Flower power: Frédéric Malle and Alber Elbaz reinvent the floral fragrance

Perfume entrepreneur Frédéric Malle (left), with Alber Elbaz
Perfume entrepreneur Frédéric Malle (left), with Alber Elbaz, whose doodle of an eye decorates the bottles for their new fragrance, called ‘Superstitious’
(Image credit: press)

Alber Elbaz must be the cuddliest man to have cut it in the world of couture. It’s not just his teddy-bear physique, but also his endearing ‘let’s take everything back to a human level’ approach to his work. His sensitivity means he cried real tears when his 14-year tenure as creative director of Lanvin ended abruptly and acrimoniously in 2015. And he is that rare fashion behemoth – one who frets over a decision that might upset someone.

So it can’t have been easy choosing between the perfume samples created in his name by two of the world’s most esteemed noses, Carlos Benaïm and Dominique Ropion. As soon as Elbaz picked Ropion’s sample he was on the phone to Frédéric Malle, who was directing the project, to ask how Benaïm would take it. (On the chin, it seems: Benaïm’s offering is likely to be developed for a future project.) ‘I was amazed that two competitors, two geniuses, were sitting in the same room and, when we chose, I had the chills,’ Elbaz says. ‘The fact that they were working together and there was no competition, just understanding – this is what happens when there is love.’

After years working to the relentless pace of the fashion calendar, Elbaz spent his post-Lanvin time recalibrating. The hiatus gave him the opportunity to meet Malle, the straight-talking perfume entrepreneur, who has worked with the world’s top noses to curate many modern classics. Their meeting has produced one of the most exciting perfume collaborations of recent years, and nurtured a new friendship. They talk together with ease, crediting the quick bond they established to a shared approach to creation in a commercial world and an aversion to pretension.

Malle has built his career working with friends, but Elbaz’s number wasn’t in his contacts book. They had a friend in common, however: Elie Top, Lanvin’s former jewellery designer. ‘I’ve long admired Alber’s work,’ says Malle. ‘But I’m a bit shy. I didn’t want to bother him. Then there was this moment when it seemed obvious, and I called Elie and said, “Do you think Alber would talk to me?”’

The fragrance was conceived over restaurant tables on Paris’ Left Bank, with just one impromptu trip to the lab so that Elbaz could meet the two prospective noses. And Elbaz and Malle are back on the Left Bank for our meeting, at Café de Flore. ‘Most perfume launches have to be in big, minimal rooms and it’s all very clean-cut and about power and technology, and there’s no human touch. Here we are on the second floor of Flore with everybody else – there is something very human about it,’ Elbaz muses. ‘Everything has been done during our two-hour lunches – I think we had five or six. But what we had was a story.’

At the heart of that story is the bottling of a dress. Talk between Malle and Elbaz quickly turned to flowers and femininity. And, early on, the word ‘superstitious’ was thrown up. The designer doodled an eye on the corner of a napkin to symbolise the word – and the branding for the venture was born. The sketch appears on the bottle, with the name ‘Superstitious’ written in Elbaz’s hand. ‘Everybody I know is superstitious,’ he says. ‘Frédéric is, I am, every woman I know is superstitious. I think we are in a time when we know everything, and when you know everything there is one thing that is magic – and that’s the thing you don’t know. It’s leaving knowledge behind and going back to feelings. That was the story.’

When it came to stitching together a scent that was the olfactory equivalent of a frock, Malle’s expertise kicked in. Already working on an overtly feminine fragrance with his old friend Ropion, he spotted a possible match. Along with Benaïm’s creation, Ropion’s work in progress was presented to Elbaz, and was ultimately chosen to be developed. ‘Dominique works like an architect,’ says Malle. ‘His work is seamless to the wearer, a bit like Alber’s dresses. Women wearing his dresses are more beautiful – the architecture is forgotten, but it’s there holding them together.’

Though he dislikes defining a fragrance by the sum of its parts, Malle is aware that, commercially, some communication of ingredients helps. Superstitious is a punchy floral aldehydic scent – a combination he claims people shy away from these days as it smacks too much of the quintessential Chanel No 5. But in the hands of Ropion, the treatment of this olfactory family is brought bang up-to-date. ‘It’s like a flower garden with a huge Mies van der Rohe building in the middle,’ says Malle, describing the effect of the aldehyde’s metallic fizz interacting with the rose and jasmine. When the day has worn away the floral notes, what is left is a deeply sensual trail of labdanum, patchouli and frankincense. The magic is that the fragrance is both nostalgic and modern.

The final act of generosity in the collaboration came from Malle. The day before we meet, Elbaz was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. He drew the best front row of Paris fashion week – without sewing a single stitch. But four weeks earlier the fragrance had still been very much a work in progress. Elbaz called Malle, explaining that all these big fashion names would be coming to celebrate his achievement, yet he had nothing to show the fashion-hungry crowd. Could the fragrance be accelerated to present to them? Malle agreed to pull out the stops.

‘It was the most emotional present,’ says Elbaz. ‘I was inviting everybody during fashion week and had no dress to show. But we had the perfume of a dress, and you know the perfume of a dress is even stronger than a dress, because smell is something that you take so much deeper.’

As originally featured in the March 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*216)

For more information, visit the Frédéric Malle website