CREATION IS ALL ABOUT CHOICE

vor 8 months

There is no doubt that perfume expert Frédéric Malle and star perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena are both geniuses in their industry. And what happens when two geniuses meet? They most likely can’t stand each other or they see each other’s gifts and start to create history.

The latter is something the two Frenchmen have mastered, successfully looking back at five powerful scents they have created for Malle’s fragrance publishing house Editions de Parfums.

 

Highly experienced and almost zen-like 76 years that is beautifully respected by another highly experienced 61 years that sees the bigger picture in everything. Jean Claude Ellena, born into a family of perfumers from Grasse and being introduced to the art of developing fragrances as a teenager, has a very emotional approach of creating his perfumes. It is a language that Fréderic Malle, prestige fragrance publisher who founded his Editions de Parfums in 2000, learnt to love and trust. During the pandemic, the two creators little surprisingly continued working and had found as many others their very unique way of doing so. Telephone calls and using a rare feeling of intimacy that this period has taught us gave birth to a new creation: Heaven Can Wait, a modern reinvention of a French perfume and Parisian Chic based on clove, pimento, ambrette and carrot meeting iris, vetiver and notes of peach and prune.

Celebrating the new fragrance, I meet the two gentlemen in Paris in a beautiful intimate apartment facing the magic greens and beiges of Place des Vosges. Extending the coziness, we sit down at a couch whilst we can smell a beautiful dinner being prepared. Too many scents, too many emotionsI’m thinking while smelling Heaven Can Wait for he first time, trying to not be distracted by myCarnal Flower fragrance that i am wearing and all the other editions that had been prepared to be smelled again. Well, Heaven Can Wait speaks for itself: almost a little nostalgic but so warm and inviting, yet very mature and zen is my first impression.

 

A conversation about the challenge of creation, Japanese Yuzu and anecdotes from a golf class.

 

Let’s start to speak about your new fragrance, I just smelled it for the first time. It feels so different from the other editions but also from your previous collaborative fragrances. And then the name, Heaven Can Wait –  it’s so good. How did you come up with that name?
Frédéric Malle: When we discuss names, we work in the opposite way from most of the other perfumers who usually have a name and then try to create a perfume that fits to it. It is interesting that our fragrance was designed during Covid, it is the reason why it is based on the idea of intimacy and personal environments with the longing for a perfect moment. There are two films with two different stories that gave me the idea for the name but it is like Portait of a Lady, the fragrance itself is not meant to illustrate a specific story, it tells its own story. And then Jean-Claude liked the name too, that is the difficult part, that he likes it (laughs).

I’ve read that you had to step away for a little while during the process of creating the fragrance because it was so intense?
Frédéric Malle: Actually, we stepped away because we were not able to travel anymore so we started working on the fragrance via phone. The beauty of our collaboration is that we first discuss ideas and then Jean Claude would send me samples and we go back and forth. Usually, we text eachother or we write emails. For Heaven Can Wait, there are no texts, we only talked on the phone. There is no trace.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, this is true. No trace, very different from our creation Rose & Cuir.

Frédéric Malle: This also shows the amount of intimacy.

Did that feeling come first when you started working on the fragrance?
Frédéric Malle: No, the ingredients came first. There is only a handful of perfumes that really have a very specific style, Edmond Roudniska was one, Sophia Grojsmam was one, Jean Claude is one. It taught me a lot and correct me if I’m wrong, Jean-Claude, but when it comes to the inspiration of this fragrance, there are lot of cold spices reinforcing the idea of freshness, and sometimes even transparency. I’m personally really intrigued by warm spices which means two things: first of all, it is about the warmth inside of you, so you enter a different type of sensuality here. And then also, it’s the warm spices that last longer, cold spices usually are top notes which means that the weight of this perfume is a different one that really excited me. This is how it all started and after, it was very much a step by step thing. Once you basically have the backbone, you add things to modify it slightly, it is very clear structure you follow so that everything is in balance. Jean-Claude’s idea to do something with vetiver, to be light and warm was like inventing hot water for me. It was complicated but very smart.

