Per­fumer Thierry Wasser re­flects on his time with Guer­lain and speak­ing with flow­ers, writes SARAH ENGSTRAND

#Legend - - CONTENTS / JULY | AUGUST -

Per­fumer Thierry Wasser re­flects on his time with Guer­lain and speak­ing with flow­ers

THIERRY WASSER IS the “spir­i­tual son” of the Guer­lain fam­ily. The first in-house per­fumer to not bear the name, he was adopted into the French legacy in 2008 and has been con­tin­u­ing its tra­di­tion of ex­cep­tional fra­grances ever since. Though he al­ways adored plants ( Wasser had a fed­eral diploma in botany by the age of 20), his ca­reer be­gan al­most by chance. After com­ing across an ar­ti­cle about Gi­vau­dan, a Swiss man­u­fac­turer of scents and flavours, the young Wasser de­cided to ap­ply there. Seven years later, he be­came a fine fra­grance per­fumer with Gi­vau­dan in Paris.

Upon join­ing Guer­lain in 2008, Wasser was given a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble task: con­tinue the work of his pre­de­ces­sors with­out sac­ri­fic­ing his own per­sonal touch. He ex­celled, creating beloved scents in­clud­ing Idylle, Habit Rouge l'Eau, Shal­i­mar Par­fum Ini­tial and, of course, Mon Guer­lain. Housed in an el­e­gant quadrilobed bot­tle first in­tro­duced in 1908, it's the per­fect sym­bol for Wasser him­self – thought­ful and play­ful, with one foot in the past and both eyes to­wards the fu­ture. Though his scents are un­de­ni­ably mod­ern, each is em­bold­ened by that un­mis­tak­able Guer­lain stamp, a cer­tain je ne sais quoi that has united all of the house's fra­grances since 1828.

In his role as the Guer­lain nose, Wasser con­sid­ers him­self the “artis­tic direc­tor for fra­grances.” He trav­els the globe to source in­gre­di­ents and, per­haps even more im­por­tantly, safe­guards the his­tory and the in­tegrity of his house. We met with Wasser on his re­cent visit to Hong Kong and look back on his first decade with Guer­lain.

What has been one of the big­gest lessons you’ve learned with Guer­lain?

A huge thing – which was very dif­fer­ent from my past life as a “free­lancer”, if you will – is be­ing in charge of man­u­fac­tur­ing. And since I es­sen­tially run a lit­tle fac­tory, I also have to source for it. I learned from my pre­de­ces­sor, Jean-Paul Guer­lain, for two years. Man­u­fac­tur­ing and sourc­ing are some of the most fun things in my trade. I spend 30 per cent of my time in Asia, Africa, Latin Amer­ica and Aus­tralia just to source!

Was it a big switch, go­ing from free­lance to work­ing for Guer­lain?

Frankly, I didn't know what to ex­pect, as it was a new thing. Be­fore that, I was just creating for­mu­las and fra­grances, and I didn't have to worry about man­u­fac­tur­ing be­cause I just out­sourced. But suddenly, you have to learn and mas­ter th­ese spe­cific parts of the trade.

Does that dras­ti­cally change the way you de­sign fra­grances?

Yes. In or­der not to shoot your­self in the foot, you're very cau­tious when you select new ma­te­ri­als. You want to make sure all the items are avail­able, so it changes your way of com­pos­ing.

Have you seen global warm­ing af­fect­ing your ac­cess to raw ma­te­ri­als?

Ab­so­lutely. It's not a hoax; it's re­al­ity. Since I go to so many places around the world, I can see that it af­fects a lot of places dif­fer­ently. Rot­ten crops, too much wa­ter, too hot, too cold… it af­fects ev­ery place on earth. Ev­ery­thing is screwed up.

What hap­pens if the weather ru­ins one of your crops?

Well, it's al­ways very dan­ger­ous to have just one source. You never know what could hap­pen. There could be a dras­tic po­lit­i­cal change or hor­ri­ble weather con­di­tions, so you need to have a dif­fer­ent card in the game. But cli­mate change is mak­ing it more and more dif­fi­cult to play this game, even with good cards.

You’ve been be­hind many of the leg­endary per­fumes, such as Mon Guer­lain. What does it take to cre­ate an icon?

You al­ways aim for the moon. Some­times it works and some­times it only lands you a cou­ple of yards away. You just try to ex­press your­self at your best, and some­times peo­ple un­der­stand you and some­times they don't. Of course, you al­ways want to cre­ate iconic fra­grances, be­cause – well, do you know any­one who doesn't love to be loved? We all want to be loved.

Do you have a favourite per­fume?

