Words to Live By:
A good fragrance is the result of much effort, expertise and carefully chosen ingredients. The product is not something you necessarily splash about, or wear, every day. Maybe if you're of limited means, you only wear it on Sundays and love it, not every day and forget it.
Hopes for the Future:
I wish there was a greater general understanding of fragrance … A good fragrance is a luxury, and luxury is not cheap. But it lasts.
Frédéric Malle has a strong opinion about your perfume, and he isn't afraid to voice it.
"It's not real perfumery, what we've had over recent decades," he says. "So it is with a feeling of triumph somehow that [global perfume houses] are all going bust. And it's well-deserved. They have been spoiling the business for years."
Whether you agree with his statement or not, the vocal perfumer does have an extensive background in the business. Malle was born into fragrance. He wore Eau Sauvage, the ground-breaking fragrance his mother helped develop when she worked as art director for Christian Dior. His maternal grandfather, Serge Heftler-Louiche, launched Dior's fragrance business. And Malle, arguably, has done more to change the fragrance industry than both.
Tired of the mass-marketed, celebrity-driven, poor-quality direction in which the business was going, he launched Editions de Parfums 15 years ago. The idea was radical: he would work with some of the most famed "noses" around the world and give them carte blanche to create whatever fragrance they wanted, for whatever the price and however long it took.
Malle would work more as an editor - translating concepts into scents, lending his experience to the process - and then as a publisher, getting that fragrance, however atypical, into the market. Packaging was minimal. Marketing was nonexistent. Nobody said if the fragrance was for men or women, or anyone in particular. And, despite this counter-intuitive approach, it worked. Recent years have seen the wider industry ape Malle's way, typically by acquiring smaller, boutique or historic operations that have launched since - indeed, earlier this year Editions de Parfums was bought by Lauder.
"The big groups know the market is returning to true luxury, and they also know the only way to that is to really work with people who are experts in that field," he says, adding that he didn't have the courage to go on in the industry as it was. "I wasn't compromised half as much as the perfumers who had no time to develop their art and no money either, because that all went to the celebrities who fronted the fragrances. The noses all worked under the shadow of focus groups. It had become all about image and a one-size-fits-all mentality."
Malle's approach is not cheap: €200 (HK$1,750) a bottle is not unusual for his brand. Even tester-size vials of some fragrances trade on the likes of eBay at prices well above those one might pay for a flagon of a more conventional scent. But Malle argues that his fragrances linger, rather than fading away in minutes, and that we need to divest ourselves of the idea of fragrance as something cheap and industrial, and return to its original concept.
"The fact is that a good fragrance is a luxury and luxury is not cheap," he says. "But it lasts. You want to enjoy it. My suit was made in 1999. It wasn't cheap. Yet, here we are and I'm still wearing it, and it still looks pretty good. That's the same kind of value people want in fragrances now. We have to stop thinking about fragrances as these commodities. They're not."
Department stores need the pull of more unusual brands to compete with the internet, while demand grows for products of genuine credibility, in content and story alike. But more than this, Malle takes pride in the fact that those once-anonymous noses are now getting more of the recognition they deserve.
Alongside the usual romantic fragrance names such as Portrait of a Lady, Vetiver Extraordinaire and French Lover, Malle has also listed the designers by name. Maurice Roucel, Michel Roudnitska, Pierre Bourdon and Dominique Ropion, the noses behind the company's latest offering, Cologne Indélébile, have had their names placed front and centre on the bottles of the fragrances they have designed.
The product is, at least, more widely available now thanks to a planned series of boutique openings, the latest having taken place in London this summer.
There are other aspects to the industry Malle wants to change too. "I'm still angry about all the [nonsense] in the industry - the claims that natural ingredients are better than synthetic ones, for example, or the fact that you can buy supposed oud fragrances without a gram of oud in them. The public is not as gullible as marketing people like to think it is, and really, who cares if the average person knows the difference between a Bulgarian rose and a Turkish one?" he says.
"But I do wish there was a greater general understanding of fragrance. If [there was, people] wouldn't have fallen for all those celebrity fragrances. But I think we'll see the fragrance business change very quickly now - so all those celebrities are going to have to start acting again."