Denyse Beaulieu possesses the ability to make statements that are provocative yet also respectful of other people's entitlement to their own opinions. That’s one of many reasons why her bilingual, Paris-based blog, Grain De Musc, has generated a loyal readership since she started it in May 2008. So it isn't surprising that when I ask her for her views on the increasingly vexing issue of IFRA regulation, she opts for a form of words that is firm yet relatively inoffensive. The specific question that prompts the above response is focused on packaging: can she imagine a time when perfumes will carry warning labels in the manner of cigarettes and products containing nuts?
"The industry will put out mineral water before that happens. The niche brands might do it, but not as an enforced thing. But I think the industry will put out Volvic before that happens."
We're sitting in what can best be described as a rather forlorn refectory at London's College Of Fashion: scruffy notices are pinned to boards; vending machines hum in the background; strip lights cast their unflattering glare on the IKEA-blue lino floor. Ms Beaulieu is on a rare, brief visit to the UK, the main purpose of which is to take some of the College's students through her intensive 'Fashion & Fragrance' course. She's on a tight schedule - apart from the course, she's got to fit in meetings with Harper Collins to discuss a perfume book she's currently writing - but she's put aside some time to grant Basenotes an exclusive interview during which we discuss her take on various fragrant matters. With her expressive shrugs, pursed lips and silvery hair, the Canadian-born former fashion journalist infuses the room with an air of edgy Parisian charm. And the ease and confidence with which she comments on the finer details of the perfume industry make it easy to understand why she's on one of the juries of the French Fragrance Foundation and has been accepted as a member of the Société Française des Parfumeurs.
Sticking with IFRA, I ask her if she really believes the situation is at a crisis. Is all this a storm in a teacup or is it going to get worse?
"Of course it's going to get worse. Regulatory organisations tend to metastasise, they tend to self-perpetuate. The good doctors who do the tests, to them, if something is not perfectly innocuous, you have to replace it with something else. It's a snowballing thing, where the industry is afraid, and then it echoes in the regulations. I think the big wave has passed. But if more people are exposed to the materials that have replaced what we have, you'll have more allergies, and it'll just go on and on endlessly. And sometimes it's just a pretext to reformulate on the cheap."
"I'm talking at a remove, because it seems to be in North America especially - certainly not in France - that imposing your fragrant imprint on your environment seems to be thought of as completely inappropriate. So of course everyone's turning down the volume and making innocuous, pissy little things that have no character."
It's probably fair to say that there's a proliferation of perfume blogs at the moment. What do you think the effect of this will be?
"My concern is that if everybody's got a blog, how are we going to discuss? I'm not going to leave my best ideas in a comment (on someone else's blog). Is it not going to become just a lot of soliloquies? Maybe it's a completely wrong viewpoint, because people still comment on my blog. My concern is that however well-meaning and enthusiastic less aware people are, in search results you're going to get erroneous viewpoints and mistaken analysis, which will then be perpetuated elsewhere. There's a problem of professionalism. You will have people who pretend that they're very professional and are really no better than somebody who's never worked in the industry, but who has a great writing style or a great perceptiveness. The chatter is becoming confusing. I'm turning off a lot of the chatter right now. I'm just reading less and less. I'm un-Facebooking myself. I don't Twitter. Not because other blogs aren't good. I'm just removing myself, because there's just too much noise going on all of a sudden.
"The other thing that's disconcerting, I would say, is the focus on perfumers, which is putting a lot of pressure on them to do a lot of PR, which they didn't have to do previously. It's taking them away from what they ought to be doing. And often it's a pretext not to actually talk about the product. At the same time, it's important to have them acknowledged as the authors that they are. It's a thing that's moving so quickly that I authentically don't know where it's moving to. If there's a sheer volume of chatter in blogs, and collectively we push for more interesting products, then that's all good, but I really, really don't know, because it's moving much too quickly right now. Every time I turn around there's a new blog."
Many people keep going back to Grain De Musc because of your elegant prose and insightful reviews. How long does it take you to write them?
