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An artistic conversation with Élisabeth de Feydeau, French author, historian and perfume expert

Dear readers, can you recall the blog post I did about the French perfume book titled ‘La Grande Histoire du parfum’ back in few weeks ago? (if not, simply click here) Believe it or not, I was thrilled to receive a note from Ms. Élisabeth de Feydeau, the French author and historian herself, and how pleased she was about the blog I have written about her book! Our story didn’t end there, as how much you all realize that I am obsessed with style, French culture and art, as well as perfume, I of course invited Élisabeth to have an artistic conversation today to discuss something about perfume, style and art of living. As a little recap, Élisabeth is an esteemed French historian about perfume and a perfume expert, besides being a devoted perfume educator and professor, she is also an author of her several books about perfume and history, moreover, she is also the Founder of the sophisticated perfume brand, Arty Fragrance, which she created a variety of sophisticated perfume product, and, conducting perfume workshops for fragrance enthusiasts in her establishment which located in Versailles France. Without further ado, let’s dive right in:

My Modern Darcy: Bonjour Élisabeth, such a delight to have you with us today! First of all, I would like to ask what fascinates you so much about perfume? Did you cultivate it back in your childhood?

Élisabeth de Feydeau: Since childhood, I have been guided by smells: those of nature, people, cooking.

A maternal heritage that makes me apprehend the world with my nose, then, it was a very strong emotion when I discovered Guerlain's "L'Heure Bleue" at the age of 16, this perfume became essential to me to the point of trying to understand this disturbing but pleasant phenomenon, a wave that takes you to other shores, like listening to a piece of music. Having studied the piano since childhood, music also led me to perfume.

MMD: How do you see perfume (or French perfume) evolve over the past few decades ago? Whether it’s the perfume house, the style, the industry and even the shopper habits in general, what has been changed?

EdF: The worst consequences of the Covid 19 crisis were be both human and economic. Hence the importance of re-enchanting the world. We were told of the next world as a promise of infinite joy. Others distilled the fear of an economic crisis that was going to be worse than all the previous ones combined. Between blissful optimism and alarmist pessimism, the wisdom was to stay aligned, it seemed to me. The crisis was certainly going to be a window that opens, a new breath, as implied by the etymological meaning of the word crisis, which comes from the Greek krinein, meaning “separated”. When two elements separate, a space is created, a favorable opportunity is offered to us to understand what was invisible to our eyes, hidden from our minds busy with a thousand things at the same time, concerned with speed and profitability. The world had stopped, it could slow down now.

So, what could be the flavor of tomorrow? Barrier gestures, social distancing, wearing a mask that made Chanel's advice obsolete "Scent yourself where you want to be kissed" were it going to sound the hour of the end of perfume? On the contrary, perfume more than ever was going to create our wake, our impalpable but powerful identity to the point of being recognized thanks to it, at a time when masks made us anonymous. Were these perfumes created post-lockdown going to exhale antiseptic, almost medicinal accords, as in the past! It is unlikely and undesirable! The time of the apothecaries was abolished! How to restore to perfume its smell of sanctity, its magic power to enable communication and transformation? How to wear perfume to simply exist?

A change is in the process of being imposed, however, revising the marketing plans and giving pride of place to authentic creations without much reinforcement from empty and sterile communication operations. Could healthy perfume also be holy by reintroducing the sacred at the heart of perfume, in the sense of an authentic, generous, beneficial and respectful perfume for beings and nature? Perfume is what connects us to the world and to others, from the beginning. It is indeed an essential dimension of smells to re-enchant life by making it sweeter. Faced with an anxiety-provoking climate, perfumery has always been a lifeline, an escape to dreams!

Let us then dream of a thoughtful and ever more responsible perfumery, which would allow us to perfume ourselves in all conscience: a more timeless perfumery, ethically committed, focused on sustainable development. We know that viruses also appear due to the imbalance in the world and genetic mutations in the ecosystem. These smells close to nature are more and more necessary to us. There is an urgent need to create fair and unique juices that are good for those who wear them, largely composed of natural raw materials, which are more difficult to formulate and more expensive. The approach is also more demanding because the perfumer deprives himself of fabulous smells, resulting from synthesis and the natural being more vibrant, it is also more difficult to stabilize. The perfumer's organ should be reviewed without pointing the finger at the synthesis, which also brings a positive response to the planet. Some noses, such as Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal, attempt to create completely natural trails, diluted in organic wheat alcohol, as part of a serious eco-responsibility approach by launching their new brand ‘Voyages Imaginaires’.

