How To Create A Modern Masterpiece - The Gloss Magazine

How To Create A Modern Masterpiece

A new Frédéric Malle scent is always an event in the perfume world. Sarah Halliwell got an exclusive preview of Heaven Can Wait, ahead of its launch in September, and talked to Malle about the story behind this spicy scent, how he works, and what makes these perfumes so special …

April 2023, London. Arriving in Heathrow airport to interview perfume “publisher” Frédéric Malle, I stand on the escalator and am immediately aware of the most beautiful scent wafting from the woman in front of me, a stylish blonde in large glasses (who turns out to be make-up artist Val Garland). The perfume is Portrait of a Lady, the most instantly recognisable modern classic in the perfume world. There are so many beautiful scents in the world, but this one, to me, has the most dramatic and immediate impact – it’s the ultimate head-turner, a startling hit of sheer beauty.

Does it still thrill Malle when he smells it in the street? “If you’re jaded to the point that you don’t care when someone wears your perfume with style, this means you have to stop – there are too many brats in this business and you can’t afford to be one!” Frederic Malle is always fantastically entertaining, thoughtful and considered to talk to, with fascinating insights into the perfume world that he’s inhabited his entire life (his grandfather founded Parfums Christian Dior, and his mother was creative director). We meet in advance of an evening dinner at the ultra-hip members’ club The Twenty Two, London, with an intimate crowd including Josephine de la Baume and Alexa Chung and a bunch of creative movers and shakers from various fields. The table setting was chic and minimal: simple white candles and vases of white anemones, by Flowerbx London.

Alexa Chung at Frederic Malle’s private dinner hosted at The Twenty Two, London.

Malle’s influence on the perfume industry cannot be underestimated. First and foremost, he brought the perfumer out from behind the scenes to centre-stage. “It was so obvious, to the point that when I did it, I thought I was missing an elephant in the room, really. Why has no one done this before? It was so strange. Am I missing something? To me, despite the fact it was pure justice, it was a way to involve them more; they were proud to sign their own perfumes, and to not hide behind the brand. It was also simply a way to show that these were artistic perfumes, and to really explain what we were doing. And they are all really interesting characters. For example, Dominique [Ropion] is the most knowlegeable person I know in this industry – by a long shot. So … it just made sense.” He always remembers talking to perfumer Edouard Fleischer, who created Poison, and reminiscing about the launch party for that perfume in 1985. But Fleischer only recalled watching TV that evening – some 800 people were there, but he was not invited.

Heaven Can Wait

The new Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, Heaven Can Wait, lands on September 4 at counters nationwide. It’s a sixth collaboration with long-time friend Jean-Claude Ellena; the Grasse-based Ellena created Angeliques Sous La Pluie, Cologne Bigarade and Bigarade Concentree, and L’Eau d’Hiver, before being “stolen” by Hermès in 2004 to be their inhouse perfumer, where he stayed for over a decade. “I always thought that there was another speed in him, another thing – like great painters have different periods, Picasso being a key example. During his time at Hermès, we had stayed in touch. And at one point I had a sense that Hermès was going to come to an end. The minute he was out, I went to have a conversation with him. I think that he was about to stop – he had had a long and fruitful career – but I told him what I had in mind, and that maybe there was a Jean-Claude Ellena within the Jean-Claude Ellena that we knew – and I think he was tempted.”

In 2019, Ellena exploded back into the Malle stable with Rose & Cuir. “It was a bit of a change because he had become probably the most feted perfumer of his generation and he was really a star – still is – people recognised his style, and yet he was more leaning on me than before. Previously, he was the perfumer that I gave the longest rein to, because he liked working on his own and didn’t like to have someone breathing down his neck. Now, for this transformation, I was very honoured and happy that he asked me to become his sparring partner.”

“So there was the first success (Rose & Cuir was a success in our eyes, aesthetically), and then we spoke at the beginning of Covid. It was a dramatic moment: I was in Long Island, he was in Grasse, and we started working on the phone; Fed-Ex was still working, so we started exchanging ideas literally over the phone, and sending each other packages, and that’s how Heaven Can Wait came about.” It’s part of an “ongoing conversation” with Ellena, who is now in his late seventies.

