The story of La Parfumerie Moderne begins in the small resort village of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage on the northern coast of France. Overlooking the English Channel, Le Touquet was an early 20th century playground for holidaying British aristocrats and wealthy visitors from all over the world. Business thrived and grand hotels were built on a palatial scale to accommodate visitors. The most notable grand hotel was the Royal Picardy, built in 1929. It was advertised as the largest, most luxurious hotel in the world. For 20 years the Royal Picardy was the jewel of this affluent seaside village but these lucrative years were short lived. War and the Great Depression crippled business and the hotel fell into a state of disrepair. In 1951 it closed its doors forever.
Years later we meet the main character of La Parfumerie Moderne’s story. In the 1960s, Philippe Neirinck was a young boy. The son of hoteliers, he regularly vacationed in Le Touquet with his parents. The Neirincks spent time in one of the vacant palaces, which had closed to the public. While the adults amused themselves, these empty palaces became the playgrounds of children. Wandering from room to room, young Philippe would imagine the hotel guests going about their days and evenings, drinking tea in the lounge or having cocktails at the bar. Philippe can still recall the smells he encountered all those years ago. “Every room had its own olfactory print. In the corridors, which led to the bedrooms, there was the smell of coffee and wax and in the lounge there were huge amounts of powdery amber smells.” This experience marked Philippe but it was the discovery of a mysterious glass vial in one of the Royal Picardy suites that made a lasting impression. “This palace was five minutes down the road from the palace where I was staying. I was one of several children playing that day. Everything was still in place. The porcelain, the glasses, the bottles, life there had suddenly stopped because it was bankrupt but you could still see everything. Of course entry was forbidden but as children, we were playing there. On this day, I think it was on the 5th floor, there was this huge suite, and in the bedside table I found a vial of perfume.” The vial contained a perfume unlike anything Philippe had smelled before. It was the rich floral scent of lilac flowers. He questioned his parents about his find and its potential owner. Together they surmised it might have belonged to the Maharani of Jaipur, who spent months in the Royal Picardy suites while her husband played polo in Britain. In his adult life, Philippe visited Jaipur and he attempted to meet the Maharani to confirm if the vial belonged to her. Fate was not on his side; the Maharani passed away only days before his arrival. He still has the vial however its contents have evaporated and will forever remain a mystery. The vial was a catalyst for the idea that Philippe would create his own perfume line. I met Philippe in Grasse in 2012. Like me, he was attending the Grasse Institute of Perfumery’s summer school. It was not his intention to become a perfumer; I suppose the summer school was his way of gaining a better insight into the way perfumers work. This would help him communicate with the perfumer he was about to commission to create his perfumes. I remember his obsession with lilac notes and another childhood smell, the bitter almond scent of Cleopatre, a brand of household glue commonly used in France. Undeterred by his panache for unconventional smells, Philippe sought the help of independent perfumer Marc-Antnoine Corticchiato to bring his ideas to life. Since I last saw Philippe, he has completed three perfumes with Marc-Antoine – his beloved lilac called Désarmant, the refreshingly green No Sport and a sophisticated leather perfume called Cuir X.
Perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato:
Known by most followers of niche perfumery as the creator behind Parfum d’Empire, perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato rarely collaborates with other brands. About their meeting, Philippe says, “I wanted to work with a perfumer that was not overexposed and I liked the fact that Marc-Antoine was independent and he had the ability to say no to me. He wasn’t looking for work and I knew that if he didn’t love my project he would say no. He has said no to many projects so he is really exclusive. The first time I spoke with him he said, ‘OK you are another one who wants to make perfume. Are you really sure you want to do it?’ He had an air about him of – oh not another one! ‘What perfume do you want to do first?’ he asked. I told him I had a precise idea of what I wanted to do. It was a lilac perfume. He seemed surprised and he replied, ‘you want to do a lilac? OK then we will meet because this is interesting.” After their initial meeting the pair began working together. Philippe briefed Marc-Antoine with ideas and together they created La Parfumerie Moderne. Philippe wanted Marc-Antoine to work without boundaries and encouraged him to use natural raw materials in quantities and qualities that would be the envy of other niche brands. Their olfactory ideas began with an interest in a raw material. A rose or an amber accord progressed into a discussion about colour. These ideas later transferred to the packaging design. For Desarmant, the colour was violet blue, for No Sport it was green and for Cuir X the colour they envisioned was brown with purple undertones. The use of coloured glass linked to the theme of La Parfumerie Moderne and the laquage glass also served as protection for the perfume’s light-sensitive essences. As a result the pair could work with less processed essences that were closer to nature. A perfumer may opt to use decolourised oils when the finished perfume is presented in clear glass. This way, any change in the perfume’s colour over time is less obvious. It is an aesthetic detail Philippe found interesting. In winemaking the colour of wine is expected to change over time and this is often a welcome sign of quality but in perfumery, consumers are often afraid of any visual change in a perfume’s colour. These were just some of the technical points Philippe had to consider. “Perfumery is not an exact science. I have come to the belief that there is only one rule and that is there are no rules. That doesn’t mean that you can do anything but it is just a matter of experimentation with a lot of precision in a careful way. It’s a bit of empiricism. When we made the first prototypes I was really happy with the result. Marc-Antoine warned me. He said, ‘you know Philippe, you are smelling something we made on 100g. We are going to work with hundreds of kilos so don’t be surprised if the result will be slightly different because we are not working on the same volume. We will need to do another maceration and a longer maturation.” Like a fine wine, Philippe and Marc-Antoine needed to take the right amount of time to age the perfumes. There is no formula or science behind the amount of time this process requires. “The more natural raw materials you use, the more time you need for the maceration and maturation. If you don’t allow a minimum of 1-2 months for maceration and 1-2 months for maturation, it’s nonsense. It’s wasted money. You really need to wait. It’s the same with the filtration. You really need to see what is going on after the filtration. And this is what we did. The lab sent Marc-Antoine and me test samples and we discussed the progress. Should we wait or is it ready? Marc-Anointe said ‘no, I think we are going to wait more because there are new facets that are coming out that we didn’t smell before.’ Even when you perform the final step, glacage (which filters the perfume at a chilled temperature to remove solids that are liquid at room temperature), if you are using a lot of natural raw materials, even after this final stage, the perfume will continue to evolve.“ These final processes require a lot of patience and a good nose for evaluation unlike the beginning of the creative process, where it is about exploring as many ideas as possible. Philippe tells me that Marc-Antoine created almost 30 variations of Cuir X. He also says one of the most difficult parts of the process is knowing when to stop. But Philippe had a clear understanding of what La Parfumerie Moderne was supposed to be. He wanted a collection of perfumes that would be “elegant, balanced and Parisian.” He wanted to create future classics instead of perfumes that were highly contemporary or too nostalgic. Commenting on Marc-Antoine’s style he says the perfumer breaks away from the style, lovers of Parfum d’Empire are accustomed to. “He is not really doing Marc-Antoine Corticchiato when he is doing La Parfumerie Moderne. It’s more balanced and more about the small touches, you know like in painting there is Pointillism. He works by adding small touches, putting quantities of lemon, bergamot etc. to make it happen. When he is creating for Parfum d’Empire his work is more brutal. The last one he created, Corsica Furiosa, it is something so strong and so heavy and in a way it is a bit abstract, you know, it is not immediately easy to understand.” For La Parfumerie Moderne, Désarmant was the pair’s first project together. Of the three, Philippe describes it as the most complex perfume in his collection.
For me, Désarmant is a photorealist portrait, which captures the dewy essence of lilac flowers in morning bloom. The perfume borrows facets from a number of flowers to recreate the scent of lilac. It opens with lush petals and heady floral accents commonly found in jasmine and ylang ylang. The perfume basks in a rosy aura with subtle anisic facets that hint towards the almond notes that will follow in the dry down. The perfume sways from cool and fresh to warm and textured. A waxed horsehair note gives the perfume wonderful depth. Although lilac can be interpreted as something old-fashioned, Désarmant is radiant and youthful with a mere hint to perfumes past. “The challenge was not to make a banal lilac that felt nostalgic. I wanted to bring a contemporary aspect to it. I wanted something modern. Actually, the working title for Désarmant was Modern Lilac. I didn’t want it to be a reinterpretation or an old formula updated for today’s market. It had to be completely new. I wanted it to have the fresh side of lilac, like a garden in the morning. It had to have an animalic touch because if you smell lilac it has this animalic, leathery side as well as the mossy part. I wanted Désarmant to be focused on those three facets. I didn’t want it to be powdery or too almond. I didn’t want to work this side of the lilac flower, which has been done for years. And do you know how the name came about? I took my prototype to a gentleman who has been in the industry for many years and I asked if I could show him my fragrances. He said, ‘yes, come to my office.’ He preferred not to know anything about my fragrances before smelling them. His first reaction to my lilac was to say it was disarming – c’est désarmant. I agreed with him and this became the name of the perfume.”
