When I stepped into his small, lovely Montreal shop to tell Claude-André Hébert which of his perfumes I’d chosen to buy -- the one he’d handed me a sample of just before I left the shop the previous afternoon, to step into the bitter -27°C of December by the Saint-Lawrence river –he literally jumped up and down, clapped his hands shouting “Yay! Yay!”.
What’s not to love? The chatty, friendly, flamboyant Claude-André is a text-book case of the enthusiast. He apparently decided to launch his own perfume line ten years ago, when he was head of Thierry Mugler fragrances for Eastern Canada: he got sick, asked for a sign of God, and received “a wave of unconditional love” along with a vision…
The vision came to life a little over a year ago, and he couldn’t wait to share it. When he was setting up his boutique on the rue Laurier, the chic shopping avenue in the posh francophone side of Montreal, he was so impatient to show his wares that, as he was walking towards the yet-unopened shop, he spied a woman peering into the window and invited her in – that woman happened to be my friend and fellow perfumophile Tara.
Today, the boutique is open and generously stacked – but the square, refillable bottles still have no labels or boxes (C.-A. thinks he might use velvet pouches instead); the website, currently being designed by the team who created the site of the Cirque du Soleil, still isn’t up; the atomizers most clients clamor for are still being ordered… And Claude-André, while in the throes of presenting his compositions, can’t help dashing back towards the tiny “lab” usually presided over by a young French woman who trained in Grasse and somehow ended up in Montreal, to fetch other trials, essential oils, projects for new lines…
Despite claiming to be a practicing Buddhist, the man is a whirlwind: I’ve never seen anyone gush quite so much. He gushes when he smells his perfumes; you could say he literally gushes perfumes, too – in less than a year and a half of existence, Hébert Parfums Montréal already boasts no less than 16 references.
It all started with the concept of creating a masculine and a feminine for each of the continents: Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Oceania, and Asia (I guess he thought the Arctic and Antarctica wouldn’t yield much – seal blubber absolute? Eau de Krill?) To this he added three fragrances dedicated to Tibet in honor of the anniversary of the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. Then, two more, a masculine and a feminine, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the city of Québec. And since he was sponsored by the French consulate during the celebrations, he added another fragrance dedicated to Paris, Lumières de Paris.
At which point the nose begs for mercy -- 16, plus the backroom stuff, is way too much to take in at one sniff, especially since each in-store sampling has its own soundtrack: Claude-André tells the story behind each scent, of the archetypal European woman (Monica Bellucci in a tight skirt suit), North American man (an lumberjack-type outdoorsman), or Asian woman (a geisha in Kyoto)…
Claude-André’s P.R. claims the scents are all composed with ingredients native to the continent in question – with tests on people who actually hail from them – and all natural. I beg to differ on the second point (to the best of my knowledge, calone does not grow in Africa, nor ambroxan in Japan). The first is open to interpretation.
That said, the fragrances are complex and well-built, though I suspect the fragrances aren’t always macerated before they’re bottled. Smelling them in the shop, then in samples at various times, yielded various results.
This was especially obvious in the full bottle I picked, Africa. This is the descriptive:
Africa – origins and mother earth - The captivating scent of the desert dust of Africa… A herd of zebras passes in the distance and causes the ground to tremble.
(Notes: African vanilla, ochre, incense, dry herb bouquet)
My bottle of Africa started out its life as two practically distinct perfumes. The first was very green, with lots of hexenol (the “fresh cut grass” material) and a splat of galbanum that pointed more to Estée Lauder Private Collection than to the veldt. The second was a sweet, silky mix of vanilla, benzoin, patchouli and sandalwood that felt like the base of Dune had been cut off and grafted to Private Collection’s head, with no heart in between.
Yet, oddly, the mixture worked and the two perfumes finally met: I guess you can grow grass on the sand, after all – what are the zebras going to munch on otherwise?
Africa’s mate is the Queen of Africa, but while I was expecting this:
Queen of Africa – femininity and glory - The Queen of Africa rides in her open limousine, clothed in red and yellow and wreathed in white African violets.
(Notes: stephanotis, African violet, Madagascar vanilla, ebony)
I think I met, if not the haughty Kate Hepburn after her romp with Bogart in the African Queen, at least, quite possibly, Honeybear Kelly, aka Ava Gardner, in full-blown seduction mode in Huston’s other African pic, Mogambo.
I truly don’t know where the listed notes come from, because the Queen of Africa is a fresh, green, water-laden tropical lush with ylang-ylang, lily and a very present muguet – and a good dose of calone for the aquatic touch. It’s frankly quite lovely, and the other choice I was considering while in the shop – but this one will be a lot nicer in spring. Though I doubt I’ll sprout a white, open limousine and traditional African garb to go with it.
If you want to discover Claude-André’s line, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call + 514 303 7426.
One dollar out of the price of the bottle is donated to an AIDS charity of the relevant continent.
Meanwhile, I’m drawing a sample of Africa: please leave a comment indicating you wish to be included in the draw.
Image: Thom Thompson, Early Snow (1916)