Perfume people are really the best. Some encounters leave a mark. I had one such meeting with Ermano Picco and found him to be such a warm and intelligent man who is passionate about olfaction, and highly knowledgeable too. I probably didn’t know just how passionate until I did this interview though.
Ermano has been involved with perfume for many years. He writes his blog La gardenia nell ‘occhiello and is doing great work with fragrance house Rubini and the Outsider Scent Awards. You may also know Ermano though his Instagram account @magnifiscent. It’s my pleasure to have him here on these pages in a Fragrant Hommes interview.
This interview is a mixture of written responses to questions I sent to Ermano and also a Skype conversation on which we could have talked for hours and hours on perfume.
Ermano, thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions as a Fragrant Homme. I’m really honoured to have this interview with you and to get to know more about your scent universe.
Thank you very much for your questions, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you and share passion, knowledge and some fun.
Ermano I first knew of you from your work at Cafleurebon and your blog, La gardenia nell ‘occhiello and realised that you’re a true perfume connoisseur with a long history of passion for perfumery. When did your love for fragrance start?
Well, it started in my early years at age 3 or even before. My mom wore Ô de Lancôme at that time, and she used to put a few drops (it was still splash, oh yes) on her hands and scent me as a final touch while dressing me in the morning. Mom’s care, the gesture itself, the scent, everything was part of a magic ritual and I was so bewitched I couldn’t help but secretly stealing the juice from her beauty case from time to time. That must be why I have a sort of olfactory imprinting for chypres.
What other scent memories do you have from childhood?
I grew up in Crema in Italy. When I was a little boy my playground was a farm and we went running up and down and my granddad used to bring us to the fields where they grow everything. All of the smells of nature are really, really dear to me because it is the memory of childhood. Also we used to play in the middle of the hay bales and the smell of hay was so strong, very hypnotic. It smells a little like barley as you have fermentation as it drys out and it matures. It’s really a complex smell and it’s not just like coumarin. Coumarin is the main molecule, tonka bean like but in the sweetest way. Very almondy, powdery but real hay is also animalic and like dried herbs, so it’s bittersweet.
Your life and working experience in perfumery : You have your blog, your work with the Outsider Scent Awards and also Rubini and consulting work. Can you tell us a little about each of these.
Experience is the word that better describes my path in perfumery. Since the early 2000s thanks to the web I started learning more and more about perfumery. My inner engineer curiosity was digging more and more about not just about new releases etc, but what’s behind the bottle. So I started reading available sources (there was very few little in Italian), learning about perfume history, perfumers and people who made the industry and natural and synthetic raw materials which are deeply connected with history too. I must also be thankful for people who have been inspirational to me and pushed me in many ways like Octavian Coifan, Michelyn Camen and above all Antonio Alessandria.
By nature I like challenges and I try every time to go one step further, and during the years I started contributing for ÇaFleureBon Modern Masterpieces (which was quite a challenge and an honor for an Italian native speaker I think) but I always look for more. So it’s no wonder when Andrea Rubini shared with me his vision and the struggle of making it happen, I told him I could help him if he trusted me. Right after, Cristiano Canali and Francesca Gotti were part of a dream team in a creative process that rarely happens anymore in perfumeland. The result is Fundamental, let me dare to say one of the pivotal perfume projects of the last years that released a new wave of fruity lavender and iris accords together with a neodeco concrete aesthetics. This also opened me the door to collaborations with other brands later.
While writing I always wanted to stimulate people on olfactory awareness, but I was also looking for other ways to do that. Even if we don’t realize that, we live in a world where scents are part of nature, science and our olfactory heritage. So a first step was holding workshops in collaboration with Smell Festival and also with Campomarzio70 where I could share the link between perfume history, culture and nowadays scents.
