Frederic Malle

Frederic Malle grew up surrounded by perfume. His grandfather was the founder of Parfums Christian Dior and his mother was an art director for the house, working with legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska on the fragrance Eau Sauvage. Malle started in the labs at Roure Bertrand, becoming an evaluator and working with perfumers to assess fragrances. He founded his own brand, Editions de Parfums, in 2000, almost singlehandedly creating the niche perfume market that saw perfumers move from labs onto the front of bottles. Modelling his company on publishing houses rather than traditional luxury fragrance brands, he gives perfumers carte blanche to create fragrances they are interested in without an initial cost per ounce budget. He spoke to Bora Kwon.

Bora Kwon Can you tell me about your latest fragrance, Eau de Magnolia?
Frederic Malle After soliciting big fragrances for my last few releases, like Portrait of a Lady, I was craving transparency. Because some of the public has forgotten or never known perfume, it is easier to go for the big releases. It’s a trap that I didn’t want to fall into. As a child I listened to a lot of music and I was always told that a symphony or a big opera was much easier and considered more pleasing and much more naturally interesting than chamber music, which appeals to people who have a broader knowledge.

BK Well we’re always attracted to drama, aren’t we?
FM Yes, but then if you’re really refined you can write a beautiful subtle novel that is not a huge drama. I was looking for that quality and this idea of transparency. I had discussions with perfumer Carlos Benaïm and we thought that we could make an eau but with magnolia, which is something we have worked on in the past with the Jurassic Flower home scent. Magnolia is mostly citrus; it’s one of those unusual flowers that’s neither a white flower like jasmine, orange blossom, Casablanca lily or tuberose nor a rosy-like geranium nor all the different rose varieties. So it’s outside that sort of Darwinian chain we generally navigate into with florals. We thought that we could expand on that, exaggerate the citrus aspect, finding an element to continue it with so that we would have this connection with the skin, and something that would be nice to wear, and human. But that element would have to be seamless, something that wouldn’t look artificially added to the flower. The difficulty when you work with a flower as transparent as magnolia is that everything you add is seen. You have to create a chain. Eau de Magnolia is a lot of lemon, bergamot, more colourful citrus like grapefruit, which also has an herbaceous effect, and hints of peach and apricot to give it a little colour. What we did was rivet something to the grapefruit, something that’s an old perfumer’s trick, a natural complement to it, but there is zero musk in there. It’s completely crisp in every detail and it’s perfectly dosed, but it takes us from lemon to heavier citruses to slightly fruity to woods and finally to oakmoss, which is the darkest of the bunch. So that’s the continuum and it is, in the end, a very sophisticated, slightly feminised eau.

BK It almost sounds like it’s halfway to a chypre, but doesn’t go all the way.
FM You’re absolutely right. It’s very much in the style of people like Edmond Roudnitska, like a modern version of Eau de Rochas and other scents from the 1970s. It’s that type of writing we went back to. It’s very true to the flower, actually. I discovered a while ago that Roudnitska had a magnolia planted in his garden. It’s something that I always kept in mind, thinking, What would he have done?

BK So it’s citrus but not an eau de Cologne?
FM It’s a citrus with a heart, based on classic cologne, even if today people call that style an eau. There are very good hesperidic notes, from Calabria; there is a clean crisp modern patchouli, which is the second heart note and the oakmoss is decaffeinated because that’s the rule today. [Oakmoss, a lichen used in many traditional perfumes, was recently identified as an irritant, forcing many perfume houses to change their formulas.]

BK It’s not the earthy, deep, “real” oakmoss?
FM It’s slightly different. We had to get rid of chloroatranol and atranol, the allergens in oakmoss, which people have written a lot about. Everybody had to change the quality of oakmoss, you know I worked a lot on that, Carlos too, and basically if you add veramoss and concentrate a bit more on the oakmoss you are not miles away. It is like a very, very good decaf coffee compared to coffee. It still is oakmoss. If you have to substitute it and change an existing fragrance, to replace the oakmoss, then you can see it if it’s not perfectly done, but when you work on a new fragrance, you build the fragrance around what you have.