What made it so complicated?
Jean-Claude Ellena: The combination and then to formalize it.

Frédéric Malle: …it’s an oxymora, you know.

You two have worked on many fragrances already. Do you feel there is a specific change or evolvement in how you work together?
Jean-Claude Ellena: Well, it was actually the first time that I said to Frédéric I wanted to do something very sensual. In the past, we have always worked with very fresh notes. With time, I also understood that this very fragrance is actually an autobiography of my life. Working in the perfumery for sixty years now, this one captures what I really like the most throughout all the years of creation. It is kind of an evolution based on experience and my love about perfume.

Can you notice this evolution also in your collaboration?
Jean-Claude Ellena: Well, of course when we started to collaborate, we would judge each other (laughs).

Frédéric Malle: Yes, you wait and observe with distance.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes (laughs), exactly. Now, we know each other so well, we can talk very openly. It’s really a pleasure because we feel in one very free together and we love what we do, together.

Frédéric Malle: We have done this for a long time over and over again and know all difficulties but also, we have a fair amount of mileage, ideas, humility and love for this. So the conversation is very fluid. It was funny because when I met Jean-Claude, two companies had merged and I was very close to all the consumers from one company and Jean-Claude was the star of the other, not really to the likes of the other perfumers (laughs). And I saw that he was good but very soon, he would become the star of the third one since he didn’t want to stay in this big complex. We saw each other again for the édition perfume project and when I introduced this idea of total freedom, Jean-Claude, a little bit like Roudniska, decided to live in Grasse to be away from Paris, yet stronger in Paris because he was really working as an artist and was not polluted by this whole marketing circus in Paris, doing his own thing. This is one of the reasons why his style is so specific. When I said that he could work freely, we started a beautiful journey.

With all the freedom you work with, how do you protect your signature at the same time?
Frédéric Malle: We are sure of our signature because we are solid and humble and have a common goal. We understand where we are going with an idea. A way to lose your signature is when you work in reverse and you want to please everyone. Now when it comes to the market, I always think that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward but risk means also the possibility of failure, so we never know if it’s going to work out.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Another important thing talking about signatures is that whenever I share my creation, I have to be proud of what I’ve done because what is in the bottle, that’s me.

Frédéric Malle: …oh and your name is on it.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, I don’t want to do any compromises. And I can tell you, there are some perfumes that take me ten years, others that take me three days to do. It does not mean that threedays is better than ten years. Sometimes the idea you have in your head is not it’s not finished soyou put away and you work at it again when the time is right. Then you stop when you feel you have nothing more to add.

Do you sometimes step into the process when Jean-Claude creates?
Frédéric Malle: Our exchange is very close but basically, let’s think of it as reils, you decide to go to Berlin but then sometimes you try out other this on the way since it is very tempting and at some point you know that you will not end up in Berlin but in Beijing. However, if you do that too often and you follow to many zigzags, then it becomes complicated. Once we decided we’re going that way, we really try and go this way. And one of my role is to help guiding, if ever Jean-Claude needs help, he often doesn’t. Only one time in our collaboration, I remember that we decided to shift when someone was telling me about how a very famous fragrance was really being done. When we found out, we knew that instead of going to Berlin, we needed to go to Hamburg.

So what do you do when you have an idea that does not work out?
Frédéric Malle: It’s trash… I think us as perfumers, we are quite secretive with what we do but we know that if we throw something away, we’ll have another idea, it’s an endless process.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, it is not a problem of ideas but the one thing is that you have to make a choice at some point, this is the difficulty.

Frédéric Malle: Creation is all about choice. The exhausting thing is that all those choices that seem like nothing are really affecting your body since you put a lot of yourself into these decisions. I remember when I was a perfume consultant I had this one client who is a very important person in the perfumery and I would show him all these choices but he didn’t really care so much, he was sort of fine with everything. This is really different from how you feel as a creative, let’s say a painter or a musicians – you have to do all those choices, and that’s very tiring because sometimes, you don’t want to do them.