"Not an enormous amount of time. It takes me a lot longer when somebody else - whom I've read - has reviewed something in terms that I've found very relevant. If Octavian [Coifan, of 1000 Fragrances] has done a write-up, either I have something new to add or I'll just let it go because I really don't have anything new to bring to the table. To actually do the write-up is typically one hour, but I spend several days testing the fragrance, usually for three days, if it's something that's worthwhile."
Are they written in English first?
"Yes. For some reason it's easier for me to self-translate into French than the opposite."
Your blog is also notable for the fact that you religiously respond to every single comment from your readers. Is there a specific reason for that?
"It's to foster a discussion. I do tend to save some of my insights or ideas for the discussion, so that people check back in. I'd rather not have 'Terrific post, as ever,' as a comment. I mean, I'm happy to have it, but I don't want a fan club. I want a circle of people discussing."
What can you tell us about the book you're writing?
"It's not a guide." She smiles for a moment, considering what to say next. "There is some history in it, but it's not a history. It's a story."
But it's not a novel?
Image: Tina Liu
I know you'll be back in London again in mid-December to run an 'Understanding Fragrance' course that's open to applicants from outside the College. Could you tell us a little about it?
"It's actually a writer's course, I would say, in the sense that, to me, the key to understanding fragrance is words. So that if you learn to put the olfactory words with the verbal words and get them to stick together, that's what's going to set you on the course to understanding fragrance. The idea is to start out with the vocabulary. The first day is really about the words and the syntax: the raw materials and how to talk about them by doing associative work with real things that I bring. It's actually the Jean Carles method: you're comparing things from different families, which is the first thing that you do when you're an apprentice perfumer. I go into the heart of jasmine by showing its salient molecules etc. It's prying apart, putting back together, so basically it's a mixture of Jean Carles and Jean-Claude Ellena, plus a little bit of my own. I've had input from several perfumers: Isabelle Doyen, Sandrine Videault, Céline Ellena, Mathilde Laurent, Bertrand Duchaufour... And as I continue speaking to people for my book, there will be many more insights added. I keep re-writing the syllabus!"
"The second day is about a completely different approach: the historic, sartorial and cultural context of classics, which also involves using my library of Cotys, vintage Shocking, vintage Bandit, things like that. We do a lot of parallels between Guerlain and Coty, with visuals, with a historical and cultural context, so that you get a storyline, but in smell-o-vision.
"After that I do a cross-section of the fruity chypres from Mitsouko to today, with examples, to follow how it morphs. What's interesting is the fact of having a group of people who are often of very different backgrounds, with very different olfactory libraries and sets of reference. You can have an Indian biochemist in his 60s, next to a Dutch student who's 22 and wants to open a spa, next to a Spanish woman who loves wines. People from everywhere and from every type of profession together experiencing the same thing in a very condensed period of time, and that's what triggers very interesting insights. It's intensive.
"On Day 3 I look at fragrance construction, exactly in the way that I learned to look at it, which is to say I do diagrams of how notes hook up together and the effects that they create. We analyse a few things. We do comparatives between two or three different perfumers working on the same idea. I do focus on perfumers whose work I tend to prefer, which I call my auteurs. Why I tend to focus on niche perfumery - although not exclusively - is because it's more legible usually, when a perfumer has had a free hand and hasn't had the marketing people blow-torch every original molecule out of its body."
I understand that December will be the first time the course will have an extra day, so what will happen on the new Day 4?
"Day 4 will probably be an extension of Day 3. There are a lot more things I can expand on. For example, I hadn't treated Comme des Garçons, and I'd like to. The thing is to have a discourse and to have a discussion around it."
Is there one scent that gets a particularly strong reaction from students?
"Shocking. Shocking elicits shocking reactions. One of my students, a young Chinese woman, said it best: 'Oh, it's not pretty. It's kind of dirty. But it moves me. I love it.' It's actually very eau de femme. L'Origan by Coty is also quite a striking example."
