It all began with an e-mail, from Helen McTiffen at Guerlain, informing us at Basenotes Towers that Thierry Wasser would be at Selfridges in London on the 29th November and that, if we cared to attend, we would have the opportunity to: ‘hear more about our nose's creations and passions as well as speak to the man himself’. I forwarded it to Grant with the words - and this is an exact quote (enjoy it, there won’t be many below): ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’
Grant took the hint, if you can call it that, and so it came to pass that a few days later I found myself travelling across London in a taxi, which is a real treat for someone who normally only travels across London by bus. It’s all been a bit chaotic so far - there are train delays across Greater London and there’s been a last minute change of venue - we’ll now be meeting at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair; furthermore, somehow, somewhere along the line, Grant has neglected to inform me that the nature of the event has also changed and that we will actually be attending a ‘small afternoon tea’.
Thanks to our taxi, we arrive at the hotel slightly early, and are greeted by lovely and helpful, top-hatted doormen (everywhere should have them) - but before we go in I insist on spending five minutes running around excitedly outside, photographing everything - buildings and Christmas lights, and the water feature spewing out steam in front of the hotel.
Once inside, we’re directed to the restaurant, and immediately I recognise Thierry Wasser sitting at one of the tables - and as we’re ushered in I see him getting up to greet me. This is not what I expected - not at all. (I’m not complaining though.)
The Guerlain blurb describes Thierry as: ‘a free spirit with wide-ranging interests and a healthy sense of humour...’ Having met him, I’d say this sounds a pretty fair description - and I can certainly vouch for the latter.Things you may not know about Thierry Wasser:
- He’s funny. Proper, laugh-out-loud funny.
- He’s very dapper. Also, according to Helen, even when he’s trudging around in far-flung fields, he still dresses in the same signature style.
- He’s very animated, and prone to punctuating his conversations with slightly outrageous statements or startling impersonations - one involving a certain celebrity (and no, I’m not telling who) will stick in my mind for a very long time.
He’s spent the previous evening being interviewed for The Fragrance Foundation’s ‘An Evening With Thierry Wasser’ at the Mayfair Hotel; once today’s afternoon tea is over, he’s off on a well-earned break to Mexico and the Americas. Including Thierry, we are a small group of eight or so people, which includes Dariush (aka Persolaise) and Louise (aka Get Lippie), who arrive a little later due to their respective work schedules.
We’re here for afternoon tea, and so tea has to be ordered. As luck would have it, thanks to a lingering sinus infection, I’m slightly alarmed to discover that I’m unable to focus on the menu, and have to have the list of speciality teas read to me. How embarrassing. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s also made me slightly deaf in my right ear - and that’s the one that’s nearest to Thierry. Not only that, but the harpist next to the table is striking up with a rendition of ‘Clair de Lune’ (don’t you just hate it when that happens?!) - so there I am, deaf in one ear, harp in the other ear, gently turning puce thanks to a combination of Laurent Perrier and a roaring fire, positively dying to whip out my Moleskine notebook and write down every last thing that Thierry says (that I can actually hear) - but, of course, it never seems the right moment to do so. After all, this is afternoon tea, and we are in England.
Gradually, I emerge from my bubble and begin to register that I’ve unintentionally triggered a conversation about everyone else’s rubbish eyesight, and now Thierry has moved on from that to talking about his nose! He has memorably been described by Guerlain as ‘an immense “nose alchemist” ’ - (doesn’t matter how many times I read that, it still raises a smile) - and it turns out that his particular kind of alchemy is unquantifiable, which effectively makes his nose uninsurable. (Here’s hoping I wasn’t contagious then.)
Despite the fact that he’s probably repeating a lot of what he was saying less than twenty-four hours earlier at the Mayfair, Thierry’s passion for his work quickly becomes evident. One of the first things he mentions is his vision of his long-term future with Guerlain; he’s fifty-two now, and plans to leave in about twenty years, he says, when they finally get him to retire. I get the impression that, perhaps due to his well-documented close relationship with Jean-Paul Guerlain, Thierry effectively now sees himself as part of the Guerlain family; he’s here to stay.
His busy timetable means that he now spends three days a week being a ‘lab rat’, but also, due to Guerlain’s holistic approach to fragrance production, a hefty twenty-five per cent of his working time is spent abroad sourcing seasonal ingredients - he tells me that, for him, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the job. It seems that travelling is something he really enjoys, choosing as he does to travel again when it’s time for a holiday. At one point he enthuses that what he loves about fragrance is that: ‘it makes you travel in space and time!’
Building good working relationships with the producers he meets on his trips is vital, and comes in very handy when things don’t go according to plan - he recounts how, when the sales predictions for La Petite Robe Noire turned out to be inaccurate, leading to a higher than expected demand: ‘They saved my ass with The Little Black Dress!’ (Incidentally, I mention that my mum, a long-time Guerlain fan, has borrowed my bottle (which I acquired at the UK launch earlier this year) and doesn’t want to give it back! I announce: ‘My mum loves it, and she’s 76!’ To which Thierry replies: ‘My mom loves it, and she’s 82!!’ - testament to its broad appeal.) Some ingredients are much harder to obtain than others, he continues, sandalwood being the obvious example - which can create problems when everyone else is after it too. ‘This is war!’ declares Thierry emphatically, surprising us all by suddenly stabbing the table with his knife.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that he sees his current role as primarily a creative one. At Guerlain the fragrance always comes first. ‘Targeting’ is a term he particularly dislikes; if you’re being targeted, he says, it means ‘someone is going to shoot at you!’ I play devils’ advocate and argue the point with him: how can you be sure you’re not taking too much of a risk if you don’t target your products at a specific buyer, bearing in mind what he’s just told us about the intricacies of sourcing the correct amount of necessary ingredients at precisely the right time - but Thierry is having none of it. He explains: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - but, he argues, the most important thing is that ‘we express ourselves’. ‘You need to be lucky’, he says - and fortunately, in the case of La Petite Robe Noire: ‘Thank the Lord, our moms love it!’
