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“I was at Chateau Marmont yesterday in the elevator and there was this girl preparing for a party, and I was really sad for her because she smelled like a Duty Free,” says Frederic Malle, sitting on a couch in the back room of his brand new store in LA.
Malle, a pioneer in the world of indie artisanal fragrance, is not afraid to express an opinion about perfume, the fragrance industry, or anything, really. He started his company, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, back in 2000, and sold it to Estée Lauder in 2015. Not a perfumer himself, he used to work with master perfumers who would sell their fragrances to designer houses. Then he tapped the friends he made while working in labs across France to create fragrances for his new company.
It was a pretty radical concept in the era of mass/celebrity fragrances and designer stalwarts like Chanel No. 5 and Dior J’Adore. “The market was going toward companies like Sephora that were selling with no service and were making perfume very impersonal,” Malle says. “That’s why brands were trying to focus on image rather than on product, trying to make a product that would fit everybody. The one-size-fits-all never works. Perfume is so personal.”
Malle makes his fragrances á la carte with a dozen different perfumers, giving them complete freedom and a basically unlimited budget for ingredients. “We are true luxury. It’s a bit more expensive because we use caviar rather than regular sliced ham,” says Malle. Frederic Malle fragrances start at about $200, with one outlier, The Night (an oud) topping out at $1,500. Most sit in the $300 range for a 100 ml bottle.
“They are the dream fragrances of the best perfumers in the industry,” Malle says. “They’re the sort of fragrances they can’t make for other companies because they don’t have the money, the freedom, the time.” Malle claims that in the more corporate world of fine fragrances, perfumers are often given the task of creating newer versions of current bestsellers. “Which means they’re going to test your perfume in focus groups against that bestseller and you have to kill it.” He wants his perfumers to start with a “white sheet of paper” when creating perfumes for him.
The way Malle sells perfumes is different, too. His stores are all equipped with versions of what he calls a “smelling column,” a floor-to-ceiling clear tube that looks sort of like the one at Chuck E. Cheese that you stand in for 30 seconds while trying to snatch dollar bills or tickets blowing wildly around you — except a lot chicer, obviously. You open a door at the top of the tube and spray in a fragrance. Then when you put your head into the tube, Malle claims you get a sense of what people around you will be smelling when you wear that perfume. “When you buy a dress, you try it on and make sure it looks good on you. When you buy a perfume, you don’t really know,” says Malle.
Then there are the salespeople, who are trained to essentially profile you based on how you look and your personal habits. Malle, I’m ashamed to say, nailed my perfume preference immediately — Cologne Indelebile, a musk with citrus-y undertones. He properly surmised that Carnal Flower, one of the brand’s bestsellers and a favorite of California shoppers, was a bit too strong for me. Apparently, I’m not as complex as I think I am.
“What is this person wearing? Is it a loud person? Is it someone looking you in the eyes? Someone with blonde hair and bright skin?” says Malle of his thought processes when taking the measure of a potential customer. “It’s observation. It’s more of a holistic thing.” He claims that only about one in 20 people don’t have predictable preferences. “But that one can be so much fun.”
Frederic Malle currently has stores in Paris, New York, London, and Rome. He just opened his first LA store, a bright, minimal design featuring a hallway lined with perfume bottles on floor-to-ceiling mirrored shelves, sort of like a wine cellar. This leads to a back room where the smelling column lives and where there is a small outdoor garden. He anticipates opening stores in Milan, the Middle East, and more in the US. You can currently only buy certain products, like a new shaving cream and an iris-scented hand cream (inspired by perfumed gloves, which used to be fragranced with iris to mask their leather smell), in his standalone stores and on his website, which will also be undergoing a makeover this year.
Malle sells at Barneys and select Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom stores, and turns faux-outraged when I suggest that department stores aren’t doing all that well. “My god, you are telling me the tragedy of my life!” he says. “Department stores are not in good shape, but the department stores that are doing well are the ones providing a reasonable level of service. They are dying because the experience you get on the internet is often more exciting than what you get at the department store.” He acknowledges this is a challenge, but says fragrance is one of the few things that requires you to be able to experience it in real life, which gives him faith in brick-and-mortar retail.
A thing he doesn’t have faith in? Mass and celebrity fragrances; he actively welcomes their demise. When I mention to him that someone in the audience at the recent WWD Beauty Summit asked the CEO of Coty how to save mass fragrance, the sales of which have been abysmal for several years, he exclaims, “These people in these rooms have killed perfumery! They want to make money with selling junk to people. Most of the money is in the image, which is gone the minute you have seen it,” Malle says, bemoaning the importance of marketing over artistry in the world of mass fragrance. “Perfumers between, let’s say, 30 and 45 years old today, basically, I don’t know that many that are good. They were told to make perfumes for these sorts of speed-dating type of environments that are self-service stores. So they are only good at making knockoffs or variants of bestsellers.”
The big question, of course, is whether millennials and Gen Z can afford or want to buy Frederic Malle fragrances. Malle thinks they will, especially since he offers much more affordable 10 ml versions of most of his scents. “This young generation, they are very bright. They want good things,” he says, pointing to his own twentysomething son who saves up to buy A.P.C. jeans. (Malle, a dapper dresser who is wearing a bespoke double-breasted seersucker Anderson & Sheppard suit, claims he only buys $40 Levi’s for himself.) “Millennials are clever. They don’t want to buy just cheap junk; they want to buy something of substance.”
Ultimately, though, he thinks young people will want good fragrances because of, well, sex. “People have not stopped sleeping with one another. And perfume is like the salt and pepper to sex appeal, and to the act itself. I’m not worried about that,” says Malle. “What is worrying is to keep on having people that don’t do their jobs properly, either because they’re mass and they’re selling image rather than perfumes or because they are bad indie brands that don’t know what they’re doing. But I think if you do things well, they will come.”
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