What makes Frédéric Malle perfumes special? In an exclusive interview, the perfume “publisher” talks scent, seduction and bêtes-noires with SARAH HALLIWELL …
Rarely, very rarely, you smell a perfume that makes you stop in your tracks, disarmed by its sheer beauty. If you’ve ever inhaled Portrait of a Lady, an intense hot rose heightened with earthy patchouli and musk, created in 2010 by Dominique Ropion for Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums, you’ll know what I mean. Or perhaps it’s Carnal Flower, a creamy rich tuberose-centred scent, green and floral, that keeps you awake at night. A friend who tried Cologne Indélébile, a sunny, bright, crisp citrussy cologne with staying power, when staying with me, has worn it religiously ever since: “It’s just so much more beautiful than anything else I’ve ever smelled.” Twenty years after launching, Frédéric Malle continues to stand out from the crowd.
Monsieur Malle is on my fantasy dinner party list: he is erudite, passionate about perfume, refreshingly candid and funny. He was born into a world of perfumers: his grandfather worked with the legendary Edmond Roudnitska, perfumer at the house of Dior, where his mother later worked too. “Perfume was all around me,” he remembers, on the telephone from his home outside New York. And he soon realised the impact it could have: “A perfume is part of what makes someone seductive to others.”
In the mid-1980s, perfume was a world dominated by ad campaigns and flashy bottles. “Your only choice was something mass-market or to smell like your grandmother,” Malle says. “I wanted to open things up, to innovate and make something new and lasting.”
He put the perfume itself back at the centre of the picture. Working as a “perfume publisher” with an elite team of “ writers” – names like Ropion and Jean-Claude Ellena – he took on creations that big houses declined as too avant-garde or costly: what he calls the “Salons des Refusés of perfumes”. It was a radical shift to put the perfumers’ names on the bottles. Even the minimal look of the brand keeps the focus on what’s inside the bottle.
The attraction for the perfumers is complete creative freedom – a liberation from restrictions of cost or marketing. “When you make a perfume around an expensive raw material, you guarantee you won’t be copied – because the market, as much as they pretend to be generous today, never spend the kind of money that we do. There’s a generation of perfumers now who have never been free and don’t know what to do with freedom. To really work with no agenda, you have to have something to say. Doing it this way allows us to look for truly new perfumes. And my goal at the beginning, more than anything, was to prove that great perfumery could be modern. It was always this idea of creating something new.”
To celebrate 20 years, seven of the most iconic perfumes – including the elegant Portrait – are available in limited-edition bottles with red Bakelite lids. And a glossy book, published by Rizzoli, traces the journey so far, giving an insight into the working process: “Each perfume comes out of an encounter between two people – a very fluid, open, ongoing dialogue.”
“My goal at the beginning, more than anything, was to prove that great perfumery could be modern. It was always this idea of creating something new.”
A perfume, after all, is not just a weapon of seduction. “Perfume, because you can’t see it, doesn’t create situations, it only follows them, and expresses them – very well, actually,” notes Malle. “There’s always a reason that a perfume is doing well at a certain moment in time.” During lockdown, says Malle, wearing Geranium Pour Monsieur “made me feel stronger and kept me company. We are not dressing up or going out. Instead it’s a moment when you seek to comfort and soothe yourself – and a perfume can do that for you. It’s a general mood affecting artists in general: the seeking of something more cosy, intimate, for yourself.”
Portrait of a Lady is a modern classic, with a magic that’s hard to define. “We use good materials, too expensive to be copied,” explains Malle. “We don’t cut corners. The more you innovate, the more you have longevity.”
As for bêtes-noires: “A perfume with no personality – or trying to be in fashion or to smell like someone else.” A passionate custodian of the perfumers’ work, he likens layering to buying a Picasso and then painting over it. “You’re talking about artists with years of technical mastery – we work on a perfume for a long time, doing lots of trials to get it absolutely right, to create a work of art. And then you’re telling people to mix them? Mixing them is not going to make a perfume better. The whole idea of it puts me in a bad mood!”.
Shopping online has its challenges when it comes to perfume. “But at home, you really try a perfume well, you’re not going to be bullied and you can spend the entire day wearing it … It’s not about perfumes that are just made to wow you in a shop for two minutes. Instead, those that are designed like real perfumes will absolutely prevail.”
Éditions de Parfums Frédéric Malle and the 20th Anniversary limited editions are at www.brownthomas.com, from €175. Éditions de Parfums Frédéric Malle: The First Twenty Years by Frédéric Malle, Rizzoli New York, 2020.
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