Niche perfumery has lost its founding father. Jean-François Laporte, who created Sisley in 1972, L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1976 and Maître Parfumeur et Gantier in 1988, passed away on November 7th, 2011.
So many of Jean-François Laporte’s innovations have passed into the market that it is hard today to measure just how revolutionary they were. Granted, there was already an embryonic niche sector: Diptyque, a fabrics and decorative objects shop founded in 1961, had moved on to candles and alcoholic fragrances with L’Eau (1968); the hippie-chic jewellery brand Réminiscence had launched its legendary Patchouli in 1970. In 1975, Yuri Gutsatz, formerly of Roure, founded Le Jardin Retrouvé.
But it was Laporte who first offered the full concept of what would later be called niche perfumery, just at a time when mainstream perfumery was veering into massively powerful fragrances with juggernaut, worldwide launches – First by Van Cleef and Arpels being, in Jean-Claude Ellena’s words as quoted by Michael Edwards in Perfume Legends, “the last major perfume of this century which was developed in the classical manner, the last perfume not to use marketing".
It is a time I remember well: though I had bought First, I was also experimenting with mixing my own blends with essential oils bought in French pharmacies. According to Elisabeth de Feydeau in her newly-published Les Parfums, there was a definite trend in the mid-70s for these homemade mixes, or for wearing essential oils directly, among former Flower Children who weren’t quite ready to graduate from headshop patchouli oil or musk to Opium or First.
L’Artisan Parfumeur’s amiable fragrances, often named after a single note, capitalized on that trend. Both the name of the company and those of the scents – Vétiver, Santal, Tubéreuse, Vanilia, L’Eau d’Ambre and of course the epoch-making Mûre et Musc, still the house’s bestseller – conveyed a quintessentially 70s nostalgia for honest, hands-on, handmade pieces that let the materials express themselves. Some of the scents were fairly sophisticated constructions, but the fact that they put forward recognizable notes as opposed to the abstract products of luxury brands seemed like a throwback to pre-industrial days when perfumers offered all-natural blends. They were also an early answer to consumers' need for transparency, something that would go on to be expressed in perfumery styles.
The fact is that despite or because of its nostalgic aura, L’Artisan Parfumeur was a trailblazer, and the template of niche perfumery. In addition to naming perfumes after single notes, a practice that had been almost abandoned after World War II (with the notable exception of the various vetiver-based fragrances) but was revived by the niche brands that came after it, L’Artisan Parfumeur took a series of game-changing initiatives. For the first time in decades, a new perfume house had appeared that wasn’t linked to a fashion label. It was also, along with Diptyque, the only perfume house to offer home fragrances. And like Diptyque, L’Artisan Parfumeur was the first to establish stand-alone boutiques, something only historic houses such as Guerlain and Caron could boast of, so that customers could get the full experience in a controlled environment.
It is Jean-François Laporte’s repertoire of figurative scents that Marie Dumont, who helmed L’Artisan Parfumeur from 1990 to 2004, and Pamela Roberts, the creative director from 1992 to 2008, drew upon to re-explore one of the early paths of modern perfumery, epitomized by Guerlain’s 1906 Après l’Ondée, an evocation of an Impressionist garden after a rainfall. These scents severed fragrance from its function as an extension of a female or male persona – the rugged guy, the innocent waif or the femme fatale – to turn it into a thing that was beautiful, interesting and evocative in and of itself. It was a different way of telling stories, but with smells; of looking at the world, but with your nose.
As for Jean-François Laporte, who had sold L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1982, he went further back into the history of perfumery to reassert the original trade of perfumers as glove-makers, with Maître Parfumeur et Gantier – in Le Parfum des origines à nos jours, Annick Le Guérer underlines that Laporte was the name of a prestigious dynasty of perfumers under Louis XIV and XV. Eau de Mûre, Ambre Précieux, Route du Vétiver or Tubéreuse reprised the solinote themes he’d explored with L’Artisan Parfumeur; Eau d’Habit, Or des Indes or Soie Rouge expressed the luxury and refinement of perfumery under the Ancien Régime, and were sold alongside fragrant gloves, jewels, amber balls and potpourris.
