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.
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Great interview, Denyse. And I applaud Monsieur Duchaufour for being so willing to speak with such forthrightness and directness.RépondreSupprimer
With respect to la justesse du geste, is there also perhaps a connotation of the harmony between gesture and expression? That a kind of beauty, or aesthetic justesse, arises when the gesture perfectly captures the artistic intent?
I do love a good pain in the ass. They're the most interesting people, most of the time.RépondreSupprimer
I'm fascinated by what he said about the fragrance "vibrating." What's he mean by that, exactly? I think of some fragrances as shimmery, and some are velvety, and some are slick & glossy. (Don't ask me why, but I think you'd agree with me.) But vibrating? Hmmmmmm. Curious.
Funny enough, his tuberose (at least, the small bit of it I encountered at Henri Bendel) *does* vibrate -- it fairly hums with physicality.RépondreSupprimer
The more I read of Mr. Duchaufour, the more I appreciate his style and work. Though I'm a much bigger fan of what he does now than I am of Timbuktu.
Jarvis, your observations on "la justesse du geste" are spot-on. "Juste" is when something strikes just the right note, when it couldn't be anything else.RépondreSupprimer
Amy, I don't think it would do to get on the wrong side of Mr.D...RépondreSupprimer
As for the vibration, I'd say it's a step above fizziness: in fact, in an earlier conversation, when I'd asked Bertrand whether pink pepper had a similar function to aldehydes for the way it lifts and churns other notes, he'd answered that it had. But that the dose of pink pepper was so high in Nuit de Tubéreuse that it didn't fizz, it vibrated.
Nathan, he says he'll be coming out with more work that's closer to his previous manner in terms of notes. I've had a couple of sniffs of things in progress, and I'm curious to see how perceptible his evolution is when he revisits the more woody/incensey register.RépondreSupprimer
Thank you so much for bringing us this interview! It's so great to get a glimpse into the man behind some of my favorite fragrances! I love those notions of different shades of black, too. Makes me think of all us melancholics out there reveling in our natural shades.RépondreSupprimer
I love how this interview enters into an almost explicit exploration of aesthetic philosophy, with Duchaufour defining it against moral philosophy. Or at least, that's what I'm taking from it, on my journey to pseuds' corner...!RépondreSupprimer
A brilliant interview, D. Unlike most folks, I'm less keen on his recent work - less to do with his accomplishment than my personal taste, I'd imagine. Amaranthine shares qualities with the similarly voluptuous Manoumalia that I find hard work, and I just don't like vanilla all that much... Perhaps I'm something of a puritan deep down, though jasmine makes me all aquiver.
Am very keen to try NdT though, and love the fact you get the inside track (whilst attempting to deny my insane jealousy)!
Jared, it was truly a pleasure to do the interview: you really get the feel of BD as an artist, which he could have been (he is also a gifted painter).RépondreSupprimer
I hope he'll do that black-on-black scent some day. It would be fascinating.
Lee, my conversations with Bertrand often veer towards philosophy: he's definitely got that bent and I'm afraid I'm the type to encourage it. I found the distinction between what is "juste" and what is "good" to be fascinating because it's another insight into the way his mind works, and what a mind it is...RépondreSupprimer
I know you've enjoyed his latest perfumes less, but you'll notice he says he'll also be coming out with scents in his former register: what interests me is to see how he integrates his deeper knowledge of raw materials with the elements of his more austere manner.
Bravo! He's so *present* in this interview--one might say he is vibrating...RépondreSupprimer
It's so refreshing to hear a little trash talking about the mainstream industry, too. Especially in the context of getting past the IFRA bans.
Love, love, love this interview! "You can still move your ass!" That response perfectly sums up why I love his perfumes and thank the gods for niche. It is also illuminating to know that he collects primitive art and has practiced Tai Chi. Time to get off my own @ss and procure Sienne L'Hiver.RépondreSupprimer
Hats off to Monsieur Duchaufour for speaking to us and to you, Denise, as the perfect interviewer! --nozknoz
Alyssa, thanks. It's his way of talking: he's so articulate, intense and direct, and a very focused listener. And because he's independent, he can afford to speak his mind, which is refreshing.RépondreSupprimer
completely fascinating- I am going to re read later- he is a real artist- so great to hear what he likes, dislikes and his views on unusual scents. Really enjoyed this thanksRépondreSupprimer
Very punchy questions D, and quite the character BD is! I see why you like the guy. He's got snark and sass! And his creations speak for themselves. I can't wait to smell the NDT.RépondreSupprimer
Terrific interview! I really appreciate getting to know a little about the artist behind a fragrance. Thank you, and I hope there's lots more to come.RépondreSupprimer
Rose, it was fascinating getting that kind of insight into his world... Glad you enjoyed it. Don't hesitate to drop by for further comments once you've re-read, there's lots to take in!RépondreSupprimer
Marcus, when sassy meets sassy... verbal sparks fly! ;-)RépondreSupprimer
Angela, I don't know if I'll find any other perfumer of this caliber who'll be so open, but I'm setting my sights on a couple...RépondreSupprimer
Black on black, dark not sad........your conversation yielded such an interesting read. I've been thinking about it since I first read it yesterday and today, in honour, I'm revisiting Timbuktu. I don't think it is as easy to wear as I think NdT will be (once I get my mitts on it) but there is an vibrating echo of it in NdT. Thank you for sharing.RépondreSupprimer
Nicola, interesting. I'll re-sample Timbuktu, which I don't own, with that in mind. I think it might be that rooty/green pepper aspect Mr. D. is so fond of... and the incense effect of the pink pepper + mango.RépondreSupprimer
Oh, I didn't even have to mention your sass. That's a given! ;)RépondreSupprimer
D, this was so interesting! I feel like I really get a sense of the man himself, which doesn't always come through in interviews ... he sounds like a man with a great sense of humor, which cheers me unaccountably.RépondreSupprimer
March, there is a sense of fun when you talk to him, but it's not ha-ha kind of fun -- Bertrand is in fact very serious and intense. The fun comes from the irreverence and the intelligence, both of which he's got in spades.RépondreSupprimer
D, if anyone can coax the best out of an interviewee, it's you. Thanks for the great read.RépondreSupprimer
Robin, obviously being face to face helps a lot. And the quality of the interviewee does it all!RépondreSupprimer
You are being -- typically -- too modest.RépondreSupprimer
Ok, so I enticed him to tell it all with my feminine wiles!RépondreSupprimer
No, actually, he's one of the perfumers with whom I have a critic-to-artist relationship, because his attitude is that of an artist, and his current position enables him to be one. So we speak on that footing.
God, I love people who have enough talent and self-confidence (OK, money and celebrity probably help too) to tell the bean counters of this world to get lost! And I love him still more for deliberately choosing difficult tasks and materials. What a fantastic interview with a fascinating subject -- thank you.RépondreSupprimer
Natalie, that's one thing that I love about Bertrand too -- the little-boy glee he feels in exploring difficult materials. I remember him making me sniff something odd he pulled out of the lab refrigerator (it smelled like an attic) and saying: "I need to find a way to use this!"RépondreSupprimer
You enticed him? I don't doubt it. I remember something you wrote a long time ago about wearing a good red lipstick to a party or dinner or something for strategic purposes . . .?RépondreSupprimer
Robin, I swear I was wearing a very ladylike black silk Yves Saint Laurent dress that day! Mr D's a big boy and I'm quite sure the way my mind works played more of a role than the way I cross and uncross my legs though that, of course, was a bonus.RépondreSupprimer