This new perfumery, certainly also more expensive, would offer perfumes with fewer synthetic notes and additive overloads (endocrine disruptors, dyes, stabilizers or solvents) and more natural ingredients from ethical sourcing around the world. Naturalness evolves on the skin over the hours but also according to origins and harvests, as I saw in 2005, when wearing "Le Sillage de la Reine" made of 100% natural raw materials. In this search for green benefits, bottles and cases could also imagine solutions, reducing the carbon footprint. Ultra-natural, eco-responsible and high perfumery can come together, throwing a real artistic challenge to perfumers, so that we do not qualify these au naturel trails as boring and sanitized perfumery. Admittedly, perfumery must offer solutions that are better for our health and for the planet, but without falling into the "clean" to the extreme, which often delivers negative messages about our existing perfumes, at the risk of fueling unfounded anxieties: fear of allergies, condemned chemistry, ever stricter IFRA legislation. By forbidding everything, eliminating ingredients, there will only be water left in our perfume bottles! "Genius is born from constraint and dies from freedom" advocated in his time Leonardo da Vinci, let us hope that a new perfumery continues to make us fantasize, travel and love.

We should also go ever more towards an authentic and true customer experience, which considers the human and individual dimension of perfume, which cannot be reduced to a simple commodity. Millennials who travel around the world await sales ceremonies that take into account their desire for personalization. The perfumed gesture is essential to affirm their identity, after care and make-up and this generation is eager for knowledge and beautiful stories. This generation buys its perfume on the internet, without smelling the product and therefore needs to be transported to a dreamed or fantasized elsewhere, followed by promises kept? Jean Giono thought: "Perfume is the smell plus the man", evoking the necessary encounter between the skin and the perfume.

Perfumery must more than ever be a purveyor of happiness, be reassuring, since the sense of smell connects us to the primitive part of our brain, the seat of our emotions. In an anxiety-provoking context of health crisis, economic and social crisis, the loss of bearings is immense. The next day is desired in a new world, the contours of which we do not yet have. As a psycho-sensory entity of a society on the move, perfume can provide real answers, as it has already known how to do in the past and as already expressed in the 3rd century Athénée de Naucratis, in Deiphnosophistes or Banquet des Savants, “It is very important for health to affect the brain with pleasant odors.”

A third genre appears in niche brands, these alternative perfumeries that emerged in the 1990s. Staying away from any marketing concept, these brands wish to return to a perfumery whose creativity would be freed from all parameters, including that of olfactory kind. This very figurative perfumery which is not centered on the mirror, on identification but on the memory of a landscape, an atmosphere or the vibration of a raw material does not impose any archetype. Not being embodied, niche perfumery does not need to be masculine or feminine. It is above all a scent. In an interview ‘Remember my perfume’, Jean Laporte, Founder of L'Artisan Parfumeur in 1976 and pioneer of the niche, declared: "I believe that there is no sex in a perfume. I'm not thinking of a woman in particular, I don't have a muse like some designers. I create for both men and women.”. Also, Serge Lutens declared in 1992 at the time of the creation of the Salons du Palais Royal that just as there is no music or painting aimed at men or women, perfume as an art must be universal, since there is no music or painting addressed to men or women. In 1992, he interpreted a cedar chord in the feminine for Féminité du Bois.

Current boom in confidential, non-gendered perfumery: Masculinize the woman or feminize the man in perfumery? It is therefore not new, as we have seen and it continues under a societal trend this time! No gender exclusive, gender neutral, gender fluid, non-binary, according to two polls for "20 Minutes", non-binarity is a subject that interests the French and 13% of young people questioned do not identify as men or women. The ‘No Gender Movement’ is a call for freedom of expression, including clothing, to overcome stereotypes. As with toys, sports, professions, hobbies etc., gender is a social construction and perfumes have complied with it since the perfume market emerged with industrialization.

