Ac­qua di Parma’s sig­na­ture scent, Italy’s first cologne, was cre­ated 100 years ago and has been an A-list favourite al­most ever since.

There’s some­thing pleas­antly dis­ori­ent­ing about feel­ing like you are im­mersed in per­fume be­fore you even get a whiff of it. When Ac­qua di Parma launches its new fra­grance, Colo­nia Pura, on a balmy night in Mi­lan, it is an as­sault on the senses. As the Veuve Cliquot flows, more than 200 well­heeled guests are in­vited to step in­side a cu­bi­cle shaped like a bot­tle as the slosh­ing sound of per­fume washes over them. On the other side of the cu­bi­cle guests dis­cover the in­tox­i­cat­ing aro­mas of cedar, cit­rus, patchouli, musk and pe­tit­grain in glass bowls that dan­gle from the ceil­ing, be­fore be­ing treated to a can­dle-lit din­ner where the pasta has traces of cit­rus zest and the cheese cake comes with berg­amot-flavoured ice cream.

Ac­qua di Parma be­gan with a sim­ple con­cept in an es­sen­tial oil work­shop in the heart of the north­ern Ital­ian city of Parma in 1916. Carlo Mag­nani, heir to a lo­cal no­ble fam­ily, cre­ated what was hailed as Italy’s first cologne, known as Colo­nia. “Years ago when the tai­lors were sell­ing a beau­ti­ful be­spoke suit, a spray of cologne was the fi­nal touch,” says Laura Bur­dese, Ac­qua di Parma’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive. “It still rep­re­sents the last touch of typ­i­cal Ital­ian style.”

In the 1930s Colo­nia be­gan to gain in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. It was not only the cologne but its Art De­coin­spired bot­tle that be­came a style icon. Hol­ly­wood leg­ends Cary Grant and Au­drey Hep­burn made the clas­sic cologne their own. Now a new gen­er­a­tion of A-list celebri­ties in­clud­ing Jude Law, Kate Moss and San­dra Bul­lock have fallen for the brand. “Ac­qua di Parma is much more than a fra­grance or a beauty brand,” Bur­dese says. “It re­ally rep­re­sents the most el­e­gant and ef­fort­less un­der­stated Ital­ian style.”

From hum­ble beginnings Ac­qua di Parma has be­come a global em­pire with a range of fra­grances, skin care and shav­ing prod­ucts, scented can­dles and leather goods, as well as its own sig­na­ture stores and beauty spas from Venice to Sar­dinia’s Costa Smer­alda.

The com­pany’s lat­est launch has given its new fra­grance a face. Will Chalker, one of the UK’s hottest mod­els who has ap­peared in ma­jor cam­paigns for YSL, Valentino and Louis Vuit­ton, adds a per­sonal di­men­sion to Colo­nia Pura with his ease and ele­gance. Colo­nia, in­spired by na­ture and sim­plic­ity, is “an icon that we have re­mas­tered in a more mod­ern con­tem­po­rary way”, Bur­dese says. “It is a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of fresh­ness which is per­fect for a new gen­er­a­tion.”

Tak­ing a break from greet­ing the glit­terati, Bur­dese grabs a gin and tonic, flops into a deep arm­chair and shares her in­sights on what it takes to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful fra­grance. “It looks like a very sim­ple fra­grance but to be hon­est it is one of the most com­pli­cated,” she con­fides. “There are many in­gre­di­ents but it is re­ally about choos­ing the best, in our case Ital­ian, in­gre­di­ents and com­bin­ing them in a new way.”

After nearly two decades in watches and jew­ellery, Bur­dese was cho­sen to take charge of Ac­qua di Parma by the French con­glom­er­ate LVMH, which ac­quired the brand in 2001. She started in the beauty in­dus­try and later joined the Swiss watch brand Swatch as a mar­ket­ing man­ager. In 2012 she was named pres­i­dent and CEO of Calvin Klein watches and jew­ellery lines be­fore she joined the Ital­ian per­fume brand last Oc­to­ber.

Across the room François Demachy, the “nose” be­hind Ac­qua di Parma’s new fra­grance, of­fers his per­spec­tive on how he and the brand’s mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Paola Pa­ganini de­vel­oped Colo­nia Pura. “For me the name was re­ally in­spir­ing be­cause pu­rity is in­spir­ing,” says the sil­ver-haired French­man, who also de­signs fra­grances for Chris­tian Dior. “I had to use some of the usual ma­te­ri­als for Colo­nia – like berg­amot, le­mon, or­ange, man­darin, pe­tit­grain. And I had to bring some­thing else, some­thing pure. After many at­tempts I saw that the pure­ness was like clear wa­ter in the moun­tain, like a stream. I tried to bring this wa­tery smell and these min­er­als in­side the frame­work of a cologne.”

