The Shoe Fits – an interview with Thierry Wasser

Walking in gilded shoes can be a rich and prized role but can also weigh heavily on the wearer. Three years ago, Basenotes interviewed the then newly appointed perfumer, Thierry Wasser, who was plucked and handpicked from the rich gene pool of perfumers to head up the prestigious House of Guerlain. He has had three years to adapt and create fragrances, oversee not only the makeup and skincare fragrance formulations but also maintain the integrity of the company’s valuable investments in raw materials, a role that has been fascinating and challenging.

What has been of great significance is the role Wasser has played in the cultivation and resurrection of defunct farms and fields in the raw materials sector. Through his travels, he has been able to create or revive precious bespoke materials in underdeveloped countries giving local farmers a new lease on life. The job of overseeing not only the creation, but also the launches and successes within the stable of Guerlain products, has made for a very unique role.The personal “father/son” relationship with the last surviving Guerlain forefather, Jean-Paul Guerlain, (whose sudden departure in October 2010) left a rich legacy between the two men of trusted reciprocity, invention and creativity.We catch up with Wasser to find out how his journey has unfolded over the past three years.They say your first year at anything new can be the hardest. What were your biggest learning curves at Guerlain during that time?The hardest part was to fill those “gilded shoes” as you can imagine.Throughout that intense first year, and actually, during the following two years, I learned a lot about sourcing oils for the house. It was definitely one of the biggest learning curves of my career. Before I came to Guerlain, I never had to purchase any raw materials and now, 25-30% of my time is spent traveling for sourcing. I really think the difference between Guerlain and a lot of other fragrance companies is that we supply and manufacture everything we produce. I had to follow up on existing contacts and forge new ones in order to buy more wisely, and I have to say, this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. Most people envision perfumers living in their lab, in the clouds somewhere, as if they were creating in a remote, isolated place, but in reality I can usually be found in a field wearing Wellington boots.I learned about sourcing from Jean-Paul Guerlain. We are still using supply routes that he built up over the past 50 years. But because ingredients are becoming obsolete, we’re beginning to forge new, more efficient routes. We now have to rethink our sourcing in a better, more sustainable and ecologically correct way. Take Mysore Sandalwood, for example. This ingredient is almost impossible to find in India now because it has been too extensively cultivated and is an endangered species. Instead, I’m currently working with a grower in Sri Lanka to create a sustainable sandalwood program. For every tree that gets cut, we plant three in its place. This type of program will ensure Guerlain’s sandalwood supply and avoid the disappearance of sandalwood.Which fragrance that you have created do you see as received with aplomb from your consumers?