To do these decisions, you really have to be clear with your vision?!
Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, you have to also know how to build your vision, it takes time and then with time though, you go faster.

Because it becomes more of a routine?
Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, you gain a lot of experience but the difficulty is, you have to care about your experience to avoid repeating yourself too much. You go a little bit further each time, it’s always a question of the right balance. What I personally sometimes worry about is that what I do needs to fit our time.

Do you think about trends at all?
Jean-Claude Ellena: I mean, I always prefer to create a trend than to follow one.

Frédéric Malle: When Jean-Claude created the Vert Bvlgari that no one wanted before Bvlgari, this is what created CK One – this is huge, just to name one. If you create something very specific and very original, the commercial brands are going to knock it off. When we started this company we launched Musc Ravageur which became almost like a curse since it was so sexy and so unpredictable. And within a year, Tom Ford followed and everyone came back with something oriental, it was crazy.

Jean-Claude Ellena: When created the Cologne Biagarde, we started a new trend of a cologne.

What is your secret of continuing to do so?
Frédéric Malle: I think we are very sensitive creatives, Jean-Claude reads a lot, watches many movies and spends much time with inspiring people. It’s about these special feelings that you develop when you are open to the world. When you work in perfume, you have this backdrop which has changed and naturally you shift and your desires change. I am a very was curious person who is very much in the know of what’s happening, in many ways. I think that the seduction, this idea of sex appeal is something that we feel so intensely when we are young but we are still excited by more or less the same thing when we get older. You discover more, you watch more movies but this part becomes less relevant with age. The only thing that you wonder at some point is if you are still relevant. But I think it feels like new colors always enter our rainbow which is a new opportunity to paint differently.

Do you feel connected to the idea of creating for or in a city? Heaven Can Wait for example is very Parisian, very romantic.
Frédéric Malle: I think marketing has been built around this a lot. But of course when you travel and go to foreign countries and places, you smell them which can inspire you a lot.

Jean-Claude Ellena: It is a good way to open your mind to different cultures and different food, food is so important. For Rose & Cuir we used for the first time Timut Pepper. My friend who is a famous cook showed it to me and asked me what I’d think about it. I loved it and tried it out right after. This kind of approach I really enjoy a lot. And I really love Yuzu but the problem is that it is very expensive at the moment and you need a lot so that it lasts. For a good Yuzu you spend like 2000 Euros and you have to use 10% for a so it sums up to 200 Euros per use already. Right now, we are trying to work with a Spanish company since in Spain you can find good Yuzu.

Did you ever create a customized fragrance for an individual?
Jean-Claude Ellena: No, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Why not?
Jean-Claude Ellena: For two reasons: One is because of the narcissism. If I’d create a fragrance for you I would start asking you what kind of perfume you like and it would be easy for me to create it since I know all the formulas so technically, I can easily come up with something to please you but it would not be me at all. And then secondly if I did it for you, you would tell people you wear a fragrance that Jean-Claude Ellena made for you (laughs).

Frédéric Malle: ….and all of a sudden you have a new job. Well, if you do a perfume for one person, it is the exact formula than making one for a thousand people.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Yes, and I prefer to make a great fragrance for Frédéric that will sell to a lot of people, this is really pleasant for me.

How different do you see the Editions de Parfums being perceived and worn in different markets?
Frédéric Malle: The wonderful thing, despite the idea of global marketing, is that each country has very strong identities when it comes to taste, especially regions. I think that the Middle East has a unique way of wearing fragrances which is very much in their routine, China for example has a long tradition of perfumes with a domination of oud but now they go back to a more developed taste for very strong perfumes, also rose – opposed to Japan, which is very reluctant to put anything on their body. Italy is one of my favorite, I think they have a very good taste. Italy, Spain and France are probably the most sophisticated and aligned with what we like. America is a big question: it developed amazing perfumes in the eighties, they established a very elite perfumery but then those brands have gone down. The market is not dead but I think that it has lost a lot in terms of style in general. So yes, all countries work quite differently.

