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Frédéric Malle
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Frédéric Malle: “Something had to change”

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Short Profile

Name: Pierre Serge Louis Jacques Malle
DOB: 17 July 1962
Place of birth: Paris, France
Occupation: Entrepreneur

Mr. Malle, do you consider seduction to be an essential part of perfumery?

Perfume has to be a magnet. It says, “Come to me.” It’s one of those languages that people speak but they don’t understand. Think of it like this: you get dressed like this in the morning, and you feel comfortable b­­ecause this is how you want to appear. But then at the end of the day, you take it off. With perfume, you don’t even take it off! You are in bed with a girl and she’s attracted because it’s part of your scent — it empowers you even in your bed. It’s a fourth dimension.

Does memory also come into play in what you look for in a scent?

Well, a funny thing is that when Pierre Bourdon and I first worked together, we started creating a men’s perfume with frankincense, patchouli, gardenia… But this is actually the main structure of Miss Dior, which is the perfume our mothers used to wear! He said the most uncanny thing, “We have made the ultimate perfume for men but we built it like our mother’s perfume!” This is really twisted! (Laughs) For me, what’s seductive is the right perfume on the right person. I’m comfortable wearing this suit, you’re comfortable wearing that sweater… It’s you. If I tried to be Brad Pitt and tried to smell like him, it’s not going to be very good. But I’m myself and find what I think is right, then it’s coherent. That’s how you make the match.

“This fantasy of making the universal perfume is what killed the business.”

So ultimately, if you know who you want to be and you are comfortable in your skin, you could wear anything.

Yes, you already know what is going to be good on you. We have 24 perfumes in total, and each of them is in its own right very good. But they are different characters. And you have to find the right match. It’s a matter of character.

In the nineties, CK One was very popular but so many people were wearing it that it lost any sense of real character.

Right, mass-produced perfumes don’t have much personality, so they are not good on anyone. What’s actually magical is something like Angel, or Portrait of a Lady, something that is almost too specific. And yet it’s so good that it becomes universal. So what is beautiful in our business is that the classics are very often huge risks, and they become universal although they are actually not. This fantasy of making the universal perfume is what killed the business.

How did you experience that personally as someone who worked and grew up in this business?

I could see it in my private life! I am a social person who likes to go out, and every day there was someone who was asking me what perfume I was wearing. If by mistake I said that I was working in the perfume business, I had an entire dinner of questions about the industry. My wife was about to kill me! Every night was the same thing. But at some point, I realized that no one was interested anymore. And if I had said I was a plumber or a banker, they would go, “Oh really, how interesting!” I could have been anything. No interest. People stopped smelling and perfumers were complaining about being asked to do the same thing every day, for less and less money, dealing with people that don’t know shit about perfume.

So you offered them an alternative?

I knew something had to change, so I thought about how to connect my daily life and my evening life. How to make these people who love to smell good and who are walking away from our business, connected to perfumers that would like to make better perfumes. That was my idea to become a link to set perfumers free so that clients would become free again.

Do you actually have a formal education in perfumery?

Yes and no. A formal education is going to school in Grasse and then you go on to be an apprentice and after 10 years or something, you would become a decent perfumer. I have a very unusual track: I was spotted by the man who was running the best lab in the industry, he asked me to become his assistant. He sent me to school and then I was taught the method and left to learn on my own. I’ve been working with perfumers on a daily basis for 30 years, so I know the raw materials, I know how most perfumes are built, I read a formula, I understand how it works… So, I can’t drive the car from the beginning to the end but I can drive on the highway.

Do your perfumers have complete creative freedom?

This freedom thing, it’s true because you give them all the means possible. There is time, there is money, and because they are the monsters of the business, they have access to raw materials that others don’t have, to prototypes, to data when they want an analysis of a certain smell…  I always saw my job as trying to have them be themselves as much as possible but within certain boundaries: elegance, modernity. I really pushed for that. And I think they trusted me on this!

“Even where our campaigns are concerned, we try to not use too many visuals. It’s more of an atmosphere.”

What goes into the creation of that product? Most perfume brands start with a story but apparently you choose to work from a material or a scent.

Right, we sometimes begin from a raw material. For example, when a company says there’s something like natural rose in a perfume, they put generally 0.01%, just to legally be able to write that. It’s not going to change anything. You don’t smell it. In a bottle of Portrait of a Lady, you have 400 roses! It takes 400 roses to make. The other way we work is a bit like a collage. We’ll take an existing smell, whether it’s a flower or a piece of wood or even another perfume, we take a piece of that and put it in a completely different context. So we begin from these ideas.

It goes back to your idea that the scent should be right for the wearer: it’s easier to make it your own when there is no story already attached to it.

I didn’t want people to focus on an image or be told what to think! I wanted to be very neutral and for people to really focus on the smell itself. Even where our campaigns are concerned, we try to not use too many visuals: we are never showing the face, we always have an attitude, we tell a story but just not precisely. It’s more of an atmosphere.