It depends on the region. For example, Idylle has had tremendous success in Russia. And as of this moment, I consider Shalimar Parfum Initial to be a great success, too; even if it’s not mine totally, since the fragrance was heavily inspired by Jacques’ original Shalimar. Parfum Initial has been doing very well in France since our roll out in March 2011 and I am hoping it might change the public’s perception as to what I can achieve at Guerlain.Even Shalimar purists have embraced this new scent. Of course, they can always access the original version, but in my opinion, it’s also good to progress and to develop a new allegiance of Guerlain fans by building up on the pillars of an original.How involved are you with the marketing department? Do you share ideas or information on the brief or bottle image and launch? Or do you create independently of one another? At Guerlain, marketing does not hold any influence over fragrance design. For most brands, a fragrance comes as the result of a marketing team’s strategic brief. At Guerlain, fragrance creation is solely my field. The bottle design, advertisements, and launch are decisions made parallel to my work, and I am always aware of them, but they don’t generally affect the creation of the perfume itself. The marketing team does provide me with a long-term business perspective, forecasting what will be launched in the coming years. Fueled with this knowledge, I then decide how I want to express myself fragrance-wise.Also, I rely on marketing for feedback from the operating field. I need to understand what works where and why. Based on this information, I might do something regional for a country, or something special for a particular market. But in the end, I have the final say about which fragrances are produced.Can you also speak of your close relationship with Director of Evaluation at Guerlain., Sylvaine Delacourte?Working with Sylvaine is great. She provides me with a broader vision and a fresh perspective. Sometimes, when I am working intensively on a formula for a couple of weeks or months, I can lose my perspective and need to take a step back from the project. After all, being a perfumer can be a very lonely job. Sylvaine gives me an honest reaction, and I respect her opinion.Now that Jean-Paul Guerlain has left, do you bounce your ideas and blends with anyone, or do you work strictly solo? Surprisingly enough, Jean-Paul and I rarely discuss fragrance. We are two creators and two different kinds of animals. I once asked him, “You were mentored by your grandfather; what did you learn from him when discussing fragrance?” and he replied, “Nothing much”. Jean-Paul then went on to say that the way he did learn a lot from his grandfather (Jacques) was by quietly observing everything he did, rather that speaking about it. So I did the same thing with Jean-Paul. Watching the way he creates has taught me much more than any discussion we could have.When Jean-Paul designed Arsène Lupin, I watched him add floral notes like jasmine. Using jasmine is something I never considered before for a masculine fragrance and now I am learning by example. The same applies with raw materials! I have quietly learned so much from him through observation.Congratulations on winning the Best Luxe Men’s Launch at the 2009 Canadian Fragrance Awards, your first big win with an International judging panel. How did this win make you feel?I was very happy and honored to win this award. When your work gets international recognition it’s always great!The classic Shalimar has always had a devoted following. Why did you choose this particular blend for a remix vs. another scent such as Mistouko, Jicky or L’Heure Bleue? There are a couple of fragrance lines within the company that have potential for growth and expansion. After all this time, Shalimar is still Guerlain’s number one selling fragrance in France, so I chose to make a new version because I wanted to expand its audience.Would you liken this to a remake of old movies, songs and fashion?Yes, but in those cases those new audiences might not even know the original media, but everyone knows Shalimar, so it was a risk. This perfume is part of the collective conscience in France.In the fragrance industry today, you need two feet to dance: a great, blockbuster classic and a younger, more accessible formula. For example, Dior has J’Adore and Miss Dior ChĂ©rie. At the moment Shalimar is in the top ten fragrances sold in France, and Idylle is our strongest fragrance worldwide. So by building Shalimar’s franchise, Shalimar and Idylle could maintain great commercial success.You created the luxe brand L’Abeille in 2010. Can you share with us your impressions of the creative style in this interpretation? Did you wish to have a retro feel and simpatico with past Guerlain structures or was it just a byproduct of your creativity?At the time I was creating L’Abeille, Jean-Paul was consulting with Guerlain. I watched him create the Arsène Lupin fragrances. So when I created L’Abeille, I felt like staying true to the Guerlinade accord. The fragrance inspired by the idea of being a bee flying over a field of yellow flowers. I actually found the heart of L’Abeille from an old fragrance of Jacques’ that I came across in the Guerlain book (bible of original formulations), Quand Vient l’EtĂ© (originally launched in 1910).

distilling Iris in Grasse, France

Door to the Guerlain spa (Flagship Boutique)

Model Natalia Vodianova & Theirry WasserYour career started off in botany. Can you share how that significant role is so very pivotal in your job at the helm? My interest in botany is definitely linked to my youth and my childhood environment in Switzerland. I lived in a small town in the wooded hills, and there as a boy, I developed a sense for the rhythm of nature and the seasons. Our neighbours were farmers and I was over there all the time and developed a strong interest in nature.This was my first experience with Wellington boots! I lived in them.The neighbouring farm had different animals including a couple of cows producing milk, some pigs, and chickens. They also grew fruits and vegetables, cherries, raspberries and apples for the tourists of Montreux. These memories affect my outlook today. You travel quite frequently now to source new materials and to create industry in the raw material sectors. How has this impacted raw material growers and your stable of fragrances?If you want to be sustainable today you have to be diversified. This is what I am promoting in India today where the infrastructure is poor, the access is limited, and people struggle to make a living. When you travel in these remote places, you notice that everyone has a cell phone but many don’t have electricity, and they carry bags of batteries for four hours to the next village just to be able to recharge their mobile phones.Guerlain has sponsored some projects like installing a solar panel and irrigation pump in remote areas to help the quality of life. These installations are shared by two or three extended families. Each family owns few acres of land given to them by the government. Before our involvement, the families struggled to grow banana plants because of elephant attacks, but we have shown the families how to harvest vetiver (which doesn’t interest elephants). This project has given the families a dependable source of income and has provided Guerlain with an exclusive supply of vetiver from its original region.Speaking of diversity, I have a beautiful story to share. I have a friend of thirty years that I met in the Givaudan perfumery school. He is a third generation Southern Italian grower of bergamot, broom, orange flower and, back at the time, jasmine.

