“I was very fortunate in life to land on this earth in Paris in the sixties, being brought up by people who were amazingly curious and international—driven by art, also by business, which was quite uncommon,” said Frédéric Malle in a recent phone call from France. The fragrance impresario was momentarily doing what he prefers not to do: talking about his family connections. When Malle created his perfume house 20 years ago, the industry was rife with cookie-cutter scents by hired hands. Instead, he wanted to give talented noses a platform—one squarely of his own making—“showing that these people were more than ghostwriters. They were authors,” Malle said.
Shortly before launch in 2000, he talked about the new business with his good friend “Jean-Jacques Picart, who was to Christian Lacroix what Pierre Bergé was to Yves Saint Laurent,” as Malle put it. “He looked at my press file and said, ‘You are an absolute idiot. You should write down that your grandfather was the founder of [Parfums] Christian Dior!’”
The effect of that early indoctrination, beginning with grand-père Serge Heftler-Louiche, is hard to dismiss. The first perfume Malle encountered was Miss Dior, worn by his mother; she headed up development for the fragrance division and even came up with Baby Dior (a variation on Eau Fraîche) for her two sons. “From 1966 onward, liters of Eau Sauvage ended up in my bathroom, and I generously doused myself with it,” Malle writes in Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle: The First Twenty Years, an imaginatively layered book out this month. But in styling himself as a perfume publisher—creating Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, partly in homage to the venerable Gallimard imprint—the Parisian aimed to shift the market back into artistic hands, debuting his brand with a lineup of instant classics. Among them, there was unleashed eroticism (Maurice Roucel’s Musc Ravageur) and a private love letter in scent form: a recreation of the 1950s fragrance that Edmond Roudnitska (the perfumer behind Dior Sauvage) had made for his wife, Thérèse. She gave her blessing to Malle herself.
“I always felt I was in this business out of my own will, that I was doing things my way,” Malle said in the call, and the book bears that out. His early sketches resulted in a pared-down bottle design that combined Bauhaus aesthetics with a Gallimard palette of black and red. In the years since, Malle has invented futuristic scent-dispensing machines for his boutiques and devised off-kilter products like perfume guns (for misting home fragrance) and rubber incense (a gray scented slab that slips into lingerie drawers like incognito potpourri). His interest in the entire mise-en-scène—from custom-fitted store designs, to high-concept collaborations with designers like Dries Van Noten, to this unconventional book complete with storyboarded comic strips and screenshot text messages—reflects the cinematic half of his upbringing: His father ran a production company alongside his uncle, director Louis Malle.
“What drives someone to look for a new scent is often a desire to reinvent themselves,” Malle writes in the book, underscoring the link between fragrance and narrative. “A perfume always tells a story of who we are.” Actresses like Catherine Deneuve were quick to swoon; the fragrances themselves even sound like movie titles: Portrait of a Lady, or L’Eau d’Hiver. It’s fitting that Malle was game to play matchmaker for Vanity Fair, pairing fragrances from the line (in limited-edition bottles for the twentieth anniversary) with kindred-spirit films. Streaming The Night of the Iguana while enveloped in a cloud of French Lover seems like the heady distraction we all could use.
Bigarade Concentrée: Hugh Grant in Notting Hill
“Young, smart, and candid, with a ton of sex appeal. The elegant, modern but discreet Bigarade seems perfect,” says Malle. Bigarade Concentrée perfume by Jean-Claude Ellena, $290. To purchase: fredericmalle.com. To watch: Hulu and Amazon.