Then I thought it was time to make people put their hands on the real thing, raw materials. I think everybody should think we play every day with aromachemicals even if one will never become a perfumer or start a business. After all it’s the same with colors: you know what’s a cold or a warm color, you know the difference with yellow from a lemon or pink from a rose. It’s just a matter of education if you can do the same with citral for lemon and citronellol for rose after all, isn’t it?
So in 2015 I shared my thoughts on making a contest for non-professional people with Francesca Faruolo, Smell Festival founder and director who enthusiastically made it happen. The Outsider Scents Award was born and in 2018 will be the 3rd edition.
The latest experiences I have are in the less explored (at least in Italy) territory of scent in context like Opera and Art. During the last year I worked with an incredible team of artists playing in theaters all over the world on the fragrant mise en scene of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci which was really amazing. The whole show was very experimental and set in a street-theater approach. The other challenge was Verdi’s titanic masterpiece Rigoletto. In both cases I was really amazed by the feedback from opera singers and the public. I will also collaborate with the renowned Puccini Festival in Tuscany on a project involving perfume, arts and opera in 2018.
Last but not least there was the Mustafa Sabbagh anthological exhibition “XI comandamento: non dimenticare” (XI commandment: never forget) at the Musei San Domenico in Forli. There was an incredible synesthetic display of Sabbagh artworks also including a multisensory installation featuring a bespoke olfactory design developed in collaboration with me and Antonio Alessandria.
Which materials do you enjoy in perfumery?
Let me say first there is no good and bad in the perfumer’s palette, just right on purpose or not. Then well, everybody has most cherished notes so, naming just a few naturals let me say jasmine essence from Grasse, Mysore sandalwood and bergamot essence from Reggio Calabria sponged the old way (it smells incredible), but also new naturals like magnolia leaf oil for example. Among synthetics the classic unbeaten hydroxycitronellal (still the most realistic muguet core) is always good, but also molecules more in fashion right now like Filbertone (think roasted hazelnut) or applelide (think creamy apple muskiness).
What style of fragrances do you prefer?
Based on the fact I am a vintage collector one could think I favor old style perfumes which isn’t actually true. I like a retro touch as well as a very innovative style, what really matters to me is, if you want to go in a new direction, make it brilliantly. This of course implies a great idea, balance, choice of proper raw materials. One thing I pay great attention to is texture: smelling a fragrance is like touching a fabric and a good perfume, no matter if it’s a thick wood or voile, should always give you a sumptuous touch.
What are your thoughts on vintage vs modern?
It’s simply not vintage vs modern but modern through vintage. I think making something modern is not trivial and doesn’t mean making something simple as opposite to old style complexity. To make something really modern you must understand the past first, then have knowledge of modern techniques and elaborate archetypes in a contemporary vision. Of course this also means to be brave as the temptation of copying current or past bestsellers is always right behind the corner (and many surrender to that!). So provided I am in front of a beautiful modern perfume, I am happy with that.
Two vintage perfumes that Ermano talked about in our Skype conversation were Ô de Lancome and Shalimar
Ô de Lancome – it’s an androgynous feminine chypre, but very luminous and very aromatic in the opening, very Mediterranean in a word. The current version is lighter, more musky, it doesn’t have the strong chypre background but you can still feel it. It’s fresher in the base. It was more dramatic and more contrasted.
The old Shalimar was dramatic, a mistress perfume. On top, the first instant is so citrus, so bergamot because in the 30% or more of bergamot in the original formula, so it’s like squeezing bergamot up your nose. It’s very brutalist in a way.
Where do you find your vintage perfume?
Tripping around. I started collecting them about 10 years ago and the first source was little shops. 10 years ago or even more than 10 years ago, the big chains started buying the small shops and the same happened in Italy. The small shops started to feel the struggle, so they started to all become niche perfumeries so changing the focus to non commercial or they surrendered. Or in a way tried to get bigger, so I started going to visit small shops and most of the time they had leftovers from very old perfume – some Guerlain, Lanvin you know big brands that back in time were glorious but in the late 90’s lost their shine a little bit. Also the Lanvin was really old stuff, keeping dust on the shelf.