It's very hard to pick from the ones I've done, but I do have a per­sonal favourite. It's called Mit­souko; it's from 1919 and was cre­ated by Jac­ques Guer­lain. I don't wear it, but it is the most in­trigu­ing and amaz­ing per­fume that has ever been cre­ated. Don't ask me why – it's just a feel­ing, but for me, it's awe­some. It's a chypre, so you have that earth­i­ness. Chypres are a lit­tle dark and mys­te­ri­ous, some­thing that ap­proaches the un­known, so maybe that's why I'm drawn to Mit­souko. There's a lit­tle smile in it, which comes from the peach. Peach was un­usual in 1919, which makes it even more in­trigu­ing. It could be rather austere as a fra­grance, but suddenly that peach – it's like a smile. It's like the Mona Lisa's smile – very mys­te­ri­ous.

Why don’t you wear Mit­souko? Is it be­cause it’s a woman’s scent?

Male, fe­male, men's fra­grance, woman's fra­grance – it's all very con­ven­tional. Peo­ple say: “Woody notes for boys and flow­ers for girls.” But why? If you go to the Mid­dle East, men are very hap­pily wear­ing rose oil or orange flower. Once, I was in Dubai in a room filled with men and I smelled Mit­souko! To me, scent doesn't have a gen­der. Why do you wear a fra­grance? For your own plea­sure, to have fun, to feel good.

When it comes to choos­ing a per­fume, the process is quite ro­man­tic and emo­tional. Is it the same when de­sign­ing one?

I'm so happy you said it's emo­tional, be­cause that is ex­actly how I feel! Ev­ery sin­gle fra­grance you de­sign has a story; ei­ther you made it up or some­one else in­spired it. But when you start the cre­ative process, you put a lot of your emo­tion and feel­ings in, es­pe­cially when se­lect­ing raw ma­te­ri­als. You have to be ac­quainted with those ma­te­ri­als to a cer­tain ex­tent, emo­tion­ally.

You’ve said be­fore that the flow­ers speak to you. What does that mean ex­actly?

You do your re­search! Well, I did say that, I don't deny it – and I was sober when I said it, too! But it is, nev­er­the­less, the truth. When you don't source, you don't see the en­tire scope and magic of an in­gre­di­ent. When you do source, you go to the fields to talk to the farm­ers and the grow­ers. You see that there is an emo­tional at­tach­ment with those flow­ers. Since you use them to ex­press your­self, they'd bet­ter talk to you, oth­er­wise you are us­ing them with­out a pur­pose.

Can you give an ex­am­ple of that unique form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

When I first said that they speak to me, I was re­fer­ring to the laven­der oil for the top note of Mon Guer­lain. When you smell this lit­tle blue flower, you have a sense of hu­mil­ity and sim­plic­ity. But to me, she said, “I'm the im­age of truth.” Don't ask me why. When I first started sourc­ing, I was buy­ing jas­mine sam­bac for one of Jean-Paul's for­mu­las; I had no con­nec­tion to it, I was just buy­ing it. But then, after years of go­ing to In­dia, I no­ticed peo­ple were mak­ing neck­laces from jas­mine sam­bac. You of­fer those neck­laces at wed­dings, fes­ti­vals and tem­ples, or if you greet a fam­ily mem­ber at the air­port. To me, th­ese flow­ers suddenly got real. I saw that they cel­e­brate love, fun and joy, fam­ily and friend­ship, and they even trans­port your se­cret wishes to gods. And that's when the flower started speak­ing to me. The so­cial skill, the strength, the hope, the love peo­ple ex­press with that flower is amaz­ing. The flow­ers give me a feel­ing, an im­pres­sion.

Go­ing back to Mon Guer­lain, what is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the fra­grance and Angelina Jolie, the “face” of the per­fume?

She's not quite the face of the fra­grance; she's a part­ner of the fra­grance. When I started the de­sign of Mon Guer­lain, there was no Angelina Jolie. I de­signed a por­trait cel­e­brat­ing women and if you want to ad­dress a por­trait truth­fully, you start with truth. This is why there is laven­der. The first Mon Guer­lain Eau de Par­fum was cre­ated with­out Angelina Jolie, but when she be­gan to col­lab­o­rate with us, she was in­volved in it all – from the bot­tle de­sign to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion. After that, I met her. We shared our sto­ries and we spoke about her on the fields fight­ing as a United Na­tions am­bas­sador for refugees, bat­tling vi­o­lence against women and chil­dren. After meet­ing her, get­ting to know her and see­ing how ex­tra­or­di­nary she is as a hu­man be­ing, I cre­ated the sec­ond ver­sion: Mon Guer­lain Eau de Par­fum Flo­rale, with an over­dose of jas­mine sam­bac for all the rea­sons I men­tioned be­fore. So, in fact, there is a be­fore-and-after Angelina Jolie.

What was it like, work­ing with her?

You know, it isn't in my nor­mal rou­tine to meet a big celebrity from Hol­ly­wood, so I didn't know what to ex­pect. But, be­lieve me – big wow. You have some­body with con­vic­tions, some­body who is strong and who shares her vi­sion. She is very im­pres­sive.


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