Frédéric Malle, nose to nose

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His nightmare at the moment? Anosmia, partial or total loss of smell, one of the most common symptoms of Covid-19. “Not only do you lose it, but once you get it back, you’re out of tune. For me, that would be dramatic. ” To sow the virus, Frédéric Malle, 58, is “horribly careful”: almost no more trips, self-assignment to second home. That of the adopted New Yorker is on Long Island, where he receives, via a computer screen interposed, an imposing green library as a backdrop. On a shelf, dozens of vials filled with a translucent liquid: fragrance tests. He hasn’t been receiving any for weeks. “All the laboratories are closed. Since I no longer need to smell anything, I started to use perfume. Already, it is good for the image and the respect that one has of oneself. It’s one way to look complete. I also believe that today, perfume represents a comfort, a reassurance. It’s a way to warm your heart. ”

In his, does Frédéric Malle have a vacuum in the shape of a perfume bottle? In 2000, this Frenchman shook the land of perfumery by launching a “publishing house” supporting the world’s greatest noses in the development, production and marketing of sophisticated and very high-end juices. At the time, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle had six creations. Today, there are 32, dubbed by professionals, adored by amateurs. The most known? Musc Ravageur, a seductive oriental by Maurice Roucel, Portrait of a Lady, semi-oriental, semi-chypre juice by Dominique Ropion, or even L’Eau d’Hiver, Cologne with oriental accents composed by Jean-Claude Ellena. The publisher has also collaborated with fashion designers, Dries Van Noten and Alber Elbaz.

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The olfactory tables are all presented in an identical bottle, a transparent glass cylinder punctuated with a heavy black stopper. Function dictates form: it smells like Bauhaus. On each black label (again), in majesty, the name of the perfumer, whose photo can be found on the back of the packaging box and on the walls of the brand’s shops. This bias – unprecedented in the world of modern perfumery – is not a marketing gimmick. “I wanted people to understand that perfumers were our authors,” writes the editor in Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. The First Twenty Years (Rizzoli), anniversary paving published in 2020.


When Frédéric Malle decided to launch his brand at the start of the millennium, the big perfume houses were in the hands of the financiers. Those who decide to bring a fragrance into the world are no longer designers, but HEC graduates fed on marketing strategies, far from the alchemy of smells. It is the great era of the muses and the perfumes of stars, a cultural moment where smelling like Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez is more fantasizing than the smell of Damascus rose. The authors of the juices are themselves passed over in silence, invisible. During major international launches, they are rarely invited. “The perfumers were very upset, because they were working with people who did not know the business, managers who wanted perfumes inspired by the bestsellers of the moment, in order to please the greatest number and gain market share. », Rebels again Frédéric Malle.

Another observation of the grandson of Serge Heftler-Louiche, founder of Parfums Christian Dior: his friends from the worlds of art, publishing and cinema (he is also the nephew of French director Louis Malle) no longer wear perfumes, for lack of products in their image. “They didn’t want to feel like their grandmother wearing old classics from the 1920s, or like an American pop star. The choice was impossible, ”says the man who learned the art of smelling at Roure, ancestor of Givaudan, the Geneva giant of perfumes and aromas.

Entering the edition of perfumes as one enters resistance, Frédéric Malle makes a point of honor to give free rein to the talent and inventiveness of perfumers. Without cost limits and without marketing brief. The bottle starts at 200 francs? It doesn’t matter. The success of this “luxury perfumery” – a term he prefers to “niche”, “too contemptuous”, and to “high perfumery”, “too pretentious” – is immediate. And emulated: Kilian, Byredo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian are some of the artisan perfumers who have emerged in the wake of Editions Malle. An influence that is felt even in the big fashion houses, where the collections of signature perfumes have flourished in recent years. And when we mention the takeover of his company by the American cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, in 2014, the publisher is categorical: “It does not change anything in terms of freedom of creation.”

A disruptor, Monsieur Malle? More like a wrongdoer. “I didn’t invent anything, I just put the church back in the middle of the village, as Jacques Polge said. [ex-nez de la maison Chanel, ndlr]. I put the best perfumers back in touch with the most sophisticated clients. And since the public has great common sense, they demanded more products of this type. Perfume is becoming again what it should always have been: an expensive product, an exceptional product. “


And how do you go about “accompanying” a nose in the creation of a perfume, Mr. Editor? “It depends, the initial idea can come from both sides. The other day, I sent a shampoo to perfumer Carlos Benaïm, because there was a musky accord that I liked. We then develop this idea together. At the beginning, I suggest very abstract things, because I want the fragrance to belong to its author. Once the topic is identified, the conversation becomes more technical and my language more precise. You have to see it as a collage, a work of composition where everyone adds elements. This exchange is made possible by sharing the same language, but also by a great reciprocal trust. ”

Speaking the language of smells is an art that Frédéric Malle also wants to pass on to his customers. Not to “sanctify the perfume”, but to find the most suitable scent “for each personality”. Halfway between a contemporary design gallery and a perfume laboratory, the boutiques offer “personalized conversations” around perfume, but also “columns to smell”, strange glass airlocks in which to soak up the wake of each juice.

From its beginnings, the publisher has also bet on the internet by opening the first e-commerce of fragrances. To find his perfume, all the Internet user has to do is answer a questionnaire and then wait for samples to land in his mailbox. “This allows us to understand and visualize our customers, but also to know how they want to seduce. At first, I was on the other side of the screen. I spent hours answering these people who had gone to confession. ” Frédéric Malle, evangelist of scents.

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