Ever the Storyteller: Frederic Malle on Superstition and Alber Elbaz

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Alber Elbaz and Frederic Malle
Photo: Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe

There is the interviewee who will give you a “yes” or “no” answer. There’s the one who comes prepared with a very well-rehearsed PR spiel. And then there is – much to every interviewer’s delight – the one who will weave a web of stories intricate enough to transport you back to his childhood and through all the formative moments, stories, and anecdotes that have led to him sitting in the chair in front of you, answering your questions.

The first time that I ever encountered this type of storyteller was when I met legendary perfumer Frederic Malle in Dubai, where he was promoting the launch of his latest fragrance ‘Superstitious’, which was created in collaboration with Alber Elbaz. Below, his stories speak for themselves.

On growing up around perfume:

My mother’s father and Christian Dior were very close collaborators and best friends, and Dior was extremely superstitious. He found a lucky star on Avenue Montaigne, for example, and that’s how he decided to open the Dior boutique where he did. What most people don’t know, however, is that he had a fortune teller who was one of his closest friends. He used to talk to her every day, and then tell my grandfather what she said. She actually told him that he was going to die the following week and, one week later, he was dead.

My grandfather also died very young. He always saw my mother as his heir. She started working for Dior when she was 18, first as a lab girl and then working her way up. During my childhood, she was completely involved in creation. She was Serge Lutens’ biggest advocate and really pushed Dior to be more creative. She was also behind the idea for ‘Eau Sauvage’ and became sort of the full-fledged Development Director. She worked on ‘Poison’, she did ‘Fahrenheit’, and so on – all the way to ‘J’Adore’. She had this authority at Dior because she was the only one who knew Christian Dior intimately.

Growing up, I had a free and unlimited supply of ‘Eau Sauvage’, so I used to wear it all the time.

That’s the environment in which I grew up. And then, when I was 15, I had a friend whose father was the Art Director at Chanel. I knew this man very well, and I learned a lot from conversations with him. What taught me the most, however, was this: my father’s side of the family was very curious and very well-read, and I grew up being encouraged to be like that. We’d see every exhibit possible. Perfumery was only a part of that.

However, what gave me a huge head start, compared to a lot of people in the industry, was knowing about perfumes ever since I existed. It was always a part of my life. But being curious and worldly was a big part of my education, and I was very fortunate to land where I did. You have to be very humble about these things.

Growing up, I had a free and unlimited supply of ‘Eau Sauvage’, so I used to wear it all the time. When I was 11 or 12, I was at boarding school and playing hockey. I remember running and sweating, realizing or understanding how interesting and powerful the combination of a warm body and perfume was.

Alber Elbaz and Frederic Malle
Photo: Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe

On working with Alber Elbaz:

The first thing Alber said to me was that he wanted to create a perfume that smelled like a dress. Not an easy feat. The first perfume I presented to Alber was slightly oriental, but it was a bit too obvious of a choice – a bit too cliché. When you think that he’s a Middle Eastern designer, born in Tangiers, and often dressed in black, to have gone with amber would have been too easy, like serving the expected dish. Like going to L’Ami Louis and ordering the poulet fritte. So I showed him the work that I had been doing with perfumer Dominique Ropion, a complete revision on the floral-aldehydic perfume architecture, because I thought it might be more interesting. A floral aldehyde for the new generation.

A floral aldehyde for the new generation.

So there we are, sitting in the lobby of Le Meurice, and I hand him both. He smells the more oriental one and says, “Oh, this is too sweet. I hate when women smell of cakes. I like the cake on my plate, not over women. There’s nothing more vulgar than being gourmand.” But he also felt like the second perfume had too much “top”, so he gave them to the woman who runs the floor at Le Meurice and said, “Which one do you like best?”

She went for the oriental one, which was the obvious choice, but I didn’t say anything. She came back a few minutes later, having basically had the entire kitchen staff smell the perfume. She did a little marketing test for us. Most people went with the obvious one, but there was this one man who was a lot more articulate, and he chose option number two. He said that he liked it for this and that reason, and they were all the right reasons. Alber realized that this wasn’t the best way to choose a perfume, so he took both home and really lived with them for a few days.

He smelled them really thoroughly and, in the end, he chose the second one, but he had some comments. He felt that it was too floral and too pretty, and he wanted it a bit more “punk”. What I understood by that was he wanted a bit more of the back notes – the vetiver, the amber, and the patchouli – to come through. First of all, you should know that Alber smells of patchouli and musk, and he always smells very good. He likes those deep smells, so we increased that in the scent. It was another month of work, another 100 trials.

On choosing the perfume's name:

Alber and I were having this conversation about how we see all these people who think they have great rules to make great businesses, but truly creative people believe in hard work and luck. They believe that there is this force – luck, superstition, whatever – that helps them by taking their simple work and propelling it to something bigger. Alber said, “There is too much marketing and not enough superstition” – and that’s how we got its name.

Photo: Courtesy of Alber Elbaz

On superstition:

Alber will never put his bag on the floor, he will never pass scissors to someone, and he cuts cloth only in a specific way. You want to know the reason we don’t have a display item to launch the perfume? When I was thinking about the display, I was thinking along the lines of evil eye/broken glass. That’s why we designed a tray, which was made of broken glass, but figured it might be a bit of a health and safety problem to have broken glass on counters. So we had to find a way to cover it and make it not dangerous.

Here I am in a cab in New York, going up Third Avenue, and I’m talking to Alber just to say hi. I mention that I’m working on this great display that’s going to be in all the windows and it’s all based on the idea of broken mirrors. It’s going to be super cool. And he says, “I would rather die. I hate broken mirrors. You’re not going to launch anything with broken mirrors under my name.” We were going into production literally that afternoon, so I had to stop it.

Alber told me a story once about a time he called a cab and, as he was getting in, he noticed the mirror was broken. He asked the driver, who was a woman, why she had a broken a mirror. She answered, “This is a Mercedes. It’s too expensive. It’s going to cost me 170 euros to fix it.” He pulled 200 euros out of his pocket, gave it to the woman, and never got into the cab. This story really defines him.

I, too, am superstitious. I have a specific way of holding my blotters. I’ll never leave a hat on a bed, I don’t walk under ladders, etc. It’s the same with black cats. My father used to race cars, and he was racing for Ferrari many, many years ago. And there’s this story about the time he was racing with an Italian and they were winning the race, but then they saw a black cat. They looked at each other, nodded in agreement, and just parked the car. I guess it’s in my DNA.

Ever the Storyteller: Frederic Malle on Superstition and Alber Elbaz

Alber Elbaz par Frederic Malle ‘Superstitious’ Perfume

Available at all Frederic Malle counters

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