What if perfume became the laboratory for defining the genre? Revealing the personality, it is a skin perfume, which does not need to be cut according to a genre to be made to measure. Today as yesterday, and even more at a time when the question of gender arises, in the secrecy of the bathroom, men and women alike play with codifications, which only interest the market, preferring to trust the only valid criterion, that of knowing if this tear of perfume placed on their skin tells a story, namely theirs.

MMD: In your opinion, what are the key elements to make a great perfume?

EdF: Creating and shaping a perfume, this is a profession that maintains a very unique relationship with time and with the art. In the art of composing, there is no creation ex nihilo. The history of perfumes shows that this is a process and that the present is built from an expanded past. In France, positive law does not recognize perfume as a work of the mind from the point of view of creation. Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska fought all his life to have perfumery formulas granted the status of creations of the mind, comparing the mental effort of the composer of perfume to that of the musician composing a symphony which must "embrace in a single abstract vision no longer of simple vocal chords that can be quickly verified, but of vast composite ensembles whose verification and fine-tuning will be laborious”. Echoing the postulate of the philosopher Etienne Souriau recognizing the sense of smell as an aesthetic sense used to support the art of perfume which must “move, excite the imagination or thought, provoke aesthetic pleasures.”, Edmond Roudnitska responds with this quote: « A beautiful perfume is the one that provokes a shock (..) perfume is an act of poetic thought », certainly the most accurate definition of this art.

As history proves, certain perfumes have received universal acclaim, which proves that these works belong to Beauty. Success is not necessarily immediate and can even be confidential, as was the case with "N°5" by Chanel in 1921 or "Angel" by Mugler in 1992, but they are time-bound, become rituals elevated to the rank of legends, even myths, knowing how to crystallize through their universe the unconscious expectations of a society in search of beauty. The perfumer does not decide to create "a classic", he seeks above all to create a beautiful perfume that meets objective criteria of quality, beauty and above all - has character. A perfume with character is a bit like a personality. Have the gift of being yourself, without compromise at the risk of not pleasing everyone. Enchanting, storyteller, seducer, the perfume of character attracts the nose and the mind. Its difference, linked to a creativity pushed to the extremes of feasibility, also linked to a plenitude of the quality of the raw materials used, guarantees it praise or criticism but never indifferent. Certainly, he can know the risk of being misunderstood by his contemporaries, like the work of art unjustly noticed but which the following generations will applaud, seeing in it the birth of a new genius. It is the thickness of time that recognizes the true character of a perfume.

MMD: I am intrigue about a chapter in your book ‘La Grande Histoire du parfum’ that mentioned about men’s perfume and its history, can you share with us more here why did perfume has such deep association in men’s style, even in men’s fashion in certain extend?

EdF: Masculine perfumes today are full of audacity, always avant-garde, neither wise nor conformist, they reflect the men of the 21st century, daring to display an image of seduction. And yet, the road was long and strewn with pitfalls, to get there because being a perfumed man was not always so easy. Archaeologists have been able to establish that Cro-Magnon man rubbed his body with mint leaves and lemongrass. Was it to protect himself from mosquitoes or to seduce his beloved? With the Sumerian story relating the epic of Gilgamesh, perfume appears as a central element in the quest for immortality. The Bible advised men: “Coat yourself with fragrant oil and enjoy life with the woman you love.” We know Nero's passion for roses, which he spread everywhere during his banquets, and King David's habit of soaking his clothes in aloe and blackcurrant. The Thousand and One Nights, the Memoirs of Saint-Simon, memoirist to the Court of Louis XIV, Shakespeare's plays which stage dandies perfumed with civet, testify to the sometimes immoderate use made by the men, even the most virile, of perfume.

Strange fact: if men have always used perfumes, it turns out that the perfume industry first neglected them. The 20th century saw the gradual development of men's perfumery, the market of which only really grew from the 1960s, societal reasons kept men away from perfumery or rather confined them to very limited registers. The taboo to be overcome was major: the 19th century bourgeois and puritan thought that a man who wears perfume was effeminate. Also, the man began to fear that the care he gave to the toilet, to the hygiene of the hair and the face would come to throw trouble on his sexual identity. It remained well anchored in mentalities that a brief friction of eau de toilette after bathing and outdoor activities was enough for men.

