This website uses cookies to enhance the user experience.


Frédéric Malle: “A Perfume Has to be a Part of Life”

Sometimes the most influential people in culture and style are so because they elevate and amplify the work of others. Legendary perfumer Frédéric Malle, through his brand Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, is one of those trailblazers.

March 13, 2024 By THE GRAND TOURIST
Photo: Courtesy Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle


Sometimes the most influential people in culture and style are so because they elevate and amplify the work of others. Legendary perfumer Frédéric Malle, through his brand Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, is one of those trailblazers. What started as a long-shot experimental concept has become one of the most highly regarded players in the fragrance world. On this episode, Dan and Malle discuss his youth in Paris, the scent he hates the most, how he bet it all on the launch of his brand, and so much more.

Listen to this episode


Frédéric Malle: So I think that iconic sense is that there is this hard to describe quality where they become not a smell, but a perfume. What I mean by that is that they become so much part of one’s body that it becomes a person’s smell. You don’t know if it’s the person’s natural smell, where that person’s natural smell stops and where the perfume begins. It becomes one. They blend in one another. So when you work on a candle, it’s not a human smell. It’s fine that it’s beautiful and maybe comfortable, but it’s not human.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi. I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. As we approach our 100th episode of the podcast, I’m sure you’ve learned by now that the worlds of art and design and luxury are shaped by the people who, pardon the cliche, think differently.

My guest today came to New York from Paris as a young man, and after initially skirting his family’s heritage, he came to revolutionize it, Frédéric Malle. Like a great gallerist, curator, or magazine journalist, Frederic, through his company Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, doesn’t take full credit for its creations. Instead, he publishes them in a sense, elevating the great noses that brought them to life, and giving them full credit as anyone would a star author.

Frederic was raised in Paris to a prominent family in the worlds of art and luxury. His maternal grandfather helped create the legendary Miss Dior fragrance in 1947 and his mother worked in the field, too. His father was a highly regarded film producer who worked with Frederic’s uncle Louis Malle. More on that later.

After an education at NYU and initially working in advertising, he returned to his roots, eventually taking a most radical leap possible with the 2000 launch of his brand. In the years since, he’s produced dozens of scents, some of which have become icons, like Portrait of a Lady, French Lover, and others. His latest is Heaven Can Wait by Jean-Claude Ellena, described as being a quintessentially Parisian scent with notes of clove, pimento, and carrot seed, and inspired in part by the “intimacy of private worlds.”

To me, Frederic embodies the classic New York success story, combining know-how, street smarts, and lots and lots of chutzpah. I caught up with Frederic from his home on Fifth Avenue to talk about his scented memories of Paris, his ongoing obsession with film, how he launched his own line, the future of gender in the business, and much, much more.


Heaven Can Wait is the latest release from Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. Photo: Courtesy Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle

I’d love to start at the beginning. As someone who was born in Paris to a family that’s so intertwined with the cultural life there, I was wondering what your earliest memories are of the City of Paris, and if you could paint a picture for me of your youth.

We were living in this very large apartment, which was on four floors. I remember ground floors, the lower floors, it was like a house in the air, really, were very old-fashioned, grand, classical, with classical painting. Then we had our rooms, and there was this planet where my brother and I lived.

And so, we went from the ground floor, which was very formal, to a penthouse on top, which was extremely modern. This is probably something that informed me my taste for the rest of my life because I lived in classical and futuristic.

So it was a bit of a schizophrenic place, although they were two separate worlds. In my taste today, I mix things, whether it is in perfumes or other aesthetic things that I make.

Now, as for Paris, the one thing that I remember is just walking out of my house was the Knoll boutique that always … Knoll had this very luxurious, unique-to-Paris showroom, which was run by this very good decorator who would mix Knoll, which looked really almost futuristic at the time because I was born in the ’60s, and more classical things. So yet again that.

Then my childhood in Paris was really about going to the gardens, to the Tuileries Gardens, walking there, crossing the sand, and going to see my friends. Then growing up, every morning taking the subway. The Metro is a very big part of my life in Paris. First of all, it’s a fast way to go around the city. I also use it in New York. But it has this very peculiar smell and this very peculiar feel to it in Paris. I used to go to school in the Metro. And so, that’s also a memory.

So it’s really walking through the Tuileries or the Musee Rudin, taking the subway. All of this was in Saint-Germain-des-Prés also. So that’s also … I mean Saint-Germain-des-Prés has changed and Saint-Germain-des-Prés probably can be seen in my Uncle Louis Malle’s movie … What is it called? Fire From Within I think it’s called. It’s changed quite a lot.

