Sophie Labbe loves the smell of Hong Kong. It's not the first thing you would expect her to say when you sit down for an interview - but then again, for a woman who relies on smell more than any other sense, her statement isn't all that surprising.
'Smell is my first contact with a city. Every city has a different smell and a different culture, and they are all inspiring,' says Labbe. 'I really love the smell of Hong Kong. When I arrived at the airport, there was this woodiness from the smell of the sea, so strong and powerful because of the humidity. And then I reached the city, and there was this contrast between nature and modernity, the sea breeze and the skyscrapers.'
As one of the world's preeminent perfumers, Labbe has been stirring up scents for almost 20 years, working with a wide spectrum of brands that stretch from the uber-luxe (Yves Saint Laurent, Versace) to the ultra-modern (Ted Baker, Joop!). Her latest is Signorina for Italian label Salvatore Ferragamo, a scent made for elegant women that mixes common jasmine and rose flowers ('the flower queens of the perfume world', she says) with the more milky aroma of Italian dessert, panna cotta.
The blending of both - the ordinary with the obscure - is a bold departure for the French perfumer, who is often known for her more subtle creations, but she doesn't want to be pegged as a specific scent creator. 'I want all my creations to be distinct,' she says. 'It's interesting as a creator to always do different things. Each scent I've created has always been important at different points in my life, from my first perfume right through to this one.'
Born and raised in Cognac in the west of France, Labbe grew up with a variety of smells at her disposal - her father grew grapes that were used for the region's eponymous spirit - and it was her early surrounding scents that shaped her career.
'I was always very curious, and always smelling things around me,' she says. 'But I never knew there was such a job as 'perfumer' until I read a magazine article about it, and then I found this whole new world. I always knew my passion was related to smell, and you have this intuition that you're going to be good at it, but you're never quite sure if you're going to succeed.'
Her success is due in no small part to an acute sense of smell; more heightened than most, it allows her to dissect the structure of a scent at a single sniff. As a young lab technician compounding fragrances at work during the day, she'd spend her nights at home then dissecting them - first with simple scents like rose and jasmine, and then moving onto luxury label scents like Chanel No. 5.
'It's similar to what I imagine painters do when they repaint works by the masters,' she says. 'I was trying to catch the perfume's atmosphere in as few ingredients as possible.' Her extraordinary nose eventually caught the notice of Givenchy, for whom Labbe created her first perfume with Organza.
The rest is proverbial history - but make no mistake, Labbe would prefer if you didn't think of her as the main driving force behind all her perfumes. Even though she's often the senior person behind a scent, there are always numerous others who contribute - on Signorina, for example, she worked in collaboration with rising perfume star Juliette Karagueuzoglou.
'When you're working on a scent all day long, it's difficult to have the honesty to say that this particular trial scent isn't the best,' says Labbe. 'I'm lucky in that I have numerous people - evaluators, marketers - who can offer constructive criticism, but you really need to be honest with yourself. And you need inspiration.'
Inspiration for her these days comes partly from travelling - as it does for many people - but also partly from the epicurean indulgences: food and wine. 'More and more nowadays, you have combinations of fragrance and flavours,' says Labbe. 'In difficult times such as our European crisis, people really want to indulge themselves - and with perfume, you don't spend much and you don't gain weight. I've been thinking a lot about Peking duck lately - it has an unbelievable smell and taste, so refined and different.'
Which brings us back to Hong Kong: Labbe was only here for one night, but would like to return sometime soon - or better yet, use our fragrant harbour in an upcoming scent. 'I get a lot of inspiration from travelling and trying new things,' she says. 'I haven't used the smell of a city in one of my perfumes yet - but with Hong Kong, it might actually be a good idea.'
SCENTS OF A WOMAN
G Gigli by Romeo Gigli (1994)
Sophie Labbe's first fragrance was for the Italian fashion designer Romeo Gigli, a mix of fruity and floral that was ideal for daytime use. Top notes featured pineapple and bergamot, while the heart had Labbe's ideal duo of jasmine and rose, with a base of musk and sandalwood.
Organza by Givenchy (1996)
Labbe hit the luxury big time with her popular Givenchy fragrance, a chameleon-like perfume that has had numerous follow ups over the years. With strong top notes of bergamot and gardenia, it's followed quickly by honeysuckle and jasmine, before settling into its base finish of vanilla.
Emporio Lui by Emporio Armani (1998)
For her first men's cologne, Labbe played it safe by creating a simple, rugged fragrance for Armani that was ideal for the man on the move. Blending citrusy notes of lemon, lime and grapefruit with a woody base of cedar and oak, it exudes masculinity but never overpowers.
Boss Woman by Hugo Boss (2000)
When Hugo Boss wanted to launch its flagship perfume for women, it turned to Labbe, who opted for a clean and natural fragrance. It mixed light, fruity mandarin and mango notes with a more feminine heart of freesia and violet root for a still-popular scent.
Paris Hilton for Men by Paris Hilton (2005)
Labbe's first celebrity-endorsed fragrance was a men's cologne for popular socialite Paris Hilton - a sweet, summery scent aimed towards a younger crowd, it used less popular notes of fig leaf, green mango and basil with a simple base of cedar and cucumber.