Aesop is undeniably one of Australia’s most successful exports in the beauty industry. When Melbourne hairdresser Dennis Paphitis founded Aesop in 1987, he began by mixing essential oils into his colour treatments. He believed the concept could be taken further and he employed the help of a chemist to formulate a simple line of hair and body products. The premise of his line was the same, using fewer but better quality botanical ingredients. This ethos still holds true and today the brand is renowned for its natural grooming products, simple design aesthetics and unique retail spaces. Aesop is a praiseworthy example of how successful small businesses can grow into global brands without losing the unique identity they were founded on. I remember Aesop’s first retail store, which opened in 2004, the same year I moved to Melbourne from New Zealand. It was around the corner from my apartment in St Kilda. Sandwiched between a bakery and The Prince of Wales pub, I remember the long corridor-like store getting attention from pedestrians and weekend brunchers. The store’s employees would leave an aromatic hand balm tester just outside their door and a scent trail of essential oils wafting down Carlisle Street drew people inside. Visitors were never quite sure of whether they had entered a laboratory or an art installation. I remember walking past one autumn day and the store had been filled with fallen oak leaves from the street. Customers had to wade through middens of brown foliage to get to the counter. After the St Kilda store opened, Aesop began opening stores around the world. No two were the same. Each store had a unique design that complimented the surrounding neighbourhood and the cities Aesop chose all had strong links to the brand’s own values, culture, the arts and innovation.
In 2005 Aesop reached another milestone, its first perfume, which was named after the ancient North African city of Marrakech. It is fair to point out that the perfume launched years before the waning trend of Eastern-inspired fragrances dominated niche perfumery. It did not contain any oud references and something else that made Marrakech unique was its sophistication considering only aromatherapy oils were used. With its unusual blend of exotic spices, woods and flowers, Marrakech caught the attention of many. Even the notoriously critical critic Luca Turin gave it 4/5 stars. In his review of Marrakech he wrote, “I imagine the resin-based embalming fluids of Egypt must have smelled similar to this… This is an archaic fragrance of biblical directness and beauty, something to wear while reading Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.” – Perfumes The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.
In 2014, Aesop’s small fragrance collection went under renovation. The house’s second fragrance, Mystra, was discontinued and it sort help from Mane perfumer Barnabe Fillon to create a reformulation of Marrakech. The updated version, called Marrakech Intense, was released in two formats, an eau de toilette spray and a roll-on parfum. Fillon did not have a typical resume for a perfumer, which I am guessing was one of the qualities that attracted Aesop’s attention. Many of his projects were collaborations with designers and a number of magazines to create scented works of art rather than commercial products produced on a large scale.
Last year Schon Magazine interviewed Fillon and discussed his work with Aesop. “For Marrakech Intense, a lot of ‘couleurs locales’ were used, notably with a number of components typical of Northern Africa. ‘Most of the ingredients from this formula come from Morocco, and they are of the highest quality.’ Fillion explains that traveling, sourcing samples and active olfactive research all constitute a large part of his creative process. ‘Finding the right raw material is a real passion and a daily component of my work.” Correlatively, Marrakech Intense is a dense composition, bursting with top notes of bergamot and cardamom, with subtle touches of cloves and jasmine. A hint of cedar brings dryness to it, he explains.”
For me, Marrakech Intense is more of a reformulation rather than a flanker of the original. The noticeable change is the vibrancy and projection of Fillon’s version. Essential oils, absolutes and resinoids are beautifully complex but with that complexity comes a feeling of impenetrable density. Having classically trained perfumers rework an existing formula is a little like having an audio engineer digitally remaster an old recording. There will always be audiophiles who prefer the analogue charm of an original recording to an enhanced remaster and I suspect there will be longstanding Aesop fans who prefer the original Marrakesh for similar reasons. But nostalgia aside, Marrakech Intense is undeniably faithful to the original and if anything, the technical execution of it has been improved.
Marrakech Intense begins with effervescence bergamot that sparkles with flecks of leafy-green neroli, dry-woody cedar and an overdose of minty-fresh cardamom. Cardamom may not be the easiest raw material for perfumers to work with but here is smells completely at home and forms an important pillar in Marrakech Intense’s architecture. Further in, the fragrance builds with oriental warmth. Clove bud oil adds honeyed spice and is a natural pair for cedar. The jasmine note is very symbolic of Marrakech. Backed by cedar, you can close your eyes and imagine you are seated in the courtyard of one of Marrakech’s many hospitable riads protected by carved cedar panels and fountains that have been perfumed with jasmine and orange blossoms. A crimson rose adds to the regality of wearing this perfume and colours the rich woody notes with velvety damascone hues. It has been a while since I have smelled the original Marrakech but I remember being impressed by the natural Australian sandalwood note that drenched the perfume’s base. Marrakech Intense pulls back on this liberal dosage (the original must have cost a small fortune to produce by today’s perfume standards). Australian sandalwood is still used in this new version but it is more demure, allowing a less weighty woody-amber accord to add modernity and more diffusion.
I tend to wear the Eau de Toilette more than the Parfum but this will come down to each wearer’s own tastes. On my skin both have similar staying power. The deciding factor for me was the eau de toilette’s greener start. Perhaps Fillon took Luca Turin’s observation to heart about Marrakech being built using materials with similar volatilities that resulted in a perfume with “ no distinct top, middle and drydown.” Fillon changed this and wearers of his eau de toilette are treated to a cascade of bergamot, neroli and cedar that overlap before all the spices and woods take charge. The Parfum is understandably more compact so there is less of this tiered effect while the perfume is evolving on skin. One reason to wear the Parfum over the Eau de Toilette is the surge of natural jasmine that dominates at this level of concentration. In his interview Fillon promised the very best raw materials Mane had to offer and his promise does not go unfulfilled.
Marrakech Intense has been one of my favourite fragrances this winter, which is strange considering it is inspired by a city built on one of the world’s warmest continents. Perhaps my attraction is driven by the same logic of wanting to holiday somewhere warm when it is winter at home. Even though the hand of classical French perfumery has touched this new version, Marrakech Intense still retains the original’s primordial spirit. The dry woods, resins and the ancient spices make me feel grounded and the jasmine and rose warm my soul. Whether you aspire to be Zarathustra’s overman, a Sufi mystic, or a white collar worker wishing to escape the doldrums of a nine-to-five workday, Marrakech Intense is a nice scent to wear on your voyage to a higher plain of consciousness.
Alternatives: Guerlain Encens Mythique d’Orient
Creative Direction: Dennis Paphitis
Perfumer: Barnabe Fillon (original credited to Michael Luke)
Release Date: 2014
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woody Oriental