Yesterday evening, Octavian and I attended a conference by Jean-Claude Ellena at the Institut Français de la Mode. Though it was clearly aimed at non-specialists, he made some interesting points, which in turn triggered a few thoughts…
First off, let us clear up one question: yes, Jean-Claude Ellena is every bit as attractive as you would imagine. Dark eyes sparkling with humor and intelligence, a wry smile, a slightly raspy voice and that typically French manner of intellectualizing pleasure… He’s pretty much everything I love about Frenchmen. “When you understand something, you’re happy”, he said. “With perfume, I bring you joy.” Which goes a long way in explaining his limpid style of perfumery: the pleasure that is triggered when you get it.
Among other things, Jean-Claude Ellena made a strong point for in-house perfumers: he takes a very dim view indeed of the current system, in which perfumers from different labs compete to win a brief (as I’m sure you know, whatever work that goes into an un-won brief is unpaid).
“It is a matter of performance: winning the brief, rather than making a beautiful fragrance. The personal part doesn’t come into play: the perfumers will have answered a question.”
His greatest commercial successes, he adds, were perfumes composed without a brief: Bulgari’s L’Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, one of the most fecund forms created in the past decade, was his own proposal.
As the brief is, in itself, the product of marketing and thus obeys to commercial rather than aesthetic parameters, what you get is fragrances that are competently technically, and usually very pleasant: but they don’t create new forms. Suppose you’re competing to win a brief for the flanker of a successful fragrance in a major perfume house: your aim is to win (and get paid), so what you’ll do is stick in a little bit of everything that you know the head of marketing, or artistic director of the house has accepted in the recent past, and try to make it hold together harmoniously… You may be a very gifted perfumer, but you can’t develop your style in such conditions, or say anything new in the language of perfumery – which brings us back to the principle of the in-house perfumer.
Ellena says that houses need to engage entirely with a perfumer, at every level: to trust him, develop a common language with him, meld their story with his. “What I did with The Different Company and Frédéric Malle was the premise of what I’m doing at Hermès”, he concludes.
And whatever you may think of his Hermès fragrances, one thing is for sure: Ellena is definitely perfecting a unique, cohesive, idiosyncratic style.