I found stuff like Scandal and the good thing was nowadays everybody speaks of vintage in terms of – it’s very rare, it’s very expensive. While back in the 90’s nobody cared about them. They just wanted to get rid of them. You heard nothing about the expense but they said just smell this it’s beautiful. Most of the time they were moved by the fact that someone could understand the beauty. I have really good memories of those times, those years, 2002 – 2005 because I had the chance to talk to very old ladies or people who ran the perfume shops for 50 years and it was amazing to talk to them and understand their story and even how the kind of customer changed during the years.
I always have this feeling. I have 100 bottles, maybe like 50 bottles of current perfumes, so it’s not big collection compared to those you see on Instagram and so on, but to me every bottle … I feel the need to get deep inside the bottle. Every time I find a vintage perfume or a current perfume, it’s easier for the new ones, you have the website, the press release and sometimes you already know the person behind it. We are in perfume land enough to know Etienne de Swardt, Stephane Humbert Lucas but with the vintages it’s very different because back in time, but you didn’t know the perfumer because it wasn’t said because you know we thought Christian Dior made his own perfumes or Jacques Fath made his perfumes and even Estee Lauder made hers.
My approach with the vintages was kind of Indiana Jones. Where can I find information?
How has the customer changed over the years? (In Italy)
Back in time (I’m speaking of Italy) perfume was real luxury. You bought it like a precious gift. Everybody nowadays tries to push rubbish as luxury. Everything is fucking fabulous! But just to let you know that everybody tries to push the ultimate luxury. But let’s face it perfume has lost its magic, most of the time.
Yes it’s luxury for really rich people. Back in time, even the housewife could afford her little luxury a bottle of Baccarat cristalle.
How do you see the fragrance industry evolving – the large brands and the smaller more artistic players?
The industry is evolving faster and faster. In the last years the speed acceleration with seasonal new launches was incredible and this floods the shelves with copycats and very safe stuff sadly letting less and less space for creativity. Also the blooming of online retailers increased the competition on the market so I think the retail paradigm will evolve a lot especially in selective perfumery. This of course will impact smaller players but I think it will bring good opportunities for them. The flattening of globalization will mean the same exclusive brand available everywhere won’t be that exclusive anymore for example.
What do you see in your future?
I am pretty open to anything. I hope I will be able to learn more, make more challenging experiences and collaborations in perfumery whatever it means perfume coverage, perfume development or interdisciplinary projects.
If you were to take only 5 perfumes with you on your trip to the next colony in space what would they be?
Ok, let me stick with a couple of vintages in my collection and some modern ones.
Jean Patou – Joy parfum // Guerlain – Vol de Nuit parfum // Vero Kern – Mito // Neela Vermeire – Trayee // Rubini – Fundamental
Tell me about Mito one of your favourite perfumes.
It’s beautiful and back to chypre. It’s a green chypre with a very, very retro vibe but quite modern because most of the raw materials are pretty modern. For e.g you can feel the magnolia accord, which is based on a real magnolia extraction. It’s a beautiful floral because it’s like a crispy, white floral. And magnolia in real life is hypnotic. You feel this sunny sensation of green, open air like a Mediterranean garden. Then you get through the evolution to the base, which is a little bit patchouli, a little bit mossy but kept in a very velvety sensation. And I think it’s pretty unisex especially the EDP. The parfum is more on the white floral. A modern man can wear this nowadays – guys wear sweet perfumes now.
Thank you so much to Ermano for your time in answering these questions.
Believe it or not, I have more material to do another post on Ermano and his search for vintage perfumes, as well as a perfumed conversation discussing different fragrances, so these will be coming soon too.
Notes : Images from Ermano and his Instagram account : Mito from Vero Kern : Rubini’s Fundamental from Megan In Sainte Maxime.