Perfume interviews have become my favourite activity on this blog and today we’re taking a deep dive / behind the scenes look into the fragrance world with Christophe Laudamiel, a perfumer who for most of you probably needs no introduction. He is an independent perfumer with a large catalogue of interesting work. You have probably smelt something Christophe has created even if you don’t know the name behind the bottle. His fragrances include Ralph Lauren‘s Polo Blue (co-signed with Carlos Benaim), Tom Ford‘s Amber Absolute and four perfumes for Nest Fragrances amongst many others. He now also has his own brand called The Zoo in addition to working for niche brands such as strangelovenyc and developing scent art exhibitions.
I was intrigued by his work after trying the four strangelovenyc fragrances; deep, mysterious scents that smell unique in the perfumed world. Then I read his Fragrance Manifesto – Liberté, Egalité, Fragrancité and Open Letters (including one to Leonard Lauder) and was further intrigued. He proposes taking fragrance out of its current space, broadening the discourse and generally spreading the world of olfaction to the public. Christophe has the signature thinking of a disruptor and would like to see the perfume industry push boundaries and do things in different ways. He prefers to think of himself as a maverick, outsider or pioneer rather than a disruptor, but let’s agree that he provides a rare insight into the closed environment of the larger fragrance houses, that most of us have no access to.
I briefly met Christophe last year at Esxence when he gave a great lecture where we smelt around 20 materials and perfumes. I was hooked. This year I viewed him accepting his Art & Olfaction Award in the Artisan category for Club Design for The Zoo. Christophe also has a company called DreamAir in which he makes predominantly ambient scents. He travels a lot too and is often spied with his dog Yuki. The last time I saw them was in Nice at the World Perfumery Congress (more on that soon) where he delivered a great talk with Josiah Ryan entitled New Power and Transparency in an Open Age which showed how they are opening the door to perfumery and all that’s involved via their Instagram feed.
Now this interview is quite long so I’m splitting it over two sessions. This is quite an open insight into the world of perfumery and a side that perhaps you haven’t heard before, although if you have had the pleasure of hearing Christophe speak or follow him on Instagram, you will already have some idea of his direction.
I’m presenting this interview as a collection of thoughts as the conversation roamed and rambled – in the best way possible. So let’s get started. For this interview, we talked on Skype.
The first topic of conversation was Christophe’s Fragrance Manifesto
I wanted to show how we have to move forward sometimes in humoristic ways. When you write things you can reach people and instead of just talking reading does crystallise concrete ideas in the minds of others too. I do have people saying “that made me think of doing this”, “that encouraged me in doing that” or ‘it convinced me to do things differently in perfumery”. So it’s almost enabling people, or showing them they are not dreaming by thinking of something different in Perfumery, encouraging them making analogies by looking at more mature and bigger art and design industries.
We have this thing in fragrance “it’s so complicated …” but it’s not a reason not to do things nor to keep everything secret. In a few years we can see if there’s been any impact … and once in a while I write more things, maybe Manifesto Number 2 but this first Manifesto are the things I’ve been gathering for many years since I started in the fragrance industry I want to show people how they can make parallels between painting, architecture, music to propulse the fragrance industry to truly the next level.
MISM: It’s planting seeds in people’s minds, it made me think about things a little differently too. It made me think about the industry, it may need more people like you that approach things in a fresh way. I know indie perfumers do this, but on a wider scale the perfume industry seems to be quite conservative.
It’s not that many beauty and fashion brands are quite conservative, it’s that they’re very, very conservative. Where is the MAC of perfumery? The history starts with a story in Grasse and it’s a village and they have this village mentality, you don’t like someone new coming into the village and you see how they recruit in the industry. Coming from high-end Chemistry universities and corporations, for me it did not sound historic, but antiquated.
MISM: It’s mainly through family isn’t it?
