In some ways the niche fragrance industry is more competitive than the mainstream. Big blockbuster releases are reserved for corporations with the capital required for large-scale global product launches. Niche fragrance houses operate on a smaller scale and this opens the playing field to more entrepreneurs, investors and lean start-ups. These days I don’t go a week without reading about a new niche fragrance house opening or a new fragrance launch. It’s a highly competitive industry, which is very different from the environment that existed when Frederic Malle introduced Editions de Parfums in 2000. Back then I could leisurely smell every new niche fragrance. Now the volume of new launches makes it impossible to smell everything and it requires focus to not be distracted by the “noise” during my search for those increasingly rare and innovative fragrances, which add value to the art of perfume. It’s unfortunate that quality and creativity have not increased with this increase in quantity.
Frederic Malle is one of the few fragrance houses I forego any auditing process when word of a new addition is released to the public. I’m always optimistic; if it’s a new Frederic Malle fragrance, it is going to be good. My respect for the French brand is partly due to the way it has never made any knee-jerk reactions to passing industry trends. Instead of anticipating what the consumer wants through market research and focus groups, Frederic Malle has faith in his ability and the ability of perfumers to design fragrances that, by nature, appeal to the public through the product’s quality and creative brilliance. It’s an intuitive skill he has fine-tuned with years of experience. Frederic Malle grew up in the world of fragrance. His grandfather was Serge Heftler-Louiche, the founder of Parfums Christian Dior. Coincidentally, the family lived in a home that was previously owned by the Guerlain family and his bedroom once belonged to perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain. Frederic Malle entered the fragrance industry through Roure Bertrand Dupont, a prestigious perfume laboratory that has since merged to become Givaudan. Here he gained years of experience as a fragrance evaluator, the person whose job it is to shepherd the creativity of the perfumer throughout the creative process. The skills he learned undoubtedly helped him when it came time to go independent with his own fragrance house. In his book, On Perfume Making, Frederic Malle says, “My role is to stimulate my creative partner’s imaginations. Depending on the personality of the perfumer with whom I am working and the nature of our relationship, I can either suggest new ideas very directly, or I limit my comments to subtle impressions that I explain by analogies so as not to squash the perfumer’s creativity.”
Sixteen years on, Frederic Malle still creates fragrances with the same intention. “My plan was simple: go back to the roots of perfume making to give us the means to create the classic fragrances of tomorrow. Focus on perfume rather than its image, and most of all, let perfumers take the initiative by giving them total creative freedom.” For his latest men’s fragrance, called Monsieur, the brand’s creative reins were handed over to perfumer Bruno Jovanovic, a rising star in the fragrance world. The International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) perfumer had previously worked with Frederic Malle on candles, home scents and the Dries Van Noten collaboration. Monsieur is the first Frederic Malle signed under the perfumer’s name. For Monsieur, Jovanovic “endeavoured to purify patchouli, an emblematic material of classic perfume making.” In its purified form, they were able to put 50% of the material into the formula, which is a unique and high dosage. Overdosing a specific raw material has become an unofficial signature of the brand. Often it’s a classic ingredient the audience has experienced many times before but the perfumer presents it in such a way that any existing narrative is erased and the wearer experiences the material in an entirely renewed way. Carnal Flower took the premise of tuberose flower made famous by Robert Piguet’s Fracas, and with perfumer Dominique Ropion, the pair stripped the flower down to its core, which led to an entirely new perspective on this sensual white flower. Similarly, the pair worked on Vetiver Extraordinaire, which contains a wonderfully precise vetiver note in an overdosed quantity.
