As I was shown into his office, Sheldrake stood up, looked at my t-shirt and said “Ah, Old Spice, that’s a great carnation fragrance.” My nerves vanished!
Christopher Sheldrake never intended to be a perfumer. He studied maths, physics and art with the intention of training in architecture. He decided to spend three months in France to improve his French. He ended up in Grasse, and fell in love with perfumery and didn’t look back.
Sheldrake is the Director of Research and Development at Chanel. Prior to his current role, he worked at Quest International for 23 years. “Just before [Quest] was bought by Givaudan, I got a strange feeling inside that it was time to go. I called up Jacques Polges [head of Parfums Chanel since 1978] because I’d worked with him before.”
“Jacques said ‘come over and have a drink, but there’s no job going!’, so we had a chat, and we talked about lots of things we might do together. Then he called back, three months later and said ‘can you come over again – quickly!’ and so, that was it - very fortunate, because it was the only place really I wanted to go.”
“There’s freedom at Chanel. We all have different styles – but we’re creating for Chanel, which has its own style. Basically we create fragrances for Chanel with all the codes of Chanel. There are briefs from time to time at Chanel – there are needs for different markets and different times, but in fact it is the perfumer that decides what goes. And it’s the same for all of the creators at Chanel, it is the creator that decides. I shouldn’t really say this but sometimes marketing get very excited about one of our ideas, and if later we decide we prefer something else, we just don’t show that idea any more!”
At Chanel, Sheldrake works closely with Polge in the creation of new perfumes for the company. He is also Director of Research and Development, “Obviously we have a division, Parfums Beauté (Fragrance and Beauty), which is commercial, communication, it’s marketing - it’s all sorts of things that I don’t handle.” he explains “But the laboratory is all about choosing and buying the raw materials that we need. It’s protecting our existing fragrances from every point of view - quality, reformulation, legislation etc.”
Sheldrake oversees the quality control from beginning to end, “for everything that comes in to the company and everything that goes out of the company. And this is what the perfumer at Chanel has always done since Gabrielle Chanel’s No. 5. I think it’s a great advantage that we have because we see everything. We regularly go and talk to the people that grow the plants, whether it’s rose, jasmine or iris in the south of France, or with our specialists in the Indian Ocean, or more recently with our reforestation project in New Caledonia – we’re dealing with our different partners on the ground, which is fantastic.”
Last year the news hit all the mainstream press that Chanel No.5 was to be “banned”. “First of all, the EU subject is important and there are two different aspects to it. One aspect is labelling, because people have allergies and it’s good for people to know if they are allergic to something that they can find it on the packaging. I don’t know anyone that’s allergic to some of those allergens. Many of them are so mild, and we use them in such small amounts that they wouldn’t have any effect anyway.”
“There’s never been a question of ban, anyway, it is about potential restrictions.
Chanel is very vigilant on product safety - we’ve always done our own testing - all finished products from Chanel, for example, are tested on various panels, whether that’s people like me or people who agree to have fragrances tested on them and we’ve never had any problems.”
For a long time, Sheldrake has collaborated with Serge Lutens on his fragrance range. I ask him how that fits in with his work at Chanel. “It’s interesting, because at Chanel, creators regularly have other outlets and sources for their creativity. When I joined Chanel, the company elegantly suggested that if Serge Lutens requested my help, that I could comply."
The change in scenery helps Sheldrake with the creative process. If you work on one thing only then you just don’t see it any more. It’s like being in the eye of the tornado - you get really excited about what you are doing, but you don’t see it at all, it’s good to be able to stand back, to have a fresh look at things.”
Over the last few years the internet and social media have changed many industries. I asked Sheldrake how he thought the internet has changed the industry. “Unfortunately a bit of scare-mongering, and a bit of bad information can do a lot of damage. For example, when it was said that the banning of some ingredients was going to be the end of some famous fragrances, among which No5, and that even Chanel N°5 could be banned. Of course Chanel N°5 will not be banned by the European authorities, as the European Commission itself confirmed.
