Ready to revolutionize: Frédéric Malle

Shopping Malle

Laura Dunkelmann
Oktober 9, 2018

Frédéric Malle created a new way of publishing perfume: In collaboration with the world’s best nose he releases classic yet innovative and sophisticated scents. High in quality, from packaing to ingredients, Malle’s range feels like a library of beautiful, precious stories. He’s guiding – and sometimes pushing – big names like Jean-Clause Ellena or Pierre Bourdon to develop new olfactory masterpieces, free of marketing terms and target-group analysis. He is aiming for art. 

Sweet and sensual: The artwork for the scent Lipstick Rose
Ralf Schwieger composed a scent inspired by Lipstick, with notes of rose, iris and musk.


I meet Malle, 56,  in Rue Mont Thabor in Paris – no big signs, just a modest little door that leads to his minimalistic yet elegant place that used to be his first office and store.
The scent cabin in glowing acid green glass and black anodized metalcatches my eye. The capsule looks like a contemporary art installation – but it’s a construction to make people experience perfume: The scent is sprayed into the big capsule, then a small window is opened for the costumer to sense how a perfume will appear to the surrounding. A unique concept, just like Malle’s very personal consultation that you can experience in stores or through digital communication and that includes your fashion and style preferences. Malle, a passionate scent connoisseur and businessman, wants you to find the perfect match – and his perfumes to be worshiped in the best way possible. The way he is handling his label is extremely thoughtful and feels inspiring in times of big campaigns and influencer-ads. He sticks to his clear vision, sets trends rather than following them and lets perfumers be artists again. Frédéric Malle is considered a niche brand, though it has an impact on the whole market.

There’s a hint of curiosity in Malle’s aura of French sophistication, a certain spark that’s different from the stereotype snobby Parisian – but there is also a certainty in the way he speaks. There’s a lot of heart in his label, but also brain. Instead of 20 Minutes, we talk almost two hours – a lot about perfume – but also politics…

The special cabin developed by Frédéric Malle in his first store in Paris

Frédéric Malle: Do you live here?

Laura Dunkelmann: No, Unfortunately not! But I always feel at home in Paris, I understand why you come here so often, although you’re based in New York…  

FM: My first shop or base was near the publishers’ house Gallimard, on the left bank. This place inspired me a lot, especially my packaging. Do you know their books?

(Gets up, walks to the back of the shop and grabs a beautiful, old book by Gallimard).  Have a look – the typography is very similar…

LD: Your packaging is elegant, timeless, yet modern…

FM: And it’s not only the typography. There’s also a layout to my packaging: It’s the same order like on a book cover, you have the author, the name, and then the publishing house – which is me in this case. And then there is the color palette, inspired by my art collection and pretty similar the one used by Calder.

I study designs from the 30’s; it’s my main inspiration. And my surroundings. I grew up in this area, around the corner. And when I came here, I knew that this could be my studio. So I had a big table here, four lights and there was a little shop where people from my team could get food. This is the street where we started with our friends. We decided to make it commercial around 2003.

LD: Why did you start Perfumes Frédéric Malle?

FM: I wanted to do my own thing. My mother worked in the industry, for Christian Dior and my grandfather established the perfume house Dior.

I was very interested in female fragrances, wanted to smell all the different perfumes. I also used a lot of perfume myself and kept changing them all the time. And I was interested in the design. The industry was very alluring to me.

Then I was basically pushed by someone, who was very close to the industry too, to do my thing. Till then, I had not wanted to be only “the son of my mother or my grandfather”.

LD: With this background it could either be super easy to break through in the beauty industry or extremely hard – how did you experience it?  

FM: When I began, it was hard. If you mess up they say: “he is only here because of his family”. And if you are good, they will always tell you it’s because you are the son of…

And then again it’s also easier. I never wanted to mention my grandfather. But a friend who is very closed to me told me: You must talk about it, where you come from. So, the first step was for me admitting my roots and that I know every perfume – but also that I am here to turn the business around. I learned how to use my background.

