Interview with Gilles Thevenin, owner of Lubin Perfumes
When I began collecting perfume my main aim was to find ones that I simply enjoyed wearing. When I began writing What Men Should Smell Like I became interested in the stories behind perfumes. This helped me discover many of the historic houses and their perfumes, most of which were not no longer popular with someone of my age but I enjoyed their old-world charm. I learned that the first perfume I wore, Yves Saint Laurent’s Pour Homme, belonged to the fougere family of fragrances. This led me to discover the original 19th and 20th century fougeres and houses such as Houbigant and Guerlain. For me, perfume history was like a jig saw puzzle. Fitting one piece into the puzzle led to the discovery of the next piece. I read about the French Court of Marie Antoinette and her perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon. This story led me to Lubin. Pierre-Francois Lubin was a student of Fargeon and I read of how the perfumer went on to establish a successful career in Paris, making Lubin one of the most prestigious names in early 19th century perfumery. The brand experienced continued success into the 20th century but was in serious decline by the 1980s. It was at this time entrepreneur Gilles Thevenin saw a sleeping beauty. By 2004 Gilles had revived the name of Lubin with a clever mixture of classic perfumery that revisited some of the house’s significant formulas of the past. He also worked with well-respected perfumers such as Olivia Giacobetti to create newness for his 21st century Lubin collection.
Recently I had a chance to discuss Lubin’s current evolution with the brand’s owner, Gilles Thevenin. I also wanted to ask Gilles about his own background in the perfume industry and Lubin’s recent creations, two favourite additions to my perfume collection for 2013, Akkad and Korrigan.
WMSSL: Could you tell me a little about yourself before Lubin or your time at Guerlain?
Gilles Thevenin: In the time I was working for them, Guerlain was a family company, with a great sense of human values. The family was deeply involved in creation and management. The atmosphere within the company was friendly and a bit old-fashioned, unlike the general spirit at Rochas, where I worked thereafter. Contrary to Guerlain, their management at the end of the 1990’s was very political, which ended up being extremely detrimental to the brand.
When I took over Lubin, I was clearly dreaming of reviving the old Guerlain spirit in my own company. Being happy at work makes you more efficient and creative. I knew that the happy times I had known at Guerlain were forever gone; therefore, being owner of Lubin was a unique opportunity to keep the good spirit of ancient times alive. Having a structure with a human size, not belonging to a group, is an incredible advantage to set creativity and quality as the N°1 priority for a brand.
WMSSL: I agree. This humanistic element is so important in business and the brands that have this focus, from my perspective as an outsider, seem to have a soul that is often missing in the larger brands. During your career in the perfume industry, you must have worked with many talented people. Is there anyone in particular you think of as being someone who helped shape the person you are today?
Gilles Thevenin: I’m actually thankful to a number of people. But if I were to choose only one, I would be thinking of Mr. Philippe Guerlain in particular. He was a real gentleman, elegant and a little bit old-fashioned, a former cavalry officer. He was the international director at Guerlain, having constructed a network of 26 standalone Guerlain subsidiary companies all over the world, which he would manage with much care and attention to people, more than to figures. He had a natural authority, but a great sense of humor as well, and an incredible charisma. He was a very open-minded person.
The years working with him were the best of my professional life. I showed him the first Lubin mock-ups I had designed shortly before his death. I had left Guerlain some 8 years ago by then, and he had retired in the meantime, but I still considered him my mentor. I was very sad when he left us. I still think of him very often, when confronted with difficulty.
WMSSL: Mr. Guerlain sounds like a wonderful mentor. It also seems like much of your own personal history is linked to perfume. As an individual, are you a perfume wearer? If so, what are some of your favourites?
