Photo by Michael Avedon
By April Long
When Frédéric Malle launched his groundbreaking Editions de Parfums with nine unique and unusual scents in 2000, he reintroduced true luxury to perfumery in a very specific and elevated way that is still making waves today. By placing the spotlight on the perfumers, whose individual talents had been too long unsung, he shifted the focus away from the distracting marketing and one-scent-fits-all ethos of the 1990s, and back to the artistry and quality of the juice itself.
Inspired by the values of his family legacy—his grandfather, Serge Heftler-Louiche, founded Christian Dior Parfums and worked with the legendary Edmond Roudnitska; his mother, Marie Christine, helped develop Eau Sauvage—Malle set out to create fragrances that were each as distinctive and memorable as masterpiece paintings. He positioned himself as a “publisher” of fragrance, working with perfumers to push boundaries, or, as he says, “help them be themselves,” without pre-set briefs or market testing. Because of all of this, he’s often called father of niche perfumery—and indeed he is, yet the craftsmanship and sophistication Editions de Parfums fragrances still place them in a class of their own. “I did not invent anything and at the same time I invented a lot of things,” Malle says. “I just really put the parish back in the middle of the village.”
Naturally, perfumers clamor to work with Malle, knowing that those distinctively minimal, sleek bottles can contain poetry and vision, and that to be aligned with him is to be aligned with a notion of fragrance that’s as rich, varied, and boundless as it can be. Always moving forward, he has recently been bringing younger perfumers into the Editions fold, an experience he finds humbling in an unexpected way. “They see me as an expert in this industry,” he says, “And I know that I’ve done many things, but I’ve never considered myself to be an expert. I always consider myself to be someone who has to learn more, and I don’t think that one can be modest enough. I’ve always learned from perfumers, and although I’m happy to communicate whatever I know, I still believe that I’m the one learning from them.”
How does it feel to be recognized by the Fragrance Foundation?
FM: It’s a nice recognition. It’s like an Oscar for your career, so it’s humbling. And touching. Since my mother and her father both worked in this industry, it’s very rooted in me. Having an award like this means that I have maybe contributed something too. It’s not just an award for doing something in life, it’s like an accolade from someone very close to me, which is why I’m so moved.
In France, when someone compliments your tie, you say, “Oh, it’s old,” or, “There is a huge stain on it.” But in America people simply say, “Thank you.” Being still very French, I want to downplay this a little bit, and sort of pretend that it’s something I got by luck. But deep down, I know that it’s not. It makes me proud, because I know that what I did almost 20 years ago has set the path for this business to go back to its roots. For me it, it just started with the idea of returning to the type of perfumery that I’d been hearing about all my life where one doesn’t cut corners, and where the act of creation is important to everything you do.
What was the environment like back then?
FM: The idea at that time was that perfumes should be sold in a self-service manner, in stores that were organized like supermarkets. But when you bring everybody to your aisle, you have to please everybody. That means you have to create a fragrance that’s built a bit like a house, with multiple doors so that everybody can come in. That generates perfumes that have very weak personalities. They’re like everybody’s best friend—very popular in the beginning, and then they finish very lonely because no one wants to marry them. They are not perfumes that will be the love of your life.
What gave you the idea to become a fragrance “publisher”?
FM: My friends were perfumers, and I used to talk to them every day. They wanted to create, to make a difference, to really reinvent the wheel each time to create strong, individual perfumes. But instead they were being asked to do the same thing over and over again for a cheap price and with no time. They were depressed. I also knew that the people in Paris and New York who really loved beautiful things weren’t able to find a perfume that they loved. So my idea was to create a connection between the best perfumers, who could come up with perfumes that were likely to be works of art, and the more demanding customers.
I knew that I wanted to put the perfumers forward. I always thought it was very unjust that perfumers were not named or invited to launches. It was such a waste, because their stories were so much more interesting than what the business was communicating.
What’s your role in the creation process?
FM: My relationship with perfumers is one of mutual trust, and I try to adapt to each of them and what they need. There are some, like Dominique Ropion, who I’ve known for 30 years and who is my closest ally, with whom I share common language. We exchange thoughts at every level, from the onset to months of tweaking so that the fragrances become like those Swiss watches that work perfectly. Then there are perfumers who need more privacy. I see them every two or three months and they give me the big stages that they deem important. My job is really to push them to be expressive and free. It’s also my job to help them stay on track, because there’s nothing worse than a perfume that is trying to say three things at the same time, or, when we are in a corner, to give them ideas that breathe new life into a creation.
How do you select the perfumers you work with?
FM: Perfumery is a funny business, because it’s very competitive, but people are also generally good sports and quite caring to one another. So we talk about each other’s good work. And when I hear about someone interesting, I go to them and ask them to show me things that they truly like, and then we do some trials, which helps me see how they function. I always appreciate someone telling me no, I don’t agree. All of the perfumers I’ve selected are very opinionated. Perfumery is talent, hard work, and technique, but you have to also have strength.
Your stores have also been quite revolutionary. What was the original idea behind them?
I wanted the bottles to have a very pared-down aesthetic, in order to glorify the perfume, but I thought we should compensate for their austerity by designing very beautiful stores. Ours were the first stores to look like homes—and that was because the endeavor was so personal to me. I was showing my friends’ work and I wanted people to feel comfortable while discovering that work. That whole experiential thing that people talk about so much today is something that we did 20 years ago. The other important thing I did was to come up with a manual to train people how to sell perfume according to individual personalities. This allows for a huge variety of perfumes to be made. You don’t have to shoot in the middle.
What’s the secret to matching a person with their perfect scent?
It’s basically just the art of listening, and observing. I believe that everyone wants to seduce in a certain way, and each person has an ideal. Perfume is like a silent language that reflects their aesthetics.
You also introduced a new way for customers to smell the scents.
I thought that the way perfume was experienced with blotters was wrong. Blotters are great instruments to work with in the lab, but they never give you a full picture of the perfume. They can tell you the story, but they don’t give you the atmosphere, and I wanted to create something which was the equivalent of a mirror for a garment, something that would sort of show you the aura that you would have while wearing the perfume. So I invented the smelling booths, which were adaptations of cabins that are used in labs in order to smell fragrances. I was also thinking of the way that perfumers I had worked with sprayed perfumes into corners. It was a trick they used—to spray the scent, walk away, then come back.
What’s your assessment of where the perfume industry is today, and your thoughts on where it will go next?
FM: Today we are at a crossroads. In the past, perfumery was mass, celebrity driven, and image driven. Now the conversation is back on product, which is wonderful. And I think that we—as well as brands like Serge Lutens and Byredo—have given hope to people that you can start small and become very good businesses. But I think now there is a lot of noise in the industry. Ultimately, only a few of the brands will survive. What I’m hoping comes out of it is that we will find new ways to be creative. I think the future is in people. I don’t believe in miracles of technology for perfume. I just believe that, as it has been in this business for hundreds of years, you’re going to have someone of great talent inventing a new shape, and then it will be called a trend because everybody will copy it. But the novelty will come from perfumers. Whether it’s a cream, a foam, or a perfume is almost irrelevant. It’s the scent that will elevate it.
What are your three favorite smells in the world?
FM: Mountain air at night; that contrast between burnt wood and snow. And the smell of white flowers in the summer, like a gardenia blooming at night. The last is very domestic: Smelling my wife in Portrait of a Lady is something that never bores me. This morning, I shaved just after she had left, and there was this smell of Portrait of a Lady still in our bathroom. It’s amazingly satisfying.