Artwork for the perfume "Musc Ravageur" - "An unapologetically sexy perfume"

LD: So you found your way of making it work for you.  

FM: It is funny, if you are surrounded by supportive and contributing people, it‘s a benefit. It won’t play against you.

One turning point was also the start of the company – because it was very successful from the beginning. It was incredible. But I think, things would be different today.

L: Why do you think it would be different?

FM: Because the media and the market changed. When I started it was all about the mass market. So many people wanted to create perfume. But they always referred to the past. I wanted to be modern. I was very optimistic, but I knew it would be a long way. Then we launched, and in the same week we had a big article in Women’s Wear Daily, which had a huge impact. I closed the store for a week and all I did was talking to the press. There were no influencers, no bloggers. I talked to many people from the press, one by one. Then the articles were published in the newspapers. Full of information. We had huge support from the press. The first person who read it all was my mom and of course perfume fans read it, because they were interested in this subject. I have to admit: People who are not interested in this topic and people who didn’t know me, skipped it.

L: Well, that’s also my job to inspire those, too.

FM: That is true but getting the attention from those takes a long time. I mean, it takes many articles…  In the beginning I put all my money into the store, because the success was beyond our expectations. But my expectations were low before, so that might have been the reason we were surprised (laughs).

LD: But you want to reach a lot of people with your perfume. It wasn’t your aim to keep it a small niche brand.  

FM: At first, I decided to have a small brand because that’s how you begin! I didn’t want to compete with brands like Dior or Chanel etc. They are big brands – but they all started very small. Still, my goal was to make the label grow. I see my goal in forming the next generation of perfumery. My products are not from the past. I created a new brand, like a little child, ready to grow up.

LD: Today there are tons of small brands. It’s getting hard to detect the best quality.

FM: And you are professional. Imagine how hard it is for the public. That’s terrible.

LD: How do you think will this evolve? Is there a point, when there are too many brands on the market? Has “niche” become mass?

FM: Yes. The big brands thought: “No, those small brands can’t grow.” Now, they see it turned around. Which makes me smile. The same people look at our success and get inspired.
For the customer it is very hard now – some people think that small means beautiful. But small is not beautiful – It can be, but big names can create beautiful scents as well.

L: So niche is not a guarantee for quality.

FM: No, it’s not. It is a lot of storytelling, but it is a bit empty. My fear is that it is going to be deadlocked. People are going back to the big names maybe or turning back on the business. One thing that is interesting is: All of these Niche brands are not made by great perfumers. The great perfumers of our time are working on bigger products. Because that’s the way to make more money.

LD: But you are fighting a quality in the Niche market!  

FM: And I was also creating content within perfumery for the first time. Not advertising. Other brands were creating advertising to make money. In fact everybody was happy, because we were doing something new. The mass market brands were a paid guest in magazines. We found our way into them by quality.
Today websites are more important anyway. And images have to be produced by the brand, not the media.

Music For A While: "A sensuous body of lavender is warmed by patchouli, amber and vanilla, and transformed by notes of pineapple and mandarin"

LD: It’s also a chance because this way you can maintain – and control – the visual quality of your brand, too.  

FM: Exactly. But it also means launching a brand today is a way more intense than it used to be. If you want to become big, you have to create a clear image. You have to exist on so many platforms that replace the press. You have to have the will to exist.

Many of the brands – whether fashion brands, beauty brands or others – they all have to come up with a seamless image.

LD: So brands have to create magic…

FM: I think a few people are still interested in buying something different, buying a story. Only if you buy it again, it means that you are into it. That means, that the perfumers ddi their job well. It’s never personal. It is for people around. It makes you a more interesting Person.

LD: Have you ever been thinking about creating perfume by yourself?

FM: I’m not classically trained in perfumery. But of course I educated myself a bit. So, I know the notes. I’ve been working thirty years in the perfumery business now, I can read a form, I can understand it all. But I am also lucky to work with the best perfumers in the world. I share my fantasy with them. They take that and illustrate my dreams. I rather have somebody do that for me. I am not a big artist. But I am a very good smelling partner. And that’s why they want to work with me. There is a difference between being a good creator and a good elevator.