You can be the son of Bono but you’re not going to go far in music if you just play the guitar a little bit, you can’t just tell people music is complicated and my father was a guitarist. If you’re the son of Bono he will push you a lot, but then if you’re not very good you won’t go very far. In this industry till very very recently, it was very different, the father pushes you all the way through your whole career and because people are not there to check if you’re good, if you are not making copies, and there’s no competition if you’re a perfumer (there is but it’s very different from the music and fashion industry. You have to get out there by yourself, day, nights, week-ends, and move and you do gigs and then people see who starts to be really good). With perfumery you’re in the golden tower and you don’t manage perfumers and perfumery students like you manage other talent … musicians or chemists. It’s very interesting … not even like you manage fashion designers.
And don’t get me wrong there are some very good perfumers who are sons of the fathers but it’s missing a lot of other things and yes when you said conservative, we’re very conservative in concepts and in the way we don’t like people from the outside. We don’t forge start-ups either.
I see how the perfumers look at the indie perfumes from inside the industry, they really want to make the barriers. Whereas in music, the barriers are not so strict, you don’t say you’ve done Juilliard school of music or Conservatoire in Paris or you haven’t, you know what I mean. There’s not a barrier there. If you’ve done Conservatoire Paris that gives you an aura, so sometimes people may say you’re conservative but you know music. But if you haven’t done Conservatoire Paris but you are Bono you are not looked down upon you know. It’s very strange, we have to move ahead. In ten years we have to catch up 100 years.
[Note from Christophe : Christophe did go to some prestigious schools in Chemistry and in Perfumery, so calling here for others for a better education and a better more diverse group of students and better perfume academia.]
MISM: So if you’re in a big perfume company, you get hired after your training?
No they hire you before, maybe first as a lab assistant or you’re already working there in the factory and you get the training, or they hire from outside. But you are already an employee. For me at P&G the day I went to study perfumery and the day I started, I was an employee with a salary, and the first year you don’t do anything except learning, learning, learning. You don’t do any projects and you don’t bring any money into the company but that’s a very unique position. It’s very enjoyable. … Don’t get too excited: the qualifications to get in are just humonguous and rightly so. At P&G, no sons of the father unwritten policy.
MISM: If someone was going to come in and really shake up the industry, it could be you, what do you think would be very effective?
Hiring a perfumer.
Photos: Olivier Rousteing (Balmain), François Demachy (Dior), Thierry Wasser (Guerlain)
Companies like Dior hire fashion designers in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s in a very different way than they hire a perfumer. They let the fashion designers do things that perfumers could never do at a fashion show which is very flashy …. They do that with fashion but those same managers of LVMH and Kering they don’t do the same with perfumery. Thierry Wasser creates at Guerlain, and the house of Dior has François Demachy. They’re excellent perfumers but their House is not creating the crowd movements and the same type of volume of business as fashion. Why aren’t we doing this?
They have really different fragrances, different fashions … every six months there’s a big show, we could copy fashion, the concepts and the responsibility but also the kind of people they put in here. We should do our own perfume shows. They say we need a perfumer with a lot of experience, but at Balmain they picked Olivier in his twenties, true, who had a lot of experience already, but still. Nobody said “ohlala, he is too young”.
Now that would be disruptive and it’s physical.
I think the perfumers should do some initiatives by themselves and I don’t know why but some perfumers are all scared of their fragrance house – that’s the problem. They should start some formulas, trademarking some olfactory marks, that you can do. Why don’t perfumers have their own Award system done in a very original way. The ASP (American Society of Perfumers) has (I received it) but is not the Prix Goncourt. Could be taken to the next level.
MISM: What do you think about the companies like Chanel and Hermes, they have a lead perfumer, and others too.
I’m sorry what they do in perfumery has nothing to do with what Karl Lagerfeld does in fashion, by the amount of output, the out-of-this-world quality of output, and by the excitement of the output. I’m sorry. Perfumery is not behind fashion, is not an accessory to fashion.
PERFUMERY SHOULD BE AS BIG AS FASHION AND INDEPENDENT FROM FASHION, PERIOD!
I don’t know any fashion designer or big musician that doesn’t work extra-hours. You know the perfumer goes to work at 10 and leaves at 7. I don’t know a creative industry where that happens. I mean once in a blue moon a perfumer will be at work on a Saturday morning. A musician on Sunday is usually drunk from playing the night before, or sleeping from a heavy classical music night or… is playing in the studios. They play and drink and play and drink or play and sleep and play and sleep but it’s the creative process (sorry for clichés, but think of the perfumer’s cliché instead). Same for the research chemist. We don’t have that in perfumery at all. This is what I also described in my manifesto. I want some perfumers spending the whole night in the lab by passion. I don’t know anyone doing this.
