Louis Vuitton’s new perfume range: meet the master maker

As Louis Vuitton launches its first range of scents in 70 years, master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud explains how it happened

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 5:31pm

In terms of pedigree, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, is the cream of the crop. A native of Grasse which is famed for centuries of perfume manufacturing, “my family have been in the region for five centuries,” Cavallier-Belletrudsays. He is also the third generation of his family to work in the business, his father and grandfather were both experts in the field.

When we meet at Louis Vuitton’s new centre of perfume, Les Fontaines Parfumées, a property acquired and renovated by LVMH, dating back to the 17th century, Cavallier-Belletrud’s teenage daughter is also there and thinking of following in her father’s footsteps.

Louis Vuitton releasing fragrances by master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud

Cavallier-Belletrud is responsible for some of the most recognisable perfumes of the last 30 years: Christian Dior’s Midnight Poison, Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio and Issey Miyake’s L’Eau d’Issey. But at Louis Vuitton he has been tasked by the LVMH group to create the first perfumes for the brand in 70 years. The result? A collection of seven sophisticated scents, that took him a total of three years to develop, in what could be this year’s biggest beauty launch.

The scents carry a fair amount of mystery: there’s the airy Rose des Vents, musky Dans la Peau, the innocent Apogée, the darker Matière Noire, the intense, sweet Mille Feux, Contre Moi and Turbulences. Each comes in a Marc Newson-designed bottle with a hint of reference to the brand’s past perfume bottles.

“I worked so many different ideas. I was totally free,” he says. “I took a lot from the emotions of visiting the brand’s ateliers and talking to people who worked there and discovering what they were doing.”

“Creation has to be immediate,” says the master perfumer, who takes a certain emotion, for inspiration each time. “The fragrance you are making has to last in the stores for 10 years. It is not meant to last just one year, it needs longevity.”

One of our favourite stories is of the Turbulences scent, defined by the tuberose – which Cavallier-Belletrud says was inspired by an emotional moment “of being with my father in my garden, surrounded by flowers.”

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s this personal story of two men (who’ve dedicated their lives to women’s perfume) that has resulted in a feminine perfume that I believe will be the most popular of the seven.

As a small child he would listen to his father and grandfather talking about raw materials, perfumes, femininity and masculinity and the beauty of a rose or jasmine flower. “This is simply our life, there was no question of doing something else,” he adds.

“With raw materials, flowers are really my preference. We are talking about jasmine and rose but also I love magnolia and osmanthus. There’s some Chinese jasmine that I love, ginger from Nigeria or India, pepper from Africa, geranium from China and vanilla from Madagascar.”

So how long does it take to develop a scent from beginning to end?

“Well, it’s from one second to a century,” quips the perfumer, “but if you want to do serious work, it takes a year and a half at least. The best is two years.”

Cavallier-Belletrud prefers to smell scents in the mornings. He talks passionately of the science of scents as he takes us through the labs inside the Les Fontaines Parfumées estate, but when it comes down to it, making a scent “is not rational. It’s about trying to put emotions into a bottle, it has to touch you.”

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Due to mass production, many luxury handicrafts have fallen by the wayside, as investors focused on cheaper, factory made products that were more democratic yet uniform. In recent years, however, there’s been a trend of multinational luxury brands taking a role in preserving these crafts. Brands like Chanel and LV have been active in acquiring or supporting small expert European ateliers, such as the Fontaines Parfumées.

The property, which has its own storied history of making famous perfumes, has been key to what the brand wants to achieve. Vuitton is sending the message that it aims to be the best in the industry with its renovation.

“It’s very important for France and Italy because people have been perfecting these crafts for centuries,” says Cavallier-Belletrud. “We are not here just to take, take, take, we are respecting the story of this place and the story of perfume in this area. We are trying to be more sincere, to be humble.”

The gardeners at the LVMH owned property have started a junior garden full of herbs and flowers that will be used in experimentation and research for Cavallier-Belletrud. Christian Dior’s (owned by LVMH) master perfumer Francois Demachy will also be based in the property, for some healthy competition and collaboration.

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Timing is everything in Grasse, a place which has thrived on picking flowers and plants at the most optimal time. Last century Louis Vuitton was very active in perfume, and came out with four scents between 1927 and 1946, says Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke. “We want to reacquire this trade and with our desire to create icons and permanence in the industry, we don’t want to follow what is going on in the perfume industry right now where there’s thousands of launches a year. We’re going to want to slow things down to create permanence and iconic scents that you can pass onto your children and not just acquire for a season.”

So what, according to Cavallier-Belletrud, makes a great perfume?

“For me it’s the right balance, the right freshness, the places to cut, revealing the beauty of the natural raw materials,” but this also depends the materials you work with to create contrasts. A rose might be very classic, so adding some innovation with an element like leather gives an interesting result. Cavallier-Belletrud likes to look beyond the surface and some of the products he sources from far-flung locales are not only grown for perfume.

“If you look at flowers from China for example, they are used to flavour tea too, so it’s linked to the native culture. I like the idea of taking a part of this and putting it into my perfumes.”

“Being here, at this property and in Grasse, is the perfect link with the history of perfumes and how to create something exceptional,” says Cavallier-Belletrud.

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Although perfumeries date back several millennia and across continents, it was the Arab tradition for perfumes that became a significant influence in Europeans adopting the practice. By the 14th century, the south of France was a major centre for growing flowers for perfumes, and Grasse quickly became important. Patronage by nobles and the wealthy elite boosted business. In the 17th century the industry was booming in Grasse, which became the centre of European perfumes, largely through its its dominance of the leather glove trade. Since leather and tanneries caused such an awful stench (if you’ve been to a tannery, you’ll know exactly what I mean), reportedly they started using scented water infused with floral and herbal essences and oils to masking the smell of early leather gloves. The perfumed gloves quickly became so popular that the perfume side of the trade grew into a highly profitable and wide reaching business.