Well, one day, a few years ago, Sylvie Ganter decided to speak the truth when she was asked that very question. "I started telling him [the interviewer] about my dream in life," she says, "which was to create my own perfume brand. And I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I doing, am I crazy? If I tell him that, I'm never going to get the job.' But he was like, 'Wow! What a great idea.' And I was like, 'Woah!' So... fast forward: we started working together, we enjoyed that very much... to the point of getting married! And actually, before getting married, we decided to have a baby together, and our first baby was the brand. Then we also had a physical baby."
The brand to which she's referring is Atelier Cologne, whose fragrance, Mistral Patchouli, she was promoting at London's Les Senteurs on a chilly evening way back in March. Since she and her husband-and-business-partner, Christophe Cervasel, founded it in 2010, they've successfully taken its basic concept - cologne-style scents which are fresh and long-lasting in equal measure - to several international locations.
Ganter's love of the classic cologne structure stems, in part, from a desire to wear scents different from those chosen by her mother, who tended to reach for heavy, opulent creations. "I remember one day a saleslady gave me a sample of Eau D'Orange Verte from Hermès, which at the time was just called Eau De Cologne. I was seven years old at the time, and I felt that this was a scent for me. It was my own. I've always worn those types of scents."
She's keen to assert what she sees as the uniqueness of her brand's approach. "I would say we are the first fragrance house that is entirely dedicated to cologne. And we have invented a new category of perfume, which is 'cologne absolue'. A cologne absolue is basically looking at the roots of cologne, which is a citrus based formula. It's taking the best of citruses, but it also lasts on the skin, which is uncommon for an eau de cologne. And unlike an eau de cologne, it's very high in concentration - between an eau de parfum or a pure perfume - hence the lasting power. And also, it doesn't have just citruses. It also has base notes, which enable you to have different facets. So it's either a cologne with personality and lasting power, or an eau de parfum which has a really fresh quality."
So far, all of Atelier Cologne's fragrances have been made either by Mane or Robertet. "Both the firms are from Grasse, they're family owned and they're amazing. They really harvest the most beautiful raw materials in the world. I love their spirit, their integrity and authenticity. Within each of these houses, I have a perfumer I love. At Mane, it's Ralf Schwieger. He 'got' the brand, he got what we wanted to do, the whole concept of cologne absolue. A lot of perfumers said it's not possible. Ralf was really intrigued by that and wanted to achieve something. We did Orange Sanguine together. And I love Ralf's writing. It's very straightforward. It's very pure and raw at the same time.
"At Robertet, I work with Jerome Epinette. He's much younger. He's French, although he lives in New York. His writing is all about transparency and softness. It's very discreet and very elegant, but with a personality, while Ralf is more direct and gets his point across in a sharp way."
The insistence on retaining zesty freshness whilst using heavier ingredients presents her perfumers with considerable technical challenges. Sure enough, there have have been a few 'cologne absolue' ideas which have had to be abandoned as they've proved impossible to realise. "I have one that I've been working on for two years," says Ganter. "I can tell you what it is because I don't think it's going to be born. It's something starting from cognac, and it's very leathery. It doesn't sound very fresh, but we're trying to make it fresh. Every time we make it fresher, it doesn't smell as good. I love it and I wear it during my time off. But I'm probably never going to be able to launch it, because it doesn't fit the brand's criteria."
She insists that all her fragrances are unisex. "I always use the example of a restaurant. If a waiter said to me, 'Oh no, you can't have that, it's way too spicy, that's for your husband,' or if he said to my husband, 'You can't have the chocolate cake, that's for your wife,' it wouldn't be normal. I feel it's the same in perfumery. If you like certain ingredients, then you like them. Often what makes the difference is the bottle. It's a marketing tool. We like to call our creations chameleons. Because we use so many natural raw materials, our scents evolve on skin. So Rose Anonyme could sound more feminine, but a man wearing it would probably pick out a lot more of the patchouli and the incense and the heavier stuff."
Having said that, she concedes that there are cultural variations in the way her brand's wares are received. "Orange Sanguine is probably the one that has the biggest appeal worldwide, maybe because it's a very easy scent. People can relate to it. Then our two best-sellers at our boutique [in Paris] are Bois Blonds and Rose Anonyme. I would say our Middle Eastern customers would gravitate between the rose, the amber, the vetivert and the vanilla. Our Asian customers love Trefle Pur. If we try to offer Orange Sanguine to them, often they see it as too offensive, too sharp and too bright. But Trefle works really well. Italy loves Grand Neroli. Latin America: a lot of Orange Sanguine, a lot of Trefle Pur."
A striking feature of Atelier Cologne's latest offering is the cleanliness of the patchouli note. Ganter explains that it was achieved by using a fractional distillate of patchouli oil. "When they're doing the distillation of patchouli, they stop at a certain point. So what you get at first is what's more volatile, more fresh, more transparent. And by stopping the distillation at that point, you get rid of what's going to come out at the end, the heavy stuff. So we have the very woody and humid aspect of patchouli, which is beautiful, but the more rancid part is not there. That is a very big part of making it smell clean. The other thing is definitely the addition of a lot of citruses. Here we have a lot of grapefruit. But the most important is the association of patchouli with aniseed.
"Christophe was challenging me forever to have a marine fragrance. And I was completely opposed to it. I thought it was so 80s and very synthetic and masculine, not in an elegant way. But one day, we were playing with aniseed with Jerome, and when we mixed it with patchouli, I loved the salty quality. It takes you to the sea. It has that feeling of spending a day at the beach. You've been in the water and the sun has been on your skin. And you have that salt-on-skin effect by the end of the day. And that's what I could smell in the aniseed and patchouli working together. Then came the idea for the mistral. We said that this smells like Cassis to us. It's the south of France and we're by the water. It's very Mediterranean. Pastis is made with aniseed, which takes me to Marseille, which is where I was born. The fragrance is an escape from the world."
Finally, when asked about the proposed EU legislation - which could see the outright ban of three key raw materials, as well as tightened restrictions on several others - she says she trusts that "the industry will be strong enough to have some common sense." However, she believes that abolishing oakmoss, treemoss and Lilial "would not be common sense. I think it's turning something very small into something very, very, very big. I think it would be very sad."
She's quietly optimistic about the future. "Worrying is not part of my nature. I tend to think that good things happen to good people, and that what should happen will happen. I'm not worried." She shrugs. "But maybe I should be."
About the author
Persolaise is a twice Jasmine Award winning writer and amateur perfumer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by writing to him at persolaise at gmail dot com