This is the second part of my conversation with Bertrand Duchaufour (to read part one, click here) for the upcoming launch of L’Artisan Parfumeur Nuit de Tubéreuse, which is slated for May 24th in France, and sometime in June in the rest of the world.
Here Bertrand reflects on his career, his milestone compositions and his aesthetics with unusual forthrightness – for a perfumer. But I’ve never heard him speak any other way… You love the fragrances. Now meet the man.
Denyse Beaulieu: Is there anything you allow yourself now that you abstained yourself from doing previously because you thought that wasn’t why you were hired, that it wasn’t what was expected from you?
Bertrand Duchaufour: No. I’ve always tried to play for myself rather than for my company. That’s why it didn’t always work out. I had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent product both for the company and for the brand. I was asked to do things that didn’t interest me, so I didn’t necessarily work well, at least not in the way they wanted. Now, because I’m much more in control, I’m letting myself go more. But I’ve never forbidden myself to do anything in any style whatsoever, or any way of using a raw material. I only forbade myself things I couldn’t afford!
Still, you have recurring notes, like carrot CO2, celery, davana, that almost act as a signature for you. I get the feeling you’re moving away from them a bit. How do notes appear and disappear from your palette?
You’re right, there are more floral notes. I still use resinoids, woods, woody-ambery notes, patchouli, cistus, resins… but not necessarily as main accords. Mind you, I still work on that type of note. You’ll see products come out that are totally in that style!
Are there any notes that are tempting you right now, notes that you haven’t explored enough?
I’m working a lot on leather, in all its facets.
You’ve done leather before though, haven’t you?
Bois d’Ombrie, for instance.
There you go, I’ve only done one so far. I worked that leather in a pretty sophisticated way, but now, I’m focusing on richer, more feminine and iris facets, maybe because I have better budgets…
What’s the first fragrance you really consider yourself the author of? That made you say “That’s it, that’s me”?
It has to be a niche product. Maybe Méchant Loup. Or my first one for Comme des Garçons, Calamus. That was really personal. Calamus, no one uses it because it’s really unbearable. Like tuberose, it’s a fascinating product. It has fantastic positive sides, it smells like a cake right out of the oven, and at the same time, it stinks like tanned hide you’ve just pulled out of the water; it almost smells like fish skin! It’s the root of a plant that grows by the water and it has sludgy effects.
So of course, you went straight for it because that’s what you like…
Everything that’s difficult, I love!
Were you the one to suggest the idea to Christian Astuguevieille [the artistic director of Comme des Garçons perfumes]?
Absolutely, the idea came from me.
And he wasn’t scared off?
Oh no, he’s a man who dares… In fact, if I started taking on that kind of challenge, it’s thanks to him! He was the only one who dared, at the time. At L’Artisan, Pamela [Roberts, the artistic director] went for pretty strong accords, but never for that kind of raw material, that totally weird stuff!
So you think Christian Astuguevieille was the one to set you free?
Totally. He’s a pioneer, I am absolutely convinced of it.
An artistic director in the fullest sense of the term.
Yes, because he’s an artist himself. He’s got stature. Not like those little 25-year-olds that go straight from business schools to L’Oréal.
And who bring out what I call the iFrags.
But despite IFRA you can do completely crazy, marvelous things! IFRA is sometimes used as an excuse. You can still move your ass! But no, they’re scared! They don’t go off the beaten path! You’ve got a line traced by the last 20 or 30 years in the history of perfumery, and it’s unthinkable to stray away from that projected line, you know what I mean? Don’t go here, don’t go there, follow the exponential, and that’s that. You follow the force of inertia given by the direction in which the market has been projected, in which the projectile has been launched!
So you get perfumes that smell of detergent or shower gel, little pissy juices scared of their own shadow.
And yet I’m absolutely convinced you can still do magnificent things.
Speaking of which, I wonder if your tuberose isn’t the best thing you’ve done so far in your new manner…
Anyway, I think it’s well-controlled, almost too well in fact… Mind you, it was tough setting the cursor. If I’d wanted to make it more potent, there weren’t 36 different solutions. I’d have had to play either on vanilla or on lactones, and that’s not what I was going for. Instead, I played on vibration. So it vibrates at the top, the heart and the base; it’s very long-lasting, very diffusive. It’s an intimate, confidential vibration, but it vibrates well, it’s there. Yet it’s not overwhelming. It would’ve been just too easy to use lactones, orange blossom and indoles!
You’ve told me about Calamus and Méchant Loup… Which other fragrances are milestones in your career?
Uh… let me think… Timbuktu for L’Artisan. It’s often said that it’s an important fragrance, and that it should be important for me, because it’s one of L’Artisan’s best-sellers. Though God knows it’s odd. It isn’t Mûre et Musc or Fou d’Absinthe which, even though it’s well made, is a well-behaved fragrance. Timbuktu is more difficult, it’s a dark, rather austere chypre. It has bright facets in the top notes, but still… Timbuktu because of the recognition it got from the public and the people I did it with. Then… Sienne l’hiver, a hard-line, completely crazy fragrance, with truly disturbing smells in it. I almost wanted to backtrack, but they [Marina Sersale and Sebastian Alvarez Murena, the owners of Eau d’Italie] wouldn’t hear of it. They wanted the story to go all the way down the line, with stuff like smoked ham, blood, truffle, slightly disgusting things mixed with earth… which make Sienne l’hiver a fascinating but very odd perfume.