Gilles Thevenin: The use of perfume was a common habit in my family. As a kid, I would always search my grandmother’s cupboards, looking for her old perfumes, to smell them. There was Guerlain, Lubin and Coty perfumes of course, mostly colognes, Eau Imperiale and Eau du Coq from Guerlain, Eau de Cologne Royale and Eau de Fleurs de Chez Nous from Lubin, Cordon Vert and Cordon Rouge from Coty as well as French brands you don’t hear much about anymore. Like perfumes and colognes from Millot, Bienaymé, Le Galion or Pinaud. I don’t remember them all. My great-grandmother and grandmother were very coquettish, and would spend fortunes in stylish clothes, perfumes and make up, though they were not living in Paris. Therefore I was kind of raised in it. I wore Guerlain perfumes from the age of 15, and then Armani pour Homme until I joined Guerlain. I have been wearing Lubin Vetiver since 2007 and these days I often wear Galaad, which I like very much. Plus of course, one or two trial projects that have not been launched yet.
WMSSL: Are there any fragrances past or present you would have loved to belong to Lubin?
Gilles Thevenin: I’m a great fan of perfumes like Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur. I am also a fan of Chanel N° 19 and Bois Noir, Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir plus a few others. Great classics I hope will survive despite the restrictions of natural ingredients that are put into force by the European health authorities. But I wouldn’t say I would have loved them to belong to Lubin. Each brand has its own identity, which is quite often based on one of its great successes from their past. Those great perfumes are part of the soul of the brand they belong to.
WMSSL: Speaking of the soul of a brand, how did the idea to revive such a historic soul like Lubin come about?
Gilles Thevenin: Once I left Guerlain, it became an obsession for me to try to take over an historical house. I started to work at Rochas, because I had to for material reasons, but I knew after some time this would not last so I started to look around. I even tried to convince investors to help me take over a medium sized and ailing perfume company that was up for sale. This was to no avail.
Then I realized that Lubin, one of the most famous names in perfumes, belonged to the same German group as Rochas. And I discovered a decision made two years before I was hired, in 1994, to temporarily stop the production of Lubin perfumes, in order to define a new strategy for the brand. It appeared no one in the group was really working on that new strategy. I guess no one wanted to risk his or her career on such a gamble. I decided it would be mine and managed to be kicked out. It took another six years to get a hold on Lubin and its archives once I had left the group. In the meantime, I made a thorough search and met with the retired Noses of the company. I got to know the former owners’ family, who had sold it in 1970. This enabled me to pull together a huge amount of information and documents before starting up again in 2004.
WMSSL: What does the Lubin brand signify to you and are there recognizable symbols of the house?
Gilles Thevenin: Lubin is not only a brand it is also a House. Therefore it is first and foremost a place more than just a style. Lubin is a space where artists, the perfumers, can express themselves in freedom. Few brands still offer this kind of freedom to their composers. I’m not looking to create a fragrance style and make it Lubin’s or mine. It’s not necessary. People who come to a brand like Lubin, which is almost unknown and forgotten, want to be surprised and smell something they have never smelled before. On the contrary, most brands nowadays want to make people feel secure with what they already know. Some of them end up making perfumes that all smell much alike. This is comfortable, but it’s not the way I see Lubin. We should be adventurous, keen on taking risks, helping to discover new compositions and looking for pleasure. Perfume should simply be a pleasure.
The “very distinct style” of Guerlain you are speaking about was Jacques Guerlain’s style, because he was perfumer of the House from 1895 (Jardin de Mon Curé) until 1955 (Ode): Sixty years of creations! The Guerlinade was his invention. The Baroque looks of the bottles starts with Shalimar (1925) and ends up with Chamade (1969). It was Raymond Guerlain‘s style; he was not a perfumer, but a great designer.
I’m not really a collector of African art (WMSSL- In our conversation I had commented on Idole’s bottle and wondered if this was a reference to African Art) although I have lived in many places and have collected many things in the course of time. The style of Lubin is more Art Deco, which itself was partly influenced by African art. It leaves me a wide choice for picking out materials, defining shapes, pictures or drawings. You can’t reduce a style to a few recognizable symbols; otherwise you reduce it to a graphical chart.
