Imagine the mysterious, alchemic world of perfume in a publishing context and you would be able to better grasp the revolutionary concept and creative codes behind Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle (EPFM). Where perfumers commonly assume the position of ghostwriters, in writing parlance, Frédéric Malle has chosen to give them their place in the limelight, with full creative credit and their bylines prominently displayed on the bottles themselves. In the position of publisher, Malle selects world-renowned “noses” as authors, giving them carte blanche to bring to life their vision of what a perfume should be. He only has one inviolable rule: “Eliminate all that is superfluous or merely decorative.”
For those unfamiliar with the rigorous olfactive process employed at EPFM, no less than half a year to 18 painstaking months are taken to develop a single signature scent. To date, 14 of the world’s greatest noses have worked with Malle to create fragrances exclusive to his house.
“We share a common language,” he says in an email interview. “The language of formulation and raw materials, which allows us to communicate in a totally direct, immediate way. I am a perfume publisher. My editorial policy is shaped by my personal taste and by a continual quest for refinement and elegance. From the early days and now, after 20 years, I help perfumers create the perfumes of their dreams … like an editor working with authors … to give the best of themselves creatively so that the public will have access to the most innovative and luxurious perfumery ever created!”
Born in 1962 into a family firmly entrenched in the world of fragrance and the arts, it seemed almost certain that Malle would one day tread the same path. After all, it was his grandfather, Serge Heftler-Louiche, who created Christian Dior’s first fragrance — Miss Dior — in 1947, thereby founding Parfums Christian Dior and becoming an emblem of France’s perfume legacy in the process. Malle’s mother, Marie-Christine, worked in fragrance development for the company for decades, playing a key role in the creation of iconic scents such as Eau Sauvage and Poison.
Creativity is also in his family’s DNA. His uncle Louis, once married to actress Candice Bergen, was a celebrated film director whose works ranged from humanist dramas and elegant mystery-noir films to documentaries, chief of which was the seminal The Silent World, created in collaboration with explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau. Malle’s brother, Guillaume, is a former banker who now uses his extraordinary knowledge of cinema and art history in his work as an art historian.
“My childhood was a kaleidoscope of scents,” Malle recalls. “I grew up like any normal child except that I had parents, especially my father, who were interested in literally everything in life. It forced me to be curious to try and reach that level. The only difference between other children and myself was that I was told perfume was an important thing to explore. From the smell of the Paris metro to the scent of flowers in summer and, of course, the perfumes that people used to wear around me, I noticed every smell as I was growing up.”
But the young Malle would first divert his path a little, moving to New York to read art history and economics, before dabbling in advertising. It was in 1988, when he joined the prestigious perfume laboratory Roure Bertrand Dupont, that the die was finally cast, allowing him the opportunity to befriend the leading perfumers of the time while immersing himself in their world. “For the longest time, I did not allow myself to [work in fragrances] because it was my family’s [background] and not mine,” he muses. “My ambition in life was just to be myself. Then, when starting to work in this field, I absolutely felt a sense of destiny.”
In 2000, Malle made a decisive move, bringing his olfactive vision to life by establishing the first of many boutiques to come. Imagined by Andrée Putman and designed by Olivier Lempereur, the store at 37 Rue de Grenelle was a work of heart for Malle. “I had been very involved in the design, which was a perfect summation of what I wanted to achieve. It was very emotional. But the biggest moment for me actually happened before we opened our doors,” he says, recalling the high point in what has already been a glorious two-decade-long journey for EPFM.
“It was when all the top perfumers in our industry accepted to follow me in this adventure, which was so new that it seemed a bit unreal then. But they trusted me and, until today, I am still very much indebted to them for this. As for obstacles, I suppose we have had the same growing pains that most companies face over their first 20 years. There have been good and bad surprises in the markets and very boring logistical things. Sometimes, we suffer when trying to accomplish our dream perfumes — like children, some were born with a good temper and others took a while to turn into beautiful things.”
And how apposite it is to use the words “beautiful things” to describe the perfumes that bear both his and their creators’ names. For connoisseurs, it would be like rattling off a list of old friends or great masters. There is Dominique Ropion, the talent behind Portrait of a Lady, bewitching in its dosage of rose essence and patchouli, and Carnal Flower, heady with tuberose. There is also the legendary Edmond Roudnitska, who created Le Parfum de Therese, which only his wife was allowed to wear. It was after being widowed that she entrusted the formula to Malle to ensure the fragrance would never be forgotten.
Today, it is a modern masterpiece with notes of cucumber, melon, rose and jasmine, and generously and graciously shared with the world. The name of the equally luminous Jean-Claude Ellena — a close friend of Roudnitska’s who created numerous scents for EPFM, notably Rose & Cuir, Angeliques sous la Pluie and L’Eau d’Hiver — must also be mentioned.
Having sold EPFM to The Estée Lauder Companies in 2015, Malle stands by the decision he made, saying, “I thought it was the best possible option to make it grow into the No 1 luxury perfumery institution and to keep this position in the long term”, before adding, “as for how much I sold it, that is nobody’s business”.
In a world still battered by the ravages of Covid-19, it is no laughing matter to describe one particularly harrowing carry-over of the disease — the loss of one’s sense of smell, a veritable death knell for anyone who works in fragrance. “I am terrified it would happen to me,” says Malle, who spent the lockdown at home with his family on Long Island in the US. “But I have also learnt during the tumultuous year that you only live once.”
Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle is available in Malaysia exclusively at Kens Apothecary boutiques.
This article first appeared on Jan 11, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.