Isabelle Doyen’s lab, Aromatique Majeur, is tucked away in the paved courtyard of a 19th century building not far from the place de l’Étoile. The place is tiny: two rooms – one for the office, with a battered couch, the other for the lab, with its hundreds of vials of raw materials and rows of vintage fragrances behind a glass cupboard.
I’ve met Isabelle a few times already for informal conversations: a slight, quiet woman with an easy laugh and warm manner, casually elegant in her motorcycle boots. Anyone who’s sampled her work for the small Swiss indie house Les Nez could guess there’s another side to her than the lovely fragrances she’s been turning out for the house of Annick Goutal, first with Annick herself, and now with Annick’s daughter Camille: playful, experimental pieces of olfactory research. Lately, this more adventurous streak seems to have seeped into the chic Parisian bottles of the pioneer niche label. The latest launch, a shimmering eau de toilette called Ninfeo Mio, bristles with raspy green citrus shot with aromatic essences, a touch of toughness wrapped in rounded lactonic notes. And that touch of toughness, that’s always expressed itself in Goutal’s masculines before popping up in the crackling ozonic opening of Un Matin d’Orage and the scorched notes of Encens Flamboyant, and going for the jugular in Turtle Vetiver, is what makes Isabelle Doyen’s style so compelling.
There are already several fresh eaux in the Annick Goutal line-up. Why add Ninfeo Mio?
We [Isabelle and Camille Goutal] were a bit worried about that. But we never constrain ourselves on what we feel like doing, and we’re regularly in the mood to do something fresh. Each time, we wonder how we’ll manage to find our way between Hadrien, l’Eau du sud, Mandragore… Then we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, and we go ahead.
What set you off, this time?
The Garden of the Hesperides. So, naturally, citrus. We were also thinking about verbena, and we got a bit tangled up in that idea, we weren’t happy with the results. We groped for a few months. Then one day, a friend came to see me at the lab and I told him about this garden idea we were having trouble with. He told me he’d just come back from Rome where he’d visited an incredible garden, the Garden of Ninfa. “What you’re telling me about the perfume you’d like to make reminds me so much of that garden that you should go and have a look.” He describes the place to me: it sounded like heaven on earth. That was in May, but we weren’t able to go there straight away. Meanwhile, the idea this friend had brought us on a silver plate boosted our imagination. We enriched our idea, we let go of verbena and just like that, without knowing why, we added lavender and fig… Our formula was well on its way, and we were pretty happy with it, but I was a bit bothered. In Italy, I only knew Tuscany and I was telling myself that I’d never seen much lavender in Tuscany. Same thing for fig trees, there weren’t that many… I was worried because what we were doing wasn’t the real story.
Is it so important to you that your story checks out in the real world?
Actually, it is! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to say that there were fig trees in the Garden of the Hesperides, that we’d invented it all. It bothered me not to be able to confirm that there were figs and lavender in that imaginary garden. We always try to stick to nature and reality as much as possible.
So you went to see the Gardens of Ninfa…
We went in late August. The garden is open to the public once a month but it’s possible to organize private visits. We crossed a totally uninteresting countryside and reached this great portal that a guard opened for us before letting us loose on our won. And once we entered the garden, we saw fig trees everywhere! Phew! Check! So we were reassured on that point. We walk towards some ruins and spot an aromatic herb garden. We take a path to walk towards it… It was lined with lavender! Phew again! Then we reach a citrus orchard… It was all there ! There was also a river running across the garden called the Ninfeo. It ended up giving the fragrance its name. “Ninfa” was already copyrighted and besides, we didn’t like the feminine connotation, because we thought some men would be uncomfortable about it. Ninfeo is perfect for men, and as for women, when they think something smells good, they go ahead and wear it…
When you compose, one notes calls for another, there’ an inner logic… Was it, for instance, lavender that brought about fig?
Lavender is used to bolster the citrus. It reinforces the lime aspect of the formula.
It produces more of an aromatic effect than a lavender note per se. It could almost be basil or rosemary…
Absolutely. Though when I was smelling our composition, I was getting a lot of lavender, and I was wondering if we hadn’t overdone it a bit. I didn’t say anything about it but I was a bit unsure on that point. I asked people now and then “Do you smell the lavender?” “Not particularly.” The fig came in because we love that note. But there too, I was telling myself « Oh boy, we didn’t set out to do a fig! » Still, the people around us didn’t seem to get much fig. Those who did liked it and felt comfortable about it. But the fact of finding fig trees in the garden confirmed that we’d headed in the right direction without knowing it.
The top notes of Ninfeo Mio give off a very sweet, candied lemon effect at one point…
What brought us to the fig tree was the idea of lemon wood, which is quite warm and milky.
Is there such a thing as lemon wood essential oil?
No, there isn’t. I’d smelled lemon tree wood because a botanist and sculptor friend had given me some chips of it. To smell it, you have to burn it over hot coals like incense. It’s a very sweet, suave smell. I’d always kept that idea at the back of my mind, telling myself I’d use it one day. So, to give the effect of lemon tree wood, we used lactones that are also used to do fig tree… And all of a sudden, a fig tree grew out of our formula! The lemon wood also led to the idea of lime and lemon leaf; we used galbanum for the leafy note. Lavender came in to bolster that effect.
There’s also something that’s very bitter, a strong acidity that almost rasps on your teeth, like lemon juice. That particular note wasn’t found in the other Goutals, which are usually more about bergamot or mandarin… And there are also some floral notes.