LD: Are you never afraid of being disappointed? You obviously have a strong vision… 

FM: Yes of course! There are a lot of tears in these perfumes, a lot of disappointment. Many mistakes. Many false hopes. Then you try to understand why it happened and you go on. Then you go back and try something else. It is always about exploring.

LD: Are you more into creating something new or something beautiful?

FM: I think a perfume has to be beautiful. A perfume cannot be sad. We always try to be new as well. But it is an interesting question. I am more and more obsessed with the idea of creating new things in this business. Even if it’s a new category. New interpretations.

LD: It is hard to reinvent, isn’t it? 

FM: Yes, it is hard. But we never rest. Everyone who is coming to the store is different. What is good for you is maybe not good for the rest. We know we have a collection that is not for everyone. But it is also a chance for us to find new clients.

LD: You have a very special consultation service.

FM: It is the same for years. People want that experience. What happens in the stores is the most important. We don’t want people to return our products. It has to go with your dress, the way you wear your makeup, or your behaviour – but you also have to understand how people see you. You have to get to know them. Now that we’ve talked a bit and I’ve seen you more, I feel different from what I first saw. I didn’t see that tattoo before (laughs and points on the heart at my underarm).

You try to understand the logic of each person. Everyone is a project. Perfume is a language that everyone can speak, and no one can understand. You buy perfume and you feel comfortable, but you don’t really know why and in fact you don’t know what the perfume is communicating.

LD: So you try to translate.

FM: A little bit. I could say: Maybe it is that perfume. But if you want a little bit sexier – take this or that one. It is just observation. I am trying to understand each customer. That is huge for us. There are super artistic creations I just want to launch. If someone says that they don’t work, I don’t care – there will be someone who they match with.

LD: You would find the right person to wear it.

FM: Exactly. Some think it is a cool brand, others say it’s not so hip and they buy something else. Total freedom. It is freedom for perfumers. It is freedom for clients, for customers.

I just go forward. I am not like someone who works for a big company. I work with artists. But I also do the business of course.

Picture perfect: the iconic perfumers who worked for Malle

LD: How do you keep the balance between business and art?  

FM: Even as the best perfumer in the industry, with total freedom, you have to consider the market, the environment so to say. It is very good to know the whole complexity. As a commercial person I also know what we have created. I love both.

LD: Creativity has a price.

FM: Numbers define success, too. If something doesn’t sell very well, it influences your feeling as a creator. I also have to be honest as a businessman, I can’t just be polite. It scared me when I was a young guy. Now I know that it is not a pleasant thing, but I can do it.

LD: But work – and sometimes criticism – is necessary to lead to something extraordinary.

FM: They want to work with me because of that. Because I am honest.

LD: Do you feel like you are creating art with your perfumes?

FM: This is a very funny question. At the beginning, twenty years ago, we used to make fun about perfumes who call themselves as artists. It was the opposite of advertising. Everybody wanted to be an artist. In the 80s advertising was ridiculous. 

Perfumers blushed when you told them they are artists. People from the art, like Picasso, would never dare to say they are artists. But language has changed.

LD: Are you still involved in everything? I mean, it is still your brand. Is it hard to let go?

FM: I let go if I trust people. And then, if I made a mistake, I put trust to the wrong person, I start to feel completely disappointed. I am usually a control freak but I can trust.

LD:  Do you ever think of doing something else, like: the brand works fine, I have people I can trust, it’s going on. Maybe opening a hotel…

FM: I have so much fun working on architecture. I am working on a house for us. I am 56 years old; I am still young enough to start something new in life.

LD: I could imagine a hotel would be very nice, I’d definitely check in…

FM: Before I started this company, I was so depressed by the business. I was actually considering opening a hotel. I love the idea of creating – so maybe, it’ll be a hotel in the future…

Each store has its own design - like the one in Greenwich Village, New York
Perfumes are stored like wine (here in Paris): In special shelves designed for the brand.
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