Luc Gabriel is an owner and creative director of The Different Company, French niche house known for their work with the greatest perfumers of today such as Jean Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour, Emilie Coppermann and Alexandra Monet. We’ve met at L’Atelier Belgrade, regarding the launch of two new fragrances: Majaina Sin and Santo Incienso and talked about The Different Company, world of perfumes, perfume creation and much else.
IGOR: Would you be so kind to tell us something about yourself and how you’ve entered the world of perfumes?
LUC: It started long ago because my mother had a perfume store. So, when I was a kid, coming back from school every day I went to this perfume store and smelled fragrances. When you smell a lot of different fragrances when you’re young, it sticks in your memory. You always remember it. Then I went on a different path, had a traditional business training. For some time I had a desire to start my own company, and then it happened thanks to a friend of mine, who was also a friend of Thierry Baschmakoff. Thierry was just launching The Different Company and it sort of clicked. Niche fragrances when niche did not exist, it was not in the market. I jumped on that train. When I joined it, it was more of a project than business or a company. And since then it grew to what it is today.
IGOR: Has it changed your life? Having your own niche perfume brand?
LUC: Yes, very. First, I’ve always been a big fan of travel. The perfume business is truly an international business. We’re present in over 45 countries. At the same time, perfume is something you cannot model. Last year we had more than 1000 launches, just in the niche business. If you could use an excel spreadsheet and know what would work, you would have had 10 launches, not 1000. So, it’s still in a realm of alchemy. It’s not something you can organize exactly the way you want. There’s something mysterious about it.
IGOR: Is it a part of its charm, that mysteriousness and elusiveness?
LUC: Exactly. CEO of L’Oreal said on one occasion that he hates perfumes. Why? Because L’Oreal works with skincare, makeup and perfumes. And out of these 3, perfumes are the only one that’s not predictable. Skincare is predictable. Makeup is predictable. Perfumes are not. You can keep trying and never find out the recipe for success. And that makes the charm of it.
IGOR: Maybe that’s why the most companies are playing safe with new launches. They don’t want to risk failure because not succeeding is very easy, so they make a lot of safe choices similar to already popular fragrances.
LUC: But that doesn’t interest anybody. This is why niche brands exist. Everybody was playing safe in the 90’s. The haute perfumery was gone. So we wanted to get that back in with completely different angles with every single perfume we were launching. Going back to the roots of perfumery and at the same time create a contemporary brand. Born in 2000, you are contemporary. Period. But what you relate to is the history of fragrance, especially in France, which is very important to us. So, we had the know how, and we wanted to recreate French haute perfumery and make it contemporary. We never played safe. And The Different Company will never do.
IGOR: What is the key of success of a perfume niche brand?
LUC: Coherency. You have to make sure that everything you do is coherent and measuring up to you vision, ideal. You are always tempted to do this or that but at the end of the day you have to make sure that everything aligns and is rounded up by the very idea of brand, which is very hard, but necessary for success.
IGOR: When we talk about perfumes, there is an often used phrase – perfume DNA. Is there a perfume DNA present in most or all perfume from TDC, like famous Guerlinade by Guerlain? Or are there some prototypical perfumes in your collection which can represent to the best the idea of the brand?
LUC: I wouldn’t phrase it that way. When you smell a fragrance, you always come with some ‘’baggage’’. You always come with the past of what you like and dislike. If I were to describe something which is common for all our fragrance it would be elegance. Elegance is something peculiar, you can’t really describe it. It’s more of a feeling. But elegance is something I always want to have with all our fragrances. That’s the first thing. The second one, which is the key for me is emotion. Why would you spend time and money to launch a fragrance if you don’t bring an emotion? The rest is just to get there. So, creating fragrances is just about elegance and emotions. That is the goal. Many companies talk about the quality of the ingredients they use, but for us, it’s just the necessary step for all other strivings in haute perfumery. It’s a prerequisite, not a goal by itself. Having the best ingredients is the minimum you can do.
IGOR: And having the best ingredients doesn’t guarantee that you would come up with a good perfume.
LUC: No it certainly does not. All perfumers have more or less the same materials. Maybe some have a rose that comes from one place, and some from other, but that’s not what’s important in perfume. All perfumers can create a perfume that smells nice. But only exceptional perfumer can create a fragrance that brings up emotion, so when you try it you are first overwhelmed by emotions, and then you can identify certain fragrance notes or groups. That is a very hard thing to achieve. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. There are at least dozen perfumes that we didn’t launch because the emotion wasn’t right. Perfume by itself was good, but the emotion was not. That is the hard thing about making a perfume. It has to be pleasing not to you, but to the other person. It has to produce emotions. Which is also a key when buying a perfume. We should only buy perfumes which brings us good emotions. I personally rank highly some perfumes, but I don’t wear them, they are just bland to me. Which in no way speaks of their absolute value. They just don’t have a value for me.
IGOR: That is something I keep trying to underline throughout my perfume reviews, that differentiation between subjectivity and objectivity when approaching perfume analysis, or any art analysis for that matter. Speaking of art, what are perfumes? Are they art? And if so, what makes them great? Can we compare them with sculpture for example so that the interpretation by Michelangelo, Bernini and Donatello of famous David are similar to interpretations of vetiver by various perfume houses of what vetiver is and how it should smell?