In the world of perfumery, the male perfume represented a pet peeve, the merits of which should not be extolled. Mentioning its use also had to be done discreetly, because complexed men dared not to admit their weakness in wanting to improve their own smell and went to the women's department to find the perfume that might suit them. Masculine codifications were for a long time subject to archetypes: tonic bursts of citrus notes reminiscent of eau de Cologne and woody or moss backgrounds reminiscent of male life universes, turned outwards, towards conquest. Excluded were flowers, ambers and musks which made up overly sensual trails. No precious and intimate extract, but an eau de toilette or a lotion adapted to morning ablutions and a typically masculine gesture, broad and dynamic, was required: the splash. A very masculine rite of sprinkling water after soaping, mentioned by advertising. Thus, the history of men's perfume continued to be based on hygiene, strength and the quest for immortality. Also, the man, concerned about a certain elegance, had at his disposal to perfume himself, in addition to the scent of his shaving soap and some classic colognes or lavender, only these innovative creations that were in their time the "Jicky" in 1889 created by Aimé Guerlain and the "Mouchoir de Monsieur" in 1904 imagined by Jacques Guerlain, the "Cordon Vert" by Coty in 1932, the "Eau de Lanvin" in 1933, the "Pour un Homme” by Caron in 1934, “Alliance” by Molyneux in 1936, or “Snuff” by Schiaparelli in 1938. A huge market had to be conquered: that of men deprived of perfume, but who secretly desired it.

"Moustache" in France by Rochas, created in 1949 was the first post-war modern men's perfume, reminiscent of the barber. In Italy, where men are particularly groomed and concerned about their elegance, "Aqua di Silva" (translates as "forest water") was scented with pine, in the United States, the wake of "Old Spice" and, in Germany, 'Original Tobacco', rounded out the offerings, while the English stuck to lavender with the classic 'Yardley English Lavender'.

This market needed a few decades to break certain taboos. The great departure of men's perfumery is undoubtedly linked to "Eau Sauvage", signed by Edmond Roudintska for Christian Dior. Appeared in 1966, its innovative role was obvious. Its fragrance, citron, rosemary and wild flowers, made it the “Perfume” for the modern man of that time. But it was actually in the United States that the "boom" began, with "Brut" by Fabergé, two years earlier, with its accord of green notes on a musky and woody background. Its deliberately provocative and “sexualized” image was a complete break with the precious elitism of eau de toilette. “Brut” by Fabergé was the first perfume that took into account social upheaval and the liberation of mores or “men who are no longer afraid to show off”. Thus, until the 1980s, men's perfumery was either rudimentary or unmanly: men perfumed themselves with notes of ferns, vetivers, lavender in eau de Cologne. In 1976, there was indeed a floral UFO among men with “Gray Flannel” by Geoffrey Beene, but the first attempts to vary the possibilities were to draw on women, but this time in inspiration and not in borrowing. Thus, Aramis was in fact a Cabochard de Grès, Brut de Fabergé was a Canoë de Dana. "Men's Club" by Rubinstein and “R” by Paco Rabane, great precursors, were the first true men's by being at the origin of the Fougères Tabac family, following the waters of lavender and ferns. Then there was Azzaro for men and then “Drakkar Noir” by Guy Laroche in the early 80s.

The Male in 1995 went even further, delivering a message that will permanently shift the boundaries: “It is not clothing that makes a man masculine. His virility, he carries it in his head. After the craze for the tobacco fern family, the most privileged of the 80s and refreshed to move towards modernity, came the vogue for the floral-oriental family, inspired by “Joop Homme”, an amber fern, which a few years later, gave birth to “Le Male” by Jean-Paul Gaultier, in line with “Youth Dew” by Estée Lauder or “Opium” by Yves Saint-Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier signs a masculine perfume, proclaimed "Le Male", full of sensuality. An oriental lavender contained in a bust of a man wearing a sailor's jersey, corresponding to the stereotype of the male stud.

