|Dominique Ropion's Géranium pour Monsieur by Konstantin Kakanias|
When I first glanced at Frédéric Malle’s On Perfume Making at the launch, I felt the slightest twinge of disappointment, despite the fact that Catherine Deneuve, who wrote the foreword, was in attendance. Of course, the book itself is gloriously elegant, with chic, whimsical illustrations by Konstantin Kakanias. But the French title, which would translate as On the Art of Perfume, had led me to expect a more substantial essay on the theme rather than a beautiful and unwieldy coffee-table book.
But as I finally dove into it, it dawned on me that Frédéric Malle really doesn’t have to write an essay on perfume as an art form: whatever he’s got to say, he’s saying it through his fragrances, and that’s enough of a demonstration. On Perfume Making is a series of postfaces to these scents: a transparency well in keeping with his stance as a perfume editor, which also rings as a courteous protest against the purple prose PR departments insist on inflicting on us to preserve the “dream” and “mystery” of fragrance, as if fragrance wasn’t also a matter of intelligence…
Malle explains, in a limpid and unfussy prose, the reason why he founded Éditions de Parfums, the way perfumes are composed in big labs, and then the way he works with perfumers, without omitting practical details such as the intervals at which he evaluates the successive mods – a photograph of his notes offers a tantalizing glimpse into what seems like a glamorous life, with observations scribbled on personalized Chateau Marmont stationery (“Frédéric Malle – In residence").
Malle also drops a few autobiographical tidbits, such as being born on the same day as Susskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, having had the same bedroom than Jean-Paul Guerlain as a child (though obviously not at the same time), and having developed a feeling for what a sensual scent is through years of nightlife and his love of women…
He goes on to describe the genesis of each scent: the perfumer who authored it and the way they met; the springboard for the development and the course it ran; what he feels it achieves.
A few examples:
Over the course of its development, Pierre Bourdon’s Iris Poudre came to be associated with Catherine Deneuve introverted but passionately sensual character in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
Angéliques sous la pluie was inspired by a sprig of angelica Jean-Claude Ellena picked while visiting his friend Jean Laporte, and kept in his pocket.
Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant was the only scent that started out with a name, the one Frédéric Malle had used on the mock-ups he showed her when he went to discuss a collaboration: she liked it so much she asked to use it.
As for Dominique Ropion’s Vétiver Extraordinaire, it is the only one to have been inspired by a "muse", a friend of Frédéric Malle’s father, though Malle is extremely dismissive of bespoke perfumery, saying that “few people know how to conceptualize an odor, much less when to stop.” The final result required 500 mods over 16 months, unlike Musc Ravageur, which was practically finished when Maurice Roucel presented it to Malle: Roucel considered it his best work, but couldn’t sell it because it was considered too daring (and that’s how the mainstream lost what would have surely become a blockbuster).
About Roucel’s Dans tes Bras, Malle confesses that it was the first time he let his tastes and “most intimate cravings” guide him.
Malle’s prose is as pared-down and legible as his visual aesthetics. In fact, in its understated, dégagé fashion, it is a manifesto of what perfumery can be when it is taken seriously. It also looks extremely decorative on a coffee table.