For his second perfume, Philippe drew from another childhood memory, which took place in a hotel. No Sport is a clever slant on the overuse of the word ‘sport’ in men’s perfumery. No Sport is evidence that green fresh scents do not always need to be an olfactory Adonis where brawn rules over brain. No Sport is a dandy. With its overdose of geranium and roses, this floral scent’s top end is tempered by resinous green galbanum and the base is ruled by a woody accord of patchouli, vetiver and sandalwood with a hint of tobacco. “I was a teenager staying in this hotel in London. I spent a lot of time there while my father was doing business. I kept to myself and I read a lot. I didn’t really want to go out of the hotel. I remember a street, which was overlooking Hyde Park below my hotel window. As it was June there was a beautiful bunch of roses on the table and there was geranium in the window box. I remember the wood panels. It was a very old hotel. No Sport’s story is about this hotel and this special memory I have of London.” The title of the perfume was a reference to one of the hotel’s famous guests, Sir Winston Churchill. “Mainly he was staying at this hotel during the blitz and even after. In his old age a journalist asked him, ‘Mr Churchill, now you are almost 85 and you look like a young boy. What is your secret?’ He said, ‘whisky, cigars and no sport.”
Leather notes in perfume are so ethereal. They are a topic I love to discuss. Chemists cannot extract the scent of leather so the success of a leather perfume relies on the creative abilities of its perfumer. From the orange blossom cloaked leather, Knize Ten (1924), to the powdery suede of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Skin on Skin (2013), the possibilities are limitless. For Cuir X, where X marks the spot, Philippe and Marc-Antoine’s leather is a complex and modern tanned hide that is deceptively floral. Behind the bitter tannin effect of suede and quinolene is a plush bouquet of heady flowers and citrus zest. Unlike Désarmant and No Sport, which come from memories of Philippe’s past, it is a grand hotel not far from Philippe’s current arrondissment in Paris, which inspires Cuir X. Philippe took Marc-Antoine to the hotel, opposite the Tulleries, to brainstorm ideas. “We spent the whole night working on this perfume. This is how it began. The leather idea was conceived by thinking about the leather of the couch we were sitting on and the smell of whiskey. We were sipping pure malt until four or five in the morning and I remember there was also a kind of floral perfume in the air coming from burning candles in the hotel. I remember it as a very chic and discreet perfume of jasmine and white flowers. So Cuir X is remembrance of this night. The leather note is suede. It is smooth. We decided to use tangerine, osmanthus and also some jasmine so there is a floral aspect in that leather, which is quite unique. My grandfather and my father used to wear Knize Ten so I have always had an idea in my mind to make a leather perfume but I didn’t want to make a Russian leather perfume based on birch oil and smoked woods. I wanted something more sophisticated and luxurious. There is also a beautiful iris extraction in the heart of Cuir X, some orange, styrax and some cistus but it is cracked cistus to make it a bit more spoiled. Marc-Antoine also used a raw material that I love, a CO2 extraction of carrot seed. Then at the base you have these classical notes of vanilla, tonka bean and amber.
In less than a year the response to this new brand has been extremely positive. After showcasing his collection at both Pitti Fragranze in Florence and Esxence in Milan, Philippe’s La Parfumerie Moderne is now sold in European perfumeries, including Jovoy and First in Fragrance. La Parfumerie Moderne is also available from a selection of Barneys New York department stores across the United States. What is next for La Parfumerie Moderne? Philippe is keeping his cards close to his chest but it sounds like the next hotel-inspired fragrance to be released by the house will be a story from the ultra-chic Cote d’Azur. Until the next instalment I am happily using the bottle of Cuir X, Philippe sent me, which is currently my favourite of the three.