Frédéric Malle is known as one of the best perfume makers in the world, but his lineage in the beauty industry traces back to his grandfather, the legendary Serge Heftler Louiche, who founded Parfums Christian Dior. Fragrances, in other words, are a birthright. They marked his childhood, and as he reveals in this interview, shaped even his adolescence. The first time he fell in love, he recalls, was with a young girl who only wore Paris by Yves Saint Laurent.
What’s your first fragrance memory? Being covered in Baby Dior, which was a trickle down from Eau Fresh that my mother did for us.
She made you all wear it? Well, we all had it. My brother and I, we had these bottles and we were covered with it by our nanny.
Would she put it in your hair? In those days, there were several ways. There was no spray. Often they were these toilet cloths and the nanny would sort of put it on us.
Starting at what age? Two? Three? And then, I remember in ‘65 or ‘66, it’s a very vague memory: When Eau Sauvage came out, we had access to that. I mean, I was four, and I remember putting it in my hand and patting it on myself.
What is your Eau Sauvage connection again? Eau Sauvage was Dior, and my mother was the art director of Dior. My grandfather was Dior’s childhood friend, and he had a prominent job in this industry. First, he was managing director of Coty, which was huge. And he was very close to Coty himself. Then he started this distribution company that was also making a lot of things. Dior was like family to him. Before becoming “Dior,” he was my uncle’s godfather and all that. When Dior started, my grandfather gave him a present, which was [the fragrance] Miss Dior, which he made for him. And therefore, he owned a big share in Parfums Dior, which was a separate company then. My grandfather died in ’59, which was before I was born. My mother was a darling and the heiress, and she was the directrice of development, which was the product maker. And so she worked on fragrance development. When Eau Sauvage came, I was wearing it. The first spray I used was an Eau Sauvage bottle.
And you were how old? Five or six.
Five or six, wearing Eau Sauvage. That’s pretty funny. Maybe seven. But the real memory that was very important for me is, I was at boarding school, playing a lot of sports, as one does. And I must have been about 12, and was still covered in Eau Sauvage. You know when you run and sweat? That sort of smell of, I suppose, myself and the perfume, it was something that I realized then was addictive. And then when I was trying to desperately become a playboy -I was 15 - my mother had some products sent from the States to study, and one of them was Halston Z14. She always tried men’s scents on my brother and me, because my father didn’t give a damn. He wore things, but didn’t have the patience for [testing]. Anyway, I thought, Wow, this is damned good. I used that stuff for years. First of all, I was probably the only one is Paris who owned it at the time, and I thought I was so goddamn special wearing it. It was the first overdosed use of Iso E Super.
What’s Iso E? Iso E Super. It’s a fragrance ingredient. It’s a woody amber, and it’s one of the bases of modern perfumery. It’s really one of the big steps. To this day, there’s hardly a fragrance out today without this note in it. And this was the first time it was used to such an extent. People would use one percent or two percent of it. In Z14, it was probably 10-15 percent, and it was a truly modern fragrance. And it’s something that still resonates. When you smell it today, there are aspects of it that are probably out of fashion, but it’s one of the things that made me understand how empowering a fragrance could be.
In a sexually attractive kind of way. Yes. It gave me a sort of expressive sensuality. All of a sudden, I became more sensuous to people. I was fifteen! You’re not sensuous at 15! You’re a little boy! Suddenly, I smelled like a man.
So, was it Z14 that you were wearing when you first caught girls’ attention? Yeah, more or less at that time.
What is your first female fragrance memory? Oh, first, I don’t know, but strongest? I fell in love with a girl when I was in my early twenties who was wearing Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, and it was so right for her. Paris was a huge part of why I fell in love with this person. It was, I don’t know, it made her irresistible. I’d lived with girls who smelled good, but this was really... this worked like a magnet on me.
