Somewhere, the Perfume Brand Concept Fairy must be hooking herself up to an endless supply of Red Bull. The demands on her time are so frenzied at the moment, she probably never gets any sleep, forced to churn out one idea after another. A collection inspired by a real-life couple’s romance. A range based on notable cities. An olfactory representation of key works of literature. The list goes on. Quite literally. And of course, as there is nothing new under the sun, many of these marketing hooks are beginning to seem like reruns of past novelties, mere tweaks of existing identities.
This is the thought uppermost on my mind when I meet Nicolas Chabot. Formerly of Estée Lauder, Givenchy and Dior (at the latter, he worked on the marketing of Tendre Poison and Dolce Vita) the Frenchman was born into a scented cradle. His great-grandmother opened a perfumery in France in 1930, so when he came into the world, the business was well established and allowed him to witness first-hand the arrival of all the major releases of the 70s and the 80s. Having recently revived Le Galion, he has now decided to turn his attention to a markedly different perfumery style by creating Æther, a range of synthetic-only compositions, the first five of which have been created by Amélie Bourgeois and Anne-Sophie Behaghel. My first question to him was pretty obvious: as the concept of entirely non-natural scents isn’t new, why did he decide to make it the driving force behind his new company?
Nicolas Chabot: Two reasons. First, for France, it is quite new, because no brand is really acknowledging that they’re using molecules*. Cartier could be the exception, but all the other ones who are using a lot of molecules say they’re not. And I’ve got another brand called Le Galion, which is all about beautiful raw materials, and I really wanted to do something very different with Æther.
Persolaise: So, how did you launch it?
NC: I was talking with friends like Francis Kurkdjian and they were telling me to launch my own brand. I said I didn’t see the point. And at the same time, I went to a flea market and I found a bottle of Le Galion, and I thought, ‘What is this beautiful brand?’ I found out that the brand was just a sleeping beauty. Nothing was being done with it. In 3 weeks’ time, I re-patented it. I found the daughter of Paul Vacher, who had all the formulae. Then everything went step by step and we re-launched it. And after a year or two, somebody said, ‘Oh, it’s so easy to revive a brand.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, if you think it’s easy, now I’m going to do something different.’ That’s how Æther started, because of the challenge.
P: Would you say that nowadays all new brands need a concept in order to survive?
NC: I don’t see the point of launching a new brand if there is nothing behind it. You have to bring something new or something different. And now it’s so easy; there are no barriers any more. Even bloggers are launching their own fragrance now. So what’s the point, if everyone has a new fragrance? You have to bring something new.
P: Did you always know you’d launch with five scents?
NC: Looking back, I should have done three. That was my initial plan. But then of course you see the buyers from the department stores and they say, ‘If you want to get into our department store, you need five.’ And stupidly, I decided I needed five. But I shouldn’t have listened to them. I already had three. I could have waited for the other two.
P: If you’d kept to three, maybe none of the department stores would have stocked you.
NC: That’s not an issue. You talk with buyers in London, they say, ‘Okay, if you want to get into our stores, you need to use oud, you need to concentrate at 30%, you need to do this and that.’ And I think, ‘If you want to do that, do it yourself.’ That’s always the difference between business and creativity. At what point do they meet? At what point do you make something which you can sell, but which brings something new to the market?
P: Tell me about the scents.
NC: My first fragrance, Carboneum, started around coumarin, because it’s one of the oldest synthetics. The idea was to go back to the past and use all the molecules that had enabled the rise of modern perfumery. I wanted the coumarin to be treated in a really modern way, so we mixed it with some Suderal – a very modern leather – and some methyl benzoate. The idea was to mix the modern with the past, to try to invent what would be your armour, going into the future, the idea of what we would be wearing in the future.
P: That’s a tricky idea, isn’t it? If something is truly the smell of the future, then it’s impossible to relate to, which makes it inaccessible. Did you worry about that?
NC: No, not with Æther. I don’t care about that. In fact, I would say it’s better with this brand if you can’t relate it to something you know.
P: With your Ether oxyde scent, you took quite a different approach.
NC: Yes, the idea of this one was to use the ether which was used in the 19th century to make you fall asleep and to get people addicted. I wanted to use a lot of Ambroxan and Iso E Super, to make it very addictive, and to make it closer to something that people would expect from molecules. We used ethyl acetate to get a whiff of ether at the beginning. This one was more familiar, more commercial. I wanted to see how people would react to it. And indeed, it is an easy seller. It helps people enter the world with something they won’t be afraid of, something reassuring.
P: What was the concept behind Rose Alcane?
NC: The idea was to go into a chemical flower. I had a precise image in my mind: take a rose and put it in oil. Black oil. Dripping. Get rid of the flower. Keep the stem. Keep the branch. Make it very modern. At the beginning of the perfume, I smell kerosene or benzene. I love tarmac smells, the idea of a plane.
P: So that was your core trio. Did the ideas for the other two come quickly?
NC: Yes and no. With one, Citrus Ester, we went rapidly into the idea of a molecular cologne, something familiar, but only done with molecules. So we used methyl pamplemousse. It was an interesting challenge.
P: Have your perfumers ever said that one of the compositions would be improved with a tiny amount of a natural material? In other words, has there been a situation where you’ve been tempted to break your synthetic-only rule?
NC: Yes, in the case of the fifth one, Muskethanol. It has a tiny bit of immortelle, because it really helps to push the synthetics. It helps the damascenones to show all its dimensions. It reminds me of dry fruit, maybe plum alcohol, something you’d have after dinner. It’s a modern molecular oriental.
P: And I gather we now have a sixth composition.
NC: Number 6 (Methaldone) was an interesting idea, because it’s 100% Givaudan captives. I used Rodrigo Flores-Roux, who is a friend. I love his work. This one has Dynamone, Rosyrane, a very metallic material, four or five different captives. I thought about the European Space Station and the people coming in and out of it, and they always say it smells like burning metal.
P: What would you say should be the relationship between the cost of the juice of the perfume and the price label on the packaging? I know Francis Kurkdjian once said there shouldn’t be a direct relationship, because, for instance, when we’re admiring a Picasso, we don’t judge its value according to the cost of the paints he used.
NC: I agree with Kurkdjian on that, but at the same time I’d say that we’re definitely here to talk about what is inside the bottle. So when you pay for the bottle, the cap, the box… I don’t see the point of that. For example, if you talk about Clive Christian, you’re obviously not paying for the juice. That’s a pity in the industry. The essence of our work is what is inside the bottle. That’s also why I’m using clear bottles, clear juices. And synthetics can be very expensive. Some of them cost much more than some naturals.
P: Would you say this is an intellectual brand?
NC: It looks like it, no?
P: But most people walking into a shop to choose a perfume don’t care about the detailed thought processes that have gone into the composition. Does that worry you?
NC: No. We’re in the niche business, so if we’re not bringing something different to the market, we should go and work for other brands.
P: But what if this venture fails and you lose all your money?
NC: That’s part of it. We are here to be creative. With Le Galion, I’m doing something that has to be respected. So with Æther I try to do everything that I wouldn’t dare to do. To break the mould.
* Please note: Chabot’s English is excellent, but he consistently used the word “molecules” when a native speaker of the language might have said “synthetics” or “aromachemicals”. In the interests of accuracy, I haven’t altered his answers in any way.