The scent of Geranium pour Monsieur is hard to ignore. It’s only a couple of sprays on a sample card, but the aniseed, geranium and, particularly, mint float up repeatedly, distracting me from Frédéric Malle’s eloquent and erudite discussion about his past 30 years in perfumery.
For those who have never smelt Geranium pour Monsieur (£145 for 50ml EDT), its freshness is startling. It is unexpected and unique, recalling an old-world washroom – slightly medical, slightly antiseptic, yet gloriously sophisticated. But it doesn’t smell like anything else, because this is Frédéric Malle’s genius.
“Back in the 1990s, self-service perfume counters emerged. Suddenly, everyone was selecting their own fragrance,” recalls Malle. “It was more democratic, but all perfumes started to smell the same; they were derivative and driven by consumer surveys.” Globalisation didn’t help. The market for lowest-common-denominator perfumes was increasing, and brands were expected to launch in every market simultaneously. The potential for a scent that got it right was huge.
Malle passes me another sample card – Vetiver Extraordinaire (£145 for 50ml EDT), which again manages to be unlike any other scent, despite vetiver being one of the most common ingredients in perfume for men. Its woody intensity continues to distract me as Malle heads into the new millennium.
“When we set out to create perfumes with nothing to aim for but beauty and originality, people thought we were crazy – going left when everyone else was going right,” he says. “But it is extraordinary how this market has grown. I was in Fortnum & Mason recently – and there were so many boutique collections there. In the beginning it was just me and Serge [Lutens].”
Yet despite the trend for small collections, true original scents remain a rarity – few perfumers are given sufficient time to develop their ideas. Malle’s latest, on which he worked with frequent collaborator Dominique Ropion, took almost three years to develop and dozens of permutations. “At one point my son visited me in Paris. I was staying in a tiny room, because we’d had to stay on beyond the original week scheduled with Dominique,” says Malle. “The room was covered – on every shelf and surface – with the previous versions of Cologne Indélébile. When my son came in he said: ‘You’re crazy – how can you live like this?’”
Fortunately, I’m already familiar with the scent of Cologne Indélébile (£145 for 50ml EDP, pictured), so I’m not quite so distracted by the bergamot and three types of musk wafting over me as I am handed a sample. The perfume promises to be one of Malle’s biggest successes. With the initial impression of a classic male cologne, it evolves into different forms of musk as the day progresses. As Malle inspires yet more boutique perfumers, it is scents like this that will continue to set him apart.