New York is home to some of the world’s most influential designers and artists. This is also true of the perfume world and last month I met with one of the city’s premier olfactory artists, Senior Perfumer at Givaudan, Rodrigo Flores-Roux.
Researching his background, it seemed fateful that Mexican-born Rodrigo would become a perfumer. In previous interviews he has spoken about the rich olfactory experiences his Mexican childhood provided. By the age of 13 he was already collecting perfumes and 7 years later, he made the journey from Mexico to Paris, studying at one of the world’s most prestigious perfume schools, ISIPCA in Versailles.
Fast forward more than 20 years and Rodrigo has refined a unique skill set that has made him one of the most sought-after perfumers in the world. His portfolio is expansive, proving he knows how to make multi-million dollar best sellers in the mass-market and he can create luxurious fragrances for the likes of Tom Ford. Rodrigo also has experienced success creating for niche houses. In short, he does it all.
I visited the perfumer in his office, high above West 57th Street at Givaudan’s Fine Fragrance Studio. Rodrigo had literally just returned from Paris and on top of trying to reacclimatise to New York he was also dealing with a client emergency. I took this as my cue I needed to be quick but I was to learn that quick is also Rodrigo’s natural pace; every question I put forward, he promptly answered with gusto. Rodrigo has that Latin fire.
After welcoming me at the reception he directed me towards his office, which was surrounded by glass windowed laboratories. In his office, the entire space was filled with books, artwork and references that inspired him. Stood in the corner was a colourful Mexican piñata. His desk was filled with small glass vials, each individually labelled; no doubt new modifications for a project he was currently working on. Rodrigo took a seat beside me we began to talk.
WMSSL: Let’s start by talking a bit about your creative process.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I work from the philosophy that when I see it, I know it is right. When I hear it, I know it is right or when I smell it, I know it is right. I have this approach of putting into a smell something visual or something I have heard, which has motivated me. Most often it is a visual thing. I am an art lover; I can spend hours in a museum. For me a vacation is going to museums, churches etc. These experiences are important to me and through the sense of smell I can materialise whatever I see and whatever I hear. So that is the spark.
WMSSL: Is it important for whoever smells or wears your perfumes to go on this journey with you?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: No. It can be very private. It is not important for me to tell a client that the perfume I made for them to be put in the market started with an important canvas by Caravaggio. I mention him because he is part of things but it is not relevant outside, it’s an inner approach. So that is how I start.
WMSSL: Once you have this seed of an idea, where do you go from there? I know many perfumers look to the past and what has been done before in order to move forward with new ideas, taking an existing successful perfume and modifying parts of it to create a new idea.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I work on combination and contrast. I have a lot of knowledge of classic perfumery and one of my fortes is classicism in perfumery but I am not making every day, a new Diorissimo or a new Eau de Rochas. I approach it by putting things together; 10 things together, 2 things together, things that I enjoy. I like vanilla with wood so let me try to do something new with this combination. At Givaudan I am a perfumer who works with new innovations and new raw materials. I am part of the board that works with new synthetics and our beautiful program of naturals. I have been championing a new source of ylang ylang since 2010. It is a completely new quality of ylang ylang that I am using in all of my perfumes now.
WMSSL: I have been reading about Givaudan’s Orpur range of naturals.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: Orpur is a denomination here at Givaudan, let us call it our seal of guarantee for our best quality of lemon, or rose etc. They are very expensive, they are very good raw materials and we are fortunate to use them here and there.
WMSSL: Are there any raw materials you prefer over others?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I am a perfumer who is a little bit blind to musk. I am anosmic to many of them, more than half of them I do not smell. So you will not see perfumes from me that have a claim to be about musk. I will use musk; it is like a painter being blind to blue. He or she will still use it. I know what happens with them (musk) in the formula, which is interesting. It is kind of a reverberation I perceive.
WMSSL: (perhaps this is similar to a hearing impaired person that can enjoy music through the vibration it creates around them using their sense of touch instead of appreciating the sound of music directly through their aural senses?)