Do you go back to Paris often?

So when I moved to America … I mean when I moved again to America, because I have a long story with this country, in 2006, my main office was still in Paris. I used to go back every month, and it was absolutely exhausting. And so, I’d spend three weeks here and a week in Paris. I try to do that less, but to spend more time. So I go every other month, I suppose.

Do you remember, are there any early scent of Paris? We talked a little bit about the Metro.

The metro is a huge scent of Paris.


[inaudible 00:05:57].

How would someone such as yourself describe the scent of the Paris Metro?

So a lot of people find it disgusting. First of all, it’s unique, and I’m very much into unique scents. It hasn’t changed so much. I think that what people … I mean this is a bit disgusting. It will sound disgusting to many people. But you know that dust is mostly dried skin, because we shed. We have a little piece of dry skin coming out. I think it’s the smell of dry skin, people’s dry skin, and people’s smell.


I suppose that there’s also the stone that it’s made with. It’s that odd mixture. So it’s a warm smell. It’s not a particularly clean smell. But they have not tinkered with it. They have not added or put anything to make it smell good. So it has that identity. It’s this warm, woody, animalic smell by my book. But, to me, it’s so linked to childhood that each time I get into the Metro, and I still do today, I use it quite often, it has this Parisian effect to me. So it’s neither good or bad, it’s what it is.

It’s better than what we can smell in the New York subway.

Well, it has its smell also. I mean I used to travel the New York subway with my father when I was a child, and it has its own identity. All these places have their identity. It’s easy to look down on them, but they’re typical. They’re the layer in our perception of a city.

So I was wondering, can you explain in your own words your maternal grandfather’s link to the history of the business of perfume?

My maternal grandfather, two things that really led him to creating Christian Dior perfume was Christian Dior’s childhood friend. They were both brought up in Normandy. As a very young man, he became the right hand, and then the MD, I think, of a man called Coty, who created a company called Coty.

Of course a huge company now.

It’s a huge company now, but it was even bigger then. He was really the inventor of modern perfumery. He was the man that invented most of the chemical architectures of perfumes that we still use today. Most of them were invented by him. He invented apparently the Duty Free. He was a genius businessman. He invented advertising. He invented a specific bottle that would be associated with a perfume that he used to do with Lalique. He invented windows showing only one thing when people in the days used to show 50 thing in a window. He understood the idea of impact and spectacle.

And so, my grandfather was part of that. It was probably the best school for perfumery. My grandfather left Coty in the ’30s, Coty had a very dark ending, and started his own business quite successfully. When Dior thought of opening his own fashion house, my grandfather proposed to make a perfume right away, even before the New Look was even shown.

And so, Miss Dior was launched, I think, in 1947, just after or during the New Look at the same time. I can’t remember exactly. It’s the few months that are mysterious to me.

Anyhow, my grandfather was the founder of Parfums Christian Dior and also Dior’s best friend … I mean close childhood friend. So there was this very strong tie.

Now Dior and my grandfather, respectively, died very, very young … They were 53 and 54, I think … before I was born. My mother, who was my grandfather’s darling and who was interested in his business, worked at Dior all her life. I used to nickname her Chauncey Gardiner, the character in Being There, because she never got out of that garden.

She worked at Christian Dior for 47 years and from the age of 18 to 65. And so, she didn’t do anything else. But her perfumery was very important to her because it was a supposed tie with her father that she missed terribly.

So my brother and I were brought up with the idea that perfume was important, that one should never cut corners, that it was a serious business, that it had to be very artistic. So we had all these values that were communicated to us, not that our mother would show us very, very specific things in terms of smelling, this is something I learned on my own, but I knew how important it was.

And so, when I grew up, first of all, I was wearing perfume, which was quite unusual for a child. Second, I was really aware of perfume. When I discovered seduction, I understood how important a role perfume played in being attracted to someone or being attractive to someone. So quickly I started wearing Halston and things that were not in the Dior planet and started creating my own planet.

But it was really something that … I mean I was pointed in the right direction, let’s put it this way. It was part of me. But I was not taught very technically. I was never told this is patchouli, this is rose, this is jasmine. I never had that. That I learned on my own.

Was the home that you grew up in somewhat of a fragrant one? I mean home scents were not what they are today, of course. It’s this whole industry now. But when you think about the home, was it about cooking? Was it about something that your mother wore? Was it anything like that?