MISM: Do you have your lab at your home now?
No my lab is in New York and one in Berlin. I have a real location. And before my lab was at IFF, and before I had a lab at P&G .. and I would stay in there the whole night, security knows me, they come and they see I’m in the lab and I’m not watching anything on YouTube. … They see they can come any day or night and they see I’m in the lab or at my desk writing formulas but I’ve never seen people like that. But in music I see that a lot, or when there’s a fashion show the weekend before.
MISM: Is it different in America?
No I know the New York perfumery scene much more than the Paris perfumery scene. It is nice and comfortable, we do not have the stress of the fashion houses but we do not have the salary either I have to say. I don’t complain about the compensation I care more about the same level of activity. Some people who want to be a 9-5 perfumer can do it and there’s plenty of work for that, and we need a lot of fragrances and that’s fine but there should be room and possibilities and positions and budget for … people that want to pull it up …. and do cool things that will then pull the whole business up, not +-/1% of growth a year when most people don’t wear a fragrance and don’t even know how to go about it. Certainly not saturated.
MISM: So it sounds like if you were to work at a big company at the moment, they have one way to work. Maybe they need creative hubs within their organisations.
No they won’t do that. How do you justify your budget if you want to be like a fashion designer when the designer brings millions of dollars to the house? You have to start a system so someone has to have a vision. Current CEO’s have the vision for fashion but do not have it for perfumery. Remember we don’t create for our own in the fragrance industry, we create for paying patrons who are mostly the fashion brands. And remember we rarely create for the fashion designer we create for the fashion brand, the management of the fashion brand, so we are the milking cows of the fashion brand. Don’t forget that too. It’s not healthy and we see close to zero growth compared to cosmetics and the fashion brands say but you need us and we say we don’t need fashion actually, we should certainly collaborate of course. They certainly appreciate the margins they do off of us. I wrote that in the letter to Leonard Lauder as they don’t have fashion. Guerlain should play that chord much much more too at their benefit. Think also that the brain reacts much more and that more precisely on how you smell rather than on how you look. So don’t give me the BS of why we cannot grow as much as make-up …and finger nails for God’s sake.
Imagine if the music industry would create only for Hollywood, or only for fashion shows … an entire music just for fashion shows and movies, … and you’re a slave with not much say for this sort of industry. And on top of this the management of fashion brands don’t know much frankly … they’re not specialists in perfumery so it’s hard for them to have a vision. They ask you the same thing as before and they have no vested interests in having you become as big as the designers anyway, and they want bigger margin than in fashion. It is known that quite a number of well-known fashion brands gets significantly more margin from the perfume lines than from the fashion lines.
MISM: It’s interesting that the perfume companies pretty much have a middle man, you’re not dealing straight to the consumer
Unlike the musicians, painters, videos, movies you create for your public. I create for a middle manager who then has to report to another manager. There are a lot of different levels within the fragrance house and the perfumer is not at the forefront in the fragrance house like in a fashion house or an architect bureau. You have to invite many others and they like to say it’s a team but it’s a team where everybody has a big stake so it’s not like the perfumer creates for the consumer in the big organisations.
If you create directly for the consumer, you’re a small perfumer with your little store apart from some like Guerlain, Francis Kurkdjian and Annick Goutal. It’s not a common model in the fragrance industry since the bad 30’s and WWII.
MISM: Why don’t many perfumers go out on their own? Is it too comfortable in a big company?
Yeah but it’s hard to get into a big company and you know more and more are going on their own. … So the trend is you have more and more.
Christophe then talks about Accords et Parfums (in Cabris, near Grasse)
There’s a perfumers lab, like a recording lab, you can subscribe to this company … you can be at Grasse, New York … and you get this shipped to you, … and I don’t know what the financial deal is but they source for you and they have the catalogue of 1000, 2000 ingredients and they do the safety reviews. It’s more than a recording studio. It’s heavy to get a perfumer’s studio.