WMSSL: What types of projects excite you? When I look at your body of work you have done everything from luxury to mass-market to niche.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: Yes, I am grateful for that and this year you will see my name credited to some very important mass-market fragrances. I am happy and very proud of them because I was always told I’m such a luxury perfumer and I said, let me tell you! You know, as a perfumer, mass-market is also where you have to be. This year will mark that for me. But to answer your question, when I am briefed and I am told this perfume has to smell like something in the market or something already out there, it’s not that I find this contrived, it is simply more restrained. I do not like being restrained because I think when you go wild, that is when it happens. Then you package it, you pull down, you take off and it gets to a comfortable place for everyone involved. When I have a project I can go wild with, I get really interested. Not that I haven’t done or won projects that are very encapsulated, it is just what I like.
WMSSL: What is it about you or your method of working that makes you so flexible? You seem to be very comfortable with your ability to make perfumes that appeal to big audiences as well as others that have a niche appeal.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I think I have two opposite tastes and that helps because they are in opposition. I like freshness and light, also I like heaviness and dark. I like citrus and orange blossom. I like things that smell green and fresh-cut. But I love leather and incense. Actually I love very dirty smells, even fecal. I am well known for having a caca sense of humour and a potty mouth. (Rodrigo laughs)
WMSSL: As a perfumer, what are you known for? I spoke with Carlos Huber (Arquiste) when he came to Australia for the launch of his line, which you helped him create. He spoke about your expertise for creating floral notes.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: Yes, I am well known for my big chunky florals. The white floral is a category I enjoy. I feel it and it is something I adore. My strength is also fruitiness, the expensive type. Freshness and citrus is also my forte. And I like leather. Look at this! (Rodrigo is pointing to the knee-high Wesco leather biker boots he is wearing and laughing again) So it is something I also like. Leather is not easy to reproduce in a perfume. I’ve smelled many perfumes since the age of 13 and I’m now 45 so do your numbers. I have never smelled a perfume that smells of leather as we like it. If you walk into a saddle store or a boot maker, you get that smell. It is impossible to make. I tried many times. I called in the scientists. The problem is the smell is based on phenols that are changing in the air. Leather is basically alive and so it is very difficult to reproduce.
WMSSL: With so many years of experience in this profession, do you still get surprises from combining different raw materials?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: Oh yes absolutely. I look for those surprises everyday. That is what makes it interesting. Mind you, it is important to say, as a perfumer 95% of the work you do goes nowhere, only 5% happens.
WMSSL: How do you stay motivated to constantly look for that 5%?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I think it is the hunger and the passion. I love what I do; it is the love of my life. I am also stubborn and I won’t take no for an answer. I take no prisoners. You don’t want this? Go (Rodrigo edits himself) yourself! I will show it to someone else. Some of the greatest perfumes I have done, which have been enormous international bestsellers were originally for another house. Someone was blind and deaf and not very intelligent and it ended up somewhere else. It happens.
WMSSL: How do you judge when a perfume is ready?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: They are never ready. For example, an internationally well-known perfume I made for Clinique, which makes people happy; the official number of modifications we presented over 14 months was 119. Those were official ones meaning in between there were a lot of others. They chose 111 but we went up to 119, so you can make your numbers there. Perfumes are never ready and always when a perfume goes out, I get the bottle; everything smells better in the bottle, which is important to say too. It is a pride thing but there is always a question of, what if I had added a little bit of cinnamon here? Or my god this really needed more pepper. I am using the example of spices because spices can always be explored further. So perfumes are never obra conclusa.
WMSSL: Even if they are never completed, how do you define a well-made perfume?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: Well a good perfume has to have several things. And here I am repeating what other perfume people say about perfume. First of all it has to have a well-defined, recognisable profile. The silhouette has to be unmistakable. Call it signature, call it hook or call it silhouette. It needs personality. When you smell it you know it. That is number one. Number two; it has to have the right power. I think in perfumery more is more. I don’t agree when someone says you are wearing too much perfume. No! Put it on girl! (Rodrigo laughs and claps his hands in the air) Why not? I like powerful perfumes and at that same time the perfume has to be powerful enough in order to make the right statement. A very delicate perfume dosed in a very high amount might be a mistake. The third one is lasting. Perfumes have to last. Even for the slightest eau de cologne you have to have a remembrance after 3 to 4 hours. You have to have something left. And the forth one is striking a chord in the heart. Un-for-get-ta-bi-li-ty! If you are unforgettable you are it!