Today’s men care about their beauty with great attention, and the great success of all the lines for men proves it. The men's perfume market is experiencing such an expansion, that they are almost as numerous as women's perfumes. “Historically, narcissism was associated with women,” recalls Mark Simpson, author of the book and inventor of the term “metrosexuals” to describe this urbanite from 20 to 45 years old, refined, attentive to his appearance, lover of fashion and brands, new technologies and thrills. As if vanity could only be feminine. Exhibitionism, the desire to please are “passive” activities, men are supposed to desire, to watch. Today the male desires to be desired, and this is a form of liberation. The myth of youth, the craze for sporty silhouettes, the revival of more colorful clothing and the diversification of perfumes for men, still strongly sexualized and increasingly marked, contrary to the classic image of three-piece suit, gray or navy blue, with its discreet eau de Cologne, have participated in ten years, to create an extraordinarily lively market, where the masculine perfume has become a "fact of social valorization".

MMD: Throughout your perfume career that you have worked in numerous reputed houses, as well as being a perfume professor at ISIPCA, can you share with us what are the most memorable things that you have learnt that it even applies to your work today?

EdF: First of all, my training at Chanel in heritage and cultural affairs was a school of excellence and humility. I learned to understand heritage as a territory of creativity. Then, the writing of each book was a fabulous adventure of discoveries and expression of perfume. I've met a lot of amazing creators and all the trips I've made on assignments have been an incredible experience. Whether in Europe, the USA, Australia, Japan, China or the Middle East, I loved each encounter, each culture shock for me allowed me to have a broader vision of perfume, those who create them, wear them and what composes them.

MMD: As you have also founded your own perfume brand, Arty Fragrance, which offers a broad range of perfumed products, can you share with us how was it like to be perfume Founder compare with a perfume historian? What kind of challenges that you have encountered and how did you overcome them?

EdF: The work is both close and very different. My training and work as a historian guides and inspires me. I have a lot of creative tracks and also a speech a little more true and authentic at the same time as poetic. On the other hand, being is quite different. It is necessary to combine logics of production and business, in which I am not the most comfortable. That's why I get help.

MMD: As a multi-talented professional like yourself, an author, a historian, an educator and a Founder, how did you manage yourself to keep up the work in multiple roles that you are in without burning yourself out?

EdF: It is not always easy and there is no miracle recipe unfortunately. I always have to fight against physical and mental overload. The solution for me is to focus on moments of rest, doing sports, yoga and sharing good times with those I love, family or friends. During these moments, I unplug as much as possible! The solution is also to be 100% in what I am doing at the moment I am doing it: "here and now".

MMD: In your opinion, why did perfume matters to our lives?

EdF: Once freed from questions of hygiene, man had to define himself in relation to society, build his being in appearance, imagine what he wanted to reveal about himself to others, intensify his social influence. Perfume has thus become the expression of personality, as well as facial features and body lines, an invisible adornment capable of providing confidence and personal enjoyment. Once it is chosen and properly worn, the perfume becomes a smell "in itself", ours, the most characteristic of our secret being, it is a form of expression of our sensitivity. The greatest perfumers are those who have understood the extraordinary sensitive potential of perfume.

MMD: Going back to men’s lifestyle, can you share with our gentlemen readers about what they should pay attention when it comes to choosing their perfume?

EdF: You have to think about the smells you like and especially those you don't like. You shouldn't want to wear someone else's perfume, but rather the one that characterizes your personality. Perfume is the mirror of our being, it reveals our personality, accompanies our daily life or the great moments of our life, it must be a language. Above all, be discreet and don't wear too much perfume; just because you can't smell your perfume anymore doesn't mean others can't smell it, a badly dosed perfume is an indecency, a lack of taste that can annoy those around you. We choose our perfume with patience, it is an element of adornment that touches intimacy and its secrets.

MMD: Besides dressing well, grooming and wearing a great perfume, what other qualities that a modern-day gentleman should have?

EdF: The elegance of the heart and the respect of the other. Being sensitive is not a fault!

MMD: If someone approaches you one day and ask how to become a great perfume author, or even a perfume Founder, what is your advice?

EdF: Be yourself, don't compromise on quality, have simple and beautiful ideas. Dream big and stay confident. Tomorrow is always another day and when a door closes, a window opens.

Special thanks to Ms. Élisabeth de Feydeau.

Image courtesy of Élisabeth de Feydeau / Arty Fragrance Versailles


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