Scientific advances in the fragrance industry have played an important role in many of Frederic Malle fragrances and the brand has a long-standing relationship with Laboratoire Monique Remy (LMR), an IFF-owned company based in Grasse. LMR has a reputation for producing some of the industry’s finest natural raw ingredients. When Jean-Claude Ellena created Cologne Bigarade for Frederic Malle in 2001, the perfumer requested a custom molecular distillation of orange bigarade oil, which removed colour and enhanced the oil’s bitter facet. The oil was essential to Ellena’s plan to create a modern eau de cologne. For Monsieur, Frederic Malle and Bruno Jovanovic used patchouli oil, which LMR produce by fractional distillation. Last year I had the opportunity to visit LMR’s headquarters in Grasse to see firsthand how some of the raw material’s are produced and I smelled LMR’s range of patchouli oils. The starting point is hydro distillation of patchouli leaves before being refined by molecular distillation. Patchouli MD is a wonderful and full-bodied material but for perfumers looking for a material that has been further refined, Patchouli Heart No 3 is a possibility. The molecular distilled oil is fractionated, a process that separates the oil into different fractions. Each fraction has a unique odour profile. LMR’s Patchouli Heart No 3 is the third of five fractions; the fifth fraction is a “captive” material available exclusively to IFF perfumers. The final and most refined material is called Healingwood, which smells ultra clean. It has a subtle beginning but it builds to become very tenacious with smooth and velvety patchoulol. Patchouli Heart, which is used in Monsieur, has a clean camphor note up front, that develops into an earthy tone with hints of smoke. Curiously the oil also has a fresh middle note of green apple.
My initial reaction when I started wearing Monsieur a month ago in preparation for this review was that the whole thing was composed over an incredibly short formula. After all, the supporting formula occupies half the space if Patchouli Heart fills the other half. I still think Monsieur communicates like a concise, short formula but the more I wore Monsieur, the more I discovered little pockets of complexity that exist in the shadows of a few domineering notes. The leather accord isn’t just a rudimentary injection of Suederal, IFF’s superb leather base, and the amber accord isn’t just IFF’s powerful Amber Xtreme. With slow and conscious wearing, I dissected the fragrance:
No surprises here; from every angle and at every point, Monsieur is about patchouli. The fractional distillation produces a light, transparent quality, which hones in on patchouli’s humid, woody amber notes. Monsieur lifts off with a hint of camphor and the peppery top notes of incense, This leads to a bright tangerine note. Mandarin aldehyde, a powerful synthetic molecule, adds citrus-infused radiance to the top and it gives a feeling of space and buoyancy to Monsieur’s weighty structure. Rum absolute combines with tangerine and the whole thing smells of Grand Marnier cocktails served in a gentlemen’s club decorated in dark wood and leather furniture. As the citrus note subsides, Monsieur’s relentless patchouli builds more presence as the suede note comes into focus. This suede or leather accord is slightly tarry but it also offers the soft buttery texture of aniline suede. Another cornerstone of Monsieur’s construction is the big woody amber note. Every major perfume manufacturing laboratory has a range of these woody-ambers at their disposal. Last year IFF added Amber Xtreme to it’s ingredients catalogue and Givaudan has Ambermax. The titles give you some clue as to how these molecules work; when I wear fragrances that contain high amounts of these molecules, I can still smell them on my clothes for days, even after they’ve been through a heavy laundry cycle. Monsieur contains a big cocktail of various woody amber materials, which give power and diffusion to the back end of the fragrance. Under all of this, a more subtle and classical amber accord is at play with a blend of vanilla and musk. This delicate accord is the only soft side Monsieur has to offer. He is a rugged male stereotype rather than the modern metrosexual who is in touch with his emotions. The dry down is the same vociferous woody amber note with the volume slightly turned down, patchouli, smoky leather, amber and a sliver of oak moss.
For years I’ve been wanting a perfume version of Frederic Malle’s Saint des Saints, a home scent created by the great IFF perfumer Carlos Benaim. Monsieur comes close, even if the spices and sandalwood note of Benaim’s Indian temple-inspired creation aren’t as prevalent. Although the Monsieur name sounds very gracious, and it makes me think of classics like Chanel Pour Monsieur and Monsieur de Givenchy, Frederic Malle Monsieur is a wild beast. All the patchouli, dry woods and leather might appeal more to the extroverted French Lover wearing male population compared to Malle’s more reserved Geranium Pour Monsieur clientele. I’ve been wearing Monsieur during the Australian winter. It’s the perfect season for it and I’ve been getting a good number of “You smell good, what are you wearing?” comments. In the Middle East, it’s common for perfume users to wear pure oudh oil on the skin in addition to wearing a western fragrance. I think oudh oil would compliment Monsieur very nicely.
Further recommendations: Frederic Malle – The Night, Tom Ford – Patchouli Absolu, Parfumerie Generale – Intrigant Patchouli, Christian Dior – Patchouli Imperial
Perfumer: Bruno Jovanovic
Creative Director: Frederic Malle
Release Date: 2016
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woods
Australian Stockist: Mecca Cosmetica