Are you aware if any your students have made practical use of their newly-found olfactory skills?
"One of my students is planning to apply to Hong Kong - and then mainland China - some of those notions and maybe start a perfume brand. Another one - not thanks to me, but thanks to his winning personality - has now entered more fully the perfume industry at a different and better level. Another student is an anthropologist and she's planning to do a study of the perfume world. She's following the blogs quite closely, with everybody's positioning and discourse and how the map is drawn in the blogosphere. There are actual 'real world' outcomes."
Would you say that there are some innate skills that are required for someone to be able to access the course?
"No innate skills. The limits are one's personal olfactory library. If I talk about a certain reference, if I say, 'horse,' and people have no experience of horses, I have to use another tack. That is the limit. After that it's a matter of intelligence. It's really the memory part that's important."
So perfume appreciation really is something that can be taught and learned?
"Of course it is. It can be learned at any age. But you do have to focus."
Have you found that some groups of people are more 'olfactorily starved' than others?
"North Americans tend to have more of an experience of artificial flavours and smells. They tend to have a more limited olfactory palette than people from other cultures. Brazilians, on the other hand, will have a lot more in their library. But then again, it's really individual, because you can be North American and have grown up on a farm. The divide I think is mostly between people who've only known a Western city, and people who've known something else. Or suburbs!" An expression of horror crosses her features. "Suburbs are even worse. Cities can be stinky, so they have a big register. I grew up in a suburb. I know. Mown grass was just about the one thing."
So how did you develop your own olfactory autobiography?
"Curiosity. Looking back on my life, I've discovered that I was always even more interested (in perfume) than I ever thought. Basically, it was like everybody: it started with Luca Turin's first guide in French, which I read like poetry. I just loved it. And then I started seeking out the stuff he was talking about. But I was already into Lutens by then. And after that, when the blogs developed, of course, that's when the discourse started expanding. And when I decided that, 'Heck, I'm in Paris, I have access to those people,' I started the blog. But it was really nothing that I was meant to have access to, growing up in North America with a permanently allergic nose and a father who forbade us to wear fragrance. It was forbidden fruit! How could it not be interesting? It was on a par with sex and red lipstick."
Looking back at the last eleven months, what are your favourite perfumes of the year?
"Something that's coming out soon: L'Heure Fougueuse, the new Cartier, the horsy one, which is really something that struck a very, very strong chord in me. And of course (L'Artisan Parfumeur's) Nuit De Tubereuse was something that really impressed me."
And what sorts of perfumes can we expect in the immediate future?
"I think a big 80s revival in the mainstream. In terms of niche, we're going to see some florals, I think."
If the First Lady of France asked for your advice on which scent to buy for Monsieur Sarkozy, what would you say?
She leans back in her seat and laughs. "Oh God, he'd have anything that's got Karanal in it. I'd see see him with a powerhouse, spiky wood. She famously, supposedly, wears Vol De Nuit."
And finally, when you travel back to Paris, which perfume would you like them to pump through the Eurostar's air conditioning to make the journey more bearable?
Hasn't that been discontinued?
"I have no idea. Okay, let me name drop." She lowers her voice. "When I spoke to Annick [Menardo, perfumer of Bulgari Black], she never mentioned it. Nevertheless, I do have a back up. And if worst comes to worst, I'll drag myself at her feet, screaming my love."
She puts on her coat, picks up her bag of vintage delights and we both head out onto the soaking pavements of John Prince's Street. She insists on saying goodbye en français - although I go one better and give her a third peck on the cheek - and when I begin walking away, she's already on her iPhone, chatting to a friend and making arrangements for the rest of the evening. And perhaps, in a few days' time, when she's speeding back to her Paris flat with its 300 bottles of perfume, she'll snuggle into her seat, close her eyes and inhale the scent of tea rising up from her fellow passengers' paper cups.
[Places are still available on Ms Beaulieu's next 'Understanding Fragrance' course at the London College Of Fashion. For more information, please check out Grain de Musc.]
About the author
Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com