After passing on Maître Parfumeur et Gantier to his apprentice Jean-Paul Millet Lage, Jean-François Laporte didn’t leave the realm of fragrance: he went directly to its source, creating “Le Jardin du Parfumeur” in Burgundy – not too far from the scent-mad writer Colette’s native village Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye – where visitors could discover the world of scent-yielding plants, aromatic essences and spices.
Jean-François Laporte helped reinvent perfumery by taking it back to its roots, just as perfumery was at risk of losing its soul. That little bit of a perfumer’s garden he carved out still blossoms on our skins.
Photo: A view of Jean-François Laporte's Le Jardin du Parfumeur in Burgundy.
Sad news. Thanks for this excellent history and tribute, D. Will have to wear one of my many L'Artisan's today. They were definitely one of my back doors into both niche and classical perfumery.RépondreSupprimer
Alyssa, I don't imagine it's as much the case outside of France, but here L'Artisan Parfumeur is known even by people who aren't especially into perfumes, because it really brought something different. I never met JF Laporte, and I don't know how he came to conceive his companies, but his was a major contribution.RépondreSupprimer
What a lovely tribute. I stumbled upon this sad news whilst researching the new Cuir Fetiche. His truly is a remarkable legacy.
Denyse, a wonderful salute to a unique vision and talent. My first experience with niche perfume was in a L'Artisan boutique in NYC. I now own many of the scents, and love wearing them. I guess I could credit my re-discovered passion for perfume to M. Laporte, and I thank him for this, wherever he is.RépondreSupprimer
Musette, it is, and thank you.RépondreSupprimer
Kay, it was a great introduction to niche, and an experience I'm sure was shared by many people.RépondreSupprimer
Thanks for this great piece, Denyse.RépondreSupprimer
What I find particularly heart-warming and reassuring is that L'Artisan is still doing well, still going strong and still highly-respected. I gather there was a period when things 'dipped' slightly, but these days, there aren't many brands that withstand the urge to sell out for quite so long.
Persolaise, it's true, L'Artisan is a strong brand. Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier seemed to be a bit wobbly for a little while but they've got a good new scent out.RépondreSupprimer
Thank you for the beautiful obituary. I'm sorry he is gone.RépondreSupprimer
This is so sad - I loved so many of his perfumes, and he was a real innovator; it's hard to imagine what niche perfumery would be like today without his influence. I adored several of his original eponymous line, and I was devastated when it went away. I still dream about having L' Eau des Merveilleuses back again, I wish I could have a dozen bottles of it!RépondreSupprimer
Marla, one thing I really regret is having missed the opportunity to visit his garden. I was aware of its existence but by the time I visited the region it was no longer open.RépondreSupprimer
Flora, I remember how moved I was by the Jasmin in the MPG line, in the early 90s, it was so rich and vivid... But just about then I discovered Lutens and remained faithful for a few years, so I never really got a chance to explore his other offerings. My loss.RépondreSupprimer
Thank you so much for remembering. His heritage is enormous. He was a true visionary. He will always be an inspiration for me.RépondreSupprimer
François, thank *you* for your comment. There would be so much more to say about his contribution. I'm sorry I never knew him.RépondreSupprimer
I visited Jean Laporte's garden during a holiday in Bourgogne in 2003, year that most Europeans remember for the severe drought that happened that summer. Despite the high temperature, the sunburnt grass and the general suffering of many plants and herbs it was a very fascinating place and had a serious didactic conception, offering several routes through scents and fragrances. I didn't know it had closed.RépondreSupprimer
His perfumes were my entrance key to niche perfumery, though the ones I purchased didn't have great success with me.
Thanks for the beautiful tribute.
Iodine, thank you so much for this account, though now I regret even more what I've missed!RépondreSupprimer
Than ks so much for this trubute to a great perfumer...RépondreSupprimer