So, first of all, many of the smart homes in Paris were using the same fragrance, which was a Guerlain perfume called Pot Pourri. It was a perfume that had to burn, that was put on top of light bulbs.

Oh, wow.

They discontinued it because it was dangerous and they’d probably run into trouble with this. So then they had this perfume diffuser which was burning the perfume. But it became more complicated and this thing disappeared. But I know that Christian Dior himself used it at his home. Many people in my family had it, and even on my father’s side of the family. My parents’ house smelt of that. That was the smell of smart homes in Paris in the ‘60s. I also remember my mother’s perfume, wearing Diorissimo and Miss Dior, she went from one to the other, as a child. So, yes, fragrance were important.

I always loved the smell of cooking. So we had someone cooking for us, and this is something … When I came back from school, I learned how to cook with that person. I had cooking lessons. And so, I mean those smells were always very important to me.

In terms of your father, who I believe was working as a producer with your uncle’s films, can you explain like … Was your childhood growing up going to the cinema and watching a lot of films? I’m sure that must have had some kind of aesthetic impact on you.

Indeed. Very, very much so. My father was this bigger than life character who was indeed my uncle’s producer. But before anything, that was like a side job. My father was running the international part of Lehman Brothers. He was a banker. When my uncle started working in cinema, my father and Louis started a movie production company which was called Nouvelles Éditions de Films. And so, there’s the word editions.

So Nouvelles Éditions de Films came from Jean Renoir, which was called edition francaise, which was linked to Gallimard, the publishing house, because Gallimard … So it’s a chain. It’s interesting. So you had Gallimard Nouvelle Revue Française. It’s a collection of Gallimard, which is the collection which aesthetic influenced me when I did my packaging.

Then Renoir was influenced by Gallimard, and then my father and uncle were influenced by Renoir for their names. I was influenced by … When I called my company Nouvelles … At the beginning I called it Nouvelles Editions de Parfums, and then I called it Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. I simplified it. But it’s this world which is very gauche, very Parisian of literature and film and this idea of publishing art that influenced my company.

Now, to go back to your question, there was something magical in being brought up among this family, is that we were away from adults. Sometimes we were in, but they were very much together, and they were … My father and his brothers sort of often at my house exchanging ideas and being curious about everything from what they read … My father read about one book a night because he didn’t sleep, and he read very fast. So it was about their reading, what they had seen. It seemed, as a child, that they knew everything.

And so, that is humbling as a child, but it’s also … I mean it can make you feel very, very small for the rest of your life, but then it also entice you to be quite curious. Once you become curious and hungry for information and new things, and especially artistic ones, then you realize that culture accumulates and it’s not such an impossible world to get into. Of course you’re always less cultivated and less intelligent than some others, but you are sometimes more also. I mean everything is relative.

As for cinema, to finish, we had this magical thing with my brother Guillaume and I, is that we could walk into any cinemas in Paris for free.

Oh. How so?

Because my father being a Louis producer, he had this thing, this pass, which we borrowed and went around. And so, we watched about two to three movies every weekend. So we were at boarding school, we’d come back on the weekends, and we’d spend our weekend going to the movies. And so, we saw a lot and we saw many things that … We watched many movies that we were not supposed to watch.

I was about to ask.

I mean I was not supposed to watch Fellini’s Casanova at 12, and being so fascinated that I went three times. And when my brother wanted to see Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Ane, which was for children. But it taught us a lot.

I was also obsessed by photography then. My Uncle Louis gave me a camera when I was 12, one of his old Pentax camera, I remember. I started taking pictures then. This very, very photographic way of seeing life and this very cinematic way of seeing life is something that I really developed then. It was way more important for me than perfume.

At the beginning, I wanted to become an art director and link imagery to perfume. Then I got to work with perfumers and fell into that, and I had found my calling. But it’s really I always link perfume to people and perfume to images. I have always done that. I mean this is … And thank you for asking this question because this is really … People always talk about the fact that I came from a family of … That we’re in the perfume industry. The cinema part is crucial to my upbringing.


You mentioned before that you wanted to go into advertising. I think you worked a little bit in that field and maybe even photography after graduation and before you got into the perfume business. Can you tell me how that shift happened, how you tried that, and what eventually pulled you? Was there some sort of natural gravity that pulled you into that, or-

Yeah, it is a natural gravity that pulled me in. It’s true that although perfume was always in the back of my head, and I was very much … After school, after NYU, I was very much looking up to a man who was the art director of Chanel, who was called Jacques Helleu, who was a very good art director, who was one of my father’s friends and who gave me many advice and I had many conversations with him. I wanted to be him, but he was unique.