Thierry perceives fragrance as telling a story, one which reflects the perfumer’s state of mind at the time. He admits to a sentimental attachment to Idylle, which he created as a newcomer to Guerlain, describing it as 'naïf'. Returning to it later, adding more rose and patchouli, he found that his Idylle had grown up and taken on a new ‘sexy’ persona (N.B. this word comes up quite a bit over the course of the afternoon). Meanwhile, to him, La Petite Robe Noire is, of course, all woman.
We’re all surprised to discover that the latest version of La Petite Robe Noire turns out to be the accidental offspring of Jicky. When Thierry first joined Guerlain, he was a little confused about some of the ingredients which needed to be ordered and, turning to the famous Guerlain book for enlightenment, he discovered that Jicky contains bitter almond oil. Combined with raspberry, this bitter almond resulted in a striking cherry accord, the same one which eventually ended up in La Petite Robe Noire. He also assures us that this particular fragrance will only ever be available in eau de toilette, eau de parfum and extrait. Enough of this ‘tsunami’ of ‘eau’, he says, ironically being produced by a man whose name literally means ‘water’. He insists that there will therefore be no ‘spandex’ version of La Petite Robe Noire (shame, I’d have loved to see the bottle).
Meanwhile, what seems like a small army of waiters comes and goes, and fancy cakes and goody bags begin to cover the table. We all agree that when you get invited to afternoon tea with Guerlain, you really do get Afternoon Tea.
Unfortunately, over the course of the afternoon, I only manage to eat:
- One sandwich (and I’d have been hard pressed at the time to tell you what was in it, never mind now, such was the occasion).
- The messiest chocolate cake ever, which everyone agrees looks like a train, and which Grant henceforth refers to as ‘Thomas‘.
- One dry scone, which I scoff near the end when I realise that I’ve let a lot of fabulous food pass by me uneaten and that I’m actually still fairly hungry.
I do however manage to drink plenty of tea, and am pathetically thrilled when Thierry kindly pours me a cup of the Connaught’s finest.
Grant and I each have a particular Guerlain favourite about which we want to bend Thierry’s ear. I probably win the prize here for my monomania about Chamade, but Thierry is endlessly patient with my whining, and sympathetic to my concerns. ‘I don’t want Chamade to be forgotten!’ I wail, worried that its future lies in Guerlain’s back catalogue rather than on the shelves; Chamade just doesn’t seem to getting much love these days. He empathises, agreeing that it is beautiful; in fact he thinks that it’s - and I didn’t need to write down this quote in order to remember it: ‘verrry sexy!’ He tells us that, out of a total of roughly eight hundred fragrances, Guerlain is still making an impressive one hundred and seventy-five - a ‘complexity nightmare’ is how he describes it - and, sadly, some of these are eventually going to die out. Grant, meanwhile, is relieved to discover that Coriolan is effectively still available, in the guise of L'Ame d'un Héros, part of the ‘Les Parisiennes et Les Parisiens’ range - which, Helen tells us, will be available in 2013 in Harrods and Selfridges.
Dariush wants to know more about Thierry’s hopes to get special protected status for a small number of Guerlain classics. From what he tells us, it’s going to be a pretty tall order, as there are so many obstacles to overcome, not least the inevitable problems of dealing with red tape, and the fact that a company of Guerlain’s size really is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I ask where in time would he choose to ‘freeze’ the classic fragrances - do you go for 1930s Shalimar? 1970s Mitsouko? Crucially, he points out that, even if he could get hold of all the original raw materials, the result might not be recognisable to a modern audience anyway. Reformulations are always a sensitive issue, and fans of classic fragrances tend to take it personally when a favourite scent is altered, for whatever reason. This puts Thierry in an unenviable position - and he goes on to say that he also finds it incredibly frustrating when commentators insist that a formulation has changed when he knows for a fact that it hasn’t. He does feel very strongly that his work, and all perfumers’ work, should be open to criticism, but being misrepresented (often by anonymous bloggers) really does seem to bother him - and who can blame him?
Dariush has brought along a copy of his book, ‘Le Snob: Perfume’, to present to Thierry (after tea is over we’re off to Spitalfields with him for a book signing). They have a brief ‘Fan Boy moment’, and books are signed. I realise that I have a bag full of hot-off-the-press Basenotes Christmas cards which are currently getting under our harpist’s feet, and ask if Thierry would mind signing one of them for my mum, which he very kindly does. What a nice man. (Tragically, I realised after the event that, whilst I was in the ladies washing off chocolate cake, photos were being taken - and I managed to completely miss it! In fact, between the two of us, we only managed to get one photo with which to grace this article - and it’s not that good a shot either.)
It’s dark outside now and the lights in the restaurant have been dimmed. We’ve been here for over two hours and Thierry’s looking as though he’s settled in for the evening. Helen gently reminds him that, if he doesn’t get moving soon, he’s going to miss his train at six. His suitcase is brought for him and we all say our goodbyes. I shake his hand and say that it’s been a delight - which it has - and he’s gone. We stay a little while longer, chatting. We liked Thierry - he was fun.
I think the final word should go to Grant, not least because it was thanks to him that I was there at all. During my visit to the ladies I took the opportunity to spritz myself with some Shalimar Parfum Initial, which (along with other Guerlain fragrances) is available for guests to use. When I arrive back at the table, Grant compliments me: ‘You smell very nice, Judith,’ he says, ‘I suppose I should thank Thierry really, shouldn’t I?!’