A good fragrance is really a powerful cocktail of memories and emotions. It's a misty spring-afternoon in Paris and I get carried by the unmistakable aromas of the First French capital. Today I will be meeting Frédéric Malle, the fragrance genius - a man who makes your mind to Indian villages, Catholic churches and into the arms of a lover - all by intriguing only one of your senses: your smell.
The founder of Editions de Parfums, the first “publishing house” for fragrances, sits in front of me on a small chair - he insisted I seat myself in his armchair. The polite gentleman grew up immersed in the world of perfumery; his grandfather, Serge Heftler, was most notably the founder of Parfums Christian Dior. Malle is a true pioneer seeking for deep emotions and poetry within the world of scents. To eliminate all that is superfluous or merely decorative is his credo. His fragrances uniquely embrace the body of each wearer rather than just be a “pretty scent”. His eyes sparkle as we talk about our admiration of the mysterious ways of the process of subconscious creation as well as his intriguing new project with Alber Elbaz.
Frédéric, are you very busy these days?
I arrived from NYC yesterday and I was supposed to see Dominique Ropion, who I work a lot with. I missed him last night so I spent the morning with him and then lunch and you know it goes on and on - it never stops. I had to go to my hotel for a call with the New York office: two hours and emails. In fact, when I come back to Paris, I'm exhausted because my office in New York expects me to still be there so I sort of switch on to New York hours.
Where do you come from?
(Frédéric points out of the window) Here. Paris. Literally on the other side of the Seine so I was in the 7th, then my parents moved to the 5th near the Pantheon and in my adult life I had an apartment at Odeon, in front of the theater.
I know that area quite well, I’m always there to visit one of the most inspiring and poetic people I know, Sébran D’argent. Do you know him?
It sounds very familiar, what does he do?
He travels the world on a motorcycle and takes the most beautiful photographs, sometimes with self-built cameras. Actually, he said he wanted to travel by horse now because it’s more poetic.
I actually understand that very well, I was in Argentina last christmas and we were on horses most of the time. It's a very good way to sort of see the scenery.
For me poetry is the most important thing - in art and craft I always try to find poetry. How do you find it in perfumes?
You know when you make perfumes it's a bit like Bach or Philip Glass - it's almost like doing a mantra in a sense that you cannot think about big brush strokes because you get lost too fast. At the beginning you assemble things, whether it's taking an existing fragrance that you are changing or you add something to it. Or you take an existing fragrance from nature, like a flower - so it's a composition already and you twist it with something else so you elongate it like you would do Photoshop and you create a monster. Another way to do it is to take a few raw materials and then you mix them like you would do with colours on a canvas. These are sort of the big approaches. You want a fragrance to last. You want it to be quite stable. It has to work with the skin. And then you also want it to be exactly the way you have conceived it. So you really have to make an effort to tap the medium so it becomes what you want it to be. And as simple and streamlined as possible.
Is it like a mantra so you never get lost?
Exactly, you smell things one after the other. And you know what's the reaction to each raw material. So in the end I was discussing that with Dominique this morning, you try that note and then you try this note and then you try another note. So they get dosed perfectly and you go around and you know you have many questions on the process. Like I want to make it sweeter, so I'll put vanilla or a rose. So I try them one by one very systematically and once you have gone around then there is sort of no way to go. Tightening up the perfume can take months. That's why I'm always late for these things.
Quality takes time.
But I think as you sort of do things you get into this routine which can be very boring to most people. But that's also where the poetry begins. Because the poetry is in the details. This is work. But it's not because it was work that we chose a scent, maybe it's work for nothing and so I find that the poetry is in this constant sort of coming and going between the rational and the irrational. When I smell in a very rational way and when I judge just with emotions and then the technical aspect of myself kicks in - and then I have to talk to a perfumer and I have to talk in technical trade so I go from being completely subconscious and listening to my gut feeling back to becoming a very technical person. And a very rational person.
So in the end you’re diving into the beautiful world of scent, leaving your consciousness behind, and afterwards you pull yourself out of it to put your experience down in technical terms. Does it feel like a dream?
Not really, I have to sort of say which one I really like for which reason and if I make a fragrance for a woman, which is the one that I would love to go to bed with. Or if it's a fragrance for a man, which one would I feel the biggest pleasure out of wearing. Or which person around me would wear it. A close friend, a person that I've only seen a few times in my life who made an impression and so on. There is always a moment where it's a matter of enjoyment. And guts. And then I sort of have to express that in technical terms. That takes you to reality. Reality-check.
Interview & Portrait Stefan Dotter
Read the full interview in the latest print issue.