mercredi 18 février 2009

Claude-André Hébert (Montréal): The Perfumer Who Came In From The Cold

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, 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)

Just added: Click here for Hébert Parfum's descriptions of the "continent" fragrances, and here to see a video of an interview of Claude-André (in French).

38 commentaires:

  1. Lovely review -- I'm dying to smell all of these! Please include me in the draw.

  2. Please include me in the drawing.

  3. Hi Denyse,

    Please enter me in the draw for Africa, it sounds interesting. How much do these perfumes cost, btw?

  4. This is one of those posts that makes me long for Lotto winnings so that I cold do nothing but travel around investigating great perfumers.

    I want to meet him. Actually I think I want to marry him..

  5. Charlotte, I think it was about 80 canadian $$ for 50 ml. I hope my friend Tara chimes in, she'd know for sure.
    And you're in.

  6. Tom, I'd think that question would have to be put to CA and his partner... But he's a sweetie, that's for sure.
    You're in!

  7. Hello there, I have fairly recently discovered your blog, I love the descriptions and the pictures you choose.
    He sounds like such a charming man! I would like to be entered in the draw. Hopefully one day I will get to visit the lovely sounding shop. In the meantime I will keep my eye out for the website when it's fully up and running.

  8. Hi Rose, thank you for the compliments! As I said above, he's a darling and quite irresistible -- I dare any perfume lover to walk out of the shop without at least a bottle.
    You're in the draw.

  9. Hi,
    it will be interested to see the site once it's up, hopefully they will ship around the world. :)
    And please enter me in the draw.

  10. Hello, D. Very interesting review -- I'm tempted to drive up to Montreal right now to try all of the line. In the mean time, though, please enter me in the draw.

    I can see why Antarctica was left out, but think it would have been fun to have a sort of "ice, snow, and mineral" scent from the frozen continent...

  11. Sounds like a very interesting man! What a great way to spend an afternoon. Please enter me in the draw.

  12. Ines, they do actually ship around the world. I don't know if they have a samples program, though. It's worth emailing them -- everyone speaks English there.

  13. Jarvis, yes, actually, there might be something aldehydic to do with Antarctica... But I told him he already had so much stuff in his line he should calm down a bit, otherwise we'll find ourselves in a Parfumerie Générale/Montale situation!

  14. Lora (and Jarvis, and Ines), you're in the draw! It *was* a fun afternoon. In fact, the perfect pastime for a perfumista.

  15. Great post! The bottles are $90 CAD for 50ml, can't recall the price for 100ml. He does ship.

    I have recently learned that he has switched from direct sales in his boutique to distribution in local Montreal stores, and he is moving to Toronto to open a boutique there, opening date unknown, but it is rumored to be in the Yorkville area of Toronto. When you call the shop number listed in this post, you will hear a listing of the stores that now stock his perfumes.

  16. Tara, you mean he doesn't have his Montreal boutique any more? What a shame... No more sniffing around with CA, then? Thanks for the info.

  17. I would like to be included in the drawing, please. Merci.

  18. Okay, first off: "Eau de Krill"? BWAH-HAH-HAH!!!

    Seoncdly: both those Africas sound right in my wheelhouse. (Is that the tropical you thought I'd like you mentioned recently?) Please do enter me in the drawing!

  19. A., you're in, but Queen of Africa wasn't the tropical I was telling you about -- that would be Manoumalia by Les Nez. A lot of blogs talked about it and interviewed the perfumer, and I finally go to try it a week ago. More will follow in these pages.

  20. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.

  21. Jarvis! You should smell them.
    D made me smell several and it was right after I read Chandler's view on niche perfumes ("independent perfumers generally produce erratic collections"). This brand came from nowhere, but they smell good (with one exception). A perfumery in Montreal is not that usual.

  22. Octavian, you're right, a Montreal perfumer is a pretty unique phenomenon -- unfortunately, I've just learned he's moving to Toronto (more money there, I suppose). The line is well worth exploring, definitely.

  23. Great review. Please include me in the drawing. Thanks!

  24. He's moving to Toronto? Alas, so much for my impromptu trip to Montreal. No matter, I shall wait for warmer weather, and attender que carmencanada soit retourne dans son pays.

