vendredi 26 juin 2015

My Top Scents of Summer for 2015

I’ve just handed in the French translation of E.L. James’ new Grey, a 14-hour-a-day, shackled-to-the-keyboard marathon during which I must admit our seasonal top 10 wholly slipped my mind – hence this belated contribution (that prose would soften anyone's... brain).

I subsisted during my stint in the Red Room of Pain – aka my living room/office – by spraying myself periodically with the bracing, mint-and-grass scented Herba Fresca one of the first Aqua Allegorias. And a reminder that Guerlain was way ahead of the competition in the faux-de-cologne genre since the collection goes all the way back to 1999.

I’ve been having a tiny bit of a niche backlash these days. It kind of snuck up on me: at this stage, and with summer coming on, I can do without the drama queens, the fascinating weirdos and the 700th vetiver. I’ve been drawn to abstract, sleek pieces like Alaïa, Paris which I’ve been wearing most days. I’m more aware of the mineral-animal axis, but most people who’ve smelled it on me get into the fruity floral angle (there’s an osmanthus effect though none is claimed).

Narciso is another one of these abstracts scents: sniff it at certain angle and you’ll get the rose-vetiver bearing walls of another great favorite of mine, Le Labo’s Ylang 49. But while the latter plays a 1970s-style green chypre structure off the saline aspects of salicylates (major components of ylang and responsible for “solar” notes), Narciso Rodriguez’s new feminine gives off a grand, static milky haze. The “Oil parfum” version is markedly woodier: a lick on the nape of the neck will do the trick on a hot day.

Seamless, non-figurative compositions – the olfactory equivalent of ambient music – are something of an Alberto Morillas forte. Pending his upcoming Voulez-vous coucher avec moi for Kilian, a “flower milk” to be released in October, his limited-edition Good Girl Gone Bad – Splash of Neroli blows a bubble of freshness into that great ball of flowers. It is a scent I turn to when I just want to slide on the scented equivalent of a décolletage -- like Guerlain’s Terracotta, such a success last year it was brought back as a permanent reference. My favorite version is actually the after-sun cream, which I use as a moisturizer after I’ve showered with Yves Rocher’s classic, divine and dirt-cheap Monoï de Tahiti Lagoon Hair & Body Wash – I was turned on to it by Isabelle Doyen, who was actually born in Tahiti and so knows her monoï. I’d bathe in pools of the stuff.

I’ve just written I could very well live with the 700th take on vetiver, but to cut through all that tropical, lactonic, fruity floral frivolity, I spritz on Prada’s Infusion de Vétiver with its fizzy ginger bite, it’s just begging to be turned into a cocktail (mixologist are become a fixture at perfume-y events, but that’s another story).

And just to prove I’m not entirely off niche, I’ve recently rediscovered Miller Harris’ Fleurs de Sel, a more aromatic, neo-hippie-chic descendant of Dune by Dior – both being alternate-universe takes on beach scents with nary a drop of calone, that play on the tannic effects of narcissus to bring out the saltiness of vetiver and moss…

To conclude, I’d like to share a bit of disheartening news. I hadn’t been walking around Paris much (because of my 50 shades of translation misery), but two days ago I found out that L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Grande Boutique on the rue de l’Amiral de Coligny, opposite the Louvre, was no more. 

That was where Bertrand Duchaufour had his lab, and thus where Sévillle à l’aube was conceived and birthed… I’m sure many of you dropped by there at some point to pick up your favorites: it was one of the very few freestanding L’Artisan boutiques left. Let’s just hope Puig knows what to do with the brand. At this point, no news has filtered.

For more top scents of summer, please visit my friends at:

mardi 9 juin 2015

The End of Auteur Perfumery?

For a short period, it seemed that perfumers had reappropriated perfume; that an area of creativity had opened up in which not only were their names disclosed, but their signature could be expressed. Under Pamela Roberts’ tenure as a creative director – the brand’s most fertile era -- L’Artisan Parfumeur paved the way in the 1990s by naming their dreamteam (first Olivia Giacobetti, then Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour, Anne Flipo). Frédéric Malle turned his perfumers’ signature into a concept. Parfums de Nicolaï, Parfums d’Empire, The Different Company were founded and led by noses. 

The then-nascent fragrant blogosphere drafted the basis of what could be called a politique des auteurs, singling out individual styles from one brand to another. A few perfumers broke free from the « studio system »: Olivia Giacobetti, Isabelle Doyen, Sandrine Videault, Bertrand Duchaufour, Geza Schoen, Mark Buxton, Christophe Laudamiel, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato… Instead of their working for Big Aroma, competing anonymously to win briefs, clients came to see them, and paid them to develop their fragrances.  

