jeudi 12 janvier 2012

Perfume Making according to Frédéric Malle: "Like fascinating people, a perfume must have asperities"

Dominique Ropion's Géranium pour Monsieur by Konstantin Kakanias

When I first glanced at Frédéric Malle’s On Perfume Making at the launch, I felt the slightest twinge of disappointment, despite the fact that Catherine Deneuve, who wrote the foreword, was in attendance. Of course, the book itself is gloriously elegant, with chic, whimsical illustrations by Konstantin Kakanias. But the French title, which would translate as On the Art of Perfume, had led me to expect a more substantial essay on the theme rather than a beautiful and unwieldy coffee-table book.

But as I finally dove into it, it dawned on me that Frédéric Malle really doesn’t have to write an essay on perfume as an art form: whatever he’s got to say, he’s saying it through his fragrances, and that’s enough of a demonstration. On Perfume Making is a series of postfaces to these scents: a transparency well in keeping with his stance as a perfume editor, which also rings as a courteous protest against the purple prose PR departments insist on inflicting on us to preserve the “dream” and “mystery” of fragrance, as if fragrance wasn’t also a matter of intelligence…

Malle explains, in a limpid and unfussy prose, the reason why he founded Éditions de Parfums, the way perfumes are composed in big labs, and then the way he works with perfumers, without omitting practical details such as the intervals at which he evaluates the successive mods – a photograph of his notes offers a tantalizing glimpse into what seems like a glamorous life, with observations scribbled on personalized Chateau Marmont stationery (“Frédéric Malle – In residence"). 
Malle also drops a few autobiographical tidbits, such as being born on the same day as Susskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, having had the same bedroom than Jean-Paul Guerlain as a child (though obviously not at the same time), and having developed a feeling for what a sensual scent is through years of nightlife and his love of women…
He goes on to describe the genesis of each scent: the perfumer who authored it and the way they met; the springboard for the development and the course it ran; what he feels it achieves.

A few examples:

Over the course of its development, Pierre Bourdon’s Iris Poudre came to be associated with Catherine Deneuve introverted but passionately sensual character in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
Angéliques sous la pluie was inspired by a sprig of angelica Jean-Claude Ellena picked while visiting his friend Jean Laporte, and kept in his pocket.
Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant was the only scent that started out with a name, the one Frédéric Malle had used on the mock-ups he showed her when he went to discuss a collaboration: she liked it so much she asked to use it.
As for Dominique Ropion’s Vétiver Extraordinaire, it is the only one to have been inspired by a "muse", a friend of Frédéric Malle’s father, though Malle is extremely dismissive of bespoke perfumery, saying that “few people know how to conceptualize an odor, much less when to stop.” The final result required 500 mods over 16 months, unlike Musc Ravageur, which was practically finished when Maurice Roucel presented it to Malle: Roucel considered it his best work, but couldn’t sell it because it was considered too daring (and that’s how the mainstream lost what would have surely become a blockbuster).
About Roucel’s Dans tes Bras, Malle confesses that it was the first time he let his tastes and “most intimate cravings” guide him.

Malle’s prose is as pared-down and legible as his visual aesthetics. In fact, in its understated, dégagé fashion, it is a manifesto of what perfumery can be when it is taken seriously. It also looks extremely decorative on a coffee table.


On Perfume Making will be published by Angelika in Spring 2012. To see more illustrations, click here and here.

14 commentaires:

  1. 500 mods for VE?? There's hope for all of us, then.

    Thanks for the Geranium Pour Monsieur illustration, by the way; it's wonderfully apt.

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  2. Persolaise: and this from a man who says it's important to know when to stop! Mind you, I know that Dominique Ropion is extremely methodical in testing the different materials at various percentages. But it's also interesting that Malle notes you shouldn't look for perfection.

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  3. Is there a range among perfumers, I mean, do some basically ruminate, then come up with the perfume (say, 1-10 mods), and others actively experiment for 500 mods? What's your experience? Is it like painting where some keep tinkering forever, and others just blort, there it is?? ;-)
    -Marla

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  4. Marla, I doubt there's any set rule. You can do 500 mods for a client because she keeps changing her mind as much as 500 mods to get the balance just right. I've heard of developments of dozens of mods where they went back to the first submission. Of things that got there in less than ten.

    It is my understanding, and Frédéric Malle explains it in his book, that it's towards the end that you get lots of mods to perfect the form and technical details. He insists several times that you've got to know when to stop; that you shouldn't aim for perfection.

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  5. I got a copy of this, in spite of not having a coffee table to put it on, and I've been enjoying it.

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  6. Jarvis: a ringing endorsement! Ever since I started receiving FM's press releases, I've been telling myself they were among the clearest and least "purple-prose-ish" on the market, and I'm glad that the house has taken the process further and made the stories available to the public. They convey a good sense of the creative process, and as such are actually pretty pedagogical.

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  7. After having a conversation with a Miami perfumista friend today, I realized how grateful I was to people like M. Malle, who really understand the auteur possibilities of perfumery. My friend and I were hypothesizing about mass-market thriller fiction and perfumery, that some, or maybe most of it, is basically composed by computer programs, then tweaked a little by humans. Do you think this is sometimes true in mass-market perfumery? Are computers writing some of the formulae now, based on "market research" and past successes? I wonder....
    -Marla

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  8. Marla, I haven't heard of it being done, but the result is often little better than if it were, and I'd wager companies are working on programs... Octavian has been writing about a way to use other types of programs to further the art. I have have a sneaking feeling no one would bother to invest in *that*...

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  10. I sat down at the Chicago Malle on Monday and perused the book. It's charming and very much 'of' M. Malle, with his droll approach to perfumery and life. Not sure I would pay retail for it but I did enjoy the time spent with it.

    xo

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  11. Musette, so I take it the English version is now available? At the launch, FM and I had a word about translation matters, and he told me he had quite a lot of input into the process for his book -- some things can't be said quite the same way when you shift from French to English...

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