he left for a trip around the world with nothing but a backpack full of pounds of literature, breaking the first rule of backpacking: travel light. Penot began to work at L’Oréal, going from writing stories to bottling them. Roschi and Penot were introduced through working together on a perfume for Giorgio Armani, getting to know each other by the end of the project.
Although they had the opportunity to travel and grow as perfumers, they also felt that their creativity was stifled by the commercial need to license their product. Together, they found a language that united them, the same that would later characterize Le Labo: clean, minimal, and metropolitan. When they decided to start Le Labo with their own meager financial means, Penot moved out of his attic in Manhattan and moved in together with Roschi in a studio apartment.
A dictionary of essences
The idea of focusing on the direct experience of perfume and essences was born during a perfumery course, held by Hermès’ in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, in Grasse. All of the Le Labo boutiques and Le Labo corners carry a “dictionary of essences,” which allows customers to smell, learn about their tastes, refine their senses, and learn about the origins of flowers, plants, and woods. Once their choices are made, the essence is combined together with the right amount of alcohol in a transparent bottle and labeled with the name of its new owner.
Typewriters are used to write the labels. The names of the perfumes are no-frills: simply the name of the dominant note, plus a reference number (Patchouli 24, Ambrette 9, Neroli 36). Le Labo also creates a “tailor-made” fragrance for cities; there are eleven perfumes available exclusively in the city for which they were created, among which are Cuir 28 for Dubai, Limette 37 for San Francisco, Mousse de Chene 30 for Amsterdam, and Vanille 44 for Paris. All of the fragrances are unisex, and the raw materials are vegan—even if the brand doesn’t advertise the fact, since it believes that all companies should already follow a vegan and green ethos.
The brand has gained so much notoriety that customers spend up to €1000 for a single perfume, inevitably capturing the attention of several companies. In 2014, Estée Lauder bought Le Labo, but guarenteed the company’s continued autonomy and independence. Today, Le Labo has stores all over the world. Roschi and Penot’s operation could be described as punk, wanting to have fun at all costs in an industry that, despite its creativity, leaves little room to play. Unlike Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, however, who screamed the words “No Future” without knowing how to put two notes together, Roschi and Penot’s revolution is based on silence and technique.
The manifesto of the brand, published on their website, expresses their underlying conceptual and anticonformist stance: “We believe that there are too many bottles of perfume and not enough soulful fragrances; we believe fine perfumery must create a shock—the shock of the new, combined with the shock of the intimately familiar; we believe it is more humane to test cosmetics on New Yorkers than on animals; we believe in the future of luxury (hence of perfumery) lies in craftsmanship; we believe celebrities should pay full price; and we believe that explanation kills art. Therefore, forget about all of this!”
Le Labo’s latest perfume is Tonka 25, created in collaboration with Daphne Bugey (the nose behind Altaia, Byblos, Collistar, and Custo) after three years in the making. The scent features a tonka bean base, with notes of musk, vanilla, and orange blossom
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