WMSSL: If I think of the Lubin collection as is stands today, even though it is one of the oldest perfume houses in France, it is not a historic collection of perfumes that is trying to relive the past. It does not linger in nostalgia, nor are they postcard perfumes that make people romanticize about old Paris or France. You also create some very modern perfumes, which inspire travel to places outside of Europe. Is this a fair perception?
Gilles Thevenin: We actually have a number of old fragrances at Lubin that hardly sell outside of France, like Nuit de Longchamp (1937), L’Eau Neuve (1968) and L de Lubin (1974). Gin Fizz was created in 1955, which is not particularly recent, and it does sell well worldwide. Besides that, Black Jade is based on an historical 18th century perfume, created by Fargeon, Lubin’s master. None of these fragrances can be defined as modern. But an historical brand is not a museum either. Perfumes have to be worn by people, and they should enjoy them. The question is not old or modern but whether it smells good or not. Many old perfumes don’t deserve to be produced anymore, simply because no one would like them.
The modern side you can probably find it in Figaro, Bluff or even Korrigan from the Talismania collection. But Akkad and Galaad could have been created 100 years ago. Besides that, we will complete the collection in the future with more perfumes, new stuff and old stuff.
Concerning them “not being very French”, I’m sorry to say that fragrances “inspired” by Paris or “French culture” are generally not made for the French. They are made for export purposes, for people who consider France exotic and fashionable. Being a Parisian brand, Lubin perfumes are made first and foremost for the edgy and highly requesting clientele of Saint Germain des Prés, the very heart, and the most elegant and most expensive part of Paris. That’s where we have our boutique; we therefore first pay attention to their taste.
They are screen players, designers, writers, journalists, and creators of all types. They are often rich and famous but discrete. They come and buy perfumes at Lubin in rue des Canettes because they don’t dream of wearing something everyone is already wearing; that would be called “petite Mademoiselle de Paris” and you could purchase such a perfume in any airport. They love the fact that we never use their names to say what kind of famous people wear Lubin. They are our clients, not walking advertising boards.
Our inspiration is not really based on travel, with the exception of Idole. Akkad is the name of the first Mesopotamian Empire between Tigris and Euphrates, now in Iraq, some 4200 years ago. The knights who fought to create the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted between 1099 and 1291 AD, inspire Galaad. Its formula takes inspiration from the Balm of Gilead. Korrigan is drawn from the Celtic legends of the Dark Ages, west of France, Brittany, Eire, Wales and Scotland. They are all from distant times and cultures and they evoke our ancestors.
In the 18th and 19th century, British, French and German archeologists rediscovered cultures of the Orient. In the 18th century the famous French Classic style of Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI had drawn inspiration and materials from encounters with colonial territories abroad. Versailles castle wallpapers often depicted exotic landscapes with monkeys and elephants. The Napoleonic furniture style was inspired by its military campaign of Egypt in 1799 and the discoveries made by the archeologists he had taken along with him, which included Champollion, an archaeologist who could translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs into modern language. In the 1900’s, Japanese art was the origin of our Art Nouveau, and then African art became a great source of inspiration for Art Deco in the 1930’s. French culture and art has always been this mix, a bit of everything.
Since we have been discussing Guerlain, Shalimar (1925) was inspired by a legend from India, the gardens of Shalimar built by Shâh Jahân. Mitsouko (1919) was inspired by the story of a young Japanese woman called Mitsouko and Nahema (1979) is a name for a girl in Arabic, which means “sweet”. Mahora (2001) took its name from an island in the Pacific Ocean. None of these stories are typically French. Actually this is what French culture has been about: being inspired by others, accepting and loving other cultures, and considering them with curiosity.
WMSSL: Your three latest creations, Akkad, Korrigan and Galaad have this sense of curiosity you speak of. Their stories allow the wearer to travel to three very different locations in time. How did you come to pair these different narratives together?
