Frédéric Malle, Publisher and Game Changer
A man of action, decisive and free in his choices, Frédéric Malle is also a man who knew how to make the most of the hand that fortune dealt him: his comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of a profession whose expertise he has perfectly mastered, from one end of the spectrum to the other. This is a portrait of the perfume publisher who, in creating the perfumery he had dreamed of, revolutionized the global perfume market.
A Cancer, born on 17 July in Paris, Frédéric Malle has been blessed with great sensitivity and an intuition which drives him to act and gives him an ability to sniff out potential.
Educated in art history (at Sotheby’s in London and at New York University), in economics and photography (in New York), and then in marketing (at Havas in Paris), Frédéric Malle fell into perfumery thanks to Jean Amic, then president of Roure, who recognized his olfactive abilities as well as his facility in building relationships. Employed at Roure in 1988, there Frédéric Malle demonstrated his characteristically uncompromising way of doing things. In an obstinate search for perfection which, he admits, is driven by a kind of inner anxiety, he ceaselessly challenged perfumers, pushing them to go further.
Primed by this deep dive into the world of perfumery, Frédéric Malle would continue to learn his profession on the job. He created and launched perfume lines—one men’s perfume for Mark Birley (Loulou de la Falaise’s uncle), and then a feminine perfume for Christian Lacroix. These projects, as well as a development for Hermès International, gave him a chance to know every corner of his trade: from the creation of the juice to manufacturing and design, to the development of the brand image, all the way to distribution.
These experiences have given him what he describes as a “tentacular” mastery of all aspects of the profession. Which is why, in 1999, he made the decision to use his experience and all of his talents to embark upon his own project: the creation of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the world of perfumery had been shaken up as marketing took over the show. This was the era of huge perfumes launched with massive ad campaigns around concept-names and celebrity models: Opium and Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel Coco, Poison by Christian Dior, Calvin Klein’s Obsession and Eternity. In the 1990’s the classic distribution circuit was disrupted, leading to yet more profound changes. As the concept of the dedicated perfume shop offering personal service was killed off in favour of specialised outlets where perfumes were offered off the shelf, the whole profession was transformed. A drive for volume and profitability led to the creation of mediocre perfumes that appealed to the greatest number, while the composition and quality of the juice itself became a side issue. As Frédéric Malle says, “only two or three good perfumes made it through during this era…”
With this situation in mind, and with a love for the haute perfumery he had known and of which he was the heir (his grandfather created Parfums Christian Dior, and his mother worked on developing the company during the sixties), Malle resolved to restore the dignity of this profession, to which he had such personal devotion and attachment.
Restoring the dignity of perfumery meant going “back to basics.” It meant building his brand around the perfumers themselves—those forgotten masters, artists who had remained in the background, totally unknown to the wider public.
Taking literary publishing as his model, Frédéric Malle therefore decided to foreground his authors. He contacted the finest perfumers he had worked with at Roure and IFF. And, in a crucial moment for the brand, they all agreed to join him and place their trust in him entirely. Frédéric Malle would be their publisher. That is to say, because he shared a common language with them, he would be the one able to push them ever further in their creativity. And creativity is the key here. For Frédéric Malle’s ambition is to give his authors all the necessary means to create exceptional perfumes, masterpieces.
To enable this, the most important thing he can offer them is freedom. Freedom to create, without any marketing brief. Freedom to choose the finest ingredients, whatever the price or quantity (for example, of all the perfumes on the market, Dominique Ropion’s composition Carnal Flower is without doubt the richest in Indian tuberose absolute). Freedom of time, because Malle knows very well that great creation can come either in a sudden lightning-flash, or in a slow and progressive process of development.
Restoring the dignity of perfumery also means recontextualizing it, bringing it into the present day and propelling it into the future. And this requires audacity and a willingness to change the rules of the market.
In parallel with the total freedom of perfumers to create individual perfumes, as opposed to perfumes that please everybody, the Frédéric Malle brand would also return to the desire to serve customers properly, to offer them a personal welcome and the chance to enter into the kind of dialogue that the off-the-shelf sale of perfumes had completely destroyed. “Self-service” really meant there was no longer any service at all…
To help everyone find the perfume that best suits them, Frédéric Malle set out to sell his perfumes differently. Customers would be welcomed into boutiques with varied styles, sometimes residential, sometimes avant-garde, against the grain of uniformity of the specialist chain outlets. But above all, he would offer a personalized consultation so as to bring the house’s masterpieces together with those for whom they were destined. Expert consultants are present in the boutiques (and now online too) to help everyone find their olfactive signature. The consultation takes place by means of an ad-hoc questionnaire drafted by Malle himself, and which is also offered in an interactive form.
In creating Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle on June 6, 2000, Frédéric Malle did more than stand up for perfumes, create a brand, and launch a new concept. He carried out the foundational act that revolutionized global perfumery, and for which he was awarded by the profession in 2018.
Thanks to his audacity, his talent, and his unique flair, Frédéric Malle has made perfumery evolve. During the 2000’s the great luxury brands followed in his footsteps, offering private or exclusive collections. They were then followed by numerous brands rushing to capture a segment of a market for haute perfumery that Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle can legitimately pride itself on having been a pioneer in creating.