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Common Scents

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Story by Jennifer Croll

“In the old days, it was very simple,” says Frédéric Malle, his voice rising with emotion. “Perfume was seen as an art, as something creative.” Malle is the founder of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, the eponymous Parisian boutique perfumerie whose old-fashioned approach has revolutionized the world of fragrances. Malle’s passion for fragrances is hardly surprising, as he was born into the industry and primed from a young age to appreciate the complexity of scent. Malle’s grandfather created the perfume line for Christian Dior, and later, his mother was Dior’s art director.

Perhaps his strong ties to perfume’s history are the reason why Malle, when working as a consultant for several large perfumers such as Hermes, grew dissatisfied with changes he was seeing in the perfume industry. “I realized that all the big guys, the people with money, were concentrating more and more on doing these mass-market fragrances,” says Malle. The reality of modern perfume-making, he observed, was more focused on marketing than on the product itself.

“If you make a fragrance now, it’s a global business, and you have to appeal to absolutely everyone worldwide. Basically what counts is the brand more than anything. The fragrance has to be as bland as possible.” The kinds of perfumes that succeeded in this marketing-heavy atmosphere were ones that immediately appealed to the consumer, rather than the ones that grew on them. Most scents relied on the same 25 ingredients, in varying proportions, so as not to put off rushed shoppers most likely to favour something with a scent of familiarity. But instant gratification isn’t always best in the long run.

“Mass fragrances are created to make a splash, to impress when sprayed on a card. They aren’t made to be worn,” confirms Malle. “They don’t last, or their character goes, because everything is invested in the first ten minutes. When you think of old-fashioned fragrances, they were not very good for ten minutes. You had wear them before they took off, and then they were delicious for the whole day.”

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This tension between homogenous, modern fragrances and older, more complex scents became clear to Malle one day as he sat with a group of accomplished, tasteful women: actresses, playwrights, and doctors, all discussing perfumes. “I remember it vividly,” he says. “They talked of how they had to choose between smelling like everybody, or smelling like their mothers. They had a choice between contemporary, mass-market fragrances, or great classics, but from another era.” Malle’s realization prompted him to create an alternative: a perfume house focusing on the fragrance itself, allowing the perfumer full creative license to concoct a truly amazing scent.

“It’s just going back to what fragrances were about years ago,” he suggests. “But the idea was to create thoroughly modern fragrances, using old-fashioned practices. Make authentic scents, and get specialists to sell them.” Editions de Parfums, created in 2000, enlisted nine famous perfumers to create their own scents, to their own specifications. Malle draws a comparison between the way his perfumery creates perfumes, and the way a book publisher creates books: it’s all about the author. In Malle’s perfume shop, “instead of having a display of pretty bottles and a wall of boxes, we have a different framed picture of each perfumer with their name on it.”

Each of the 9 Editions de Parfums scents is contained in an elegant, but simple bottle, the main difference being the name of which perfumer is displayed on the label. “It’s putting more focus on the content of the bottle rather than the container, which only bears the fragrance name, and the name of the perfumer.” Malle’s return to tradition has been very successful. “We had this sort of rebellion, and our rebellion has taken us quite far,” he comments. And that success has not gone unnoticed. “I find it extremely exciting that recently, most of the major houses have started to do some things very much in the spirit of my company.

Now the market has really divided into two. You have mass fragrances, and then you have prestige fragrances. It’s become a real market.” The irony that traditional, quality perfume has had to work to establish itself in the marketplace is not lost on Malle. “My main effort is to make something that smells delicious when worn. It sounds like common sense, but it’s not what people do anymore.” Of course, that is all changing. What was old is becoming new again. “We’re going further, and creating fragrances that we never thought were possible anymore,” says Malle. “People are going back to old habits. We are giving so much reason to people to find the fragrance that they really want.”

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