Today, Malle has three stores in Paris, a space on Madison Avenue in New York that opened last October to rave reviews, and 18 scents that evoke everything from clouds and Chanel lipstick to “salty, warm skin.” He’s also branched out with more than 50 miniature versions of his shops around the globe in premium department stores, including Liberty of London, Holt Renfrew and Barneys New York, which nabbed the U.S. exclusive for Editions in 2002 and has since built mini stores in each of its locations that echo Malle’s boutiques — right down to the perfumers’ photos and Bauhaus furniture.
Of course, this kind of success breeds copycats, whether it’s the indie bespoke brands like By Kilian and Le Labo or simply more tailored selections from upscale fashion brands such as Tom Ford. “You’re seeing more editions coming out, and, at a higher level, you’re even seeing jewelers and designers coming up with more sophisticated offerings,” says Karen Grant, vice president and senior global industry analyst for beauty for the market research firm NPD Group. “It was such a hidden art, and I think what Frédéric Malle has done is unmask and elevate the perfumer to more of a celebrity level.”
Yet, beyond all the glitz and glamour, Malle’s story is most interesting as a case study in just how far a perfumer might go to realize a unique olfactory vision.
As the top in-house perfumer for the industry-leading lab, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), Ropion was given a tuberose absolute prototype in 2004, and he immediately called Malle to come smell it. “I work with perfumers who decide whether raw materials exist or not,” Malle says. “We said for many years we wanted to do a great tuberose, but we didn’t know how — it was just an idea in the air. This absolute called for doing it.”
Developed in a headspace, a cutting-edge technology where absolute essences of flowers are captured on silicate gels in big glass globes and then processed through a mass-spectrometer so the perfumer can take zooms over specific areas of the flowers, it was one of the most expensive raw materials on the planet (think $10,000-plus per pound). Despite the technology and the price, it took Ropion and Malle 15 months to get a formula that actually smelled good.
“Every tuberose is a copy of [perfumer Germaine Cellier’s] Fracas; we wanted something that was true to nature and linked to the skin. At the beginning, we thought we were never going to be finished,” says Malle, who was still living in Paris at the time and getting weekly deliveries of Italian tuberose flowers from the city’s premier florist, Moullié Savart, so he could compare the scent to the bags of unmarked vials Ropion was sending over. “It took us a year to realize you needed to have a huge amount of green notes to make it evaporate progressively.”
As with most great inventions, Malle’s eureka moment was a matter of serendipity. He was in St. Tropez for his half sister’s wedding, clad in a stiflingly hot morning coat. Just before the service began, he picked a fresh (and fateful) gardenia from his mother’s garden and pinned it to his lapel.
“This woman who was next to me was fanning herself and threw the gardenia smell in my face, and [I spent] half an hour trying to figure out how the green note in the gardenia worked,” he recalls. “The minute I got out of the church, I called Dominique and said, ‘I know what you want to put in there.’ By Monday afternoon, we had jumped another hurdle. I didn’t even take the family photo.”
After 640 trials and 18 months of trading constant e-mails — in which Malle gave notes on the ingredients in Ropion’s vials like “crushes a little,” “seems to have this booster-rocket camphorated effect” or “remains slightly more powerful, and still vibrates a little on the skin” — they had conceived one of the finest fragrances in the world. Now they’re working on their fifth and sixth scents together.
In the meantime, Malle, who lives on New York’s Upper East Side with his wife of 20 years and their four children, is busy with his new line of candles and home fragrances (which includes the Fleur Mécanique, a chic red wireless diffuser that replaces the typical reeds-in-a-jar-of-oil concept). The collection is yet another example of his relentless perfectionism.
“When you sell candles as luxurious as mine, I think the flame has to be perfect,” says Malle, who recently pulled two models from his store this winter that were having wax and wick issues. Three years in the making, Malle’s home line is also a measure of his priority access to cutting-edge technology.
“I’m obsessed with secrecy, and I hide everything, so I hid the candles in the closet in my house and [then] realized the closet smelled very, very good,” Malle says. So, he called up IFF just six weeks before his home launch and had them mold a mouse pad-shaped prototype of their patented rubber incense (think powderized rubber mixed with Carlos Benaïm’s Saint des Saints fragrance). “That confirmed to them I was completely mad,” he jokes. “But what’s very nice about having a fairly small company is that you can make things in relatively small quantities and improve them.”
To make his 10th anniversary just so, he also plans to tweak the sheen on the perfume-bottle caps and the fonts on their labels ever so slightly. “It’s how a brand like Chanel has survived for so long,” he notes. “They don’t want to ‘change’, but they don’t age.”
And, if you ask Malle, there’s really no other way.