I was also hesitant between embracing a career in photography, but yet I wasn’t sure that I was an artist. I knew that I knew how to work with artists, but being an artist is quite different. So I needed to work. So I went into advertising, thinking that it would be a good business school for me and a way to learn about marketing and communication and blending that with imagery. And it did. I mean I learned a hell of a lot in these three years.

But then I wanted to go on. I was still hesitant. And I met this man who was running the best lab in the industry, and certainly the most creative one, which was responsible for one fine fragrance, making one fine fragrance out of two that were coming on the market. We had this huge market share, from Opium to Obsession, to Poison, to Oscar de la Renta, to Lou Lou. I mean all of these were coming from that lab.

So the lab was called Roure. Earlier in the conversation I spoke about Coty inventing most of the fragrance architectures. I suppose that the other half or another big chunk of those architectures, Fakhar, Louis Vuitton, all these very innovative perfumes from the days, were coming from Roure. They had a perfumery school, they had the best perfumers around. They didn’t pay as well as others, so I suppose that they fed their competitors with talent. But it was this school. That man called Jean Amic was seen as the guru of the industry, and he asked me to become his assistant after going through a perfume medication a little bit at the school and a lot being locked in at the office and learning how to smell basically. I spent six years there and learned my trade there.

But I always saw this business as a craft and a craft that you need to learn. That’s why I’m always quite uncomfortable with marketing people that have been selling soap and detergents, potato chips, or cat food, and then get into perfumery, or car and get into perfumery, because, yes, there are skills to sell, but those recipes don’t always apply. It’s not as simple as that. It’s still an artistic business and it’s a trade that you have to learn.

So I wanted to learn about communication, photography, printing, making perfumes, designing bottles. And so, getting into the lab at the beginning for me was something that I was curious to learn in case I would be worthy of becoming an art director in perfumery. Then a few days after getting into this lab, I realized that I had found my calling. It was a very strange thing. Not many people are so lucky that they find their calling. It felt completely natural. And I never left.

After that, when I started Editions de Parfums, I used the skills that I learned in advertising and in photography. It all fell together. Also, the fact that I’m convinced that we live in coherent worlds where politics inform music, that inform any kind of aesthetic things, and we have those styles that morph and influence one another. And perfumery always follows that.

But we are very much the result of a moment. And so, having learned art history, working in advertising, working in perfumery allows me to connect perfumes and images to the world that I live in, or to a certain group of people that I live in. A bit like people using analogies, I understand the connections between various elements of a perfume and the rest of the world. I mean I can connect things. I think that because I have learned every single elements of the trade, I’m able to do that, and I feel very fortunate for that.

When you decided to strike out on your own, was there something … You’ve alluded to this, but was there something that you felt was needed in the industry that you were trying to work against. You mentioned the marketers and all that kind of thing. Can you tell me about how you thought you were going to be a success right away and the unique editorial vision that you had for the brand which you continue to this day?

It sounds really corny, but I’m one of the rare people that can say that I had an epiphany. I hate that word. It’s such a cliche. It’s atrocious. I hear myself saying it and it’s horrible, but it happened.

So I had a big chance in life, which was to work with a fashion designer who is called Christian Lacroix, who was very famous at the time, that had a very, very specific style which I thought was very perfumistic and that I could translate. I thought …

It was still owned by LVMH in the days. I was developing this perfume with the Lacroix team and even being overseen by Bernard Arnault himself. It was like my chance in life.

We had worked on a very, very specific perfume. Near the launch … It was a very long adventure. It was torturous and complicated. But, anyhow, near the launch, I walk into this very famous perfumery on the Champs-Élysées that had just opened, and I realized that everything is classified like in a supermarket with no service.

My epiphany was, wow, this is going to take over the world. Now you’re going to have to make perfumes that can be sold without service, without help, because it’s self-service. This is what has happened in airports and in all these self-service companies.

Therefore, the images are going to drive people towards the product, hence celebrity perfumes, big launches, all of that. But the perfumes will have to be crowd-pleasers because there’s not going to be room for very specific perfumes like the ones that I had just made.

And so, perfumery was going to evolve towards this mass market business and perfumery was going to become very, very banal. For sure, as a result of that, every perfume started smelling the same, that same sweety, boring thing that morphs as the general taste evolves. But an interesting perfumer, like people, if they please everyone, they are ultimately boring and they never get married. You don’t want them for a long time with you.

