Maybe one reason I find myself being won over is that I'm standing in her offices. The two large rooms towards the top of the glass box that is the brand's contemporary arts centre on Boulevard Raspail, Paris, are full of evidence that the figure standing before me - sporting bleached blond hair, a shiny bronze jacket and boots punctuated by flashes of lightning - is much more than a PR android. Every inch of the space reflects her personality. The cabinets are covered with books on fashion, scent and photography. The flowers on the coffee table are kept not in vases, but in beakers and conical flasks. What look like three harajuku dolls stand atop a box of Chanel's Exclusifs perfumes. Scent-related quotations - from the likes of Edmond Roudnitska - are hand-written onto the glass walls. And on the desk near the perfumery organ is a bar of rather serious-looking dark chocolate. When I ask her if she's planning to deconstruct its smell, she bursts out laughing. “No, that is for me to eat! As you can see from my silhouette,” she says, giving her thighs a firm slap, “I love chocolate!”
During the ten years that she's spent at the brand, she certainly hasn't been given much time to munch on sweets. She's created several new scents for the main range, notably Roadster, Baiser Vole and La Panthere. She's produced a seemingly endless array of flankers, from variations on Eau De Cartier to reworkings of Declaration. And, of course, she has been the brain and the soul behind the wondrous Heures collection, a series of high-end creations for which she has been lavished with near-universal acclaim.
When I suggest that the demands made on her time must be numerous, she smiles. “Anything that is launched by Cartier is done by me. In a year, it's 10 or more perfumes. That means one perfume per month. It's crazy. One perfume should take one year to make. Happily, I work on different perfumes at the same time, so I have nearly one year to create a perfume, but I have to work on several perfumes at the same time. It's rather tough. 10 years ago, the rhythm was more comfortable, because I entered Cartier to create only bespoke perfumes.”
She is keen to point out that her environment helps her deal with the stresses of her work. “This building is really something very special. It goes very well with the idea of my style, which is excess and pureness. Strong ideas and simplicity in the realisation. Excess in the quality of the ingredients.”
When she's asked whether ‘purity' and ‘simplicity' equate to a small number of ingredients in each perfume, she nods. “Yes, they should. I often say that in perfumery, less is more. It is very easy to add and add and add ingredients, because in the end you'll have a kind of harmony from the multiplicity. It's like when you have a crowd, you don't see anybody really well and you get the feeling that everybody is the same. When you get closer, you see different people, different personalities. For me, to make a formula with a lot of ingredients is like having a crowd. It seems to be harmonious. In perfumery, what is more interesting and more difficult is to create a harmony between two or three or maybe ten ingredients, with each person playing a role. This is how you get something very personal and different. When you make a crowd, every crowd is the same as the other. This is often what we see on the market: crowds in a bottle. They are more or less the same. Edmond Roudnitska said it is more difficult to make a formula with 15 products than with 150.”
Until Christine Nagel was announced as the next nose at Hermes, Laurent was the only female in-house perfumer working at a major brand. Yet during her ISIPCA training, women students far outnumbered men. “We were the year which had more men than ever in the history of ISIPCA,” she says. “We had 4 men in a class of 16!” So what's her explanation for why so few women have achieved the same status as she has?
“I don't know,” she shrugs. “I have a theory, but it's just a feeling. Many people in the press and the media are women, and you always see men being written about in the press, because I think women have a special relationship with male perfumers. It's a problem with society, I would say.”
Does she consciously try to inject a feminine sensibility into her perfumes?
“No, not at all,” she says. “In fact, I try to put less of me in them, because they are for someone else. What I try to put in my perfumes is vision, art, harmony, modernity, but that has nothing to do with who I am. It has to do with what I think, what I have learned, what I would like to see in the world tomorrow. I think it's the duty of the creator to forget who you are and to concentrate on what you want to give to people.”
Would she say that there is a discernibly female style in perfumery?
“No, I wouldn't. I would say it's the same in every art. We couldn't say that women write music differently from men. We couldn't say that women paint differently from men. I don't think there is a perfumery created typically by women.”
I tell her that I agree with the principle behind her words, but I wonder whether the subjects that women tackle in their music, paintings or perfumes might differ from those chosen by men. For instance, with La Panthere, I say, she put forward an extremely assertive statement on femininity, of a sort which male perfumers aren't bringing to the mainstream.
“Yes, I agree with you,” she says. “With La Panthere, I really wanted to give something to women. I really wanted to renew the femininity you can find on the market. I wanted to offer something different. Because I thought at that moment that femininity was too caricatured on the market. With Baiser Vole I tried to offer a very simple and very fresh, not sophisticated femininity. With La Panthere, I wanted to fight with the caricature of the sensual woman. You would think there's only one woman to represent all perfumes that are launched. She is always nearly naked. She always has a lot of make up. And she is very sexual. I thought women were fed up with that. Sometimes, they can be like that, but sometimes they want to be very casual, they want to be very fresh. They are not always wanting to be sexual.
