Interview with Frédéric Malle

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pose some questions (via email) to Frédéric Malle around the time of the launch of Dries van Noten par Frédéric Malle. I hope you enjoy hearing from him as much as I did.


Natalie: Before I get to questions about the scent specifically, I wanted to put the discussion in the context of how you have crafted the Editions de Parfums and how you work with your perfumers. You have stated that you wanted to create a line of fragrances that would “liberate” perfumers from the typical restraints of commercial perfumery, and that your role in the process is that of an editor working with an author. I’m curious about how this works practically. Do you select perfumers to create particular fragrances because their strengths match the vision you have for a particular project? Do you select perfumers you want to work with and then see what they bring to you and help them shape it? Another approach?

Frédéric Malle: When I started ‘Editions de Parfums’ ten years ago I was determined to liberate perfumers from the kinds of restraints often imposed by marketers and focus groups. I work as an editor works with writers. I give these ‘fragrance authors’ complete freedom to explore and express their ideas. Each perfumer is free to use the most innovative technologies and the rarest raw materials the industry offers. This freedom drives the artist to construct a scent without conventional boundaries and to refine his or her idea and formula to the most precise detail. When it is achieved, I publish it at Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle.

N: Dries van Noten par Frédéric Malle is the first designer collaboration in your Editions de Parfums. What was the impetus for this collaboration, and how do you see if fitting into your line as your collection of scents continues to grow?

FM: Ten years after founding Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, I decided to start a new perfume collection, which purpose was to translate the world of people and brands that I admire into scents: Perfume Portraits by Frédéric Malle.

Asking perfumers to work on the olfactory illustration of someone’s world meant losing the closeness that Editions de Parfums had allowed us. The ease of communication between two perfume experts, and the fact that until now we did not have to be accountable to anyone, was to be replaced by a ménage à trois! From now on we were going to be fed with the world and the requirements of a creator foreign to our trade, but capable of enriching our creative process with his aesthetics, thoughts and ideas. It certainly made up for this breach in our intimacy.

N: Dries van Noten designs are known for employing a rich color and textural palette, and for tailoring that is both effortless and elegant. The descriptors applied to the fragrance include words like exotic, evocative, and a “parallel” of the Dries van Noten world. You have said (I think it was in Allure magazine) that you were drawing upon not only the fashion, but also your friendship with Dries van Noten himself and the serenity of his home near Antwerp. Without asking you to offer a literal interpretation of the scent, can you tell us more about some parallels you see between the fragrance and the fashion house?

FM: The designs of Dries van Noten have always made me think of those Nordic interiors, where baroque furniture and modern paintings, or other unexpected combinations, naturally come together. In this part of the world the clean style of each decor and the cool local light allow every element to fully express themselves. Dries van Noten’s world also shares with these very particular atmospheres a sense of comfort, never sacrificing to the idea of “style at any price”, and never giving way to ostentation. This aesthetic – composed of very diverse elements put side by side – and this sense of well-being are very close to the way I see my profession. As soon as we decided to work together, my mission was to translate Dries van Noten’s world into a scent, all the while avoiding to simply translate a few individual elements of that rich alchemy into a scent, as Dries Van Noten’s planet is too complex to be pinned down that way.

N: Dries van Noten par Frédéric Malle was created by Bruno Jovanovic. How did you come to select him for the work, and what surprised or delighted you about his approach or the perfume he ultimately created?

FM: As soon as Dries and I decided to work together, my mission was to translate Dries Van Noten’s world into a scent, all the while avoiding to simply translate a few individual elements of that rich alchemy into a scent, as Dries Van Noten’s planet is too complex to be pinned down that way. My first move was to ask Bruno Jovanovic to work on this project, as he is a great listener, his perfume technique allows him to master any subject, and he has a taste for warm scents that seemed adapted to my perception of Dries’ desire.  Bruno came up with the idea of creating a perfume built around natural sandalwood, which he chose for its softness and its character, and the fact that it is simultaneously exotic and evocative of the tradition of great classic perfumes.

N: Thank you for taking the time to share more about Dries van Noten par Frédéric Malle and the creative process. It’s been a pleasure.

I’m very intrigued by the idea of a new “branch” of Editions de Parfums, as it sounds like there may be more to come in the category of “perfume portraits” (I’ve heard that term before). I’m always interested in the interplay of fashion and fragrance, and I’ve been trying to think of ideal designer-perfumer collaborations. Any thoughts? Share in the comments! Also indicate in the comments if you want to be entered in a draw for a 1 ml sample of Dries van Noten par Frédéric Malle. I’ve got just that little bit to give away.

Photo of Frédéric Malle courtesy Parisien Salon.

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28 responses

  1. Great questions to Monsieur Malle, Natalie. His responses were very thoughtful and nicely shed some light on how he works with perfumers, his own creative approach, and his vision for this new line, which I haven’t read much about, other than a few perfume reviews on the Dries van Noten scent.

    No need to include me in your draw — and, alas, no answer regarding your question about an ideal designer-perfumer collaboration, as it seems like the fashion designers I can think of already have a fragrance line and a certain perfume aesthetic. (In other words, I’m stumped! If something comes to me later, I’ll check back in.) :D

    • Yes, perhaps I should have suggested collaborations where we could push the reset button or “re-do” the collaboration. For me, it would definitely be YSL in that case. Such an outstanding fashion house deserves better than, say, Manifesto.

  2. I really like what Malle is doing, insofar as it allows artistic fashion designers I admire to do a fragrance with more integrity than just signing up and cashing in with Coty or L’Oreal. I mean, not that everything Coty Prestige turns out is dreck, but seems like there’s a much better chance of a tiny fashion brand getting a cool perfume with Malle than someone else.

