World-renowned Parisian perfumer, Frédéric Malle, began life with particularly refined credentials. The grandson of Christian Dior Parfums Founder, Serge Heftler-Louiche, Malle once told Vogue, “It seems that my destiny was to become part of this [fragrance] world, even before I was born.” After training alongside some of the biggest master perfumers, Malle opened his eponymous brand and has been acting, for 13 years, as a “perfume editor”. Iconic perfumers—names like Jean Claude Ellena (Hermès’ Un Jardin en Méditerranée and Terre d’Hermès), Sophia Grojsman (Eternity, Calvin Klein, Trésor), and Dominique Ropion (Euphoria, Calvin Klein, Acqua di Gioia, Giorgio Armani, Burberry London)—create unique scents under his label. Away from the marketing pressures and constraints of a major label, these perfumers produce for the love of the rare art of fragrance that still lives strong today, especially in the Middle East.
Style.com/Arabia sat down with Malle for a conversation on the essence of luxury and the art of perfume making.
In thinking about your past, one phrase that particularly comes to mind is luxe a la parisienne (Parisian luxury). What does luxury mean to Frédéric Malle?
Luxury is everywhere. A lot of brands communicate massively, renting famous faces that are, according to them, the warrants of luxury today. Telling people who are lost in the universe, “This is luxury. Look this way.” The luxury I was brought up with is first and foremost anonymous. I have never seen Hermès communicating on the celebrity clients they have—it is not their style. Today, luxury starts with the image which is then developed into a product that has eventually lesser importance than the image it actually conveys.
True luxury responds to a reality that is very tangible. Luxury has a human value. It is created by people—called artisans—who back in the day were humble—maybe less so nowadays. It is the best of a trade for a scarce world.
Today, everything needs to be global. We try to reach the maximum number of people with the minimum amount of products. For me, luxury is in everything. I was very lucky to learn from people who taught me about elegance. I remember one day one of my dad’s horses won a race and he told me, “Let’s go to the tailor.” I then found myself in London. My father was one of the most elegant men I knew, but never too much—never too consciously dapper. People who are submerged by their appearance are, by essence, void of substance.
I remember Mark Birley [brother of Maxime de La Falaise and uncle to Loulou de La Falaise: respectively Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent muses] wearing his djellabas bought in Morocco, traveling for miles in the countryside of England to look for the perfect soft boiled egg, because that place had the right size of bread and the napkin that you were given was pretty—and that is luxury. That is a perfect definition. Luxury can be in the simplest things—it is the love of coziness, the love of details, and the love of storytelling.
What new projects are you working on—and who would you collaborate with, in an ideal world?
I launched a perfume with Dries Van Noten and I told him that I wanted to collaborate with people who interest me. If [famed Italian director] Lucchino Visconti was alive I would go and see him—he smells good. If [Russian ballet dancer] Rudolf Noureev was alive, I would go see him—he smells good, too. What is interesting today is that people place value on notoriety as opposed to the intrinsic interest that people bring. It is about the job. Picasso worked, Warhol worked…
Well, Warhol was notorious—into the social aspect of things, though…
Of course, but when you see his flowers, the electrical chair—he was an extraordinary master of color and an unparalleled designer. He said prophetic things because he had an understanding of this mundane aspect of our era and he had this almost wannabe quality to himself that he shared with Truman Capote. Both were very ambitious, very snobbish, and very social. None of them smelled good, really. Warhol didn’t smell like anything.
I imagine Capote smelled like something very overwhelming.
I agree with you.
What do you think about the new trend of perfumers producing Oud?
First of all, none of those perfumers use real Oud. Why would they even call their perfumes Oud? It is like a restaurant pretending to offer caviar because part of their clientele love it, but in actuality they are selling lumpfish roe to connoisseurs. It is insulting—so tacky. This is symptomatic of the catastrophe that happened in my line of work.
I remember when my mother used to work at Christian Dior, they would launch one perfume in France and if it was successful, it would travel to Europe and then the rest of the world. If it was a flop, it was dropped but they were given two-to-three years for testing a perfume. Now, it is mass production and the brand needs to please everyone at the same time—the Chinese, the Arabs, the Eskimo, and the American customers alike.
To create these perfumes the staff has shifted from being perfumers to being marketing people. And where do those luxury marketeers come from? Procter and Gamble, Purina… they know how to sell mass-produced goods. Those companies are emptied of talents and filled with business people who decided that to please the Arab market, they should produce Oud. It is a joke.
Local perfumers here are mastering Oud. I am more tempted to collaborate with a local perfumer than doing Oud and showering the Middle Eastern market with it.
How fastidious—picky—are you when it comes to mass-market perfumes?
There are only a few commercial perfumes that survive years on the market. If you look, since 1995, Dior J’adore is sustained by marketing pushes of millions of dollars—but Narcisso Rodriguez, which reminds me of Coco Mademoiselle, is far more interesting. Miss Dior, in its original version, is very good, as well. But the one I find very interesting right now is Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue; it is very new and sensual.
I adore Angel by Thierry Mugler. It is the modern Shalimar of Guerlain with a bit more patchouli.
Really? I wouldn’t have expected that you would adore Angel.
No, it is a great perfume, a real success story. I remember smelling it for the first time a week after its launch at Les Bains Douches [a famous Paris nightclub in the 1990s] and I instantly knew it was special.
And with that, the iconic perfumer straightened his shirt and proceeded to select the scent that he would imagine I should wear—he recommended his Dans Tes Bras by Maurice Roucel, a woody, floral musk. As I walked off, Malle’s own scent—a clean, fresh one from his as-of-yet unnamed fragrance due to be released next year—delicately followed me.