I visited him a few years ago and I commented that he had a new field of bergamot and wanted to know what had been in that plot before this new crop. He told me that the field had previously grown jasmine, but he had pulled it all out because he had no customers for it, and in fact, that it had been the last field of jasmine produced in Italy! I pointed out that since he had space on his property, I asked him to allot a couple of acres to regrowing some jasmine. That is how the Aqua Allegoria fragrance, Jasminora, was produced: from that very field of jasmine! This is diversity!We also use jasmine from Grasse, Egypt and India (Grandiflorum) and now, because of my friend, we have bespoke jasmine from Italy.I spend at least three months on the road sourcing new oils and developing new contacts. It does impact the raw material growers because you give them the directive of high quality and standards. I work with a retired engineer who is very eager to travel with me and I brought him with me to Tunisia to develop the orange flower oil production. We had to restart a factory that hadn’t been running in two years. After the initial restart, we only produced forty kilos and this year, we yielded 100 kilos. This gives locals the ability to return to work and to stir the economy a bit.I noticed in a recent video of you trouncing through a crop field in India, that you were wearing a pair of funky hiking boots with red laces and matching red socks. You look very fashionable in those dusty fields!

I am a big fan of Berluti shoes, and once when I was in the field, I was wearing heavy but low shoes – loafers or something – and I was twisting my ankles on the rough terrain. I needed a great boot. When I had a meeting in the LVMH headquarters in Paris, I passed through the mini museum there, and I saw some ski boots belonging to Greta Garbo from 1939 made by Berluti. I asked them to make me the same pair, adapted for my visits to the fields. (Image on the right shows Wasser in his boots weighing Bulgarian rose in Bulgaria)Other than fragrances, can you share the other areas of responsibility you oversee for the house?Fortunately, as a member of the executive committee, I get to see a complete picture of the brand, its history, and its growth. I get to express my creative side in the lab, but I am also in charge of quality control. That means that every material that comes into the factory and everything that goes out as a bottled product is sniffed by my team. If there is a problem, they bring the issue directly to me. Everything passes under my nose, including customer returns.I also work on the fragrance side of our creams and cosmetics as well. When you design for a skincare line you have to understand what the actives and claims are. For example, our Super Aqua line hydrates the skin, calling for fresh notes. Abeille Royale is repairing, so the scent is soft and gentle, with a touch of honey; OrchidĂ©Ă© ImpĂ©riale is nurturing and rich, so the scent should be as rich and luxurious as the cream’s texture. You have to respect the base and its texture, keeping in mind the active ingredients. When you are creating ancillary products for fragrance lines, the scent is the star. But with skincare, the product’s benefits must come first, and be noticed first by the customer. To sum it up, my roles are as follows: I create everything that is scented at Guerlain. My roles are sourcing, olfactive control, manufacturing, and the business side.Have you found that your style of perfumery has changed at all since joining Guerlain?One is not the best judge of one’s own work. I do try to do my own my thing but since I am so involved in sourcing and manufacturing, you cannot detach yourself from the whole catalogue. I buy materials that are very specific to Shalimar, Mitsouko and Samsara etc. and I have to know and treat those formulas as if they were mine. I am responsible for the preservation of those fragrances and when bloggers attack the formulation, I am hurt.What has been your approach to the IFRA regulations (International Fragrance Association who provides guidelines for the safe usage of fragrant chemicals and essential oils in perfumes and skincare) and their policies on certain materials?I have to follow the rules of IFRA which the European Commission uses as the basis of their legislation. I am required to follow them, as does the fragrance industry globally.IFRA recommendation #43 could have changed Mitsouko dramatically because of its regulation on oakmoss. My love for Mitsouko made me push the oakmoss supplier to get as close as possible to the original version without having the specific molecule which is not allowed by IFRA. I do have now a natural oakmoss which is IFRA approved.Due to the IFRA regulations, there are some materials that I can’t even purchase anymore! Even if I wanted to make a reconstitution of a vintage Guerlain in the way it was originally created, I can’t find the raw