The Art of Imperfect Perfumes

bear-le-labo-01-hPerfume developer and co-founder of niche fragrance brand Le Labo Edouard Roschi, always had a good brain. But after finishing a rigorous chemistry degree in Switzerland, he didn’t fancy going to work as a scientific researcher. He had a creative streak, too, and looked for a job that was sufficiently left-brain/right-brain, leading him to the world of fragrance. “A friend told me about a company [Firmenich] that developed scents and gave me a tour. I found it fascinating to open a little brown bottle that smelled of a freshly cut football field, or another that smelled of hot chocolate. I was amazed by the possibility of capturing such incredible, affective universes in a chemical mixture. That was, I think, my first encounter with perfumes.”

Firmenich, where Roschi got his first job after completing 6 months of compulsory Swiss military service, is one of those behind-the-scenes flavour and fragrance developers (for products as varied as floor cleaner, body lotion and fine fragrance) that underpin many of the consumer-facing perfume products on the shop floor. Their work, developing fragrances with ‘noses’ and discovering new ingredients, whether in laboratory experiments or through exploring territories to find natural sources, is one of the engines of the perfume industry.

Roschi is not a perfumer. He is a perfume developer, which, as he explains, is about defining the creative direction of a fragrance and taking it from kernel of an idea to its neatly packaged place on the shelf of a department store. “We have a clear vision of what our creations will be, but we are not the ones that do the blending. We work directly with perfumers who have had that training and, together, we come up with the mixture we put in the bottle. To make a parallel with the film industry, we are the directors and the perfumer is the director of photography. He or she is the one who is behind the camera, who turns the director’s vision into film. The perfumer translates our artistic vision into a chemical recipe.”

During his time at Armani, where he met future business partner Fabrice Penot, Roschi honed his skills in creating and bringing new perfumes to market. “He was in charge of developing its niche brands and managing one of the largest franchises, Acqua di Gio, and I was in charge of the Emporio Armani brand. We were developing entire concepts. It starts from identifying the story that you want to share with the clients, to briefing design agencies for the bottle, perfumers for the perfume, imagining how that story can be told to journalists [and] setting it up in points of sale and distribution channels. It starts from nothing; from ‘What can I do for this year’s launch?’ to the production and selling of a bottle that translates that initial vision.”

Working at Armani was an essential stepping stone in the development of Roschi’s career and creative point of view. “When you first start for a big brand you are not critical, because you are building your expertise and studying the market to see how things are done and why they are done. After a few years you build a critical awareness and only then can you have your own authentic point of view, rather than what someone else has told you is beautiful or cool. It doesn’t come that easily; it comes with practice, study and discipline. You reach a point where you know why something is going to be successful.”

Roschi and Penot became close during monthly trips to Italy to present ideas to Mr. Armani and, while sharing flights and cabs, began dreaming of launching their own brand. “We became friends and after several years, we decided that we were tired of how things were done at Armani and we said, ‘Well, we might have a different story we want to tell’ and that’s when we started brainstorming ideas. After 4 years of working for Giorgio Armani we decided that it was time to spread our wings and take a leap of faith and tell our own story.”

After the pair left, they did not waste time in creating Le Labo as co-founders and co-artistic directors, launching their first store in New York in 2006, a year after they resigned from Armani. They funded the venture themselves, with the help of a few friends who contributed seed money, and in the following decade, during which the brand has grown internationally, received no further investment.

At a time, when the market for niche perfumes was gathering pace, in response to consumer boredom with the big brand scents that defined the 1990s (CK1, Tommy Girl, etcetera), Roschi and Penot spotted a gap in the market for a brand that immersed consumers in the experience of the perfumer’s laboratory (hence the, name, Le Labo). Roschi recounts: “What was missing then was the charming and romantic aspect of the perfumer’s work, which was overcast by marketing. People were trying to get attention through funky packaging and crazy adverts, but they were forgetting what was extremely sexy and still is today is the perfumer’s work — the craftsmanship that’s behind the work, and his or her expertise — the ingredients, their origin, the people that pick them, how they picked them how they transformed their vision into a perfume. The whole scenery of a perfumer’s lab is very evocative by itself.”

Le Labo stores, of which there are now 12, (six in the US, two in London, two in Paris, one in Japan and one in Hong Kong with more in the pipeline), are equipped to compose fragrances for consumers on the spot. “The store looks and functions like a perfumers lab. You can see the perfume model being blended, you can smell the ingredients that are sitting on the shelf, you can see them in their different states. You’re welcomed by our lab technicians who are experts in blending and the presence of the perfumer is felt through the setting itself, the beakers and bottles.”

Of course, fragrances themselves take years to develop, so what the consumer sees before them in a Le Labo store is not the invention of a perfume, but the mixing of a perfume. “The day-to-day work of a perfumer probably would not interest a lot of people anyway, because it would be like going back to organic chemistry classes. It’s a fine balance,” said Roschi.

Unusually, he identifies “imperfection” as a key feature of the fragrances that he and Penot devise. “We like to manage — or not manage — imperfection. We like things that are beautiful because they are imperfect. It means rough versus polished and leaving room for something to emerge that’s unexpected. It could be surprising, in that you overdose on one ingredient. If there is not enough of a disparity within the ingredients in the perfume, then you can’t hang on to it — like with polished vinyl versus a rough piece of wood.”