Heaven Can Wait is a departure for Ellena. “It’s a big perfume,” says Malle. “One of the things that makes me proud is that it’s a big turn in his style – yes, it has his usual precision, but it’s a different theme. It’s really as if he had gone from sketches to doing a finished painting, because it’s really accomplished.”

Hot Spice

Typically, Malle explains, Ellena has used cooler spices, but this time he wanted to work on “a warm spice, which has more heart, and bigger volume.” It reads like a delicious recipe, with emphatic spice notes including clove, nutmeg and pimento. There’s also musk and vetiver, and also touches of “fruit-like elements of peach”. It smells warm, reverberating with spice notes, with musk acting “like the pedal on a piano”, enhancing the different elements. I can smell each element clearly, from the initial addictive iris – somehow a timeless note that features in classic perfumes, but also smells modern – to the earthy, spiralling clouds of spice. It’s both striking and unassuming, a scent that makes you draw in closer, that you can’t quite get enough of.

“When I revisited it, I realised that we had somehow paraphrased, a little bit, L’Origan [a Francois Coty perfume of 1905], in some ways the mother of all perfumes in France, and a great source of inspiration for many perfumes; L’Heure Bleu by Guerlain is a pretty copy of L’Origan. It’s as if Ellena had gone back to the root, but instead of using all its complexity, he had just taken the main elements and done a very precise sketch. So it has the warmth and the quiet heat of L’Origan, yet it’s so much more rational and stylised and precise, à la Jean-Claude.”

Speaking in scent

Ellena describes his own style as “simplicity”, rather than minimalist: “It’s there, but it doesn’t disturb you – light but present.” Heaven Can Wait is, says Malle, “a bit more detailed than usual, but it’s still a short formula. With Jean-Claude, Dominique [Ropion], Maurice [Roucel], when we work together, we work very hard to pare things down, so that each ingredient can really shout – if everything is a paraphrase, it can become a blur. And I think with creation in general, whether it’s designing or literature or perfumery, it’s all about choices and you have to know what you want to say – you choose one or two elements if you have to, but it’s a choice.

“Many perfumers are so hesitant that one thing is similar to another – because they didn’t have the guts to say something specific. Jean-Claude is very good at this, at editing his own work, and he loves this slightly unfinished style. It’s like the way Michelangelo used to sign his own drawings – he was the first to do this, because he loved the freedom in it. This perfume is a little bit more finished, but it’s still a short formula. It’s the only way to create something specific; otherwise it becomes like a children’s drawing, with too many colours, and so you lose the essence.” He compares it to the mass-market, trying to please so many people that they have to tick too many boxes.

Into the future

Malle has always defied the mass-market strategy of getting a bankable, famous face to entice people into store and buy something that’s “not offensive”, because it’s endorsed. “We have a very different mechanism: I buy it because I love it…There are some perfumers, kids, who are really behaving like elderly citizens in this business – they have understood that, in this ‘niche’ market, it’s almost a good thing to focus on the literary bullshit, and banal things. And yet some of them are the real deal and are quite extraordinary. My new thing in life is to participate and work with them, and if possible to pass on what I’ve learnt from other people.”

Malle is modest about his status in the industry. “I’ve been so lucky that I work with 99 per cent of the best perfumers of my generation, and so I have learnt a lot from them, and now when I work with kids, they look up to me and they hope I’m going to transmit what I’ve learned – and so it puts me really on the spot, in the sense that I am supposed to be the one with the knowledge. In general, I don’t really think of age; everyone is more or less equal, whether at home or in the street, and that’s how I was brought up. As a result, I don’t really think that what I say carries so much weight. And it never did with Jean-Claude and people of that world – at the beginning it was learning, and now we are sort of equals, we’re friends and we work together and we go back so many years, so it’s like having a very comfortable conversation. But when I work with kids, what I say bears quite strong weight – and so it’s a bit frightening!”

Karishma Choraria, Harriet Clapham and THE GLOSS Beauty Editor Sarah Halliwell pictured at Frederic Malle’s private dinner at The Twenty Two, London. 

Au naturel?

