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.