Meanwhile, the mainstream having caught on to the advantages of naming noses, they are paraded around to lend their faces even to the direst designed-by-committee juice. One after another, niche brands are being snapped up by big business interests: Annick Goutal, Diptyque, Byredo, Le Labo, Frédéric Malle, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s…

And, after having sniffed at the sector for years Big Aroma is now throwing its noses at niche. Blocking a perfumer and a production line for a piddling 10 kilos of oil didn’t seem quite cost-effective five years ago. But, a) the market share of niche is growing, and bound to grow more now that some brands are owned by big groups ; b) it is prestigious and therefore a good way to promote the company’s noses ; c) larger budgets per kilo mean better showcases for rare, expensive or captive ingredients. And, finally, it’s good to let perfumers have their fun now and then…

As a result, while you used to have to be an industry insider like Malle to work with IFF, Firmenich or Givaudan perfumers, now even new players have a shot at getting their juices developed by big names. And for free: they pay the oil, but no development fee. Smaller composition houses are thus compelled to handle developments free of charge as well – at least one I know of seems to have based its development policy on nabbing clients from independent perfumers by foregoing development fees.

To sum up: the perfume industry, after having been challenged by the rise of niche, has now mostly brought it back into the fold. This isn’t to say that original fragrances can’t be composed for niche brands – or mainstream brands for that matter –by “big lab” perfumers: our noses confirm that they can, and have. It doesn't mean either that indie noses will go extinct. But it seems that the window of opportunity for creating a different model within the perfume industry, one that would come closer to design, is sliding shut.

lundi 8 juin 2015

La fin de la parfumerie d'auteur?

Ça aura duré, quoi ? Dix ans ? Quinze ? Pendant ce temps-là, on aura cru que les nez avaient repris la main. On leur aura redonné non seulement leur nom, mais la possibilité d’une signature. Dans les années 1990, sous la direction artistique de Pamela Roberts – la période la plus féconde de la marque --, L’Artisan Parfumeur ouvrait la voie en révélant sa dream-team: Olivia Giacobetti d’abord, puis Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour, Anne Flipo… Frédéric Malle a fait de la parfumerie d’auteur le concept même de sa maison. Avec Parfums de Nicolaï, Parfum d’Empire et The Different Company, les parfumeurs ont fondé leurs marques. 

Pendant ce temps, la blogosphère parfum naissante esquissait le principe d’une politique des auteurs de la parfumerie en repérant des styles par-delà les marques. Quelques parfumeurs s’affranchissaient du « studio system » : Olivia Giacobetti, Isabelle Doyen, Sandrine Videault, Bertrand Duchaufour, Geza Schoen, Mark Buxton, Christophe Laudamiel, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato… Au lieu de travailler pour les grosses boîtes, d’entrer en concurrence anonyme avec leurs collègues pour gagner des briefs, les clients les sollicitent, eux, pour leur style. Et les paient pour qu’ils développent leurs parfums.

Le mainstream a vite compris les avantages qu'on pouvait retirer en dévoilant les nez : on leur demande désormais de répondre même du plus indigent des produits créé par comité. Les marques de niche se font happer par les grands groupes l’une après l’autre -- Annick Goutal, Diptyque, Byredo, Le Labo, Frédéric Malle, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s… Et après avoir tordu le nez pendant des années sur le secteur, les grands labos lâchent aujourd’hui leurs nez dans le niche.

Il y a encore peu de temps, l’idée même de mobiliser un parfumeur ou des cuves pour des quantités risibles de concentré aurait paru peu rentable. Mais, un, la part de marché du niche augmente, et augmentera encore dès lors que les marques disposent de la force de frappe de grands groupes. Deux, c’est une bonne façon, pour un grand labo, de faire la promo de son cheptel de nez. Trois, comme certaines (pas toutes) marques de niche accordent des budgets plus généreux aux concentrés, c’est l’occasion de mettre en valeur telle ou telle matière première coûteuse (et/ou captive) autrement qu’au compte-gouttes. Enfin, il est de bonne politique de permettre aux parfumeurs de s’amuser de temps en temps… lorsqu’ils auront fait « du volume ».

Du coup, alors qu’un propriétaire de marque de niche devait jadis être du sérail pour prétendre travailler avec les nez des IFF, Firmenich et autres Givaudan, cela devient de plus en plus facile. Et c’est gratuit : le parfumeur étant salarié, on ne paie que le concentré. Du coup, les petites maisons de composition doivent s’aligner – l’une d’entre elles, semble-t-il, aurait fondé sa politique de développement sur le braconnage des clients de parfumeurs indépendants, en faisant les formules à l’œil.

Conclusion : après avoir été un temps ébranlée par la montée du niche, l’industrie du parfum l’a aujourd’hui ramené dans son giron. Cela ne veut évidemment pas dire que des parfums « signés », originaux, ne peuvent émaner des grands labos : nos nez nous fournissent tous les jours la preuve du contraire. Ou que les parfumeurs indépendants ne seront plus sollicités. Mais la petite fenêtre qui s’était entrebâillée sur la possibilité d’un modèle différent de la création en parfumerie, plus proche de celui du design, est en train de se refermer.