Frederic Malle is a perfume legend.  An awful thing to say about anyone because  to be a “legend” you have to be in your 80s and walking up the red carpet to receive your Lifetime Achievement Award; even worse, with a sleight of the hand, the clumsy addition of a “d” to the word perfume, and well.. you’re a perfumed legend, festooned in Parma violets, lavender, your hair dyed a shade of lilac to match.

At 50, Malle is still too young for any of that and although he admits to wearing the fragrance he’s working on while he’s working on it, to see how it changes in the course of the day, he is eminently stylish (brown cord suit from his regular tailor) but he’s no perfumed dandy.  (See for yourself, he’s the one on the right, that’s Dries Van Noten on the left, in a picture taken by Brigitte Lacombe, why are we looking at both of them in this picture?  Stay tuned!).  Nonetheless he is followed in the industry with an almost cult-like devotion, thanks to his collaborations with the great perfumers of today, names like Dominique Ropion, Pierre Bourdon and Jean Claude Ellena.

Under the auspices of Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, he gives them the free rein to compose the fragrance of their dreams, with no expense spared, no compromises made.  No wonder that on a rare visit to London a few months ago, prior to a meet and greet with customers at Liberty, journalists – myself included – waited patiently for their interview slot with him – Malle likes to talk and was running over time, no one seemed to mind.

In fact, although he now lives in New York, making regular trips back home to Paris “because the best perfumers are French” it was in London that his first fragrance was born –  a collaboration with Pierre Bourdon for Mark Birley in 1996.    The young Malle spent a few years here – what he calls his “playboy” years – watching the girls walk by at Birley’s nightclub, Annabel’s, an experience which came in useful as it helped him develop the process by which his staff are now trained to find signature fragrances for customers.

“Each girl that passed me by I’d fall in love with.  I was drawn to their faces,” he explains.  “I realised there was a match between character, look and fragrance, from which you could find a method to help choose a fragrance for someone.”  This formed the basis for a lifetime’s quest to match the right fragrance to the right female, after he added a few more questions his staff should ask, like “Are you a loud person or a quiet person?” and  “Where do you live?”  (“Because if you’re an Eskimo you’re going to want something warm, enveloping; whereas if you’re from Tahiti you’ll be drawn to something fresh.” )

When I admit to not having a signature fragrance he laughs: “That’s because there are no more signature scents!  They all smell the same!  And look at how they sell them, in Duty Free, stacked in rows like supermarkets!  To this they then add either an event or a celebrity, because for £20 everyone can buy a piece of that celebrity. With my fragrances I put the cost of the advertising, the launch, the celebrity straight into the bottle.  That’s why they’re classics of their time, with the same customers coming back over the years.”

So why does he think the French make better perfumers?  (You didn’t think I was going to let that one pass, did you?)  “When you go to perfumery school you are given a white notebook, and you’re shown all the different ingredients and you write down what the note makes you think of when you smell it,” he says. “Carrot seed for example, took me straight back to the Renault 4L with red plastic seats that my grandmother used to drive in Biarritz,”

“A lot of the time, these personal notebooks make reference to what you eat as a child, so if you’re fed hamburgers or tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes, or if you’re the kind of kid who feeds yourself by just going to the fridge and helping yourself, it’s much harder.  You just don’t have the references.  On top of that, there is tradition. The French have this great tradition of haute perfumery.”

Tradition which Malle has by the sack-load.  His grandfather founded Parfums Christian Dior; his mother was its creative director for 47 years and gave him Eau Sauvage to wear when he was only eight years old.  (His uncle was film-maker Louis Malle. Let’s face it: he was never going to be an accountant).

There is also the question of seduction.  Talk to any French perfumer and before very long you come back to the purpose of perfume as being about how good it is at getting the object of your desires into the sack.  “For the French it’s all about sex appeal,” says Malle.  “Americans like to smell squeaky clean.  Europeans want some little extra thing that says you’re better than everyone else.” After Eau Sauvage, he graduated to wearing the more provocative Halston Z14. “A masterpiece, with an overdose of Iso E Super in it, which is suave, debonair. These were my nightclub years.”

And the British?  “They’re very good at soaps and toiletries. Floris is the Downton Abbey of perfume.”  He sounds a bit down about Britain but then I realise he means it as a compliment.  “The tradition of the home is extremely important in this country.  English people talk about “going home” and they mean their house in the country, whereas for the French, home is Paris, or wherever they are at the time.  So perfumery in Britain was about making things for the home like soaps; a proper gentleman didn’t smell.”

To help me find a signature scent, he suggests three of his Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle:  “Try Dans Tes BrasAngeliques Sous La Pluie and L’Eau d’Hiver.  Let me know how you get on with them.”  I will try these, if only because the names are so captivating.  (Later I read perfume critic Chandler Burr’s take on the latter: “The scent becomes almost an aspect of your body, in a very subtle and I think aesthetically brilliant way”).

His new fragrance, a collaboration with Dries van Noten, sadly isn’t for me, as I’m not a fan of vanilla, but it’s the designer’s first fragrance and technically it’s very good.  Having stocked Malle’s other fragrances for ten years, he and Malle had a mutual appreciation for one another.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever smelt before, with saffron and sandalwood blending with a warm, rounded vanilla and patchouli and musk rising from underneath.  My nose, usually good at these things, struggles to place the sandalwood, but once it does, I’m back in Burma smelling the small wooden beads strung together with dark red string which they sell at temples. This is a fragrance you could make your own.











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