Not that many though.
But there is hedione, isn’t there?
Yes there is. It’s like cellophane, it acts as a wrapping.
And what about the lentisque ?
Lentisque is something I’d always wanted to put it, to support the lime facets. It’s got green, mossy and coumarine facets. [Isabelle makes me smell a strip dipped in lentisque.] It’s a good link between the fig tree and the citrus. When I cut limes, I always notice a coumarine facet. It reminds me of lentisque.
I’m starting to get the musk… You added it to make the fragrance more long lasting?
Yes, and also to soften the sourness of the citrus. Ninfeo is a fake fresh. It starts with citrus, but very quickly, it tips into softness, milkiness and suave notes.
I’ve always classified the Goutals as « mummy », « daddy » and « daughter » perfumes, at least up to the Orientalists… I get the feeling the lines are blurring. As though, with Camille, you were venturing beyond the beaten paths…
I couldn’t tell. We do what we feel like doing. Maybe we’re changing.
You once told me that even Annick Goutal felt that you were staying a bit too much in the same register?
That our stuff was too well-mannered…
And what would be the rude perfumes in the line?
Oh, I don’t know about that… I’ve always thought that Songes was a little less well-mannered… You’re right though, perfumes like Passion or Grand Amour are very “chic lady”, but there’s always something a bit…
… a bit sensuous lurking underneath. To me, Songes is outright dirty! When I wear it, I always make a lot of new friends! But I was thinking of Matin d’Orage, for instance… It doesn’t break with the house style but it’s a bit more rock and roll.
That might also be because we’ve discovered new raw materials. There’s an ingredient I’m using right now that I might be mastering better than before.
The idea for Matin was already present in Le Jasmin. When I smelled after Matin came out I found that it had the same crackling, electrical feel…
Possibly. I’m not aware of it. Actually, we don’t ask ourselves too many questions… We’re influenced by the music we listen to. Right now I’m listening to NTM [a French rap band], I don’t know what’ll come out of that!
Whoa! That could be pretty wild!
I might not present the after-effects of NTM to Goutal!
While we’re on the subject: your work for Les Nez allows you to be much more experimental.
Exactly. It might be more for Les Nez… Not that we’re not allowed to do what we want to do for Goutal. But let’s say the work resonates differently. René [Schifferlé, the owner of Les Nez] is up for anything!
I used L’Antimatière in my course on perfumery. It’s the only one I asked the students to spray directly on their skin, first thing in the morning, because on cardboard it’s useless. Strangely, even the people who couldn’t smell it detected the effect it produced on other fragrances.
It’s like a pinch of salt.
So you could layer it with other fragrances?
It’s hard to reconcile – for people who haven’t met you – this type of experimental perfumery with Annick Goutal. As far as I’m concerned, L’Antimatière is just about the most experimental fragrance out there.
Let’s say I consider L’Antimatière almost more like… like a sculptor would show a sculpture, or a painter a painting… I made this perfume to show it, just like Turtle Vetiver. I put it out, but I don’t care if it’s worn or not. It’s out there, that’s all. If you wear it, we have things to say to each other. If you don’t, so be it.
I’ve often discussed the potential of perfumery as an art form. It seems to me that the necessity of pleasing marks the limit of the comparison between perfumery and contemporary art. Your creative process for Goutal is necessarily different from the one that brought about L’Antimatière, but I do find Matin d’Orage more experimental nevertheless. When it came out, you said you wanted to conjure the smell of electricity… Is that still in the works?
Yes, it’ll happen one day! For a while, I was also very interested in the Fibonacci sequence. I thought that building a sequence of perfumes based on that idea would be fun: to offer many bottles showing a sequence of scents, with the idea of the Fibonacci sequence as a thread. There would be number one, then number two would be number one with something added, and so forth… It would be a scale.
I was always obsessed with Borges. In one of his stories, he describes a walk in an imaginary country, on a never-ending street. People walk by buildings that all seem to be of the same color. But when they turn around, they realize that in fact, they are in a scale of colors so subtly different that you can’t see them change as you’re going by. You only see they are of different shades when you turn around.
So one day, I’ll do something like that. It’ll be a performance… I don’t know where, I don’t know when… But it’ll happen!
One last point. According to Luca Turin, L’Eau d’Hadrien has been reformulated. Perfume lovers are in a panic.
But we haven’t touched L’Eau d’Hadrien! All we did, and that may have confused some people, was to increase the concentration a bit to satisfy those who thought it was too fleeting. We didn’t want to touch the formula, so we just increased the concentration by one or two per cent. But that was at least four years ago!
There’s a lot of paranoia these days about reformulations…
It’s crazy! And sometimes, as in this case, it is totally subjective. People tell you “it’s been reformulated”, so you smell it differently, and you’re convinced it’s different.
Besides, it’s true fragrance goes on macerating in the bottle: the same perfume won’t smell the same, depending on its age.
There’s a lot of citrus in Hadrien, a lot of natural ingredients. So there’s necessarily a tiny difference between one batch and another, an acceptable margin. If someone’s bought a bottle from a batch that’s a bit different from another one, he’ll tell himself it’s changed. And when people think it’s changed, nothing will make them change their mind! We can’t help that. All I can say is that L’Eau d’Hadrien hasn’t been tweaked!
For an infographic on the Fibonaci sequence Isabelle mentions, click here...
Image: Frederick Lord Leighton, The Garden of the Hesperides