  25. Jarvis, being a true Montrealer, I'm probably not going anywhere near Toronto in any conceivable future... But CA's frags *are* sold in Montreal. Pity he won't be around to sell them to me, I love it when he claps and cheers!

  26. When I spoke to M. Hebert, he seemed to imply that he was opening a second shop in the Yorkville area of Toronto but still keeping the Montreal shop. He will send samples that are reasonably proced. I really like Geisha and Helene de Champlain and am waiting for a trip to Montreal in the near future to buy the full bottles.
    (To me, the perfumes don't match the descriptions and they definitely can't be all-natural! There are some very lovely perfumes in the collection though. There are several that I like very much and that I plan to buy!)

  27. Anonymous, that's weird, I've just heard back from a friend in Montreal saying the Montreal shop was for rent! Still, I do hope he has a flagship store, and I'm glad that you confirm he does have a sample program (and that you agree with me about naturals and descriptions). I have a sample of Geisha that I really like as well.

  28. Hi CarmenC -- I just wanted to provide an update comment here for this thread, letting any of your readers know that Mr. Hebert's website is fully up and running, and he now has an e-shop for online orders:

    Loved your description of Hebert and his shop. I ordered his CAH Signature fragrance a while ago and enjoyed every last drop.

  29. I would love to partake in a perfume primer. Would you consider giving one the next time you are (here) in Montreal?

    Thanks and warm regards,


  30. Pamela, this gig in London was organized by a fashion school -- I don't have this kind of contact in Montreal (and I can't even imagine what would be involved in transporting the materials overseas), but if something got set up, it would be with pleasure.

  31. Herbert is NOT a Perfumer!

    You need to INVESTIGATE this jerk.

    And you will surely find out the TRUTH.

    The guy is a FAKE!!!

    Everyone who works at Holt's Ogilvy, the Perfume dept all know him,go ask them.

    They all know the TRUTH Hebert is NOT A PERFUMER!

  32. AnonyMous, I know it's minus 24 outside, but let's just step on the balcony and take a deep breath... Now, that's better, we can revert to lower-case. I know MAH doesn't compose his products. But I only spend 48 hours a year in Montreal so investigating anyone would be a bit of a stretch. I haven't followed the vagaries of the brand much. It didn't seem to be terribly well managed.

  33. Great Montreal perfumer" LMAF!
    He has "never" created any of those scents, he's a fake.
    Doesn't write the text for the perfumes, nothing but a con, and you've all been conned.
    Put him in a room with a "certified perfumer" that "will" be one of his downfalls. The truth will be out very soon, by a very successful Toronto reporter. This Reporter, has ethics, morals and values, words "hebert" knows nothing about!
    Not "one" Quebec (so called reporters) has ever investigated before printing about him. Not "one" articles ever mentions where he learned his craft, expect one recent, where he says he learned his craft in France,lol! What year? where did he get his degree from?, who did he train with, etc, etc?
    Hebert has been conning people his whole life, he knows no other life.
    He's taken lots of money from people under false pretenses, to satisfy his own selfish, "personal needs" (now, read between the lines here, maybe with a little investigating, you'll understand what i mean.)After less than
    a year that the first shop was opened, he flies for bankruptcy, of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, in less then a year!
    Now, here is his "MO" none of it was his fault, lol, with hebert it's "always"
    someone else's fault, lol!
    "It is not enough for the perfumer to be able to distinguish "blindfolded" between the fragrance of a rose and a tulip,(anyone who knows flowers can do that) but his sense of smell must be so acute that he can detect in a mixture of 100 or more ingredients the precise amount of the various substances that have contributed to the formula."
    This is just a part of what being a "Master Perfumer"
    Hebert is a Master "Con artist"

  34. Anonymous, sounds like you haven't been "conned", but burned, and badly. Again, I never wrote that Hébert composed his own perfumes: most niche brand owners don't.

    Also, you seem to have a misconception about "master perfumers": a) it is a honorific title given out in certain companies to their senior perfumers, but it's not a degree or anything; b) I don't know a single perfumer whose nose is a gas chromatographer and can rattle off a 100-line formula purely by sniffing. Even the very best can get it wrong (I've seen it happen).

    That said: there *is* a fair amount of conning in the business. This industry has a tradition of secrecy and of bullshitting customers. If CAH burned *investors*, that's another story...