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Frédéric Malle, The Interview

LifeRebecca O'ByrneComment
Frederic Malle

Sensually creative, Frédéric Malle is the master of his trade. Sitting at the helm of Editions de Perfumes Frédéric Malle, his journey to the top of the fragrance industry is steeped in family history and yet he stands alone as a visionary whose creations finds their way into the lives and perfume wardrobes of men and women the world over. 

In recent years the fragrance industry has seen a surge in smaller luxury brands making their mark on the market. Bringing to life an array of delightful delicacies, it’s all about personal and exclusive selections not to mention finding that scent that is undivided in it’s attention to the wearer yet arousing and suggestive to those in close company. A Frédéric Malle creation is all that and more thanks to Mr. Malle’s genius and unique business model which sees him play publisher in a wondrous story telling through the art of scent as he collaborates with the world’s most prolific noses to bring to life a whole new world, so sweetly smelling it’ll capture you fro the very first spritz.

As his brand continues to expand around the globe - with it's most recent launch at Brown Thomas, Dublin, we speak to Mr. Malle about his passion for what he does and his latest collaboration with one of fashion’s most prolific designers..

Frederic, you are one of the world's most luxurious perfumers with a background in the beauty industry stemming from your Grandfather being the founder of Parfums Christian Dior. What was it like growing up in the industry, surrounded by such strong and creative individuals?

My mother started working for Dior when she was 18, first as a lab girl and then working her way up. During my childhood, she was completely involved in creation. She was Serge Lutens’ biggest advocate and really pushed Dior to be more creative. She was also behind the idea for ‘Eau Sauvage’ and became sort of the full-fledged Development Director.

Growing up, I had a free and unlimited supply of ‘Eau Sauvage’, so I used to wear it all the time. When I was 11 or 12, I was at boarding school and playing hockey. I remember running and sweating, realizing or understanding how interesting and powerful the combination of a warm body and perfume was.

Having been raised in the creative part of the perfume industry, I am always pushing myself to create things that make a difference, that break into new territory and revolutionize.  

With your own brand Editions de Parfums, what is fragrance about for you and how has your own love of it evolved to date?

Fragrance is a part of me and I am a part of it. Perfume is an obsession, something visceral, not to say addictive, to me. 

Explain to us your process with each edition to the collection? How you come to decide which perfumer to work with on which project?

Choosing perfumers at the beginning of Editions de Parfums was very easy. I chose artists that had made important perfumes. I was friendly with this group of elite perfumers, who all look up to one another. It was like creating a little club.

Unfortunately, the industry has not allowed perfumers to come up with very interesting perfumes in the last 20 years, which makes it more difficult to spot talents. I do it listening to other senior perfumers who are always happy to point me towards young up and coming successors.

I often begin working with them on home products, like I did with Bruno Jovanovic, and offer them to work on a full fledged perfume once I am convinced that they are truly talented, and when we have developed a common language. I then choose a theme with them according to their personal style and according to their skills.

I have an ongoing conversation with 4 or 5 perfumers from which ideas come from. Whether these ideas come from them or from myself initially is irrelevant, they become ours anyhow. I work on 3 or 4 perfumes at a time, some are launched, others are abandoned, some are fairly fast to make, others take years. Our principle is to only launch perfumes when ready, working on several things at the same time enables me to launch very “finished" products.

Scent evokes a desire wouldn’t you agree? Something of an unspoken, silent evocation if you will. What is the language of scent in the world of Frédéric Malle?

Perfumery is always about seduction. Thanks god there are many ways to seduce. Life would be too boring otherwise! I would never publish something under the name of Editions de Parfums that I didn’t think was super chic, timeless and very sexy.  

Each perfume is a different story, a different aesthetic. There is not one message. I think that it is incredible to create something that becomes a part of a person. It is a privilege being present in someone’s life 24/7 – my creations are worn when people sleep, seduce and get a job. A perfume can strengthen the best aspects of a personality and enhance feelings like sexiness and power. 

We dress ourselves in fragrance each morning and perhaps change for the evening. In your opinion, what completes a scent wardrobe?

I suppose it varies depending on the person, but one should keep in mind that perfumes dress a person. I don’t want to impose upon people a certain way of wearing a perfume. It’s up to them to decide for themselves what makes them feel good. 

