Spending quality time with Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal

I was in Paris this week to find out if it’s possible to reissue some perfume books which are currently out of print. I met some wonderful people, like Jean Kerléo at the Osmothèque (an incredibly kind, patient, and generous man) and several young perfumers at a lecture organized by the Société Française des Parfumeurs (little ol’ me having drinks with perfumers on an elevated terrace, overlooking the posh Neuilly-sur-Seine district, who would have thought that!). I met publishers, artists and writers during my short stay – which sounds very chic and cool, but I assure you it was a lot of hard work too. Anyway, the thing I want to share in this post is the most heartwarming experience I had in those intense three days: my time spent with Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal. I kept in touch with Isabelle eversince my first meeting with her in Berlin (last October) and she told me to come over and visit her at the lab during my stay in Paris. Of course, I was not going to pass on such a wonderful opportunity. As a big fan of Goutal, it felt almost unreal to be able to join Isabelle and Camille in their actual working environment. I spent most of my three days with Isabelle – she trailed me along the streets of Paris in her (heavily abused, dented, damaged) little car – and we met lots of her friends, which was a great way for me to expand my network. She told me about her future perfume projects, things I can’t and won’t discuss here. She showed me raw materials and essences (which is what she teaches her students at ISIPCA once a week); we talked about perfume of course, but also about normal, everyday stuff, and art, poetry, literature. I’ll try to give you an impression of what it was like to hang around with the creative minds behind the Annick Goutal brand. We all know that creative minds are real people too, but it’s great to be able to experience that first hand. Isabelle and Camille are two loving and caring women, mothers of young children, who sometimes enjoy being girly themselves too – in a very fun way! Like most independent perfumers they’re extremely passionate about their own work, but I guess that goes without saying. Their lab is best described as a cosy, homelike environment. As I said earlier, they are actually independent perfumers: they create all the Goutal fragrances, but they are not employed by the Goutal company, which is owned by an American group. For some reason I expected their lab to be large, with big orderly desks and white walls, but their place turned out to be nothing like that. It’s located on a wonderfully quiet courtyard in the 17th arrondissement, and looked very “bohemian” to me. They laughed at my description, because I wasn’t the first person to notice that. It’s actually just how it should be: a place where Camille and Isabelle feel at ease, where they are free to do things their own way. And they wouldn’t like it any other way either. In the office there’s a big old wooden desk with tiny bottles, blotters, memos, books, papers and even a large painting; pictures of their young children scattered everywhere, lots of lovely postcards on the walls and wherever else they fit (I found my own Caravaggio postcard there too). A comfortable old red couch, with lots of bags and books on it. The beautiful stone fountain in the corner is probably as old as the building itself. In the other room stands the perfume organ. It actually belonged to Annick Goutal, it was custom-built for her. There are bottles and vials everywhere, on desks and in drawers. On a scaffolding there are grey binders and some famous perfumes; a framed picture of Annick in the middle, surrounded by a number of Goutal perfumes. Like a small personal shrine. I found it heartbreaking. On my first visit to the lab, Isabelle had bought delicious macaroons from La Durée. The one with the “réglisse” flavor (liquorice) was my absolute favorite. She showed me some new things she was working on, and some essential oils that were absolutely stunning. [url=http://imageshack.us/]

Isabelle on the phone [url=http://imageshack.us/]

Delicious macaroons by La Durée [url=http://imageshack.us/]

The next morning, Isabelle took her five-year-old daughter and me to Pierre Hermé, where we had more delicious macaroons; afterwards, we went to a place called Natura, where we tried some new fragrances, and to the new Goutal boutique, that will soon open next to Frédéric Malle’s. We stopped by at Malle’s to check out his new French Lover (the fragrance, of course). In the boutique they have a really cool fragrance machine: push a button, and out comes the fragrance of your choice. Isabelle’s daughter demonstrated a stunning ability to evaluate smells. She wanted to smell iris. “This smells a bit like mother”, said the saleswoman. “It’s very nice, but to me it smells more like grandmother!” said the little girl. When she grows up, she wants to be a fashion designer. We had lunch at a Japanese place (quick one for me, had to go to Versailles), Camille dropped by, we said hello. She looks stunning, by the way. On the third day, I was at the lab early. Camille was there too, putting some bottles in boxes (special shipment to the US), and going through a bunch of fashion magazines. She tore out some of the magazine’s pages with recipes: look at this! C’est rigolo! I had two books for Isabelle: “Under the Jaguar Sun” and “The Baron in the Trees”, both by Italian novelist Italo Calvino. Turns out we had scheduled a meeting with sculptor/fragrance artist Catherine Willis that day, for whom she once created a perfume named after that last title (Le Baron Perché)! Amazing coincidence. But first we had lunch with a perfume consultant, Nicolas Olczyk, who stopped by the lab too. Sampled more stuff. The phone rang, the French magazine L’Express had just come out. Four pages on Camille Goutal in this week’s mag. How exciting! Off to the newsstand, and then into Isabelle’s car for a wild ride to Catherine Willis’ house. Camille in the back, reading the article out loud for us, and then on the phone with her father: “dad quick, get a copy of L’Express!” Catherine Willis’ house was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with fragrant paintings and sculptures all over the place. We were joined by Laurent Garnier, another young perfumer who was once a student of Isabelle. Camille picked up her little daughter from school, and then the five of us went to a gourmand exhibition in Saint-Germain-des-Près. Isabelle driving like a mad woman as always, great fun. The exhibition was a bit of a disappointment, there were loads of pictures of food, but very little actual food to taste. The big pie sculpture by Vincent Olinet was irresistible to Isabelle: she just had to taste it! Hmm. I didn’t dare. [url=http://imageshack.us/]

I won’t bore you too much with the rest of that day. Isabelle, Laurent and I went to a perfumer’s conference and met a befriended writer, Jacqueline Blanc-Mouchet. She invited us to her home, where we saw her wonderful perfume book collection. We had French cheese and Viennese Sacher Torte as a midnight snack, and laughed about the horrible yogurths in her fridge. Jacqueline Blanc-Mouchet is one of the funniest and most expressive people I’ve met in a long time. Anyway. What I experienced first hand in the past couple of days, is that there are real people behind the scenes at Annick Goutal, with real stories. Stories which are infinitely more interesting than the shiny facades we see on the highstreet. Or than the celebrities that walk into their boutiques. Some of them are tragic stories. But through personal afflictions, people sometimes grow stronger. Camille looks extremely determined in carrying on the legacy of her mother in the right way. It’s not just the name, but also the spirit of her very own mother that she’s keeping alive with her work. Imagine that. The framed picture on the scaffolding, surrounded by some of Annick’s perfumes, says more than a thousand words. Camille’s partnership with Isabelle is like a family kinship, and both are committed to their job on a very personal level. In the past days, my appreciation for their work has grown immensely. At first they were just beautiful perfumes to me. Now, they are beautiful perfumes with a deeply human component. Something beautiful that goes straight to the heart. Thank you, Isabelle and Camille, for this invaluable experience.  

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