TEN YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, CELEBRATED PERFUMER FRÉDÉRIC MALLE LAUNCHED A LITTLE COLLECTION CALLED EDITIONS DE PARFUMS. AND WITH IT, HE TURNED THE FRAGRANCE INDUSTRY ON ITS NOSE (PUN INTENDED).PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEVIN COOLEY
The food was amazing, all of Parisian high society attended — from Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes to Oscar-nominated French film star (and face of the berry-laden fragrance) Isabelle Adjani — and the party made fragrance history. As for Poison, it went on to sell $25 million in its first three months and even spawned its own family of fragrances, including Midnight Poison, Hypnotic Poison and Pure Poison.
“It was the best launch I’ve ever seen,” Frédéric Malle tells me over sips of coffee on a frigid afternoon in the back room of Via Quadronno, a cozy celebrity-haunted café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where, incidentally, Tony Award–winning actress Christine Baranski is lunching alone a few tables over.
“This type of society had probably never been invited to such a party for the launch of a product, because these people would have never gone to any product launch,” he explains. “But it was the place to be: a better example of Truman Capote’s black-and-white ball. It was very smart.”
And Malle should know. His grandfather, Serge Heftler-Louiche, was a childhood friend of Christian Dior and launched the house’s perfume division, while Malle’s mother served as the house’s longtime art director — and host of the Poison fete. However, what the then-23-year-old Malle didn’t realize was that the perfumer (the brilliant nose Edouard Fléchier) who had crafted that groundbreaking scent didn’t even get an invite — a fact that Malle discovered only when he happened to mention the launch to Fléchier over lunch a couple of years back at a café in Paris. And by then, Malle had already spent nearly a decade correcting the injustice.
“I work for the guys on that wall; they don’t work for me,” Malle says to me later that afternoon at his nearby Madison Avenue boutique, pointing to a constellation of black-and-white portraits hanging over the mantel. The photos put a face and name to 11 of the greatest perfumers in history — from Jean-Claude Ellena (now the in-house nose for Hermès) to the late godfather of modern fragrance Edmond Roudnitska — nine of whom helped Malle launch his industry-changing brand, Editions de Parfums, 10 years ago this month.
Unlike fashion houses that rely solely on their name or the bankability of a celebrity spokesmodel, Malle wanted to make the noses the star of his fragrances. Born into the business, Malle grew up sketching fragrance bottles at Dior during his days off from school. His father raced Ferraris and handed down a love of fast cars and bespoke suits from Savile Row’s Anderson & Sheppard. While that kind of upbringing might elicit calls of aristocratic elitism to some, Malle’s worldly, classic style (“I’ve never bought a piece of fashion in my life,” he once told me) helped him get a job as the assistant to Roure Bertrand Dupont laboratory chairman Jean Amic in 1988.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for someone fresh out of NYU. The 180-year-old Roure was a cutting-edge lab located in the heart of Grasse, France — the world capital of perfume — on the Côte d’Azur, where the industry’s finest raw materials are cultivated. Though Malle was in sales on the business side of the company, Roure was small enough at the time that he had plenty of opportunities to work in the labs with some of the best perfumers in the world, including Fléchier, Ellena and the man who would become his closest collaborator, Dominique Ropion.
In other words, after six years at Roure and five more as a consultant for Christian Lacroix, Chaumet, Hermès and other brands, it wasn’t such a stretch for him to take what he describes as “a total leap into the void.”
“It was a time when everything was going mass,” recalls Malle, who’d been thinking about going out on his own since 1995. “It was shocking. Even Dior was doing fragrances like a mass company.” The void, as it were, had presented itself. That said, he certainly didn’t have the unlimited budgets for multinational ad campaigns and A-list celebrities like the fashion houses did. So he leveraged the one asset he had in spades: unrivaled connections.
“Connections are huge,” Malle admits. “All of these people are my friends. Most of them come from the same lab. The idea for Editions de Parfums came from me, yes, but it also came from all these perfumers telling me they were bored of doing the same thing over and over and over again.”
He modeled the brand’s name after Nouvelles Éditions de Films, the production company created by his uncle, the award-winning director Louis Malle. The idea for the brand was equally simple: Allow perfumers to approach their creations as if they were writing a novel or crafting a piece of art, with Editions serving as the publishing house/gallery. Money would be no object: They’d work with only the finest raw materials, and they wouldn’t stop until real art was achieved.
He made his first call to Pierre Bourdon, who had created the iconic Cool Water for Davidoff and worked at Roure in the ’80s. Malle gave him one caveat. “I said, ‘Let’s find a way not to be copied. The people who others copy go cheap.’? ”
The result was the buttery, musk-laden yet modern floral aldehydic Iris Poudre, which he says “set a precedent for all the perfumers who work for me.” Malle launched the fragrance at the opening of his perfume boutique on Paris’ Rue de Grenelle on June 6, 2000, along with eight other tightly edited unisex scents — and they started a revolution.