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Frédéric Malle | He's So Violet

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The Violet Files

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The master of French perfumery on creating an olfactory identity and why “short” formulas are the hallmark of luxury.

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frederic malle


The kinds of fragrances Frédéric Malle sets out to create are one-of-a-kind, no-compromise creations punctuated by French perfume tradition. That’s not surprising considering his family’s deep legacy in perfume-making (his grandfather founded Parfums Christian Dior, which his mother later went on to run). But instead of becoming a nose himself, Malle pioneered a radical path as a visionary fragrance producer. “I always liked the idea of being an art director, of having a slightly wider view of the industry, with perfume being the central element,” he says. “I am fascinated by the connection between image and perfume, between the bottle and the scent inside, so my destiny was always to be more of a conductor than a musician.”

Since launching his Editions de Parfums in 2000, Malle has collaborated and forged deeper friendships with perfume greats such as Dominique Ropion, Olivia Giacobetti, and Edmond Roudnitska to produce a body of work that is simultaneously artistic yet wearable, signature yet nonconformist, all aimed at leaving a trail of luxury behind those who wear them. His latest alchemy, Rose & Cuir by Jean-Claude Ellena, is an alluring trap containing no actual roses, instead tricking your senses and imagination with a lush dose of geranium, blackcurrant, and leather. “It is like a fantasy rose; it’s a bit of a twisted way of seeing things,” says Malle. We sat down with the fragrance guru at his Melrose Place boutique (just a few doors down from VIOLET GREY) to learn about his secrets for making a great eau. 

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  • 01

    VIOLET GREY: You’re a self-described perfume publisher. What does that mean?

    FRÉDÉRIC MALLE: It is an analogy to make people understand that perfume can be an art. I am part of an exchange with these artists to help them reach new heights. Things happen through my prism, but my role is to set the perfumers free.

  • 02

    VG: How does that inform your process working with perfumers?

    FM: It is a matter of distance that I adapt to, according to where we are in our relationship—how far back we go and what they need when they’re developing a perfume. For example, Jean-Claude Ellena worked on his own for many years. Then, at a different stage in his career, he was looking to turn a page, so he asked me to be his sparring partner for the new Rose & Cuir eau de parfum. Dominique Ropion, who is a very old friend, is someone who likes exchanging ideas regularly. He uses me as a sounding board on every project.

  • 03

    VG: Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there particular fragrances you gravitate towards personally?

    FM: The way I see it, perfume and art should not be a certain thing or have a certain form. Nevertheless, they should have a particular rigor and criteria that make them good. What I look for in a perfume is that it fuses with the skin; that it becomes one with the wearer. I also look for performance. I want something that lasts, something that leaves a trail. Perfume is very matter-of-fact. It has to have an identity, which usually means a fairly short formula.

  • 04

    VG: And by short, you mean fewer ingredients?

    FM: Yes, but short does not mean simplistic. We want each raw material in our formulas to be there for a reason and to be at the right dosage. It's a bit like writing short stories. You want the right words to be precise rather than having long sentences that don't say much.

  • 05

    VG: You’re known for creating incredibly sexy scents. Where does that desire come from?

    FM: I knew what perfume was before sex. My mother was in the industry and I would hear, “Oh this is a sexy perfume” a lot. It is a mysterious thing, and yet, I understood what it meant at a young age. One knows when a person has sex appeal—it is obvious, there is an unmistakable perfection and balance that makes someone striking. I think that applies to perfume as well. In my case, I have developed an eye or nose, rather, for sexiness.

  • 06

    VG: What are your thoughts on having a signature scent?

    FM: I think a signature perfume is a very beautiful, very reassuring thing to have, but who am I to impose my views? It is very personal. My mother's best friend, a famous beauty in Paris, was given Miss Dior by my grandfather, which he created in 1947, when she was 18. She is 86 or 87 today, and still wears it. There is a modesty and a way of staying true to yourself by always smelling the same way. This being said, I believe that perfumes are designed to be a part of you, to protect you like armor. Many people have told me, “When I wear Portrait of a Lady, I feel strong.” Same with Carnal Flower. Some want to adapt to circumstances and have different perfumes for different occasions, which has its own unique beauty. I'm not for one of the other. Fragrance should be fun.

  • 07

    VG: Speaking of Portrait of a Lady, it's one of your best-selling, most iconic scents, famously containing 400 roses per bottle. Your new scent Rose & Cuir doesn’t contain any. How did you reinterpret the classic flower?

    FM: Rose is to perfume what nude is to drawing or what love is to songs. But that does not mean it has to be literal. [Edmond] Roudnitska, who made Femme by Rochas and many of the Dior perfumes like Eau Savage, very cleverly created a fragrance in the ’50s using carrot seed to give the illusion of roses. That inspired me and Jean-Claude [Ellena] to do our own interpretation, focusing on geranium, which is the cousin of rose. It has a rosy smell, but with a drier, almost citrusy scent. With the addition of blackcurrant and a base of leather, it became like a fantasy rose. It's the way Jean-Claude would paint a rose, if he was a painter.

  • 08

    VG: Your fragrances are expensive, but worth it. How does sparing no cost in ingredients translate to the end product?

    FM: People are not stupid. They know what's good. Also, quality has a smell. It's like sitting on a nice sofa with beautiful fabric or leather. It doesn't shine like the cheap stuff and it's nice to the touch. Quality is not subjective, but it is something that is difficult to put your finger on. If you want these artists to express themselves freely, you have to allow them to use whatever they want. When I worked on Iris Poudre with Pierre Bourdon, who created Cool Water which is one of the most copied perfumes ever, he chose a very expensive key ingredient, so others wouldn’t be able to replicate it. That offers a guarantee of exclusivity, a bit like when you buy a Rolls Royce. You know that not everybody is going to have one.