Gilles Thevenin: Each perfume has its own identity; the different inspirations are not really related. What they have in common is that I was thinking of some kind of limited edition at that time. I had a bottle being produced in a very small quantity (1100 pieces), because I wanted to work with a certain, very small glass workshop. Plus a bunch of crazy ideas (the 3 stories are not easy, I must say).
I said to the perfumers that they could go very far in terms of ingredients because of the small production we had planned. I ended up with perfumes I loved too much and we decided to launch a new collection called Talismania. This meant launching in larger quantities than we initially had thought. The ideas behind it are a sort of search in time for talismanic compositions; magic smells drawn from other dimensions in time and space, with very distinctive signatures.
WMSSL: You have worked with a small number of perfumers during the past decade at Lubin. Do you enjoy the freedom of being able to select whom you work with as opposed to working with a brand like Guerlain, which has a dedicated in-house perfumer? What are the advantages or disadvantages of not signing an in-house nose to your brand?
Gilles Thevenin: I started working with Olivia Giacobetti, whom I like and admire very much but she is no longer living in France and we hardly meet once a year nowadays. I worked as well with Lucien Ferrero, the last historical Lubin perfumer (he created L de lubin in 1974) but he went into retirement 3 years ago. Then I started working with Thomas Fontaine in 2009 and I got to know Delphine Thierry in 2011. Both are independent perfumers, which is important to me because I don’t want to depend on a composition house. Most important is that I like the person and I love what they do. I will never shop around to make my perfumes; a Lubin perfume should always be an in-house perfume development, with our perfumers at the lead, not me. I just give a creative direction, tell a story, and they follow their own interpretations.
A brand like Guerlain needs an in-house perfumer, because he or she will be the only creator in the company. He or she needs to deal with the marketing people and have a rational thinking. The perfumer is not simply dealing with an owner who has a vision. He or she is the one who has got to have a vision and no one else. Guerlain is very lucky to have spotted Thierry Wasser, who was the right person. Few people would have been fit for that job. He is both respectful of the past, but keen on opening new paths for the House and he has taken over after a period of uncertainty and has quickly set everything right. And he has a great sense of composition. You can’t really compare the two situations. We are about 1000 times smaller than Guerlain. We have less power, less financial means yet we sometimes have more freedom.
WMSSL: Is there anything you can share with my blog readers about the future of Lubin? Where will you be taking us next?
Gilles Thevenin: You said there were not so many ancient fragrances at Lubin. I don’t completely agree on that, but if I should take it for granted, I should say that we have been working on a bunch of ancient formulae in the past 3 years. We had to postpone the launch of these perfumes several times, for various reasons. But I guess we are getting to it slowly.
The main question today is to make a very small production run economically viable. By this I mean 500 to 1000 pieces without reaching crazy prices. That’s what we are working on now.
WMSSL: With so many years experience in the industry, how do you feel about the perfume industry today? What do you like and is there anything you think could be done better to maintain it?
Gilles Thevenin: My main concern is the protection of our natural ingredients heritage. Lobbyists, especially in Europe, are presently working hard to make sure any unprocessed natural ingredient is banned from our perfumes. The pretext is allergies; the real reason is the monopoly a handful of companies want to obtain on the sourcing of processed perfumery ingredients. This is a danger for creation and the survival of perfume’s most beautiful notes.
Besides that, I can see that celebrity marketing is influencing people’s decisions less; people are looking for a perfume they would personally enjoy without being influenced. I see this as a positive trend. A perfume will more and more be the result of an individual choice.
What Men Should Smell Like would like to thank Gilles Thevenin for his time.
Lubin perfumes are available in Australia from selected retailers including: Libertine Parfumerie (Brisbane), Peony Haute Parfumerie (Melbourne), Mcleay on Manning (Sydney) and World Beauty (New Zealand)