materials! They are gone, the oil, the oil companies and growers are all long gone or discontinued.You know, strictly for my own sake and education, I wanted to recompound Mitsouko, Shalimar, and L’Heure Bleue in their original forms but getting the raw materials required was not easy.I went to Calabria and asked a supplier to provide me with the raw bergamot oil before any processing and I would able to recompound those classics. I also sourced some Musk Ambrette down in India. You have no idea of the amount of time, energy and patience it takes to track down practically non-existent raw materials and suppliers just to have them for my own use and knowledge to use in trials. These are ingredients that IFRA has deemed illegal for release to the general public, so even if I wanted to release a vintage version of a Guerlain fragrance, we cannot do so because of legislation.Is it possible to recreate a vintage formula using the original oils and antiquated production in this day and age?Due to IFRA regulations and a lack of original materials we cannot reproduce these today. I work so hard – at times driving everyone a little crazy – to get as close as possible to the original raw material because I am fighting every day for the maintenance and integrity of the formulas. I try to do everything in my power to keep as close to the original as is humanly possible. What have been the significant highs and lows for you professionally over the past three years? What did you learn from this growth process?The low moment was obviously when Jean-Paul left. This was a very, very disturbing time for me. That’s absolutely not the way I pictured our future. He planned to retire at 75; it happened one year sooner. He is my fragrance hero – I love his creations! My first fragrance was Habit Rouge.The high point is to have been welcomed into a company with 3000 people around the world. Most of Guerlain’s employees are BAs (Beauty Advisors). To me, they are among the most important people in our company, since they are in direct contact with the customers! I treasure the relationships I have with all the people at Guerlain. They are like family to me and being at the factory once a week allows me the opportunity to meet a lot of like-minded people.Training is very important and I am very happy to be able to rely on Sylvaine; she is a great teacher and speaker and she knows how to relate and educate the BAs. The best gift is not only to have been adopted by Jean-Paul, but also to feel that I have been adopted by everyone at Guerlain. How do you see the fragrance-related net, bloggers and websites influencing our industry?First, I am happy they do exist! People are becoming increasingly educated and fragrance-aware through the blogs. They have the opportunity to interact with each other and exchange experiences and advice. Some websites and blogs give great historical background, even if some are not always 100% accurate. I find some mistakes here and there, but the Internet has become like an encyclopedia of fragrances. I’m happy to see that there is a true love for fragrance.I also feel that as far as the critics are concerned, you cannot believe that fragrance is an art and then not be able to welcome critics. Every form of art has critics. There are film, literary, and art critics, so if you put your form of expression on that level, you must be able to be criticized. The problem for me lies in the fact that some bloggers or critics post their opinions as fact, or that their opinion becomes gospel. For example, if one influential blogger says, “The sun is green”, you inevitably have ten readers leaving comments saying “Yeah, it’s such a shame that the sun is green”. It’s always easier and more expected for a critic or a blogger to be negative than to say, “Wow, that fragrance is fantastic”. For some, to be considered as a professional fragrance critic, they think it best to be negative and pithy. I get the impression that some are trying to prove their connoisseurship and professionalism by singling out a note and saying it has changed without getting the true facts straight.I have recently read comments complaining that Jicky has been changed, but the absolute truth is that its ingredients have not been touched since 1984. I’ve read some bloggers recommending blending different vintage scents and essential oils in order to recreate original versions of our fragrances, and to be honest, I find this idea very strange. You cannot compare the latest bottle sold in a shop to a collector’s vintage perfumes that have oxidized and macerated. What bothers me most is a lack of precision when quoting me. To put words in my mouth, to take quotes out of context or piece them together from a television show, or to report something untrue without having done any research is completely unprofessional. It’s also unfair, because they are not held accountable for their comments due to the fact that they are usually