Almost unwearable. But it’s still in the chypre family. The perfumes I’m doing now have nothing to do with that. It’s over. I don’t think anymore in terms of chypres, orientals, whatever… I don’t think in terms of masculine or feminine anymore, not at all, but not at all! And that’s a big step too. But it’s fairly recent, you know.
It happened after you left Symrise?
Yes, you could say it did.
As though you finally had room to think for yourself, away from the environment where you worked, with clients, colleagues…? Is that what made you break free from those categories?
No. It’s just that niche products allowed me to do it, that’s all. That path was the path I’d been looking for, the logical path for artistic creation, creation in perfumery. Thinking in terms of feminine/masculine, chypre/oriental, there’s nothing more stifling, ultimately.
As a matter of fact, I don’t see why people keep on calling “chypres” fragrances like Narciso Rodriguez for Her, even though it means nothing to the consumer, to the SAs, and even to most journalists…
We’re the ones who, as the notorious incompetents we are, simply because that’s how we learned perfumery, go on feeding that line to journalists. Like idiots.
For me, chypre is a state of mind. It has dark tones that we perceive as sad today because we’re nostalgic for a kind of perfumery we’ve lost.
You can say dark, but not sad. “Sad” is a judgment. Dark, it’s true, because patchouli and moss are dark, almost black. Don’t you agree? What’s nice is that they yield different aspects of black. Moss has lacquered, shining effects that patchouli doesn’t have. They’re two different shades of black. You could even play on that and make a magnificent Soulages, I’m sure of it.
Would you add castoreum?
Castoreum, yes. Mind you, that’s already been done. When you say castoreum, you say ink, when you say ink, you say black… But it can be done differently. One day, I’ll do it for fun.
Let’s get back to when you left Symrise three years ago… Were you the one who wanted to become independent?
They wanted to see me become independent and I wanted to become independent. So of a common accord, we decided that… I was lucky enough to leave in the best conditions, just before the financial crisis, whereas later on, others were sacked in a much… harsher way.
Because you were a troublemaker and didn’t want to work for the kind of clients they imposed on you?
They knew it. Everyone respected me, but at the same time…
You weren’t offered a lot of stuff to do…
I wasn’t offered anything anymore.
Because you were difficult?
Because I told them to get lost.
In other words, you were a pain in the ass.
I was a pain in the ass, that, you can be sure of!
At L’Artisan, you used to work with Pamela Roberts, who’s not there anymore. Are you your own artistic director now?
I’d say I was. I practically impose the subject. The theme comes to me as I create a note. And sometimes, I can be quite categorical.
How much do you take into account your clients’ wishes in your process?
I try to respect what’s asked of me to the letter, when the clients know what they want. At the same time, I have fun. Sometimes it’s quite a challenge though.
Do you sometimes put your foot down?
Yes. Although… When the clients really know what they want, when they’re really passionate about it, I work until they get what they ask for, even if I think it’s a disaster in the making.
But you’re putting your name on it.
Yeah. Well… Maybe nowadays I wouldn’t do it as much as I used to. Because there is the matter of my image now.
Speaking of which, what do you think of the fact certain perfumers, including yourself, are becoming better-known by the public?
I play blind in that field. I come into contact with what’s written about me through blogs like yours, through what you’ve written, but not much. I don’t go out and look for it. It’s a deliberate choice of mine not to try to find out what people think of me. It’s a way of protecting myself.
But your clients might say “this guy has a name” and allow you more creative freedom…
That’s what they do. Clients come to see me because they want my signature. And that’s fantastic.
You have a large collection of primitive art. Is that in any way linked to your work or is it a way of escaping?
It’s a way of escaping. Nothing to do with my work. Although… the only relationship with my work, and with the rest, with all my life… tai chi which I practiced for 18 years, primitive art, painting, perfumery… is the love of beautiful things. Even women. The love of beautiful things. To know how to exploit, no, not to exploit, to appreciate things when they’re beautiful, in their every nuance. That’s what primitive art is about. Even tai chi can be exceptionally graceful. I tried to practice tai chi in a way that was aesthetic as much as physical.
Looking for the “justesse du geste”. (see translation note)
La justesse du geste, exactly. That’s incredibly important. La justesse du geste, that’s very well said, that’s exactly it. That’s the way I’ve always behaved: trying to find what is “juste”. The “juste” necessarily leads to the beautiful. But what is “juste” is not necessarily good. In “good”, there is a subjective moral value, which I want to omit, or at any rate not to resort to, in what conceive and in what I give off. I’d rather talk of “juste”. A woman’s beauty is in the “juste” in her way of behaving towards herself, her image, her silhouette. A piece of primitive art is a special kind of balance, a special kind of presence, through the way it was sculpted. It can be very rough, it can be very sophisticated, it doesn’t matter. Something in it must be “juste”. The same goes for perfume.
Illustration: Francis Bacon's Tribute to Van Gogh, 2002. Francis Bacon is one of Bertrand Duchaufour's favourite artists.
All rights reserved. This interview cannot be reproduced wholly or in part without the authorization of its author.