When fashion meets fragrance
Frédéric Malle has been hailed as the godfather of modern perfume. Our fashion editor spoke with the famous French fragrance 'publisher', who has become a regular visitor to Ireland and whose range launches at Brown Thomas next week
Frédéric Malle is in LA for the opening of his new fragrance store on Melrose Place when I catch up with him at Chateau Marmont.
The French-born father-of-four calls himself a 'publisher' rather than a perfume designer and his genius move was to invite 10 of the best 'noses' in the world - artists like Pierre Bourdon, Jean-Claude Ellena and Ralf Schwieger - to create fragrances of which they could be truly proud. Back in 2000, Frédéric's Editions de Parfums range launched with the name of the 'nose' on the front of the bottle.
I volunteered for the interview because I'm intrigued by the power, and longevity, of one of the fragrances in particular. A dear colleague wears Portrait of a Lady and I know by simply walking into the lift several hours later that Liz has been in the building. Created by Dominique Ropion, this perfume contains the strongest ever dosage of rose essence and patchouli heart and, consequently, it attracts like a magnet.
Dominique was also the nose who created Géranium Pour Monsieur, Carnal Flower, Une Fleur de Cassie and Vétiver Extraordinaire, and was also responsible for Superstitious, the newest arrival in the family of scents which has now grown to 26.
It's an apt name for this collaboration between Frédéric and former Lanvin couturier Alber Elbaz, as both men are extremely superstitious. Like a couture gown, Dominique adapted his masterpiece to Alber's wishes, so it was crafted with essence of Turkish rose, Egyptian jasmine, velvety peach and apricot skin, sandalwood, Haitian vetiver, patchouli and musk - and will be one of the stars when an Editions de Parfums counter launches in Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, Dublin, next Monday.
Because Alber has a particular superstition about broken glass, that image was dropped from the visual merchandising plan. "For years, I've admired Alber Elbaz, whose work I discovered in the late '90s when Pierre Bergé chose him to take the helm of Yves Saint Laurent," explains Frédéric, who previously collaborated with the designer Dries Van Noten.
Describing the back-story to his latest collaboration, Frédéric tells me: "I admired Alber from afar. We had a friend in common who used to design with him at Lanvin and Saint Laurent so I asked Élie for his number. Alber and I had a semi-blind date. It was very strange: like meeting someone and feeling like you have known them forever. That day, we even found out that we are both very superstitious. I had an extremely superstitious father and I think it rubbed off on me. Alber is too, and says people should be more superstitious and less rational."
Frédéric speaks with the passion of a man who grew up immersed in the world of perfumery; his grandfather Serge Heftler Louiche was most notably the founder of Parfums Christian Dior, and Frédéric knows every fragrance made since 1905. His mother, an art director of the fashion house's perfumery, played a hand in the creation of Dior's legendary men's fragrance Eau Sauvage.
I'm curious about how one should apply them. Perfume first and clothes second?
"Personally, I've always worn perfume on my skin because I think it is the most sensuous way to do it," explains Frédéric. He describes it as "like a frame to a painting", even when you are naked. Wearing perfume, he says, "gives you an added dimension and there is something great about being yourself plus something. It is the ultimate accessory: it goes way beyond fashion and it is something that people have understood since Egyptian times.
"I like wearing perfume before dressing up but, that said, some people spray it on their gowns or their garments, and it is perfectly fine. It is a matter of choice," adds Frédéric, who loves the story of Coco Chanel saying that you put perfume where you want to be kissed.
He continues, "I think there is nothing more beautiful that someone who has a scent he or she sticks to. You can have a fragrance wardrobe. Some people like to have different roles in life and can be serious one day and then an artist. I suppose there is a scent for all these roles and if people want to be like a kaleidoscope, I'm nobody to be telling them to remain one thing. Personally, I like the idea of having two and one is very fresh: it's almost not like a perfume; it is just there to make you feel clean and fresh.. like a shower lingering on."
Frédéric lives in New York overlooking Central Park, on Manhattan's Upper East Side with his wife, Marie (right), and Elvis, their pet Vizsla. Their four grown-up kids have flown the nest and any spare time in his diary is spent with family in New York and Long Island. Catherine Deneuve, who wrote the foreword to his 2011 book about perfume making, is a long-time friend. (The Iris Poudre perfume by Pierre Bourdon was inspired by Deneuve's movie Belle de Jour).
Frédéric says his drive in starting his business was to "create contemporary 'classics', because to my mind they are the only way to perpetuate people's desire for perfumes - a sort of antidote to celebrity fragrances".
Before he heads off to his store opening, I seek his advice about choosing a perfume that best corresponds to one's personality - and age? "Oh, it's very simple. I think when you choose a scent, it's like choosing your husband. I mean, you have to be incredibly honest about what you want and what you expect. You don't want to be like somebody else; you have to be completely yourself. You have to know why you are choosing a scent. Is it to seduce; is it to go to the office? When are you going to wear it? It is going to be a companion for you for a long time.
"We are selling more than 20 scents," Frédéric continues. "They are all very good - but they are not good on everybody. You have to pair them properly. I think you have to buy what you are comfortable with and, if you do, it becomes effortless - it becomes part of you.