So I realized that someone had to react and find a system to save a more artistic vision of perfume. At that time, as perfumery was evolving, also I can say that my friends, my artistic friends, that I was seeing at night were not wearing perfume anymore. The perfumers, the ones that I was seeing during the day, were asked to make those boring perfumes to work in self-service environment.

I thought I have to create a connection between the more artistic perfumers and the better perfumers and a more demanding group of clients. My idea was to create a bridge between them. And so, I created Editions de Parfums where perfumers can express themselves freely and treat perfume as are. Because these perfumers have very different personalities, we have a collection of perfume that’s growing, but that’s becoming more and more eclectic. They become the echo of those very, very specific characters, those very specific clients.

The thing is that to connect these, you need specific stores with very informed salespeople that understand that certain types of people in terms of … Because I believe that we are all … Not archetypes, it’s too broad. It’s too specific, it’s too marketing-like. But everybody wants to seduce in a certain way, and there are categories. That’s how you sense Greek tragedies to Hollywood. We have these characters that keep on repeating themselves. So certain types of … Certain characters correspond to certain perfumes, and vice-versa. So we have created those stores where you have specialists connecting you to a perfume that will fit your character.

So in other words, I have found my idea was to create a system which would allow perfumers to be incredibly free and that would allow clients to be incredibly free as well. The freedom of one group informs the freedom of the other. I mean it’s like a virtuous circle. So it was recreating this circle where perfumery could evolve, where perfumery could be modern, where perfumery could be contemporary art, and where the more informed and demanding clients would find something that would echo their personalities.

For this idea of authorship, it reminds me a little bit of today’s collaborator culture in a way. You were probably a little bit ahead of your time. Why did you feel this need to give the perfumer authorship and to put them essentially on a pedestal like you would as a book publisher, or you’re simply presenting someone else’s work, and why you felt that that was important for the business at the time? Did anybody push back against you? Did people tell you that you were crazy for doing what you were doing?

So because we were the first to ever mention perfumers, I put pressure on myself, thinking why hasn’t anyone done it before? Is there a candid camera looking at me? I was being really paranoid, thinking why on earth no one has done it? It seems so obvious. These people are artists. They’re true talents. They’re true characters. Yes, some are geeks, but some are real eccentric. They’re all very different. You talk about decorators, you talk about chef, you talk about all of that, and perfumers are never to be mentioned. Most people in the streets have no idea how Mr. Saroix or Mr. Dior has come up with that perfume. They don’t even know the existence of those perfumers. It’s crazy.

And so, no one told me anything because, first of all, I kept this extremely secretive. I had this idea. The people that knew about it were a man called Jean-Jacques Picart, who was the man who was Christian Lacroix’s partner, who was a very good friend and a very brilliant mind that I always looked up to. He also thought in a very different way than me, so I was going to consult him.

And Andrée Putman, who helped me designing the first store. And so, I showed her my packaging, I showed her all of that. And the perfumers themselves. I know that even my mother, who was extremely curious and probably worried that I would start my own business, because she’s not the biggest risk-taker in the world, was saying, “Oh, can I come and have tea?” The minute she’d come, I’d stack everything in a cupboard and I would give her her tea, talk about the weather.

And so, no one knew about it. But I knew that I was taking that risk and I was wondering why no one had done it before. It was an obvious thing and it worked.

Now why did I do it? To me, it was only justice that these people that had been hidden for years would be spoken about. The other thing was that I knew that because it’s a very small milieu where they’re extremely proud and they want to make the business evolve. Copyists are poo-pooed, or were, in this industry. So I knew that if they were going to put their name on a bottle, they would do anything to be very, very good, very, very creative vis-a-vis their competitors and friends. And so, I wanted them to be involved.

The third thing which to me was obvious, if you have an author, it means that you’re dealing with an artistic product. So it was also a way to explain to the public that we were dealing with artistic perfumes because there was an author. Then instead of putting myself forward and saying, “I did everything,” still some small companies do because they have such great taste, I thought that it was easier for me to say I’m just the publisher and then letting these people gallop as fast as they want, so that even though I’m very close to them and very involved in the creative process, it was way easier for me to talk about these perfumes as I was slightly detached from them. And so, I could say this is the best, most beautiful perfume in the world.

It’s harder to say that, especially when you have brought up I have been to be modest. It’s hard to say that when you say, “Oh, this is the greatest perfume in the world and I have done it.” It comes way easier to say, “This is the sexiest perfume in the world and Maurice Roucel has done it.”

