Now Reading
Legendary Perfumer Frédéric Malle On Increasing his Footprint in Asia

Legendary Perfumer Frédéric Malle On Increasing his Footprint in Asia

Frédéric Malle has been the fragrance industry’s most reliable source of invention, perfume highs and avant-garde scents for more than 20 years. But even with an expanded footprint in Asia and adoring K-Pop fans, his brand still can’t shake off the “niche” label.

Frédéric Malle

To claim that one person single-handedly shaped today’s perfume landscape might seem grandiose, but until the arrival of Frédéric Malle, perfumes were generally sold via celebrity endorsements, mass marketing and billboards.

“In those days, no more luxury perfumes were coming out,” reflects Malle of the one-size-fits-all approach to perfumery in the 1990s and early 2000s. “And on top of that, the assumption was that if you were to make a luxury perfume, it had to be old-fashioned and very much with recipes from the past.”

Malle hails from a line of perfumers: his grandfather was the founder of Parfums Christian Dior and his mother was later its artistic director. Growing up in Paris, he says he “was very much aware that scents existed and were important, because they were important to my mother”. A transformative scent was the original Eau Sauvage, which his mother worked on. “I understood then how addictive a perfume can be, living with it, sweating with it and having it become part of your body.”

But going into the industry wasn’t his first plan. After studying history of art at New York University, Malle initially flirted with the idea of becoming an art dealer and even did a short stint in advertising until he was offered the chance to work at the respected Roure perfume laboratory in Grasse, where he mastered the technical aspects of constructing scents and became versed in the language of perfumery and raw materials. While there, he also learned how much the industry was suffering.

“The noses I was working with were all complaining they had to deal with people coming from mass-market areas, who didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says. “And that they weren’t giving them the means – neither money, nor time, nor expertise – to develop interesting perfumes.” Even his wider social circle was frustrated by the situation. “Artists, intellectuals, socialites – people I saw every day in Paris – were all walking away from perfumery.”

In 2000, he founded Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, with the intention that “more demanding people would be able to wear interesting contemporary scents and that perfumers could start working again on perfumes they’d be proud of”. Acting as a publisher, Malle invited the world’s best noses to create alongside him, placing them in the spotlight by signing their work with their name. “This is something that changed the industry quite a bit,” he reflects. “Because of that simple gesture, these people went from being completely unknown to becoming the stars of our industry.”

Malle’s boutiques are kitted out with perfume smelling columns

With Malle as artistic director, collaborations with celebrated perfumers such as Maurice Roucel, Dominique Ropion and Jean-Claude Ellena, as well as designers Alber Elbaz and Dries Van Noten, have spawned masterpieces such as Portrait of a Lady, each 100ml bottle of which is made with 400 Turkish roses, and Carnal Flower, which contains a higher concentration of tuberose than any other perfume. Access to such rare ingredients comes through association with the industry’s crème de la crème.

“It’s a little bit like Formula 1 drivers,” explains Malle. “If you’re the best Formula 1 driver, they’re going to give you a Red Bull. If you’re a beginner, you’re getting something that can’t go as fast. So, the best perfumers have the best ingredients, and the fact that we don’t limit them in terms of price allows us to have not only the best ingredients, but a lot of them if need be.”

Malle’s appreciation of the arts and culture has helped shape the look and feel of the brand, from the Bauhaus-style flacons to collaborations with famous architects on the sleek yet futuristic feel of his free-standing stores, which are kitted out with novelties such as smelling columns and perfume fridges, as well as antique furniture he selects personally.

Selective distribution via specialist boutiques and brand flagships in Paris and later New York’s Madison Avenue initially helped sustain the brand as something of a cult secret within the industry. The ability to identify a Malle perfume on a fellow connoisseur became a quasi-signifier of refinement – an “if you know, you know” society of appreciators of fine scents.

But in 2015, the brand was acquired by Estée Lauder, which helped to expand distribution into department stores. It was reported at the time that the luxury beauty conglomerate was doubling down on its acquisitions of so called “niche brands” – a term Malle evidently dislikes.

“Niche means a house for a little dog, meaning a house that’s so small it cannot grow. And in that word ‘niche’, which comes from marketing people who aren’t the most inventive by essence, there was a little bit of contempt. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s niche; it’s not going to become so big.’ And the same people who criticised us have joined, as one joins victory, and now the word has stuck. And it’s become a whole perfume category, which today has become completely overcrowded.”

In the years since the launch of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, there’s been an explosion of perfume brands: Millennial favourites Byredo and Le Labo launched in 2006, followed by Maison Francis Kurkdjian in 2009 and Ex Nihilo in 2013, to name only a handful. Luxury houses have also jumped on the bandwagon, either through acquisition or by developing their own line of exclusive perfumes, such as Chanel’s Les Exclusifs de Chanel or Dior’s La Collection Privée.

See Also

Malle’s Itaewon boutique, which opened last year

Malle sees such an influx as harmful. “There’s too much – too many brands – and now, these people with bad habits have brought their bad habits to that segment of the market and are copying others instead of being creative. And on top of that, you also have companies that often don’t last for more than a year because they launch and drop, and I think it’s very confusing for the customer to be faced with all that.”

Despite the noise and newcomers chasing quick wins, Malle has, by contrast, continued sustained and steady global expansion, most recently contradicting naysayers by finding success in China. “When China became potentially a huge market, people said, ‘Oh, Asians don’t like strong fragrances.’ And now Rose Tonnerre, which is probably our single most powerful perfume, has become our best seller there,” he says.

Since opening its first store in Shanghai in 2020 the brand now has a footprint in eight cities, and despite the country’s shaky economy, Malle remains optimistic. “We’re doing extremely well in China. I think we’ve struck a chord with the consumer, because they love this idea of tier, this idea of the best of something, and the depth of what this brand offers, I think, answers what people are looking for there.”

Another unexpected Asian fan base is Korea, “a market that’s always been very good to us”. After being available in department stores such as Shinsegae and Hyundai, the brand opened its first free-standing site last October in Itaewon. “Having a fully fledged experience of the brand is something I thought was needed in Seoul,” Malle says.
“I think there’s this huge hedonistic side to Korean life. You know, it’s good food, good life, fun, extravagant music – all of this. And I think that now perfumes are becoming part of this world, not only through a very classic customer but also through the K-Pop artists who’ve embraced it.” Indeed, there’s a whole segment of the internet dedicated towards K-pop’s love of Frédéric Malle: a quick google tells me Musc Ravaguer is G-Dragon’s go-to, and Giselle from Aespa is a Portrait of a Lady devotee, while Jessica Jung wears Iris Poudre in winter.

But now, with such burgeoning global popularity, footfall and showbiz affiliations, could the brand, which from the outset was synonymous with exclusivity and rarity, be in danger of becoming the very thing it set out not to be? As Malle explains, staying on the fringes of the industry was never his aim.

“You know, I never saw our company as small. It’s a company that, in the wake of classic luxury companies, started small. And our intent is – and always was – to become bigger. And going back to that awful word ‘niche’, this implies we were going to stay small forever. And this is certainly not our plan.”

Source: Prestige Online

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright © MetaMedia™ Capital Inc, All right reserved

Scroll To Top