“What I like about the internet is the fact that there is obviously a real interest, and a desire to know more, and to understand, and I think that's great - curiosity is a wonderful thing. I think it keeps the industry on its toes, encouraging more interesting creations. Why are there so many niche brands today? It’s because people are fed up with the big brands that are all making the same thing, because it was à la mode, because it was successful, and the niche brands have come up with alternative ideas, and that’s all to do with communication and people putting their point over.”
Before we met, I had asked readers of Basenotes if they had any questions they wanted to ask Sheldrake. When I arrived, he had already printed the questions off and had made notes! So, here are the answers to your questions...
“Did I create Melodrama for Space NK? I was in fact the person who created Melodrama, and in fact Nicky Kinnaird [Space NK’s founder] was wonderful. She was very avante garde because she was the first person who decided to put in once place, all the best things she could find from around the world that were pretty unknown because they were all so niche. And she made a name for herself because she has Stila and Nars and all sorts of things nobody had heard about. Today Sephora do that extremely well.”
“I was very fortunate to make Nicky’s own products. So I made a whole range of products for her and Melodrama was probably the last I made for her before she asked other people to help her out. And that was because, I can’t remember if if was because I went to Japan for five years, or another reason that made it difficult to work with her. Melodrama’s a great retro fragrance. I love it!”
“Is there any ingredient that has given me trouble consistently? No!”
“Is there a perfume in development for 31 rue Cambon? Unfortunately there isn’t - this is somebody that would like a stronger 31 rue Cambon - I think it is a wonderful fragrance - there is lots of Iris in it - it’s a ‘false chypre’ very elegant and we created to be like Gabrielle Chanel's little black dress of our collection.”
“The question about EU bans – that’s not going to affect Chanel fragrances, in fact there are no bans, just restrictions as I said earlier.”
“Sycomore - this is a question from curly11 - ‘I love Sycomore but it doesn’t last long’. That’s a shame as it can last a long time on other people. All I would say, as there’s not going to be an eau de parfum or an extrait for the moment. I’m very open minded, okay, but I would say Terre d’Hermes is a great note - I mean it’s not the same, but it’s based on vetiver. Or Vetiver Oriental by Serge Lutens which is very long lasting. They could be something to go for”
“What’s your favourite Chanel? Outside Chanel as well? I love No.5 Eau Premiere. For me it’s probably the most feminine fragrance available on the market today. Very modern, very contemporary. I love No. 22 because that’s something for people who think their fragrance doesn’t last long - it has a fantastic trail, and is a fantastic retro fragrance, very elegant, very feminine. I also love Coco Noir because it’s so soft and sensual and it’s in that beautiful bottle as well. A lot of people, when they see the bottle, they think its going to be very heavy and difficult, but in fact it’s a very easy, very young feminine sensual soft fragrance.”
“And outside Chanel, I love Mitsouko by Guerlain - a classic chypre. I used to wear it myself, although it’s a women’s fragrance, it’s a wonderful smell on women and men. And there’s something in the Amor Amor by Cacharel, something in that accord which I absolutely love. It’s very feminine and gustative - you could eat it - or the person that’s wearing it!”
“Can I talk a little about the process of working collaboratively with Monsieur Polges, Monsieur Bourdon? Serge Lutens. Are there any compromises? And I would say there are no compromises - and it’s what i said before. Every brand has its own style so a perfumer can have his likes and dislikes but it has to be applied to the brand you are working for. And if you take Chanel, for example, we follow the codes that Gabrielle put down – the fragrance is complex, it has a sort of abstract character, it seems to be simple, but behind all that there's a lot of complexity.”
“And we always try and have something which is representative of an era, not something which is à la mode. We’re not saying ‘let’s do a musky powdery floral because that is what is working in the market at the moment.’ No. We will see what is happening in society at the moment.
Which Serge Lutens was the most challenging to complete and why, and which Serge Lutens was the most fun to develop? The most challenging was Douce Amère, and in fact there’s a question later from Sophie, who says it’s her favourite fragrance! So, thank you Sophie!”
