PERFECT PAIRING Alber Elbaz collaborates with Frédéric Malle.
THE HISTORY OF SCENT
is a tale of encounters between couturiers and perfumers: Coco Chanel and Ernest Beaux;christian Dior and Edmond Roudnitska. However, few have been as enthusiastic as Frédéric Malle upon joining forces with Alber Elbaz, the creative genius formerly of Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent. Their meeting was evidently an artistic coup de foudre, the fragrance it has led to — Superstitious — an expression of fraternal love.
“You don’t meet an Alber every five minutes!” Malle declares as we discuss the collaboration at his store in Piccadilly’s Burlington Arcade in London.“there is something about Alber where you really want to give your best — mostly out of generosity, but also out of pride, because you can’t put your name to one like his without wanting to live up to it.”
Malle is a self-effacing chap:“all your childhood, you are told not to talk about yourself, and now all anyone wants me to do is go into talking-about-myself mode.” He has only himself to blame, since Monsieur Malle is held in global regard for his pioneering brilliance within the perfume world, not only begetting a cornucopia of what are already considered 21st-century classics, but also changing the face of the industry as a whole.
I first met him back in the autumn of 2004, following my nose in search of Paris’s most talked-about new fragrance talent.the grandson of Serge Heftler-louiche, the founder of Parfums Christian Dior, and the nephew of the film director Louis, Malle was already being heralded as “the Guerlain of tomorrow” and “king of Parisian perfume”.
Over the years, people have only grown more passionate about the man and his oeuvre.when I tell friends I will be interviewing him, several turn stalkerish. For what he achieved with his Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle was nothing less than a renaissance of artisanship within the industry: a revival of seriousness and authenticity that rescued the science of scent from the marketing banalities that had overtaken it.
As editor to his author-perfumers, he invited names such as Jean-claude Ellena, Maurice Roucel and Olivia Giacobetti to create masterpieces free from the constraints of fashion and finance.then, in the summer of 2014, it was announced that his brand was being purchased by Estée Lauder: cue horror that Paris’s prince of ‘niche’ was selling his soul for American big bucks.
His acolytes had misread their champion: ‘niche’ being a word for which Malle reserves a palpable distaste.“we grew slowly with very, very good things, but my aim was to have an impact upon this business,” he says.“i wanted to be large like Hermès is large.”
Malle measures out his life in flacons, like Prufrock with his coffee spoons. Reading between the lines, was he feeling jaded prior to the Elbaz alliance? “My life has become very busy. Having someone as powerful, challenging and inspiring as Alber was like a breath of fresh air. It took me back to what I was doing when I started this company,” he replies. Elbaz, for his part, has spoken about the joy of the experience, observing, “It’s not about a collaboration, it’s about friendship and respect.” The brief was a compelling one:“alber wanted the smell of a dress, the scent of this very smart Parisian woman. I always saw Alber as someone capable of loving women like Saint Laurent did, but making them themselves, not dressing them like Barbie dolls,” Malle says.
“A dress can be anything, but Alber has this style. I thought of femininity because that’s what he did at Lanvin. I thought of something that doesn’t feel like architecture, while being very architectural. And I thought that, despite him growing up abroad, Alber’s style has the cultivation of all the great Parisian couturiers.”
I tell Malle that, on the occasion I met him back in 2004, I also visited rue du Faubourg Saint-honoré to press my nose to Lanvin’s window, swooning over its jewel-coloured cocktail dresses.“exactly!” he cries.“i was exactly thinking of those.what would this type of woman wear? That timeless feminine style. I realised that what I had been working on with the perfumer Dominique Ropion echoed what Alber had in mind. We had been trying to redefine the floral-aldehydic type, seen in Chanel No. 5 and [Lanvin] Arpège, which was huge but has completely disappeared. “The aldehyde is a very cold, almost cutting smell,” he continues. “It has a sort of dagger feel to it in the middle of this lavish, floral voluptuousness. then there’ s an ambery aspect to the base, there’s a lot of vetiver in it, some musk, and a sexy, animalistic element. And Alber loved it, and chose it like Dior chose Miss Dior and Chanel chose No. 5.” What is clear is that Malle’s collaborators — be they designers such as Dries Van Noten before Elbaz, or perfumers such as Ropion — have to have ideas, intellect, a hinterland.with Elbaz, there was another affinity, as the designer himself elaborates: “We are both superstitious. In our pre-programmed work there remains chance, accidental meetings, surprises, superstition.”
The result is pure serendipity — the kind of magic that ensues when great minds meet.
“Having someone as powerful, challenging and inspiring as Alber was like a breath of fresh air. It took me back to what I was doing when I started this company.” FRÉDÉRIC MALLE
What happened when the king of Parisian perfume, FRÉDÉRIC MALLE, joined forces with master couturier ALBER ELBAZ. By HANNAH BETTS
Frederic Malle Superstitious eau de parfum, $598 (100ml). Top: Malle with Alber Elbaz.