A Simple Seduction
I walk in, I see you, I watch you, I scan you, I wait for you, I tease you, I breathe you, I smell you on my skin.
The smell of your lover’s skin. That is the sensation that Helmut Lang was chasing when he commissioned Maurice Roucel to create a trio of scents for his label. The warmth of familiarity and the seduction of closeness. The collection, consisting of Eau de Parfum, Eau de Cologne and Cuiron, ranges from powdery, floral and woody, and showcases the minimalistic, sophisticated and utilitarian nature of the design house.
To celebrate the recent relaunch of the fragrances, we spoke with French perfumer Roucel about his history with fragrance, working with Helmut Lang, and what ultimately makes a good scent.
Tell us about your journey into the fragrance industry?
I come from a chemistry background and after my military obligation I was trying to find a job. I sent a letter to Chanel and they took me. I was 23 at the time and Mr Henri Robert, the man that hired me, was exactly 74, because it was 1973 and he was born in 1899. I don’t understand why he trusted me. In the beginning I was a chemist, speaking and thinking in chemistry but little by little I transferred my passion from chemistry to perfumery. I spent six years at Chanel, but I was never a perfumer at Chanel. It was International Flavours & Fragrances Inc. that proposed me to become a perfumer and I started ... as a ‘real perfumer’. Actually, I am a self made man. I am self-taught. I became a little bit successful in IFF and stayed for 6 years before moving to Quest. I stayed 12 years and after that another challenge. It was good to join what became Symrise, where I have been since July first 1996. So it will be 20 years [on] the first [of] July.
What is your earliest memory of fragrance?
I was born in Normandy in 1950, only five years after the end of the war, and so it was a disaster. But time to time we had the possibility to go to the beach and I remember the smell of french fries. That’s one of the oldest ones. And after that, when France was getting a bit more wealthy, I remember the smell of ambre solaire, the first lotion to protect you from the sun. So it is very strong, it still exists.
It is very Australian also to have french fries, or chips, by the sea.
The smell is different, yes? Different than eating at a restaurant or at home. The flavour … ?
How did you come to work with Helmut Lang, and how were these fragrances born?
My boss at the time was not Symrise, it was Dragoco, because Symrise merged between Haarmann & Reimer and Dragoco. I had contact with Helmut Lang and he wanted to create a perfume. So I came to New York and he was showing me his ideas, what he wanted to create and so on. It took maybe one or one year and a half to create it. Time to time I would come to New York to show what I had done, speak with him and he wanted it to be a bit more in one direction or another direction and finally the idea was for him to create a perfume like the smell of the linen after a night with your partner. Helmut was a fine guy. The perfume is not vulgar, it’s notanimalique, it’s not gross, it’s much more refined. It’s based on a beautiful musk and very qualitative, animal, raw materials.
The scent does have quite a musk smell but I read that there is no musk used in it. Where does this scent come from?
Ah, first I have to explain to you what musk is. Originally musk was coming from a little animal living in Tibet, parts of China and India and that was the antelope, very cute, called the musk deer. The price for the musk from this animal was very, very, very high. But now there is protection for this animal and it’s not possible to kill this animal for the musk. It is forbidden. We are now using musks that are totally different. Meaning that when chemists made an analysis on this musk from this deer, we have been able to identify a chemical which is mainly responsible for a part of the attraction. But it is only a partial reconstitution. Now on the market you have a lot of different kind of musks because knowing the chemical formula you can play with the formula and now we have at our disposal, let’s say, between 50 to 75 different types of synthetic musks. So the musk you are able to use as raw material for making perfume can no longer come from the little animal. I was lucky because Chanel was one of the rare companies able to use real musk. It was too expensive for all the others. At that time, in ’73, one kilo of musk was costing more than $50,000 a kilo.
How does a fragrance usually come to be?
Generally we receive a brief from a company such as LVMH, L'Oréal, YSL or Helmut Lang. It is a bit like when there is a project in architecture to design. Some kind of competition. You get given a brief, meaning that they are describing a little bit of what they would like to have if it’s possible. It is always difficult to speak or write about something with it not existing, even when it is existing it’s very difficult but when it’s not, even more. Usually it is things a little more concrete so, if it’s for men or women, unisex, national, international and the price. The client will receive between 50 or more proposals. It’s a little bit like the Australian Open. You start with 128 candidates the first round, the second round you have 64, third round you have 32 and the final is two. At the end the client will have two, maximum three products, and they will conduct a consumer test to see which one could be the best. The development could take minimum one to two years.
What do you believe makes a good scent?
I have a personal idea because I have a high idea of creation in perfumery, because I think I am a creator. I hate to make duplications, to make imitations. You need to be a good technician. A creator is a guy who is first a technician. If you are a painter, a perfumer, a musician, you are doing the exact same kind of job. You are mixing different kinds of raw materials. With a painter it’s colour, musician it's sounds, perfumer it's different kinds of smell. You need to use an alphabet. If you are a writer, you are using an alphabet to express yourself. The perfumer is using his special alphabet to express himself. You cannot express yourself if you have nothing to say. If you have something to say and if you have the possibility to make it with your alphabet, your education, you will be able. Meaning that first of all you need the tool, the alphabet to express yourself and you need to have ideas. If you have the tools and you have nothing to say, it's a pity. It has to be done well.
What inspires you continually?
Anything. But if I have someone in front of me that is the main important thing. I think perfume is like a baby; you need two to make a baby. It’s a question of people. What I like is to have people in front of me having ideas. So it was nice to work with Helmut because he has ideas. I was there to create his fantasy. I worked with Lolita Lempicka and it was exactly the same. We established a very good relationship. I like to work with somebody, that’s the most important. To share, to create together. People having the same kind of passion and the same level of passion. The same ability. It’s like playing tennis, you enjoy playing tennis when you have someone able to give you the ball. You have a good exchange.