To me personally it is a matter of mood, of seasons and of where I am. I always have 5 fragrances in my suitcase, like I always travel with about 10 ties to be able to choose the right one according to the light and atmosphere of a given day. It is all about freedom and precision.

Do you believe in buying perfume as a gift for others, or is the art of choosing one for oneself too intimate an act?

The essential thing in buying a perfume is to know yourself, or know the person you are buying for, very well. I always say that a perfume reflects who you are, even if some people are reluctant to admit it! 

When choosing a fragrance, never look for an instant reward. Otherwise you are shopping for the tune of the summer. You like the song for two weeks and then you never want to hear it again. Give yourself time to smell a few fragrances, not twenty. Take a moment to think about you are. How do you want to come across in your life? How do you see yourself? Once you understand how you are and who you are, then you are in a good place to judge a fragrance which is going to be you. The selection will be much easier. 

For many reasons, the fragrance industry has changed hugely over the last couple of decades, how do you see it today in the age of fast living where so much is about who is shouting the loudest or gaining the most traction?

One of the reasons I started Editions de Parfums was to free perfumers from these types of market imposed trends. If there is one company in the industry that tries to elevate perfume making at the level of an art it’s probably us, because I use perfumers as artists and I consider them artists and I give them so much freedom. Because of my technical knowledge, I push them very hard to make things that are a work of art and are very artistic. I personally think that perfume is very much like design. It’s what’s called an applied art in French. It’s between a fine art and a craft. It’s a very technical thing. And then it’s a commercial art, like movies are commercial art. There are great movie directors, there are great artists, but there is always this sense of commerce when you make a movie, you don’t make a movie for one person.

You’re bringing to life the idea of ‘fashion meets fragrance’ in your latest creation with Alber Elbaz and his sensual ’Superstitious’. How did it this pairing come about?

I have always liked what Alber Elbaz designed. My wife always wore his Lanvin dresses and my kids ran to H&M when his collaboration arrived. He always came across as a very kind person but we didn’t know each other until a mutual friend put us in touch and I invited him to lunch. He’s not someone who will refrain from giving you an idea because he thinks he could sell it to someone else. He has a thousand ideas a minute – some of them good, some not so good and I’m the same. It was a very easy relationship right from the start. At the end he kept saying, ‘this is too easy, each time I worked on a fragrance it was a nightmare!’ 

We were on the same page from the very beginning. We knew that we were to create a fragrance together, we said it would possess this mysterious element. Like a book open to interpretation, it would let the imagination run free. And like Alber’s own fashion designs, it would empower whoever wore it, leaving an indelible trace long after it passed. Almost immediately we knew if we were to create such a scent, it would bear the name Superstitious. One of the things Alber and I had discussed, and that really stayed with me obviously, was this idea of superstition as a powerful force, the sixth sense, that there is more than what meets the eye. 

A Frédéric Malle production is a marriage between your values and principal understanding of what a perfume should be and the unmistakable personalities of the creators you work with. Where are the lines of creativity and authority between you and your chosen perfumers drawn?

We first discuss with perfumers and decide exactly what we will be trying to achieve. We either begin from an existing accord, such as a flower, or the smell of an object, or we decide to work from a few raw materials that we assemble together to generate an unusual accord, like a painter working on an abstract painting.

After a few trials we have a sort of olfactory mock up that enables us to evaluate our idea. We then decide to go on or not with the project. If we decide to move forward, we move to the refining stage during which, trial after trial we work every detail, reach our goal and make a finished perfume. We very rarely move away from our goal during this refinement period. We do that very consciously and redefine our goal if we do. One must be very rigorous to come up with such essential / streamlined perfumes. Hopefully, at one point, it clicks, like a cuckoo clock; you just know that you have gotten it right. It becomes obvious.

What are your three main pieces of wisdom when it comes to fragrance?

All the perfumes in the collection share three crucial characteristics: first, a constant diffusive performance; second, staying true to their own singularity and never imitating another; third, merging with the skin to the extent that the perfume becomes one with the person wearing it. 

What does beauty mean to you Frédéric? 

The nature of witnessing a brilliant mind in the process of creation, the yes and the no revisions back and forth, varies of course from artist to artist. But the joy of it all, the excitement that something assuredly beautiful is happening, that is what matters to me. This is why I say my love in life is to work with artists, whether they are perfumers or architects or fashion designers.

If you weren’t doing what you do now, where might we find you?

I would be an architect – or maybe a musician. 

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