When you smell it on someone else, do you think, ‘No. That belonged to her’? No, it’s not that. I think fragrances, in general, are not only for one person. You can make masterpieces, but they don’t suit everyone. It’s a bit like dresses or garments. There are things that are right on people. Sometimes they are right on more people than others. For example, not everyone smells good wearing Shalimar, which is a masterpiece. Or [Parfums Frederic Malle] Portrait of a Lady or Carnal Flower, if we can talk about my things. It’s like a match that has to be right. That’s when it becomes incredible. And it’s not so much the smell than the coherence of the person’s colors, their character. It becomes a whole thing. That whole memory I have of that person is embedded on my mind forever, but if I smell Paris on someone else, it’s a different story.
When you are working on a fragrance with a perfumer, do you ever hark back to certain classics you grew up with? I always have those in the back of my mind. But, like a painter knows Rembrandt and Van Eyck, if you have doubts, I think it gives you more depth and more ideas. Because, if you know them so intimately, then you can take a little piece of one and say, “Oh. Remember that accord in there? Maybe we can blow that out, or put it in what you’re doing and make it something different.”
Is that the kind of thing you say to your perfumers? Yeah. When they’re not too young or illiterate. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s one of the many things that makes my collaborations with people like Maurice Roucel, Pierre Bourdon, obviously Dominique Ropion and Carlos Benaim so wonderful. You can say, “Remember that?” And they’ll tell you, “Yes, but there is this also...” That’s why it works, or it’s a stupid idea. They know all the changes.
But so do you. So you’re teaching each other. It’s like jamming. The way I work with perfumers, it’s exactly like that.
Describe your daily grooming routine. It’s very basic. I wash my hair with René Furterer, the yellow tube. I like Kiehl’s Formula 133. I shave with an Aveda product, but I try different ones
What razor? Gilette. That thing that moves, but not the one that vibrates. That’s annoying.
Do you shave every day? Yes. Otherwise, I’d look like a zoo.
Do you try different shaving creams because you are… At the moment, I’m trying different shaving creams because maybe one day I’ll come out with a shaving cream.
That’s what I wanted to know. Then I use Aramis Lab Series all in one product that you put all over your face…It’s an after shave that’s also a moisturizer. And that’s it. I use my soaps and my shower gel. I use Geranium Pour Monsieur shower gel or Vetiver soap. It’s one or the other. I wear fragrances in the evening, other than the ones that I’m working on. Or I use a lot of my Vetiver. In the summer, I wear a lot of my Cologne Bigarade in a splash.
It’s sort of reminiscent of Eau Sauvage, literally what I wore as a child. And I wear a lot of Geranium Pour Monsieur during the day when I don’t have anything to smell. For instance, I have nothing on today because I’m going to smell some things later.
Do you have a lucky or VIP scent? Like, is what you wear to a black tie event different from what you’d wear to a very important meeting? I think the fragrance that empowers me the most is the Vetiver. But if I go to a black tie dinner, I’ll wear my new Monsieur. (It’s coming out in February). It’s almost pure patchouli, with a lot of amber and a bit of leather coming out. Very minimal, quite powerful, deep, and it has this very unusual note on top, which is rum absolute. It’s quite nice with the patchouli.
If we opened your medicine cabinet, what would we see? Dental floss, very boring.
Are you an electric toothbrush man? No, I hate that.
Whose toothbrush do you use? To me, there are two things I absolutely adore shopping for: toothbrushes and sneakers. They’re made in the most amazing sort of computer designs that you can find. With bristles of every color and shapes that are so bizarre. I vary. Now, I have a Colgate one that’s sort of pale green and blue, with this sort of round thing. It’s like having 2001: A Space Odyssey in your mouth. I buy them like going to the Nike store. I go to Duane Reade and see all these colors and think, “Oh, this is a cool design.” I change my toothbrush all the time — because you have to.
