We are both superstitious and we believe the irrational part of the world should invade a bit more,” says Frédéric Malle of his new perfume created with designer Alber Elbaz. We are seated in a corner of wood-panelled Mayfair restaurant Chucs, surrounded by men with luxuriant hair in expensive suits whom Malle identifies as Italian playboys.
The spirit of Superstitious is about more than just the pair’s shared avoidance of bad luck, Malle says over tuna carpaccio. “Alber and I were talking about the fact that we hate recipes, recipes to success, the whole idea of having a successful dress and having to turn it into a handbag and sunglasses, positioning something at this price and not that . . . To us, superstitious means no rules.”
The collaboration was initiated by Malle, who founded luxury fragrance label Éditions de Parfum Frédéric Malle in 2000, at a time when big brands were fixated on creating one-scent-fits-all blockbusters. He works with perfumers, guiding and editing their creations rather than mixing up the “juice” himself, and was the first luxury perfumer to put the name of the nose who created it on the bottle. Alongside other independent perfumers, including Serge Lutens, Malle helped to fuel the current explosion of interest in boutique perfume brands and higher-end scent collections from big brands: he sold his company to Estée Lauder in 2015.
Malle was looking for a fresh perspective and energy. A distant admirer of Elbaz’s, having followed the designer’s work at both Lanvin, the Parisian house he led for 14 years until his abrupt dismissal in October 2015, and previously at Yves Saint Laurent, he asked him for a meeting. “I am a very technical person when it comes to perfume and I feel we can get a bit trapped in our own ways talking shop all the time,” says Malle. “Having guests in our little world that will see with different eyes is something that I crave.”
The pair had the first of many long lunches, like “two people on a blind date”, bonded over a shared desire for individuality, and Superstitious was born on the proverbial napkin.
Conceiving the fragrance over a succession of lunch dates sounds a refreshing change from Lanvin’s more corporate world. For over a decade, Elbaz refined his vision of modern elegance at the brand with a series of memorable signatures such as his ultra-feminine one-shoulder cocktail dresses, exposed zips, grosgrain ribbon detailing and jewel-coloured silks. In 2016 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour.
“It was almost like a little secret project,” says Elbaz of the collaboration. “It was so different from what I’ve done before, where you have a big meeting, and then a bigger meeting, and then a huge meeting. This was more of a chemistry, more of an alchemy even, between two people, two ideas, two worlds that came together and became one.” In Malle, he found a co-conspirator: “I saw a person with great individuality and new codes. Not with codes like everybody else’s.”
For Elbaz, who started working on the perfume the year after his departure from Lanvin, the fragrance also acted as a new creative outlet. “When we started the project, it was the year when I didn’t make dresses [after leaving Lanvin] and I really missed it. So when we started to work, I asked Frédéric if we could make a perfume that smells or feels like a dress.”
With an aesthete of Malle’s pedigree involved, making a fragrance that evoked a dress was never going to translate into a literal whiff of silk and zips. Instead, Malle explains as coffee arrives, he thought of “a dress, architecture . . . Alber is known for seamless draping, so something invisible. Something classic that becomes a second skin, even the inside of a dress, a souvenir of someone who has worn something.”
Malle and Elbaz didn’t start from scratch on Superstitious. They decided to adapt a grand aldehyde floral on which Malle had been working with perfumer Dominique Ropion. Chanel No 5 gets its lively, polished quality from an aldehyde (a type of organic compound) that was synthesised in the early 20th century, and Malle and Ropion wanted to revisit the ingredient in a modern, original version. Yet Ropion’s incarnation was deemed “too perfect” by Elbaz, who asked for it to be “a little bit more punk”.
Malle describes the final product as “very ladylike, sophisticated and sensuous, but it’s not saying, ‘jump on me’. It’s someone looking at you with excited eyes. Aldehydes transform other smells but you still understand that there is jasmine, rose, vetiver, amber (which smells like warm skin), patchouli. It’s really a journey through flowers, very classical.”
Superstitious is a potent cocktail of a fragrance, offering an instant champagney fizz, followed by fleeting floral hints as it settles on the skin; likely to appeal to wearers of distinctive fragrances such as Chanel No 5 or Miss Dior. Self-consciously sophisticated, it’s a little black dress, lashings of red lipstick, and a clandestine date at the Paris Ritz.
Malle’s brand has always appealed to consumers who can handle complex scents with unusual concentrations and combinations of ingredients. For years the brand used no imagery, enabling people to respond instinctively to scents such as Une Rose with its earthy garden aroma that takes in soil as well as petals, and the ambery oriental Musc Ravageur, which Malle expected to appeal to women until the male customers kept on coming. He thinks that Superstitious is quite feminine, but adds: “Today, I am probably more conservative than my customers and I am sure men will wear it. We live in a moment where gender is more blurred. People have complete freedom; they want to be themselves. It’s almost a convention to want to be original.”
While the seamless blend of ingredients gives Superstitious a classic quality, its structure lends an original twist. “There are so many copies in our industry,” says Elbaz. “When people create perfumes they tend to approach it as, ‘here is a perfume we like, redo it’. This was not about redoing something that existed, it was about creation.”
Superstitious - Alber Elbaz by Frédéric Malle is £158/50ml at Liberty.co.uk
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.