This whole company was really built around us, perfumers and myself. And so, it put me in a way easier position. So for all these reasons, I mean putting the perfumer’s name was obvious to me. It was just that no one had done it before and it scared the shit out of me.

Were you leveraged … If I can ask, when you started this business, I mean did you really have all your eggs in one basket when you were … As so many people do?

Yes, I inherited a bit of money from my father and I put everything on the red.

Oh, gosh. Okay. Well, it paid off.

Yes, it did. But I must say that it was not really the best way to get good night’s sleeps.


Of all some of your more iconic sense like Portrait of a Lady, things like that, a French Lover, what do you think … Now that you have some miles on the business of your own brand

Yeah, too many.

… what do you think makes a scent iconic? Do you have a kind of … Or is it really unpredictable in the way that a book might be unpredictable, or a film? But can you identify some quality of an iconic scent that really stands the test of time?

So I think that iconic scents all have the same ingredients, really, to success. One, they are extremely specific and easy to recognize and have a very strong character. You cannot be iconic if you’re wishy-washy. You can be successful financially if you have huge brands and billions of dollars to push it with advertising and keep it current. But the minute you pull the plug, this thing will crash and burn. So it’s this very artificial way of keeping fragrances up, and some brands are successful with doing this.

But an iconic scent, the real classics, the ones that can survive without investment or with little investment, that people cannot live without are really specific and usually the first of their kind. Two, they have flawless … Usually they’re very good technically. They last, so on. They have all of that.

But, three, what’s important is that there is this hard to describe quality where they become not a smell but a perfume. What I mean by that, it took me a long time to understand that, is that they become so much part of one’s body that it becomes a person’s smell. You don’t know if it’s the person’s natural smell, where that person’s natural smell stops, and where the perfume begins. It becomes one. They blend in one another. So it’s a human smell.

So when you work on a candle, it’s not a human smell. It’s fine that it’s beautiful and maybe comfortable, but it’s not human. So it’s a smell. That’s easy. To make something that’s a person, it’s a different thing. So that’s what makes all these classics become classics.

Now to Portrait of a Lady, it’s a funny story. We thought with Dominique that the dry down of a perfume that we had just made called Géranium pour Monsieur could be chopped and developed into a scent. Then we had done that, but it was a bit like lounge music or some of those niche perfumes that are just one rhythm and it’s only one dimension. It’s a bit boring. You don’t want to stay for too long with something like that, wearing something like that.

Then we came up with the idea of putting this huge amount of rose and to tie it into this thing, which made us change course, but made Portrait of a Lady. We thought it was so beautiful and we were so in love with what we were doing. We were frantic about finishing it, I remember, because we were excited.

But on the other hand, the question was now whether in a world which is not always pretty, whether it was too refined or not. Because it was so specific, we thought it’s going to be great for our image, great for the company, great for our pride, but will people get it? Because it was so specific, because it was so over the top, people fell in love with it, and it became our bestseller.

So sometimes when you take this huge risk, there is this huge reward. But, yes, it’s a huge risk. It can may fail miserably. So there are some perfumes that are in life and things that are outside life.

I love the story where Greta Garbo decides to go to retirement, and in fact she was longing to make a comeback, but she never managed to make a comeback because she was too beautiful. She was too grand, and no one identified to her. She was not bankable. She was not bankable because she had become a star that was shining so high that no one could think, “Oh, she could not fit the part.”

And so, a perfume has to be part of life. So the difficulty is you can make something specific, you can make something human, you can make something extraordinary so it becomes a home run, but it still has to stay more or less in the park. It’s that thing which makes a perfume magical or not.

Obviously scent has become, like the rest of style and fashion, more unisex over time.


Our ideas of sex and gender and seduction have also transformed fairly radically in the past 10, 20 years.

Yeah. Thank God.

Yeah, agreed. How do you approach the idea of sex and gender when you’re talking to someone about a scent? Today, when you’re thinking about these scents that you’re going to perhaps produce in two years’ time or that you’re working on, how does that conversation in your head go?

So we were very innovative almost 25 years ago when we launched Editions de Parfums, because we were so keen to introduce the right perfume to the right person that we really listened to people. I always told the people in my store, we had one store then, “Don’t be prejudiced. Just give them what you think they want. It’s not you being the almighty or selling what you like. It’s what this person will like.”