WMSSL: Where does storytelling fit into your perfumes?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: There is always a story to tell and I have been told that through my perfumes I take people on journeys. It can be very personal. Someone wearing Jasmin Rouge or John Varvatos can be in their own personal journey. But sometimes I can also ask people to possibly sit on this saddle. Let me give you an anecdote, which is actually a very pretty one. I made this fragrance for Mary Kay called Velocity and it is a light fruity floral with an exotic twist. At the time we were working on a banana tree flower note. When Mary Kay’s people called to tell us we won the project, about a week later I learned my younger sister was pregnant. She is five years younger than me and she was pregnant with her first baby. So for me, I always thought of this perfume as being a birthday cake, La Torta we call it in Mexico. Babies are like a cake they bring to the family. So the perfume took some time to materialize, to produce it, bottle it and distribute it. By that time it was nine months later, I went to Mexico to see my sister give birth and she wore this fragrance to give birth to Patricio, my godson. Maybe a year later the perfume was launched in a big seminar in Dallas, Texas. So in front maybe 3000 very enthusiastic ladies I told this story and I tell you, 2900 of them cried, I cried too. I am cutting the story short but the end of the story is about perfumers being able to approach peoples lives and to touch them. They are wearing a part of you. I created something and then suddenly this something becomes part of someone. For me that is the ultimate objective. I cannot tell you how incredible it feels to be walking down the street and suddenly (Rodrigo lifts his head and makes a gesture of smelling the air) I smell Clinique Happy or Gap 1969 For Men, I think my god, I made that and someone has made that part of their life.
WMSSL: Is it often you get to incorporate a part of your life into a fragrance?
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I made a nice citrus fragrance called Artisan by John Varvatos. This perfume is also an experiential perfume. What I wanted to work on with John is the smell of early December in Mexico because we have Las Posadas or The Hosting. It celebrates Saint Joseph and Saint Mary who walked around Bethlehem asking houses for a place to sleep. During this celebration you break a piñata. Traditionally people would fill the piñata with candy, peanuts, sugarcane and mandarins that come into season during November and December in Mexico. So you break a piñata, the piñata explodes with fruit, peanuts and candy crashing to the ground. The kids trample over the mandarins as they fight to get the candy and suddenly you get this smell. It is a sulphury, sweet, juicy mandarin smell that is very specific to my Mexican childhood. This is what Artisan is. Let’s smell it.
Rodrigo goes into the drawers behind his desk and surfaces with a bottle of Artisan, which we proceed to smell.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: So imagine you are peeling a mandarin.
WMSSL: Yes I get it. It’s also very airy.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: It is about fresh, light, joy, party, laughter and childhood. It is not a gourmand perfume but it is an elementary perfume because it is a kind of fruit you would like to lick or eat. This perfume gives me a lot of satisfaction and it is a very personal perfume. Actually I have a piece of information here.
Rodrigo walks over to his office window and from behind a wall of perfumes he produces a letter mounted on card.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux: I was in Paris for work when this project first started. It was 2008 and I was incredibly jetlagged. At 3am in the morning, I kept waking up so I started imagining this smell. I took the pad from the hotel and wrote, (Rodrigo refers to the letter in his hand, which has the hotel’s monogram on top and a hand written perfume formula below) For Varvatos, up and down I talked about some dihydrolinalyl acetate kind of bergamot with citral. I used an interesting woodiness and tangerine oil. Basically this is the recipe (he again points to the letter) lemon, ethyl linalool, hedione, a lot of musk and then the orange composition there. When I came back to New York I wrote a formula inspired by this. It was a very short, sweet formula and I called it Eau de Fizz. I showed it to John and he said this was it. We perfected it a little here and there, plus this, minus that etc. So he has exactly the same little card. I wrote, to John from one artisan to another, this is the origin of Artisan. I put it in a frame and he has it in his office. So that is really cool.
My interview with Rodrigo Flores-Roux continues later this week when I review his latest perfume for Tom Ford, Sahara Noir and one of my favourite modern eau de colognes, a scent Rodrigo designed for his own personal use, called Freshie, which the perfumer later relinquished to Tom Ford, who renamed it Neroli Portofino.