jeudi 12 mars 2009

Jean-Claude Ellena's Conference at the Institut Français de la Mode

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.

8 commentaires:

  1. Hello, D. It sounds like it must have been an interesting evening, and I wish I could have been there. Monsieur Ellena sounds quite charming, and of course, it is always a pleasure to listen to someone who can be so eloquent about his artistic process.

    I like that he said, "When you understand something, you're happy." It suggests to me that what makes perfume (or any other art form) pleasurable is the way in which we engage with it, intellectually and emotionally. (For me, this is to say, "why does this smell beautiful," and not just, "this smells beautiful").

    It is interesting to hear what he has to say about the brief system, vs. the opportunities afforded to in-house perfumers. While, as others on the French side of the blog have pointed out, JCE has probably been able to do what he has done at Hermès because he is JCE, I do think that the in house system allows for a long term relationship to be established between perfumer and the house. Certainly this affords time and creative space to evolve a coherent vision and style, both on the part of the perfumer and the house.

    I wonder if the brief system is perhaps a symptom, rather than a cause, of the problem? After all, very good perfumes have been created both with and without a brief. It seems that what really affects the process is time, money, and interest on the part of the house in producing something good, and not just the next money making blockbuster. It seems to me that the situation parallels a bit that of Hollywood, where it has always seemed to me that the work of writers is undervalued, and that the constant imperative to make money leads to a kind of creative paralysis. Studios are too scared to invest in truly innovative projects, preferring to rehash old formulas or make (poorly written) sequels to known blockbusters. And just like the perfumers who don't get paid for an un-won brief, the writers have to work "on spec."

  2. Jarvis, I think we have the same sensibility on this matter -- my pleasure is always intensified when I "get it", understand the "why".
    Your remarks on the brief system are very thoughtful, and the comparison with the Hollywood system seems relevant. As a writer, I am well placed to know that we come last and are the least paid within the creative process, such as it is.
    It is really a matter of confidence (of the house) and trust (in the perfumer). The current context doesn't help...

  3. It is true; the brief system generally leads to predictable outcomes. I believe that new ways will be forged in the future regarding fragrance creation and distribution, but it will take visionary individuals and companies to do it. One can analyze trends, the blogosphere and history, but in the end it is inspiration that wins and winning a brief, as you've noted, is not always about inspired fragrance creation.

  4. Michelle: Winning a brief is winning a brief, just as passing an exam means you're good at passing an exam and an opinion poll is an answer to a question, not an insight into the psyche...
    As long as marketing people answer "yeah, well fragrance X sold well" to any critique, they're not adressing their lack of vision, taste or outlook for the future of the industry. Such a behemoth can only be moved by sales figures... And even so, they could respond by putting out more unsurprising fragrances rather than pushing the envelope, creating new forms and desires...

  5. I'm waiting (perhaps in vain) for the day when the big companies approach excellent perfumers and say, "You have a track record that speaks for itself, so we trust you to make us something both beautiful and commercially viable."

    It's this lack of trust in the creative process with regard to perfumery that I find the most distressing part of The Brief. It's like requiring established Hollywood stars to screen test for every role (if you'll allow me to continue the Hollywood metaphor).

    It is, however, encouraging to see the return of In-House Perfumers such as Ellena. I'd like to see more of them -- it would help give the Luxury Houses and large beauty conglomerates a sense of coherence when it comes to their fragrances.

  6. Hi Nathan. This makes me think of a perhaps interesting mental game... Match a perfumer with a house... No ideas just now, and I very much doubt that even the most brilliant idea would fall in the right ears, but I'll give it a think!

  7. Just two words: How lovely!!

    ~you dind't expect me to disagee, now, did you? ;-)

    'As long as marketing people answer "yeah, well fragrance X sold well" to any critique' >> Ouch!!! LOL!!! :P