Niche Houses and Jean-François Laporte
by, 10th February 2009 at 02:04 AM (7122 Views)
In the recent history of perfumes, one of the most significant developments has been the rise of niche perfumery. Let me define this term a little more precisely for the sake of clarity: When I speak of niche houses, I mean perfume companies that do not distribute their products (at least initially) through department stores; that seek to find a different creative inspiration and marketing method from the large designer and mass-market scent houses; and that introduce themselves to the world by opening boutique fragrance stores of their own, selling only their own line.
The very earliest of perfumers were like this. Companies such as those of Floris, Creed, and Farina were this type of operation when there was nothing else. Yet, with the advent of more modern times, scent came to be seen as an adjunct of fashion, and most of the scents on the market came to be those made or (more often) commissioned by couture houses. Some houses, like Creed, Molinard, and Guerlain survived this trend, later joined by DIptyque in the early 1960's; but apart from these few, the modern era of perfumery was taken over by designer houses and mass-marketing operations like the cosmetic-based firms of Estee Lauder, Coty, and Revlon.
The advent of what we today call niche houses is largely the story of Jean-François Laporte and his two foundations, L'Artisan Parfumeur and Maître Parfumeur et Gantier.The former he founded in 1976, soon after his 1972 founding of Sisley, a fragrance line that aspired to be entirely plant-based; the latter came in 1989, after he had been forced to sell L'Artisan in 1982.
His approach in l'Artisan Parfumeur was designed to be the very opposite of the designer boutiques. The customer domain of perfumes was no longer to be only department stores and specialty perfume shops. Now there would be lines of scents that had their own cachet, their own shops selling only their own fragrance line and perhaps a few scented candles and room scents. At the time he started L'Artisan, there were very few perfume "noses" who signed their creations, apart from such giants as Jean-Paul Guerlain and Jean Kerléo.
Laporte designed the distinctive, angular L'Artisan bottle, but he recruited such now-famous names as Olivia Giacobetti, Jean-Claude Ellena, Anne Flipo, and Bernard Duchaufour to create scents for l'Artisan. After he founded MPG, however, he signed his scents under his own name.
Here are the scents he and his "noses" produced:
For L'Artisan Parfumeur:
Olivia Giacobetti: Drôle de Rose (1996), Dzing! (1999), Fou d'Absinthe (2006), L'Ete en Douce / Extrait de Songes (2005), Mandarine Tout Simplement (2006), Navegar (1998), Passage d'Enfer (1999), Premier Figuier (1994), Safran Troublant, (2002), Tea for Two (2000).
Anne Flipo: Jacinthe des Bois (2000), Oeillet Sauvage (2000), Verte Violette (2000), La Chasse Aux Papillons (1999), Mimosa pour Moi (1992), Fleur d'Oranger (2005), Un Zeste d'Été (2003), Ananas Fizz (2004), Fleur de Narcisse (2006), Iris Pallida (2007).
Bertrand Duchaufour: Dzongkha, (2006), Fleur de Liane (2008), L'Échange (2007), Méchant Loup (1997), Patchouli Patch (2002), Piment Brûlant,(2002), Poivre Piquant 2002), Timbuktu (2004).
Jean-Claude Ellena: Ambre Extrême (2001), Bois Farine (2003), La Haie Fleurie du Hameau (1982) — and for Sisley, Eau de Campagne (1974).
And for Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, Laporte himself signed:
Ambre Précieux (1988), Baïmé (2000), Centaure (1991), Eau des Îles (1988), Eau du Gantier (1988), Fraîche Badiane (1994), Fraîcheur Muskissime (1988), Garrigue (1988), Grain de Plaisir (1998), Iris Bleu Gris (1988), Jardin du Nil (1988), Parfum d'Habit (1988), Pour le Jeune Homme (1990), Racine (1988), Route du Vétiver (1988), Sanguine Muskissime (1988), Santal Noble (1988), Secret Mélange (1988).
Laporte's philosophy of scent included a few important points: it valued artisanry and eschewed industrial perfumery; he cultivated a close relationship with his clientele, and spent very little on market-wide advertising; and he revived perfumery products from the 17th and 18th centuries, such as perfumed gloves, amber balls, perfume boxes, potpourris, and scented ornaments, even though he couldn't always faithfully reproduce the original scent formulas. The names of his scents evoked nature and natural scents. Marie Dumont, his successor at L'Artisan, has said his watchword was, "Choose the perfume that smells like you, and do not scent yourself to smell like some [famous] so-and-so."
Most of all, Laporte's epiphany about perfume was the principle he called "olfactory shock." He told two stories to illustrate this concept. The first was an experience of his at a dinner party in the south of France. It was an unguarded moment, one where perfumery and professional matters were far from his mind. It had rained that morning, and the evening garden where they dined was still a bit moist. The water was evaporating from the soil, carrying its fragrance."It was like a total intoxication. I had the absolute sensation of wearing a mask of odors on my face that was pursuing me and would not let me go. After this olfactory impression, I understood what I had to do to create a seductive tuberose, while before I had no idea how to achieve this. Sometimes, one goes around and around an idea without getting to grasp it because one has forgotten one thing. I had beds of tuberoses in my garden back in Burgundy, but in Burgundy, there isn't that thundering sunshine. ... I had smelled tuberoses with various raw materials traders, without the smell releasing anything in me. And in one fell swoop, there was this new setting, this villa, this Mediterranean garden, these bundles of tuberoses, this evening when I was available, the pleasure of spending an agreeable evening in my head, and Boom! The olfactory shock. That is where one perceives that making scents like this is a very different thing from reading a little marketing plan."He talks of another experience in the field in Egypt, where he was looking to buy geraniums. The peasants were scything the plants, freeing their aroma, loading them on their donkey carts. At the edge of the field, there was also mint growing. Having been mowed down along with the rest, the mint exhaled an odor which entwined with the geranium, giving birth to a surprising accord which Laporte took back to incorporate in his perfume Jardin du Nil.
Laporte is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of either of the companies that he founded. In 1982, he sold L'Artisan Parfumeur, and it was ultimately acquired by a San Francisco-based investment house in 2003, Cradle Holdings. Maître Parfumeur et Gantier was taken over by Jean-Paul Millet-Lage. Yet he still maintains his garden at Mézilles in Burgundy, about 160 km from Paris, where the public is welcome to smell various flowers and plants, as well as other perfume materials he keeps there, and to visit his laboratory where he keeps his "perfume organ," a collection of both the rare and the usual fragrant materials he uses for for perfume composition.
In the current development of niche perfumery, his contribution to the industry has been invaluable. I hope his name as an entrepreneur and perfumer will be remembered and live long among those who appreciate fine fragrance.
[Portions of this entry are based on Annick Le Guérer's book Le Parfum: Des Origines à nos jours (Odile Jacob, Paris: 2005), taken from a chapter on "Les «niches»" (pp. 284-291). Translations from the French are mine.]
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