Demachy is a leg­end in the in­dus­try and di­vides his time be­tween Paris and Grasse, the world-renowned fra­grance cap­i­tal in the south of France. He has made other fra­grances for Ac­qua di Parma: Gel­somino Nobile and Colo­nia In­tensa. In an in­ti­mate video por­trait on the LVMH web­site Demachy de­scribes his tal­ent this way: “I know how to speak a lan­guage that every­one un­der­stands but hardly any­one knows how to speak. I trans­late some­thing in the air into a scent.” His desk is cov­ered in tiny glass vials and he stares out at Paris rooftops while lift­ing scent strips to his nose and con­fer­ring with his team us­ing the in­scrutable lan­guage of the per­fumer like “too green” or “too much wood”.

“When you work for a project you al­ways try many dif­fer­ent pro­pos­als be­cause you are never sure,” he says. “The cre­ation is very lonely at the be­gin­ning, but you have to share your cre­ation very fast with the peo­ple around you – I share with my wife and the mar­ket­ing peo­ple. If they say ‘oh, that’s good’ it doesn’t help!”

Un­like other per­fumers Demachy says he had no par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion with scents or odours as a child. His fa­ther, a phar­ma­cist, had wanted him to be­come a doc­tor. “At that time chil­dren did not choose what they wanted to do,” he re­calls. While study­ing den­tistry, he be­gan work­ing in a per­fumery to pay the bills and sud­denly a whole new ca­reer path opened up. “You have to be very an­a­lyt­i­cal, very pre­cise, and on the other hand you have to be cre­ative,” he says. “When you do a good per­fume you have to have the right bal­ance.”

Demachy has cre­ated per­fumes for Chanel, Em­manuel Un­garo, Givenchy and Tif­fany. He re­turned to prod­uct de­vel­op­ment at LVMH in 2006 and ap­pears to have lost none of his pas­sion. “Per­fume is emo­tion, oth­er­wise it is noth­ing. Per­fume is so ab­stract. The smell is so ab­stract it is only a ques­tion of emo­tion.”

Pa­ganini and her team spent more than a year col­lab­o­rat­ing with Demachy on Colo­nia Pura, with months of meet­ings and tests. “You need to test it on the skin, wear it for a few days,” Pa­ganini says. “It is re­ally im­por­tant to wait for three or four days so all the in­gre­di­ents mix well to­gether.”

Pa­ganini says the in­gre­di­ents are fun­da­men­tal and Ac­qua di Parma sources its raw ma­te­ri­als from Italy wher­ever pos­si­ble. “We have good flow­ers in Italy, as well as ex­cel­lent cit­rus – or­ange, berg­amot, pe­tit­grains, man­darin, all these cit­rus notes in Italy are top qual­ity. This is a gift we have from na­ture.”

Bri­tish fra­grance ex­pert and writer Michael Ed­wards says ac­cess to su­pe­rior raw ma­te­ri­als through LVMH gives Ac­qua di Parma an ad­van­tage in an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive global mar­ket – more than 2200 new scents were launched last year. “You ask me if it’s crowded?” says the au­thor of Fra­grances of the World and Per­fume Leg­ends. “You’re not kid­ding!”

But he says the Ital­ian brand has a unique pro­file in the mar­ket and that adds to its ele­gance and al­lure. “It’s like the Her­mès of per­fumery. It’s one of those dis­creet fra­grances that smells of money. To wear Ac­qua di Parma means you are not try­ing too hard.”

The brand’s prod­ucts are found in a hand­ful of ex­clu­sive ho­tels and it has also opened mono­brand stores in Italy, France and the US. There are plans for more in the UK and the US markets and Bur­dese is al­ready look­ing to Asia and Aus­tralia for fur­ther ex­pan­sion. “We are grow­ing very fast in some coun­tries like the US and Aus­tralia and we are en­ter­ing Asia and China,” says Bur­dese. “They love the brand wher­ever we go.”

Marika Ger­va­sio, fash­ion and beauty edi­tor for the Ital­ian fi­nan­cial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, says the brand’s iden­tity and re­cent growth has been driven by its at­ten­tion to qual­ity and per­sonal ser­vice. “The cus­tomer feels pam­pered and sup­ported by the per­sonal ser­vice the brand of­fers to­gether with the high qual­ity of the prod­ucts,” she says. “I think the brand will flour­ish in fu­ture if it con­tin­ues down this path, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing it­self with its orig­i­nal­ity, crafts­man­ship and qual­ity as a sym­bol of ex­cel­lence made in Italy.”

Ac­qua di Parma’s new spin on a favourite scent, Colo­nia Pura

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