BK When the oakmoss and the allergens issue came up a few years ago, it was a hot topic and there was lot of fuss made about it. People were fearful of the idea that their favourite fragrances might change.
FM The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has been operating for 48 years, and slowly but surely its findings have been having more of an impact. It was investigating the effect of aroma chemicals in different areas and started on the effect of chemicals on the surface of your skin, then those that went into your skin and your throat. It also looked at the biodegradability of the chemicals and now it’s looking at allergens. The advice on restrictions of certain chemicals became more and more stringent. The worst thing was that the warnings started as recommendations and then Europe adopted them as law. The industry then had to comply and many fragrance houses that hadn’t changed anything in 48 years, because they did not have the perfumers or resources for that, were trapped all of a sudden, and had to make up for 47 years of not doing any homework. That’s how some of the classics have been slaughtered; that’s why there was huge paranoia, but these fragrances changed because they had to. So oakmoss came in the middle of that, and the “Oh my god they’re going to take oakmoss away!” was a reaction to what happened. It’s a long answer and a bit of an unpleasant topic. For us, fortunately, we were starting much later, as we launched our company in 2000 and I’ve always respected IFRA so we didn’t have such bad luck. There are some raw materials that you cannot replace and there are some that are very easy to replace. If tuberose were forbidden, we would have to stop Carnal Flower because I wouldn’t know how to make it without tuberose.

BK People like to cling onto familiar things and everything seems better in the past, so everyone talks about vintage fragrances and fetishises old ingredients, like nitro musks and real civet…
FM When I started in fragrance, I was working in a lab where many of the classics were created and I had a very close friend, who is a famous actress in France, who kept on saying that Fracas was not what it used to be. Her mother smelt of Fracas and was irresistible and she went on about it until finally I told her, If you want, I can get you the real Fracas because I know someone who has the original formula and I can have it made for you. So she was completely excited. And so I went to one of the older lab technicians and asked her, Listen, can you make me a little solution of Fracas? She had the original Fracas formula and believe me it’s not IFRA regulation by a long shot. It had civet in it and all sorts of other things that are not politically correct. So I get the bottle, 100-percent Fracas, I give it to my friend who sniffs it and immediately she exclaims that it is not at all what maman smelled of, the real Fracas was much better than this, and she made a whole fuss about it. It showed me that people idealise their memories in such a way that their past is always much better. Nothing will ever smell as good as her mother’s Fracas because of her memories; she’s already created something that is a combination of pieces from her past, the country where she comes from, and the memories of her mother. She now had the real solution with her, but she couldn’t recognise it for what it was.

BK When you create new fragrances, do you think about things which are missing in your collection, or is it much more random?
FM We do and we don’t. The company is built around perfumers, so it’s perfumer driven. Sometimes I have an idea, and say, “Why don’t we do that?” and they either like it or they don’t, and if they like it then they do it. But generally the idea comes from them and often it has been patching a hole because they know the collection. I don’t imagine that anyone is going to do a tuberose anytime soon, because I don’t see anybody trying to do something better than Carnal Flower; they know better. Some young perfumers don’t dare work with us because they don’t want to compare themselves to someone like Dominique [Ropion] or Pierre [Bourdon], so they are quite shy about it and all that freedom that we’re giving them is a bit frightening. So they generally choose a theme that is not too crowded in the collection. But I never do think, “Oh I’m opening a store in Seoul, why don’t we do something light?” When we opened in the Middle East, I was fascinated by the fragrances I experienced there. Some of those real ouds, and some of the stuff that you smell in the streets – or malls rather, because there are no streets – is amazing. But I did not want to create a faux oud, like we see so much of, which is almost a racist thing to my eyes, like saying, “This is a fragrance for Arabs!” I mean it’s shocking. If it’s really, really interesting, I do get inspired by my travels, but it would never be a marketing thing. §

Frederic Malle’s latest fragrance is Eau de Magnolia is available from 

  • Frederic Malle