LUC: To some extension, but not quite. In other arts, we have developed concepts and terminology. When we’re observing a painting, we can say whether it belongs to the romanticism, realism, Gothic or contemporary art. We have different filters, cultural filters, through which information are coming to us. We are taught how to use them. In perfume world, we first and foremost feel and then analyze. Perfume is an art, but not as any other art which we can easily decode. The greatest similarity lies with music. But music also can easily be deciphered. From a very early age, parents take their children to concerts and teach them music. No one takes kids to a perfume shop and teaches them olfactory notes and families. Older generations are teaching new ones genres of music, authors, but no one teaches them who Jean Claude Ellena is, or what is a chypre.
IGOR: Does it have any consequences?
LUC: Huge ones. It makes the perfect soil for lies and deception. And perfume houses take advantage of that situation. We can sense that there is something wrong with their stories, but we cannot pinpoint it or prove it. We cannot single something out and say it is not the truth. And that brings us to another very important matter about perfume brands, which is honesty. When we say something, it is always the truth. It is something I want to keep and cherish within The Different Company. When we launched our osmanthus, after few years another one appeared on the niche market as well, claiming top quality. Osmanthus is a kind of ingredient in which quality is essential. Good osmanthus has a soft leather accord with an apricot jam note, but not too sweet. Bad osmanthus on the other hand is very sweet, like overly sugary apricot jam, without any leather note. And has a very synthetic feel to it. For years various niche brands lied about the quality and quantity of osmanthus they use in perfumes.
IGOR: I suppose that is one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on information about notes in perfumes that we can find on various websites. Because even if we know that some perfume contains some fragrant note, it doesn’t tell us anything about its quality and scent, let alone the entire perfume and perfume composition.
LUC: I completely agree!
IGOR: Having in mind that you work with perfumers on the daily basis, have you developed any kind of special language or signs with which you communicate your wishes and ideas because normal human language is very limited when applied to the world of scents or perfumes?
LUC: That depends on who do you talk to, and the purpose of the conversation. When I talk to perfumers, besides usual terminology, we use volume and colors. When we’re talking about some perfume, we often say that it’s vertical, or red, blue. We use a lot of analogies as well. Comparisons to the everyday life. Some things in everyday presentations of perfumes you just cannot say, out loud. But during the process of making perfumes, they are necessary. When you talk with a perfumer, you must be as straightforward as you can be, and precisely describe what are you feeling and smelling. For example, dirtiness is a great quality in perfume. Or body odor as well. If we want to change something, we must identify it at first. We have to find common language and grounds. That is the key to creating a good perfume. In situations in which you can not find a common language with a perfumer, the whole project is doomed. On one occasion I worked for 4 years with a perfumer, and in the end, we haven’t launched the perfume. We ended up in a corner because I didn’t understand what he was saying and vice versa.
IGOR: Maybe perfumers could create some new terminology for the world of scents. Some perfume Esperanto?
LUC: For people who don’t do that for a living it is very hard. Sometimes it is very difficult to take a step away from your personal impressions and to objectively approach some perfume for analysis or creation. Maybe there’s even too much talking coming from the ones creating perfumes. In most cases, they create better stories that envelop perfumes than perfumes itself.
IGOR: I’m familiar with that. Just this year I’ve smelt so many new, but similar fragrances, almost identical. As If they were created by the same perfumer. I was shocked when I found out that most of them indeed were creations of the same ‘’nose’’.
LUC: It’s not their fault, at least not in entirety. It is the client’s fault. They should know what’s out there in the market. They should know if the presented sample is similar to some others on the market. But they don’t. Probably they don’t even have time to find it out. So the burden falls on a perfumer who at least should try to make something which is not similar to something he or her has made before or to something currently on the market.
IGOR: But people are buying it…
LUC: Unfortunately, people are buying a lot of stuff. Both in designer and niche world. I talked with the colleague of mine, who is also an owner of niche perfume brand. He spoke to me how he ‘’creates’’ perfumes. He sends the brief to a perfume manufacturer, and in return, they send him samples which resonate with his request. He picks some out of the bunch which seems the best to him and launches it as a new creation. My question is, how can you then claim you are niche? That perfume could easily be a variation of some perfume already launched or rejected a few years ago. We should strive to offer always something new and different. And then and only then we can create the story around fragrance or packaging. The scent is what matters. Having in mind that that is not unlimited and that resources are being hastily exhausted, even in the niche world, we can come up with the saturation of a kind.
IGOR: That is something I wanted to ask you for the end of our interview. What are limits in perfume world and who creates them?
LUC: Limits are not technical by nature. Every year there are new materials offered. Which means new combinations and new perfumes. From that perspective, there are no limits. However, they do exist.
IGOR: In our minds?
LUC: Yes, exactly! Limits are not in what you can do, but what you can imagine. The only limits I present to perfumers are elegance and wearability. Everything else is up to their imagination.
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