anonymous.I would like for people to experience fragrance personally and to make up their own minds instead of listening to someone playing teacher, teaching a lesson, in order to make themselves look clever and all knowing with information which can be inaccurate.Many bloggers have also slammed LVMH and Bernard Arnault, who owns Guerlain Parfums, and this is something I would like to address. Mr. Arnault’s group, LVMH, is a mosaic of the best craftsmanship in Europe and the world. So when some bloggers pontificate about what I have done to some blends such as adding something, radically altering a formula or cheapening something, they are also insulting the integrity of LVMH and the numerous craftsmen who maintain its heritage. I take these types of insults personally.Everything I do is to maintain the integrity of the House of Guerlain and it is something I take very seriously.Can you expound on the direction you wish to take the company forward into 2012 and beyond? Do you want to make major changes or maintain the current brands through reinterpretations?I certainly hope for continued success with the fragrances that are part of Guerlain’s heritage. I sincerely respect the work of my predecessors.I created a new version of Shalimar because I think it is the most powerful brand in our house, one with the biggest potential for growth and development. For the rest, you will have to wait and see! I will say that there are some new fragrances that have allowed me to express some fresh ideas and to have fun.When Jacques Guerlain had his new store in 1914 on the Champs ElysĂ©es, which is now our flagship store, he had his lab upstairs. When he had a popular client visiting downstairs, he would come down with something he was working on and would ask for the client’s opinion and I thought that was very interesting.I am most interested to see which fragrances in L’art et la Matière and Les Exclusifs are most appealing. I see this as being in the same vein as Jacques Guerlain’s customer testing. The customer feedback to these lines could determine my next fragrance direction.Were your hopes and expectations of your role fulfilled after three years? When Guerlain offered me the job, I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled!As far as my expectations were concerned, I had none because I didn’t know what was to come. I had no idea that I would be so very involved in sourcing, that manufacturing was so linked to an ancestral savoir-faire and craftsmanship. Of course I knew about fragrance blending and quality control but the surprise was how much I loved this broader perspective! I enjoy being on the spot when a tricky dilemma pops up and a decision must be made. That’s when I get excited. The first time we compounded Idylle, I was there when we made the first ton of oil. When you are in front of a big cuve (tank) and you finally mix the oil, you have much stronger impression of the fragrance when you open this massive tank than the impression given by a 100 gram bottle in the lab. You smell your creation in 1000-kilo format! When you open that lid, you have say Wow! The scent of Bulgarian roses just knocks your socks off and that first impression in the factory is unlike anything.I discovered things I love. Sourcing to me is exciting because you meet people who are so happy to work with you. We improve the quality of our materials, and interact with local suppliers. Every year I get to see the same people, for example the engineer who works in Bulgaria distilling the rose oil. At the factory, there are gigantic alembics made in the Soviet era that hold 5000 litres. Thanks to the sheer size of these tanks, the fine quality of the resulting rose oil is incredibly homogeneous. Before the collapse of the Berlin wall, the Bulgarian rose oil industries were only creating for the Soviet Union so Western countries were sourcing their rose oil from Turkey. After the collapse of the wall, Jean-Paul decided to go back to Bulgaria and bring back that fabulous quality of Bulgarian rose for fragrances like Nahema. He remembered what his grandfather Jacques had told him about the beauty of the Bulgarian rose. Jean-Paul re-established Guerlain’s sourcing contacts and that is why 100% of our rose oil now comes from Bulgaria. Sourcing is about sensitivity and generational connections. It’s a source of emotion and connection with Jean-Paul and the past.For years and years, we have used the same oil suppliers and that is where the teaching, the information, and the trust are important. These relationships guarantee quality production and a bespoke global community where we assist one another. It is all about human interaction.

In the lab with rose water

in the rose fields, BulgariaThierry Wasser has had some pretty big footprints to fill. He has not only filled them and widened old routes but has made some fresh tracks in three short years.

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