It’s funny that being heterosexual, although having been in the business for a long time already, I worked on Musc Ravageu with Maurice Roucel, I was seeing this very sexy girl in my head. Then the minute we opened, many men, straight and gays, start being attracted by Musc Ravageu, and there were as many men buying it as there were women. And so, we were completely open to that.

It just reminded me that because people were so prejudiced before, and also because companies advertised a lot, perfume was always a big cliche. It was about seduction. So Obsession, for instance, was this irresistible perfume. There were these films by Avedon that was basically explaining that those men were obsessed by these girls’ smell. And so, he was saying basically if you wear this, every single man is going to be obsessed by you. But you couldn’t say, “Oh, but your husband can wear it, too,” because, in those days, you couldn’t do that. It had to be one side or the other. So they launched a very similar blend for men saying the same thing, but it had to be the two.

When we launched our company, for many reasons, I decided to have no imagery, because I didn’t want to lead people. And so, when we launched Musc Ravageu, it was very easy for us to sell it to a man or a woman. Even Portrait of a Lady, we sell to many men, although there’s the word lady in it.

And so, I was always … I mean since the beginning, I’m thinking that a perfume can be sexy … There are several gradations of being sexy. It has to be always quite sexual, but there are several ways of doing it. People of any gender can wear any perfume.

Because the company is so built on this idea of freedom, freedom of creation, freedom for buyers, for clients, that, honestly, I haven’t changed in 25 years. It’s also my upbringing where I was in a family which was very open-minded about all of this. I was very lucky in that sense.

And so, yeah, it hasn’t changed. When I work on a perfume, I know that sometimes I think of a girl in my head, or a man, but it’s going to be worn by both. The conversation and my way of thinking hasn’t changed in all these years, to be honest. It’s just that now we … Because of Instagram mostly and social medias and the importance of our website, we have started putting people and images on those perfumes.

So we are a little bit like in the situation of someone writing a book that has to make a film about it. And so, we had to say, “Oh, this is our vision of this,” and try not to restrain too much division of our existing clients. It was a bit of an exercise for a while. Now it’s become second nature to us.

But we try to stay as open as possible so that people can still project their phantasmas and ideas into those images like they would project their phantasmas and ideas when smelling a perfume. We try them to be questions rather than impose things. Those images have to be open-ended.

Thinking about the famous question in Proust Questionnaire, the sound you hate the most, I was wondering if there was a scent that you hate the most?

There are two scents that I hate the most.


The trash in New York.

Okay, agreed.

I remember when I was bringing my daughter to school, I knew which day those trucks would be on different streets, and I was going around to avoid it, because sometimes it makes me throw up because I’m so sensitive to them.

Oh, gosh.

And the smell of butcher shop.


I have fainted twice in a butcher shop in my life.

Do you know what about the butcher shop

No, I don’t. But it’s something that repels me.

But could you eat a raw steak?

Yes, I do.

Okay. So there must be something.

I eat steak tartare. I love steak tartare.

Huh. I wonder what that is.

But I go into a butcher shop, I remember the first time was in Mujavant Mountains. I went into a butchery, fell over, plop.


I was on the ground.


So both repulse me.

Huh. That was [inaudible 00:52:41].

Yeah, I suppose that smell is important to me.

Yeah. Okay. Well, that’s fascinating. I’m curious what that actually is. Before we run out of time, tell me a little bit about your latest scent, Heaven Can Wait.

So Heaven Can Wait is a very odd story. Heaven Can Wait was done during COVID. At the beginning of COVID, we were all a bit scared of getting sick, partly because of this danger of losing our sense of smell, which we can’t do much. Even losing a little bit would’ve been like an untuned piano. That would’ve been even worse. So we were all calling each other and making sure that we were okay.

I did this with Jean-Claude Ellena, who is a very good friend, and realized in the conversation that he was the only perfumer that could still be active because he was not part of a big lab, all of which were closed. But because he weighs … He’s half-retired and he weighs things himself, and he has gone back to this very artisanal approach. His lab is just a mile away from his home. He could still work and … Be working. And so, we started working at a distance. He was in Grasse, I was in Long Island, and we started exchanging.

He had this idea of working with warm spices. Warm spices typically last longer and now more sensuous than what he’s used to doing, which is working with cooler spices that are flinting and fresh. And so, I was quite curious to see what he was up to.

The other thing is that I had been talking to Jean-Claude so that he would evolve in his style and make bigger perfumes and maybe develop a little bit more sense of drama. And so, that was basically him saying, “I want to give it a go.”

