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A peek into the world of Frédéric Malle

Frédéric Malle in his New York office photographed by Emily Andrews for The New York Times


A master of his trade, Frédéric Malle is one of the few to be able to grasp perfumery as a whole because he has a deep knowledge of every aspect of it: from creation, composition, manufacturing and packaging design, to store design and communication. An art historian, designer, photographer, collector and businessman, Frédéric Malle defies convenient labels. It’s no small task to find the right angle from which to capture a portrait of this man whose heart is that of an entrepreneur as much as an aesthete.

Frédéric Malle is a man who doesn’t fall under any existing schema, any pre-established type. Indeed, as he explains, this is why he was far happier studying in London and New York, as opposed to France, where his curiosity, creativity, and need for freedom would not have sat well with the stricter educational protocols.

From his great-grandfather, who headed up the industrial concern Beghin Say, and his father, a merchant banker for Lehman Brothers working between Paris and New York, Frédéric Malle inherited an entrepreneurial spirit, a taste for fine automobiles, and a sense of business on an international scale. From his maternal grandfather Serge Heftler-Louiche, a childhood friend of Christian Dior, for whom he created Parfums Christian Dior, and from his mother who would guide its development for forty-seven years, he inherited his passion for perfume along with a proven gift for understanding and recognizing scents. Finally, from his uncle Louis Malle, an innate predisposition to freedom, independence, and creativity.

At the intersection of all these influences and multiple inheritances though, it must be said that Frédéric Malle has also developed numerous talents that are particular to him alone.

After studying art history in London, at twenty Frédéric Malle left to pursue his studies further in New York, where he decided to add the study of economics, while at the same time working as a photographer’s assistant. On his return to Paris, he worked in advertising sales at Havas. Three years later, aged twenty-six, he took a new turn by joining Roure, which in the 1980’s was a hallowed temple of perfumery. Jean Amic, president at the time, soon recognized Malle’s talent and took him under his wing. During his years at Roure, Malle would have multiple dealings with commercial partners, but above all he would become acquainted with the top echelon of perfumers. Frédéric Malle’s path in life had begun to take shape.

The fifteen years he spent working with perfumers, advising brands, and steeping himself in every aspect of the profession endowed Frédéric Malle with an acute knowledge of the market, numerous connections that would later prove fruitful—and a damning insight into the perfumery of the 90’s. 

The excessive hyping of heavily marketed “concept perfumes” had emptied the profession of its true substance. All the emphasis was on the celebrity “faces” of perfumes, rather than the quality of the juices themselves and respect for those who wear them.

So when Frédéric Malle made the decision to go ahead with his own project for a brand in 1999, he put it together in record time, driven by audacious ambition. For him what was at stake was nothing less than restoring the dignity of perfumery.

Frédéric Malle’s sketch of the Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle perfume bottle (1999)

To carry through this ambitious project, in 2000, Frédéric Malle adopted a strategy worthy of an entrepreneur.

First of all, a strong, totally unprecedented, innovative concept: that of a perfume publisher whose mission is to promote authors and their singular creations so as to build an eclectic and unique collection of olfactive masterpieces.

Illustration of Carlos Benaïm and Frédéric Malle by Konstantin Kakanias (2010)

In order to do so, the publisher surrounded himself with the greatest talents in perfumery. Pierre Bourdon, Jean-Claude Ellena, Edouard Fléchier, Dominique Ropion… They all teamed up with Frédéric Malle to reverse the market trend—and no wonder, given his seductive proposition: to give the best perfumers in the world total freedom. Freedom of creation: no marketing brief. Freedom of composition: no restriction either on the quantity or quality of raw materials. Freedom of time: no schedule, only the excellence of the result counts.

Finally, as a discerning perfectionist, Frédéric Malle personally committed himself to working consistently on all aspects that contribute to the success of his brand.

Vetiver Extraordinaire by Dominique Ropion

The bottle, uniform for all the perfumes, which he designed himself, sober and pure so as to place all the emphasis on the juice and its author.

The packaging, made to look like a book jacket, adopting the graphic and color codes of Éditions Gallimard, or Éditions de Minuit for the home scent line.

The Promise of Dawn by Romain Gary, published by Éditions Gallimard (1960)

And all the innovations, including perfume refrigerators and “smelling columns."

In 2020, as in 2000, it is clear that Frédéric Malle directs Editions de Parfums as an accomplished aesthete with an acute instinct, an art historian with a keen eye, steeped in modernity and classical references alike. He continues to attach very particular importance to his choice of partners—graphic designers, photographers, architects and designers—who are selected from among the very best, just like his perfumers.

When not working with his perfumers, Frédéric Malle eagerly takes to the town to refresh his eye, perusing the galleries and museums of Manhattan and Paris at his leisure. The same rule applies for his artistic and musical choices as for his professional relations and friendships: behind every choice is an affinity discovered.

A conversation with Frédéric Malle soon allows one to discover the richness of his world, which crosses epochs, borders, and disciplines. But although very precise in his use of words, he is above all a man of images. Under lockdown at the beginning of 2020, for example, Frédéric Malle delighted us by taking to Instagram to share a wide-ranging idiosyncratic inventory of his aesthetic and artistic favorites, both personal and professional.

An aesthete and a pioneering entrepreneur, then? No doubt—but far more besides…