"Our goal was to make perfumes that would be liquid works of art." Frédéric Malle, with his olfactive gallery of fragrances housed within Editions de Parfums, is doing something like no other. And yet, it's really rather simple. Collaborating with the world's greatest noses to create a suite of scented masterpieces – each one utterly individual with its own story to impart – Frédéric and his co-conspirators place perfumery firmly back into the hands of the artists.
Dubbing himself the 'Perfume Publisher', to understand Frédéric Malle’s approach means to go back 20 years to a time pre-Editions de Parfums. "I was working for major French brands, and, with perfumers every day. I realised then that perfumery was becoming very routine. Luxury was dying, perfumery was dying, and, perfume was more image than the content of the bottle. So I tried to put things back in order, and put perfume back in the centre of our business.
"So, I called the best perfumers in the industry, proposed to them to work in a completely free fashion and treated them like artists. Naturally, as things were going on, I was coaching these perfumers, being discrete with some, very hands-on with others, and I realised that my job was very similar to the one of a publisher. So I named myself a 'perfume publisher' – something that didn't exist, but also to help people to understand that we are dealing with art here, not the mundane perfumes that you find everywhere," he explains.
But this is about as far as the labels go for Frédéric: "Some people call it 'niche', some people call it 'artisanal fragrance', giving freedom to perfumers, showcasing perfumes made by perfumers and sold by perfume experts to discerning customers… It is a very simple principle and to tell you the truth, I did not invent anything here."
To get a better grasp of Frédéric's implicit esteem for the art of perfumery and all its intricacies, simply rewind back to a childhood spent immersed in scent: "My family has been working in this business for two generations, my mother worked for Dior as an Art Director for 47 years. Her father had created the company and was very close to Christian Dior, so she was very much Dior family. As a child, all I heard about was perfumery. I suppose that this leaves a very deep trace in a child’s mind. And then later, I decided to add that to my life – it was sort of effortless."
It was this effortless ascent into the colourful and evocative world of perfumery that cultivated that deep rooted empathy for the craft and, indeed, the crafters. "You are dealing with artists, each nose is a different individual, they have a different writing, they have a different personality, and also they have a different history with me," he adds. "I've been working with some of them for 27 years – Dominique Ropion or Pierre Bourdon. My job is to simply adapt to who they are, to try to make them as comfortable as possible to create masterpieces. It's hard to create a masterpiece," he laughs.
Weaving in the narrative for these 'masterpieces' is not done by fragrance trends or anything quite so ephemeral, but rather something a little more enduring, carving out a permanent spot in the Editions de Parfums library. "The starting point is often nature or a memory, and sometimes it's also a new raw material that we want to pair with something else to create a new colour, like an abstract painter," he shares.
Take, for example, one of Edition de Parfums' breakout icons, Portrait Of A Lady with Dominique Ropion. The signature fragrance of editors and influencers, often to be found scenting the front rows of Fashion Week, it began life in Géranium Pour Monsieur – a men's scent. "The dry down is very warm and soothing, and I thought that this part of this fresh men’s perfume could become a more feminine, oriental perfume," he explains. "So, I asked Dominique to isolate the background of Géranium Pour Monsieur and to turn that into a perfume. We worked on this for about six months, but there was one dimension missing and we were going in circles. By luck, we were talking about something else and we thought of adding in rose and that instantly transformed the perfume. The scent felt so smart, we knew it was a classic of tomorrow.
"We worked like mad for two months on it, and, on the very last day, we had several trials – we're talking infinite differences between them. There was one that I thought was right, and so I asked my wife to join me, to pick me up at my office and walk to a restaurant with me at night in New York. Four people along the way asked her what she was wearing. I thought that this was probably the good moment to stop."
With individuality being key to the Editions de Parfums approach, these are not scents crafted with a specific 'Frédéric Malle woman' in mind, but rather working through a deeper, more intimate transaction where the wearer becomes the scent and, indeed, the scent becomes the wearer. It is the curation of this olfactive empowerment that is for Frédéric, in his own words: "a privilege".
Celebrating nearly 20 years of the house, with a complementary range of supporting body products and a line of candles and home scents, for Frédéric, there is still much work to be done. "What's coming next is working with perfumers on new shapes, new ingredients, new things that haven't been touched by anyone." He adds: "As I always used to be the young one, looking up to this generation of perfumers who taught me my job, who helped me create this house, now I feel it's time to help the young perfumers of today to go further; they are so passionate about what they are doing. My responsibility is to offer opportunities and to help them get better."