And so, it’s really a bouquet of spice. Then because Jean-Claude has really a strong style, then, as often, he plugged this into iris, but it’s a very luxurious iris. It’s an iris infusion. So you dip iris in alcohol for a long time, and then you mix that result with the spice. Then it’s warmed up by a touch of vanilla, a touch of fruit, a little bit of musk, which for Jean-Claude is a bit unusual because he’s always has such a sharp style. The musk works like the pedal in a piano. It makes things a little bit blurry and a bit softer. Then added things here and there like a little bit of jasmine, a bit of rose, and it became … And so, these two made the spice a little bit more floral. Now it smelled a little bit like a carnation.

So it is very warm spice bouquet with facets of warmth around it. It really corresponds to this longing for intimacy and warmth and this, yes, this moment that you share with your close ones, or that you live on your own, because this was the time.

But it still resonates, and not because of COVID but because people today want to protect themselves somehow. This idea of intimacy is quite important in this very unsettling world. This perfume answers to that, I think.

What was intriguing, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, is that because we had time, we let it sit for a while after thinking that we’re done. When I re-smelt it with a little bit more perspective on it, I realized that there is a contour like a filigram, almost like the outlines of the biggest, most Parisian, and most classic perfume which is called L’Origan. L’Origan, the modern version of L’Origan then the copy of L’Origan was a perfume by Guerlain called L’Heure Bleue. L’Origan was a Coty perfume which influenced L’Heure Bleue. Then L’Heure Bleue became way later Oscar de la Renta, and it became all these floral oriental perfumes.

But it’s almost as if Jean-Claude had … If L’Origan … Sorry, if L’Origan was a big oil painting and Jean-Claude had taken that theme and that very delicate drawing with it. And so, it’s interesting because in the 21st century, looking for new modern shapes, with Jean-Claude design a modern shape, but it still has an echo of this very Parisian, very sophisticated, quite sexy actually in a delicate way classic. So it means that you never escape.

As someone who’s been in the business for a while and you’re running your own house now, what do you think your industry will look like in 20 years’ time, or a hundred, for example?

So I think that we have not invented this business. I’m very proud that I participated to its rebirth, because it was really near extension when those self-service companies started dominating distribution. I think people will hopefully always have sex and always want to seduce, and perfume is really the salt and pepper of that. It’d be really, really, really boring if everything was on a screen, everything was imaged, and there was no smell. So I’m an optimist and I hope and think that this is going to last.

As to the perfume itself, apart from the fact that all those too many niche artisanal houses are too numerous and too many sell bullshit, I think this is going to be trimmed and … We’re getting into difficult times in terms of economy, and I think that this is going to take care of that. Only the better ones, the more relevant ones, will stay. It’s a natural process.

But the bigger picture is that rules and regulations in our business are going to evolve. They’re still evolving. There are so many raw materials that we’re not allowed to use because they’re not sustainable, because sometimes someone finds that they will create allergies. We are trying to be … And we have always been as a business, be really safe.

The environment is changing and we have to save our planet, and there’s a lot that we have to do. So as a result, the ingredients that we use in fragrances are going to evolve. I think today we see the premise of that with biotech kicking in. And so, because we are a very ingredient-dependent or technology-dependent business, so much so that perfumery became interesting when chemicals got in at the end of the 19th century … Before that, there’s not much … our industry is going to become even more interesting because of biotech. I think that the colors of the rainbows are going to be different and, as a result, perfumery is going to evolve.

But the core principle of using a perfume to be more yourself or to be more attractive will absolutely remain, because these things are eternal. It will just take a different shape. Then there will be new generations of perfumers that will learn exactly with our method of going step-by-step.

I’m not sure that artificial intelligence is going to help so much. So far, it’s not helped in the way that it was supposed to. I think it’s sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes to adapt formulas, it might be shortcuts eventually to turn a formula that is made to be used in alcohol, into a formula that is made for soaps. There’s going to be little things like that.

But perfumery will still be very much an artistic business. I think if you want to be luxurious and artistic, the human interaction is essential. So I’m not so sure that this is going to take such a big role, a big place. But, yes, it’s going to change yet to be the same.

What’s next for you?

What’s next for me? A whole new life, probably. We’ll see.

More work or less work?

I don’t know. Times will tell. Probably more.


Thank you to our guest, Frédéric Malle, for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at Follow me on Instagram at @danrubinstein. Don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. Leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time!


Meet the greats.
Listen to The Grand Tourist.

newsletter illustration