    On the other hand, it seems to dilute Malle’s own vision to make the perfumers the center of the conversation, and I have mixed feelings about that. And there are models of small, weird brands doing interesting fragrances on their own (Comme des Garcons).

    I’d like to be entered in the draw for the sample… Can’t find Malles anywhere near me. :(

    • Thanks for this perspective, Susan. I hadn’t even thought about dilution, but that’s a really interesting point. He is definitely doings something that I would find difficult – putting his own vision second to that of the perfumer. You are in the draw!

  3. Those were the smartest questions . . . do more interviews like that, I LOVED it. The questions reflected deep understanding of two worlds . . . perfume and editing, creative approach to the interview. Grazie mille.

    Please enter me into the drawing . . . I’m so intrigued by your description.

    • Thank you! Malle has such an interesting line-up of perfumes, it was lucky for me that I was able to hear from him a little more about this one.

  4. One fashion line that I love – which doesn’t have a fragrance is Desigual. The Spanish line is known for mixed patterns, vibrant colors and unique pieces of clothing that seem handmade/assembled. A fragrance inspired by the line would need to be a bit off kilter – and I could see FM doing something fun with it.

    Sure – please enter me in the draw :)

  5. Natalie, lucky you being able to pose some questions to a man of his stature. I liked his answers, but feel he could have been a bit more specific in how he selects or is attracted to perfumers. I guess it is not easy to come up with an answer to that.

    • I was definitely lucky! Thanks for commenting on the specificity; I felt like I was pressing him to be very specific on the question of how they collaborate, and he didn’t seem to want to be as specific, which I can understand. I’m sure it varies, too, which probably makes it hard to make a blanket statement. But I’m glad you noticed it too, because now I know I wasn’t reading into his responses. :)

  6. Wonderful questions. It must have been fun and a little bit intimidating in crafting them. As for the ideal collaboration, I can’t really think of any fashion designers (who don’t already do their own thing or have their own perfume line), but I do think art (artists, sculptors, painters, etc.) would be an interesting terrain for future explorations if he’s going to try a different kind of “perfume portrait.”

    No need to enter me in the drawing for the Dries van Noten. And thank you again for a very interesting read. :)

    • Thank you for reading! :) It was fun, a little intimidating, but mostly hard to narrow down my questions. I like the idea of an artistic collaboration outside of fashion; it certainly hasn’t been done as much!

    • Definitely late to the game, but this was a phenomenal interview! You came up with some great questions. I love how he usually collaborates with the perfumers directly without including a middleman.

      I agree with you about the art, Kafkaesque. You know what else I’d like to see more of? Perfumes based on everyday places, like the gym or the swimming pool. Demeter does that, but theirs is a pretty literal interpretation. I’d like to see high-end perfume houses representing everyday things in abstract ways.

      • Thanks so much, Joan. You make a great point about scents of everyday places. Can someone make me a fragrance themed around boathouses, please? ;) (current obsession)

  7. Nice interview, thanks! I agree, he kind of dodged the first question but it’s interesting to learn more about this latest collection. I did also wonder if he’s now placing a restraint on the perfumer by getting involved with a brand but I’m sure he picks very carefully.

    The Dries van Noten perfume does interest me a lot. I’ve only tried it briefly and need to test properly. A proper sandalwood would be great. No need to enter me in the draw though, thanks.

    • Good point, Tara. I would guess he chooses the perfumers carefully and hopefully so as they are on the same page from the beginning anyway. I expected something more eclectic for the perfume, given Dries van Noten clothes, but knowing that the inspiration was more DvN himself (and his house), it makes more sense.

  8. I really enjoyed this interview – we have been treated to quite a few lately across the various blogs – and it is always great to glean more about the inspiration for and creative process behind a given scent.

    I had the opportunity to try this last week so no need to enter me in the draw. To my shame, I had no idea who Dries Van Noten actually was, but now I really want to visit his house! I can just imagine that eclectic blend of furnishings FM describes…

  9. I enjoyed reading your questions ;)

    When I smelled Dries van Noten (on paper) recently I liked it more than I thought I would from reading reviews but it reminded me a lot of Jeux de Peau (without trying those in parallel, just by memory) so I don’t think it’ll be unique enough for me to want to wear it – especialy since I do not like the departure from the original idea. There are hundreds brends that make their own perfumes by hiring Bertrand Duchaufour some famous perfumers to create them. Why do we need a brand in between another brand and a perfumer? At best, we’ll get something like “From creators of Le Labo for Anthropologie” – nice but short-lived creations that didn’t bring recognition to either Le Labo or Anthropologie perfume department.

    • Hahaha (hiring BD). I think there is a lot of potential in the idea of perfume-fashion brand collaborations (one of the reasons I pushed on that idea in the questions), but I believe you hit the nail on the head as to a big potential problem. If they are not real collaborations, with the perfume company bringing something to the table and the fashion house bringing something, why indeed do we need a brand between another brand and the perfumer?

      Although I have some problems with their disorganization from a business perspective, this is one area where I think Six Scents has a truly good approach. They bring together the perfumer and fashion house and then give them a story that becomes the context for the perfume. The idea of stories is Six Scents’s brand, and they bring creative concepts to the table (characters, memories, etc. have been the basis of “volumes” of the Six Scents line), so all three groups are playing a creative part. I find this much more interesting, and it seems to me like it has more of a purpose.

      Le Labo for Anthropologie is a great example of the exact opposite. Yes, I will smell it, but does it really mean anything to me? Not really.

  10. Pingback: N Niche Perfume Brands You Need to Know Right Now | Undina's Looking Glass

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