“I thought it was important to propose a sensuality you can play with. I wanted to propose something very refined, but not very new, because the chypre is not new, and animalic notes are not new. It's not a new family. I didn't invent a new accord. But I took from history what I found the most chic and the most feminine sensuality, to bring it to the market again.”
Did the Powers That Be at Cartier resist La Panthere?
“Not at all. I could have made it more animalic, but I didn't want to shock. I wanted to show the beauty of animalic notes and their sensuality, which is much more interesting and much more charming than the sensuality of red fruit and sugar. I see you're smiling because we all know that what we are offered today is to be as sensual as a sugar cherry. I wanted to show that animalic notes could be much more sensual and much more interesting.”
Does she make use of modern technology when composing her scents?
“New ingredients or new ways of obtaining ingredients are not so common. I use headspace, but that's twenty years old now. I use all the new solvent extractions that I can. I think perfumery shouldn't wait for modernity or new ingredients. It has to renew itself. It's very simple. It has to go back to the basics and take all the ingredients from the palette. Nowadays we have a market which is so monotone that it is very easy to be creative. If you do a real patchouli or a real vetivert or a real rose or a simple lily - like in Baiser Vole - you renew something. We don't really need all this technology to be creative. We have to be creative with what we have. It's a false idea that a perfumer should have new ingredients in order to be creative.”
How does she square this philosophy with the increased number of restrictions on materials?
“Again, that is a marketing discourse,” she says. “It's an excuse, a pretext. Perfumers always complain, saying, ‘Our ingredients are banned. We cannot be creative. We cannot make good perfumes.' When IFRA looks at an ingredient and they say they're going to check whether it's harmful, immediately, everybody takes it out of their formulas. At Cartier, we wait. And, at the end, if IFRA decide that the ingredient won't be banned, it's still in our formulas, because we didn't take it out.”
She concedes that her career has been somewhat unusual in relation to that of other perfumers. Since graduating from ISIPCA, she has worked only at Guerlain and Cartier. Does she sometimes wish she had entered one of the large scent manufacturing companies, so that she could create fragrances for a wide range of different brands?
She thinks for a moment before replying. “Before joining Guerlain” she says, “I was about to join IFF. I don't consider myself to be a very technical perfumer. Perfumers at IFF are excellent, incredible technicians. My speciality - my characteristic, I would say - is to be an olfactory designer of style. What I learnt at Guerlain is how to make a perfume which corresponds with a brand and its style. I was very proud that when I launched the Aqua Allegorias or Shalimar Eau Legere or Guet-Apens, each time, people would say, ‘Yes, this is a real Guerlain.' When I joined Guerlain, the perfume that was about to be launched was Champs Élysées. Everybody said it's not a Guerlain. That gave me a trauma!
“I loved Guerlain so much, and their techniques and their old recipes. I really wanted to use them in my perfumes and to try to make my perfumes fit between Shalimar and L'Heure Bleue and Samsara. I really wanted to create a piece of Guerlain. This is what has led my creation, my way of learning. I'm not so technical. So, to answer your question, I have often thought I would like to have both types of knowledge. Some of my friends really know each perfume by its formula, and I don't have that ability. For me, an ingredient is a story, a texture, a sound, a way of describing something, an emotion. I have a lot of respect for perfumers who have a totally inverse way of working from me.”
Finally, she chats for a few moments about one of her latest pieces of work, L'Heure Perdue, a soft whisper of a scent, reportedly inspired by the writings of Proust.
“It's about beauty,” she says. “It's about memory and childhood. This time, I have worked on vanilla, because it's a great theme of perfumery. For nearly everybody, it's a memory of childhood. It is linked with mothers. But this Heure is totally synthetic. No natural ingredients. I wanted to show that beauty is not necessarily in nature. There are too many people always saying that only natural ingredients are quality, only natural ingredients should be mentioned on a perfume pyramid. It's such a silly discourse. And such an old lie. But in a perfume pyramid everybody still says they have used rose, bergamot, patchouli, cedar and sandalwood. It was a lie I couldn't support. That's why, at Cartier, for 10 years, we haven't used the olfactory pyramid. L'Heure Perdue is a way of saying, ‘Let's modernise the discourse.' I really wanted to create something that would smell like flesh, like skin, like vanilla, like childhood, like silk, something very rich, very intimate.”
So is it a 21st century L'Heure Bleue?
“Maybe,” she says, with a thoughtful smile. “Yes, why not? If it's the 21st century L'Heure Bleue, I agree. What I would have found damaging was if it had been the L'Heure Bleue of the 19th century. That would have been a pity and a shame. But if it renews the work with vanilla and powdery notes, then I find that very interesting.”