Exclusive, pure, unique
By Anja Fahs
Sweet and smoky — if there is one trendy scent, it is sandalwood. A warm, strong basic note, which is intensive, woody and spicy at first. Combined with cedar, cardamom and leather, it creates a subtle masculine fragrance whose strength is, however, mellowed and rounded off by violet and iris. The result is “Santal 33”, one of the exclusive unisex fragrances of the perfume label Le Labo, which are equally suitable for men and women.
In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of new niche perfume brands. These small, special manufacturers have sparked a new discourse between consumer and producer and broadened our horizons as to what perfume actually stands for.
What to date has been considered as particularly exclusive and radically distinguishing itself from the many mass-produced perfumes of the industry, has now almost become mainstream. Meanwhile, customers are at a loss for choice in the face of the immense variety of new products and brands in this niche market. The market is fundamentally changing, and the question no longer arises as to how many new perfume brands there are, but rather, how genuine they are. That is the one aspect to which the great success of Le Labo can be attributed – the result and fulfilment of two specialists’ heart’s desire: in an era of synthetic production, they wanted to revive the tradition of the perfume manufactory and create a perfume house that meets the highest standards of quality and exclusivity.
It all started at the place considered to be the world capital of perfume since the early 17th century: the city of Grasse, in the South of France. It was here that the manufacturing of perfume and distillation of fragrances was developed. The most important top notes of all Le Labo perfumes originate from here, be it bergamot, vetiver, neroli, musk or orange blossom. Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi created their scents in Grasse based on a very simple basic principle: they all have only one intensive top note, which is rounded off with a few complementary extracts. The main ingredients are, of course, essential oils.
From the outset, Fabrice and Edouard were convinced that the future of luxury perfumery lies only in pure, handmade fragrances. Therefore, rose petals are gently harvested, scented candles made and perfumes mixed only by hand for Le Labo. It is thus no wonder that the manifesto of the company advises us to set aside all our modern things and instead take time to smell the roses along the way.
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi founded Le Labo in 2006. Their perfumes were meant to shock – with the shock of smelling something completely new that is at the same time shockingly familiar. After their research, they settled in New York City and opened their first store with twelve unisex scents on offer, among them “Iris 39”, “Ambrette 9” and “Rose 31”. There are now Le Labo boutiques in over 15 countries, from the United States to London, Paris, Antwerp, Berlin, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
The one scent used as top note for a product constitutes the name of the perfume in question, and the number behind it is the number of other ingredients it contains. But Le Labo founder Fabrice Penot warns us not to rely only on the name of the fragrance and smell with our “heads”. Because not all noses will, for example, find that the fragrance of “Fleur d’Orange 27” smells mainly of oranges. Fabrice says it is not so much about smelling a perfume, but rather about feeling it through the nose.
How a perfume affects someone always depends on the moment, emotions and memories it conjures up in our imagination when we smell it in the bottle. Therefore, in the choice of names for its products, Le Labo attaches great importance to distancing itself from poetic associations that could mentally affect the customer even before closing his or her eyes, smelling the fragrance itself and beginning to dream.
Since the dawn of civilisation, fragrances have fascinated people – think only of frankincense and myrrh. Looking back on the history of Egypt, we see that many thousand years ago, fragrant balms were used in religious ceremonies.
Early on, master perfumers developed remarkable creations that went down in history. Among them a floral fragrance created by Marie Antoinette’s royal nose himself, Jean-Louis Fargeon. In the late 18th century, he developed a perfume for Her Majesty, which was modernised and presented anew as “Black Jade” in 2011 by the firm Lubin, appropriately enough on Bastille Day.
Then came the 1920s, and with the entry into a modern era of fashion, the world of perfume shops also faced a turning point. A new, original fragrance arrived on the market: Chanel No 5. Produced by Coco Chanel in partnership with the renowned nose Ernest Beaux, the creation used aldehydes, the world’s first aroma chemicals. A golden moment in the history of Chanel No 5 was its renewed popularity in the 1950s due to an advertising campaign in which Marilyn Monroe stated that in bed, she would wear nothing else than five drops of Chanel No 5.
Meanwhile, the fragrance market has developed to an overflowing mass market, with far more than 20,000 different perfumes. Strongly supported by numerous celebrities, such as Madonna, who all make lucrative use of their name to promote a fragrance. Consumers are spoilt for choice and have long since lost track of the offer. It is increasingly difficult to find a truly personal perfume in the mass of new scents, trends and advertising campaigns. Because a fragrance indisputably smells different on each person. One must test which scent composition harmonises with one’s personal chemistry. That is why Le Labo offers sample sets. You can buy different sets of samples and try out the scents. This is a pleasant way to personally discover Le Labo’s creations, particularly for online shoppers who do not have the opportunity to go directly to a store. Le Labo’s offer of 15 fine fragrances is also far from overwhelming. Since the development of a new fragrance takes several years, it is no wonder that the selection of products remains on the small side.
For Fabrice Penot, inspiration for a new fragrance can come everywhere and at any time. Usually, he starts by sketching a concept together with his perfumers. He comes with a precise idea of what effect the scent should hopefully create, and then various attempts are made in this direction until they know precisely what components are required. Often, the process of searching for inspiration is quite energy-consuming, and Penot hardly sleeps over these periods. But all of a sudden, it is there, he has an idea and the concept can be developed. For one of the recently created fragrances, Ylang 49, this happened completely unexpectedly in an elevator, in which he was standing with an unknown woman. Fabrice no longer remembers what the lady looked like, but he smelled her perfume, a chypre note. There was also a touch of rose, patchouli and oak moss in the air that mixed with the light smell of cigarette smoke in her hair. Fabrice immediately knew: that was exactly what he was looking for! It was a moment of consummate elegance, as he later told. Just a little flowery addition was still missing to round up the fragrance concept for Ylang 49.
The search for the perfect individual scent is always about emotions and fantasy. And nothing should distract or disturb you in the process. For this reason, Le Labo kept the design of its bottles very simple. The entire design and corporate identity of the brand are reduced to the essentials. So the look and the design of the Le Labo stores feel almost masculine. Dark wood and metal, bare walls, rough edges and corners – typical industrial-chic. Everything radiates craftsmanship and handwork, and it immediately becomes clear that one is in a perfume factory. Furthermore, the design of each boutique is adapted to its environment and location, while still keeping its distinctive details. There is a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere entirely oriented towards the experience of the fragrances. In every store, one can smell the individual fragrance extracts and get an overview of the product selection. In addition to the perfumes, there are oils, body lotions, massage oils, shower gels, scented candles and travel bottles. Only one thing does not exist: shelves with ready-made perfume bottles for the buyers. Because there is no stock-keeping at Le Labo. When a customer opts for a fragrance, it is immediately mixed and bottled for him, all by hand. The label on the bottle can be personalized with the name of the customer or any desired designation.
The standards of exclusivity, quality and individualism also shape the ethical principles of the company. Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi are both vegan and therefore strictly against animal testing in the beauty industry. It goes without saying that all Le Labo products are also vegan. They encourage their customers and consumers in general to get more information on how products are tested, whether animal ingredients are used and where the ingredients come from. They want to raise awareness and wish that consumers would use their purchasing power to change non-ethical practices in the industry. Because the soul of each and every product, not only of perfume, arises from the thoughtfulness with which it is developed and the commitment with which it is made.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Le Labo Fragrances