“The idea of Douce Amère is back in the Twenties with the absinthe. Obviously it’s narcotic. It became an illegal product, and originally it was a medicine. But it didn’t just get you high drunk, it actually damaged the nervous system and in this fragrance I wanted to put as much absinthe as possible, which I did - well, as much as I could legally! And why Douce Amère? Because the idea was to pour absinthe on a cube of sugar before you eat it - so it was bitter and sweet. And I think it was a success. It’s not very well known but challenging and a great fragrance”
The most fun was Rahät Loukoum.
“So, are there facets of a scent that challenge more than others? No not really”
“What inspires you the most? This is Sophie who loves Douce Amère! I think above all, it’s people and atmospheres that inspire me the most. And a lot of fragrances are developments of other ideas, and you’ve probably noticed none of our fragrances smell like other fragrances, although there might be a familiarity. And I think that people and places can be inspirations but they’re not necessary commercial as they might just represent a moment, but I think people are really inspirations.
What I like most is that when somebody likes a fragrance that I’ve made, and they close their eyes, and they smile. And I think that really is a sign that it’s doing something. And I think fragrances do affect our emotions. It’s not just a nice smell. There are two types of perfume for me. There’s the functional fragrance that you might use for a shampoo or deodorant - you get up in the morning, it makes you feel fresh and clean and confident. And then there’s the emotional type of fragrance which is the sort of fragrance you choose when you are going out of an evening, or at the weekend when you want to be more laid back.”
“So this is francop, who was not impressed at all with Bleu, but unfortunately for him he got given a bottle so he has to use it! Anyway. What I say to him is that Bleu is a great creation disguised as something more obvious. It is so fresh and easy to use, and yet this freshness just goes on and on. It starts off very watery, and notes of apple and mint, lemon, bergamot... and all sorts of easy things. And as it dries out on the skin it becomes dry and woody and musky, and this dry woodiness gives it elegance. So you go from ‘water splash it on’, to this dry elegance - it’s got a signature. So, he wasn’t impressed, because like a lot of people, they say it’s too easy for Chanel - they should have done something more original. But in fact I think it’s very original - it just doesn’t seem it when you first splash it on. Unfortunately the first impression is so important”
“How important are captive ingredients? I think that we have so many ingredients we could use for creating our fragrances. If we say there are seven families of ingredients, say fresh notes, green notes, spicy notes, herbal notes etc, in each family there are hundreds of ingredients. And if you imagine that an ink jet printer, has got five cartridges and you can make 16 million colours, we don’t really need any more ingredients to make original fragrances! But the interesting thing about having a captive ingredient is that the competitors are very curious when they find it in the analysis and they don’t know what it it!”
“So, this is voodoodanny, who fell in love with Santal Majascule. This is again Serge Lutens - I’m sorry for Chanel but it’s all part of the work, you know! The sandalwood, like agarwood, and jasmine and certain other things, that are Serge Luten’s favourite smells. Amber is another one. And this is a third sandalwood, and this is probably his most gustative sandalwood. A long time ago, Lutens was... he’s always been anti-marketing, against the current. And had some very dramatic fragrances when he started, and now he’s more interested in ‘comfortable’. So this is something from his childhood memories and probably the most gustative and comfortable and edible sandalwood that he’s done for far.”
Can you share a bit about the creative process – has is changed since starting your career? I think that when any creator starts out, he or she tends to express himself – a bit like Van Gogh, not at all commercial, you realise it doesn’t always sell . And I think that the more you’re in the business; you end up being like Beyoncé, where in fact you know how to be commercial. I think the trick is to be somewhere in between and both at the same time. And I think at Chanel we do this, as we have our International best-sellers and we try also to create the more exclusive fragrances like No.18 which has a very Lychee Vodka smell. It’s not commercial but some people love it. At Chanel our business is to make fragrances that people love!
For those in Paris in the next few weeks, you have the chance to visit the No.5 Culture Chanel Exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo (runs until 5th June). Sheldrake helped co-ordinate the olfactive part of the exhibition.
You can see a slideshow of the exhibition here:
More information can be found at http://5-culture.chanel.com/en/