Thank you for the public service. What fragrance does your wife wear? Portrait of a Lady. It’s the strangest thing. I did Dans Tes Bras for her. I ask her where it is; she says it’s in the Hamptons, for some reason. It’s a very strange fragrance. Some people think it’s an absolute masterpiece, and some people see something in it that’s very hard. It’s an abstraction, it doesn’t smell like anything, but on some people, it smells glorious.
But Portrait of a Lady. She’s addicted to it. She had been my guinea pig for 25 years, and she tries things, but the one she goes back to is Portrait. And I think she’s right, in a very modest way.
Can you pick a favorite? Because I think your audience can. They are all moments in my life, because I worked on them with all my heart for a year of my life, most of them. I think, you have an attachment and it’s an attachment to a moment. Then you see things in hindsight and the public sort of gives you another affirmation. It’s very rewarding and immodest, to know that you have been part of making something which is important for our industry. I suppose I take that very seriously. No doubt, Carnal Flower is a very important fragrance. Portrait of a Lady, you can’t do much better than that. I’ll be happy if I do a few more like that.
But I feel that Carnal Flower rises above the others in applause. I don’t wear it, but everyone else I know does. It’s strange that you don’t wear it because it would be very nice on you, actually.
I have Lys Mediterranee and I have En Passant, which I’m wearing today. And I’m sure you can also smell that I’m cheating on you by wearing another fragrance, too. Yes, but that’s what makes you even more exciting.
I wouldn’t want to be predictable! Do you think people’s scent preferences change? And I don’t mean going from a teenager to a grown up. I’m talking about myself. I used to hate lavender, and now I really like it. Do you think people’s tastes evolve over time? I think it’s two things. Lavender has always been paired with this very traditional, dirty, powdery note and it smelled like an old person’s cupboard. I never really liked it like that. Today, there is another take on lavender. It’s a clean lavender. Those powdery dirty notes are so off that we don’t even consider using them anymore, for anything. So that’s a possibility. But then there are moments in your life. I don’t think that my wife would have worn Portrait of a Lady 20 years ago. She would have worn something fresher and more transparent. We all evolve, including people like me, whose job it is to make fragrances. I’m always asked about trends. I don’t believe in trends. In a world that at the same time created Bulgari Green Tea and [Thierry Mugler’s] Angel, you tell me the trend. They’re polar opposites. So the trend in perfumery is usually following the best seller. But the general trend is that we’re in a digital age, things are much sharper.It’s like seeing the world through photoshop.
Is there someone you remember who wore your fragrance that excited you the most? I don’t want to name drop, but whenever I come across someone wearing one of my fragrances on Madison Avenue, it always feels good.
Do you ever stop them? No. Sometimes they look at me.
That’s nice. Is your nose so good that you can identify every smell when you walk down the street? Not everything because there are a lot of fragrances out now. When I was a kid going out too much, I could spot and recognize every every single fragrance on people at Le Palace. It was easy because all these fragrances were so signature and so specific and there weren’t that many. Now, there are much more, and many of them resemble each other. I will recognize certain ones, like some Chanel Les Exclusifs or a Serge Lutens, or Terre d’Hermès, because those are very specific.
Back at Studio 54 and Le Palace, was there a scent they wore more than others? The one I mostly remember was Oscar de la Renta. I remember Kirat, who was a famous model for Saint Laurent, wearing Oscar and smelling delicious. A lot of it was Opium in those days, too. I remember much later, I was at Les Bains in Paris and it was the first time I smelled Angel. Sort of mid ‘80s. and I was like, ‘Wow, this is something.’
What is your favorite smell and least favorite? I asked you this years ago and you said your children. They are too old now. They don’t smell so good anymore.
Hate? The New York garbage trucks in the summer. My favorite is every single thing in nature, but mostly the smell of burning wood in the winter. Because it’s my childhood and impossible to reproduce. You can try so many times and never succeed because what’s cool is you smell the warm smell and the cold.
That’s my perfect scent. It’s impossible to make. Believe me, I’ve tried.
When are you going to make it for me? I’ll do my best.