Fifteen years ago, Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot opened an independent perfume “lab” in New York’s Nolita. They turned the industry so completely on its head, writes elle kwan, that even if you’ve never heard of Le Labo, there’s no way you haven’t smelled their concoctions
A Decade And A Half Ago, no one wanted to fund a niche perfume brand. Today, anyone who knows scent knows cult fragrance maker Le Labo. Founders Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot had already spent years working in the industry for big names, notably L’Oréal, the licensee of Giorgio Armani Beauty. Roschi had overseen Acqua di Gio, a statement fragrance if ever there was one. At that time, perfumes were supposed to shout loud and came with funky brash packaging in showy ad campaigns. Who remembers Versace Red Jeans and Gucci Rush?
Le Labo is the opposite of all of that. Its hushed store opened with little fanfare in 2006, amid galleries and chic cafes on Elizabeth Street in New York’s Nolita (north of Little Italy) neighbourhood. White subway-tile walls and dark-wood shelving gave the boutique the feel of an oldworld apothecary and felt deeply different from department-store beauty halls. Just a handful of bottles and one candle formed a core collection.
The venture was the couple’s ultimate vision of freedom, though they couldn’t get funding. “People would say, ‘Great idea, but we can’t back this right now.’ And we’d tell people they were making a huge mistake,” Roschi says.
Yet, something clicked.
The store represented a real chance to buck corporate pressure. There was zero marketing and very little press. The pair launched new products as and when they wanted. Often, Roschi recalls, Penot would finalise a scent and receive oils on a Friday, and they’d make the product available the next Monday. There were no Mother’s Day promos. No Valentines. Not even scents marketed to females or males. Just for individuals.
Sometimes they held No Sale Days. On Black Friday – the day following the US Thanksgiving holiday and America’s biggest shopping occasion – consumers knock themselves out for hot deals and discounts. Le Labo wanted none of that. They painted the windows with “No Sale Day” slogans, though many missed it.
“People would walk in and say, ‘I love this, can I get a bottle?’ and we’d say, ‘ No, you’ll have to come back tomorrow, we aren’t selling anything today,’” says Roschi, who today is dressed in a khaki hoodie, jeans and trainers – and nursing jet lag. He’s in from his hometown, Lisbon, and has been zipping across Asia launching the new fragrance, Tonka 25 – of which more later.
People would ask, ‘ Then why are you open?’ And we’d say, ‘ Well it’s our store. We can open when we want, but we don’t have to sell anything.’”
Roschi laughs, gently. In hindsight, he admits it all sounds a tad elitist. “It was just a reminder that you can’t always get what you want, when you want, all the time.”
But by 2011 it seemed in a certain neighbourhood as if the very air New Yorkers breathed smelt like a single Le Labo scent. Early on, the brand’s Rose 31 had become