This initiative is groundbreaking. It allows small perfumers in a serious way to do what you just described. In the US they don’t have that yet.
A lot of people so far only dream of launching their own brand, they don’t have big ideas in perfumery and they haven’t been trained in to the possibilities.
In music you need to know about speakers, recording, it’s just not doing your little thing on the piano if you want to become something new in music and so you need to know about the orchestra.
MISM: There are more exhibitions – there was one in London last year at Somerset House – the conversation is moving. The Art and Olfaction institution and awards is building things too. Since I’ve had an interest in perfume it’s shifted, things are changing quickly, a lot of people are doing make your own perfume workshops too.
Also what has changed a lot in the past five years is people in the media, there are people that are more inquisitive and it’s in a good way. They want to destroy the hot air and the bluff. You had music and movie critics, you’ve never really had that in the world of perfume …. and people investigating. You didn’t have independent journalists as they were all from the perfume and beauty magazines or paid in kind or in lavish trips to inspiring places. We do have a sexy industry, so it’s hard to be neutral for a journalist. Vogue is not an independent critic in fashion either but they know much much more about fashion than they know about perfumery. Tough debate, not sure what to say but readers should know what they are reading.
I’m thinking of people like Pia (Long) in London – she’s been writing and trying to find out the truth about everything and she doesn’t care if she is going to offend someone, with that guy, lovely guy (Nick Gilbert) and now they’re opening their own perfume organ, and I’m not sure what they’re going to cook in there but I find this a very interesting enterprise. And I’ve met them at an event in London, that’s just one example, but there are plenty of people like you who like to write and Mark Behnke in the US and this is bringing a new level of knowledge.
MISM: Yes that’s true there is a growing surge of people interested in all aspects of the perfume industry. Before it was really only advertising in the magazines. The beauty industry in magazines works the same way as fashion – it’s an advertising catalogue.
The brands advertise in those magazines so you can’t be a critic … you don’t really have the Rolling Stone magazine of perfumery.
People think that vanilla falls from the sky. People have no idea the work that perfume houses do to just to get the vanilla … and people don’t appreciate and clients the same. They like to go on a vanilla trip but when they come back they say the fragrance still has to be 20 dollars a kilo. Vanilla is 6000 a kilo and you should know it’s amazing whether it’s for food or perfumery. The amount of work and hands you need is incredible.
The brands have realized they have to bring to their public more know-how the same as you do for wine and whisky …. We have to go a long way … we have all the niche perfumes but it’s still not people lining up, or different types of events, but at least we have the knowledge now that is spreading out.
You can go and visit the whiskey factories in Scotland and they will show you how they blend this and they blend that and what they use. They might keep one little secret and I respect secrets very much but they should show a few things. Can you visit the Chanel factory? Is it open to the public? People go to Grasse and visit some second class factories because no one opened the real ones. You don’t visit IFF and Firmenich and Chanel and Robertet. It’s not open to the public. The New York Gold Reserve (the largest gold reserve in the world) is open to the public.
Can you see how complicated a perfume formula is even when it is short with 20 ingredients? Forget it when it is 80 ingredients. Whiskey only has three ingredients, of which one is water (the solvent), and one distillation. We have 15 to 100 and several ingredients have their own distillation : all so called natural oils or essences (except the citruses) are coming from very precise distillations of the said ingredients. And we are more concentrated than whiskey which would last on skin about five minutes. So the distillation has to be even more precise because you would see all the defects faster.
And on that note, we’ll sign out today and Part 2 will be up shortly so pop back to see what else Christophe has to say on DreamAir, The Zoo, strangelovenyc and more. I hope you’ve enjoyed Part One and it’s great that Christophe is so accessible and his thoughts are not filtered through a press team. He wants to educate the public and if you do have the chance to see him – in Berlin or New York where he often exhibits, I would highly recommend you do so.
Notes : Images from Christophe Laudamiel’s Instagram. strangelovenyc collage from photos from the brand, images of Olivier Rousteing, François Demachy and Thierry Wasser (press shots on the internet).
This page has been updated to provide more context from Christophe.