Scent Critic Chandler Burr on the Revolutionary Ideology of the Fragrance Pioneer
Photographer Geordie Wood captures celebrated perfumer Frédéric Malle evaluating ingredients in his lab at the International Fragrance and Flavors headquarters in New York. Ahead of their conversation on the art of perfume making, the olfactory critic Chandler Burr introduces Malle's mastery of the craft.
Acting in the same manner as a publisher of fine books, Frédéric Malle seeks out the best perfumers, curates their olfactory creations and then publishes the perfume. Frédéric Malle grew up in Paris, where his grandfather Serge Heftler-Louiche had founded Dior Parfums in 1947. In 2000 Malle launched Editions de Parfums, and has since released creations by the greatest perfumers working today, including Dominique Ropion, Jean-Claude Ellena, Edouard Fléchier, Olivia Giacobetti and Michel Roudnitska, to name a few. Putting the fragrance artist’s talent first, Malle invites them to create the perfumes of their dreams. By placing no limit on the price of ingredients or the aesthetics of the perfume, Malle has brought together one of the best collections of olfactory art in the world. This spring, he releases his first book, On Perfume Making, with a foreword by his friend Catherine Deneuve, who has been wearing Malle’s fragrances since day one and whose character in the 1967 French film Belle de Jour influenced Iris Poudre, the perfume by Pierre Bourdon. The book recounts the stories of his collaborations for Editions de Parfums over the last 12 years, including details of the fragrance formulas and their raw materials. Attributing a fragrance to its artist rather than to the brand who bestowed its commission is as controversial as it is revolutionary—although it shouldn’t be any more so than a painter acknowledged for the works they make for their patron. In fact I believe Frédéric’s approach is the most important evolution in this artistic medium since Aimé Guerlain’s revolutionary use of synthetics with his perfume Jicky in 1889.
Chandler: Do you think perfume is as much an art as painting and sculpture?
Frédéric: I’d say design or photography. I think great perfumery generates emotion similarly to certain abstract arts. I don’t think it’s as empowering as great music. Great perfumery touches a sensuous chord but not always a spiritual one. With the St Matthew Passion by Bach you are lifted. When I smell Portrait of a Lady [by Dominique Ropion for Editions de Parfums] or Shalimar [by Guerlain], it takes me to a world of beauty, but there is one level that is missing.
Chandler: And yet, both music and scent are invisible and transmit deep emotions… I think it’s because you’re involved in the creation of these works that causes you to pull back from acknowledging they’re art.
Frédéric: I was brought up in a family deeply involved in the arts. My uncle [Louis Malle] was a movie director. We were surrounded by very interesting artists. Major stars came to our apartment, and out of pure bonne éducation none of them would have said, “I am an artist.”
Chandler: Screw bonne éducation! What about Dans Tes Bras [created by Maurice Roucel for Editions de Parfums]?
Frédéric: One of my best fragrances! You smell pure abstraction, warm skin, intimacy.
Chandler: Dans Tes Bras—wildly strange, mesmerizing—scares the hell out of me.
Frédéric: Maybe you’re scared of intimacy.
Frédéric: But no perfume is perfect, to paraphrase Billy Wilder. Perfection is boring.
Chandler: Boring? You seem to drive your artists until they achieve perfection or die trying.
Frédéric: L’Eau d’Hiver [by Jean-Claude Ellena for Editions de Parfums] could be more perfect.
Chandler: But that thing is like a titanium watch.
Frédéric: You have to understand that this is what Jean-Claude Ellena is so talented at doing. L’Eau d’Hiver is a sketch. Not a beautiful finished painting. Some of my commissions are almost perfect in the detailed, finished-painting way. Carnal Flower is a symphony, and a bloody good one. Musc Ravageur is very finished. Maurice [Roucel] worked for years on that.
On Perfume Making is published by Angelika Books and out now.