What about Germany?
Frédéric Malle: Germany is not traditionally a perfume market. It’s not a country where people have been historically wearing a lot of fragrances, it only came in the eighties. I also think that Germany is many countries in one, people are not the same in Munich as they are in Cologne or Hamburg and I also think there are different kinds of people: the artistic scene in Berlin is quite different from the aristocratic scene in Hamburg. I remember I refused to talk to people in a very sophisticated world in Hamburg and Munich, we always had a great success in the more artistic fashion world in Berlin. To me these are all micro worlds, just as you cannot look at America being one nation only: New York is so different from L.A., Chicago so different from Texas. And in Texas, you have artists next to the extreme right.

Did you perform well in Germany at the beginning?
Frédéric Malle: Yes and I think for a different reason. I belive that Germany is like a “no-bullshit” country and our perfumes are very specific with each of them having their own story without trying to be so many things at the same time. So I think it’s the very straightforward nature of the brand that matches the German nature. The other thing is the Germany really came from Bauhaus so that is the base of everything: Simple, minimal packaging but it’s built like a Mercedes Benz, minimal but so diverse. And also, very de-centralized in how it was built. Complete opposite from France which was built around Paris. We stole the luxury business from Italy, like Chinese stealing technology. A lot of luxury was coming from Italy or from the North. Did you know that to make a mirror in the late 17th century you had to paythe price of a house, it was extremely precious to make a perfect mirror so they could only make it in Venice. They mastered this ine technique of blowing glass and making it so flat on a large surface like never before. It was big news and one could see Italians sort of trying to kill people in Paris. It was this crazy industrial, pre-industrial area. The history of perfume started before.

You mentioned Japan before, a country we are all so fascinated with. How come you see them still so hesitant when it comes to fragrances?Frédéric Malle: About Japan, you have to understand one thing: First of all, they are quite suspicious of foreigners. They are fascinated with us and yet we are not part of them. Secondly, they are obsessed by cleanliness. And then there is this idea of respect of other people’s bubble, you don’t shake hands, it has no social function. Imagine perfumes for them is sort of everything that they dislike, like covering dirt, or invading other people’s space. They like smells when it comes to incense for their home but fragrances are still not really part of their culture.

Jean-Claude Ellena: Also, Japan is a lot about groups and communities, too many fragrances clashing, also in overcrowded Tokyo for example, would just not be appropriate.

Frédéric Malle: And you can’t overshine others. In school for example, if you are too good you are a problem, if you are too bad, you are a problem too.

All about a good balance. But you still perform in Japan as a brand?
Frédéric Malle: Yes, a lot because of Chinese tourism as well.

Jean-Claude Ellena: And also, they buy a lot for gifting, so sometimes they just put a fragrance into the bathroom without opening it but just to show that they have it.

Frédéric Malle: Chanel N 5 sold a lot in Japan because it was the perfect gift but they would never open it.

Perfume as a status symbol, interesting.
Frédéric Malle: There is another funny story. In the big leisure age, I used to work for a man who had decided to invest in Japan for perfumery. He kept on saying that the next generation will wear fragrances and that it is just a matter of generation. One day I’m at the golf course here in Paris and it was a time where there were all these golf courses around France that were bought or built by Japanese because it is so expensive to play golf in Japan for it being such a small country. It was cheaper for them to fly people to France for golf courses for a week and then come back. One time, I observed a bunch of Japanese men. Another whole phenomena is their relation to sex –  20% of up to 40-year old men are still virgins. So they were all together and quite drunk, once of them was a more funny guy. I remember there was a bottle of Lalique perfume in the bathroom and so the funny one grabbed it and made fun of French people using it. I thought to myself that my boss was so so wrong, they will never use perfumes. And 40 years later, they still don’t. It is a sign of decadence for them. You always have to consider the rules and nature of cultures, with everything.

 

True, well, we will continue celebrating the magic of fragrances, especially yours. Thank you so much for this amazing conversation.

Interview SINA BRAETZ

Images courtesy of Jean-Claude Ellena

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