“Perfumery is anything but a dream,” says Malle. “It can make people dream, but it’s quite technical.” Currently, there’s a focus on ingredients in perfume, just as in skincare. But with perfume, it’s rather different, and championing “natural” ingredients is missing the point, argues Malle. “I think this attention to what’s in a perfume is absolutely a trend today, which is motivated by marketing people, who are themselves motivated by China, as a way to make money. But it’s sort of misleading. It’s another misunderstanding, first about our business – because we are a technology-driven business, and perfume became interesting the moment that extractions were more precise, and also the minute chemistry got involved. And as for naturals, the way we extract them use sulphates or gas, so it’s sort of a misleading way of seeing things.

“And I’m extremely concerned about this love for nature, first of all because it means that everything manmade is, by definition, not as interesting – I think we are the most beautiful thing on earth and I don’t think that nature could make the Sistine Chapel! Manmade things can be quite beautiful and, conversely, not everything that comes from nature is aways beautiful; it can be quite disgusting or dangerous. It’s really also an open door to complete fascism, because when you put in “nature” – for example, anti-abortion laws – it can become an excuse for really the most oppressive regimes. I am probably a modernist, and I believe in as much freedom as possible – and this idea of having nature as always right is dangerous. So I think people talking about this ingredient thing only think about money. And brands have a responsibility, and should educate people, rather than try to make them stupid.”

Malle discusses why the end result is what really counts. “Because we give so much freedom to perfumers, they can use any ingredient and sometimes they use a big slug of a natural you could not afford usually. Also, the excellent quality naturals we have access to, that Jean-Claude was using for this, they are like a family, like cousins, and when you can master them, it creates an effect. But if you use too many naturals in a formula, it creates a mess: the natural is very complex, it’s like a whole sentence. Just try writing an article with finished sentences; you can try one or two but then it becomes an impossible puzzle. Synthetics, on the other hand, which are often natural-identical, are more like words, so they are infinitely more precise – so they are easier to use. We used a lot of naturals here, because they were so similar to one another that it created that world. Then we offset it with iris and some musks that are not natural, and with lactones that are found in nature, but are not natural – how do you label that? So instead of a sentence, we have quoted a paragraph, but then added more words to frame it. So yes, there’s quite a bit of natural here in this formula, but I don’t see that as a key focus.”

Malle on looking ahead

It’s harder than ever to stand out in a crowded market, and to say something new. Malle is candid about the pressure to keep standards as high as he’s set them. “It’s always my fear. It reminds me of the Rolling Stones, somehow: you listen to those songs from late sixties and seventies, and there’s so much energy and so much creativity … and then they still play very, very well and sometimes there’s one super-good track, and they are still great musicians – but you have less of that excitement. And for me it’s all about remaining relevant and still keeping the excitement, and I just hope that we can do it.

“What’s also quite humbling is that, in retrospect, we have made a few very good perfumes that move things, as I hoped we would, and so when you have worked on something very, very good, you want to top that, and you always wonder if you’re going to be able to do it. And although we made these in a very innocent way, now, because I speak to so many people about what we have done, it’s put me, sort of, out of my world, and made me like a spectator – and I just want to make sure that what we are doing is as interesting as what we have done before. But the pressure is not so small – and the question is whether the format we came up with (because we were really one of the first to do what we did), is it still relevant today?”

Malle is a maelstrom of ideas. He has previously collaborated with designers Alber Elbaz [Superstitious, 2017] and Dries Van Noten [2013]. “There were three I wanted to work with – the third was Azzedine Alaïa. We had many conversations but it didn’t work and he decided to go with a larger company. That I regret – he was very inspiring and he was a character, a great guy. There are one or two other people I’d like to work with, and eventually I’d like to work with more artists.” Malle worked with Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz at the Venice Biennale back in 2015, together with Ropion, conjuring a scent representing skin colour, and plans to do more projects like this.

Meanwhile, make your way to a perfume counter on September 4 to inhale the latest volume in this incredible library of fabulous first-edition perfumes.

Read more about Heaven Can Wait in the September issue of The Gloss Magazine, out on Thursday September 7.

Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Heaven Can Wait eau de parfum, from €210, at counters nationwide from September 4.

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