Heaven scent: The best independent perfumers

If you turn your nose up at mass-market fragrances, independent perfumers offer a truly original olfactory experience. Bethan Cole meets Hollywood favourite Frédéric Malle. Below, a guide to the best artisan blends

Frédéric Malle's discreet Editions de Parfums shop on the rue du Mont Thabor, Paris, feels more like a gentleman's library than one of the world's most distinguished perfumeries. One wall is lined with two oak bookcases filled, higgledy-piggledy, with books by authors from Stendhal to Gore Vidal. In the centre is a large, dark wooden desk, and on the mantelpiece, black-and-white photographs of distinguished-looking men and women, and a vase of long-stemmed lilies. Carefully arranged in front of the desk are comfortable, French-style antique armchairs for customers to lounge on.

But this is a library with a difference: three floor-to-ceiling space-age glass tubes stand in front of the bookcases (these are "smelling capsules"), and a large refrigeration cabinet filled with squat, black, labelled bottles sits behind the desk. The photos are actually of "noses" or perfumers, and it's soon clear that this is a sophisticated environment for taking olfactory journeys.

I pick up a bottle labelled Carnal Flower by Dominique Ropion, press the stopper and the succulent, fleshy, sweetness of tuberose is emitted. Another bottle, labelled Cologne Bigarade by Jean-Claude Ellena, produces a piquant, evanescent lemony scent.

Malle, born in 1962, wears a well-cut beige double-breasted summer-weight suit (he frequents the Royals' favourite Savile Row tailors, Anderson & Sheppard) and sits behind the desk, presiding over the dignified environment he has created. He has wavy salt-and-pepper hair, hooded black eyes and a sombre air. Malle is one of the saviours of the fragrance industry, and his passion for perfume is palpable.

The library analogy is an apt one. Malle explains that he sees himself as a publisher, or even an art-gallery curator, and the noses or perfumers he hires as authors or artists. "When you are dealing with perfumers, you are dealing with artists," he confirms. He commissions the nose to create a fragrance, and, with discussion and within certain boundaries, the nose then creates what they want.

It sounds relatively simple and logical, but when you consider the process in the light of the modern perfume industry, it's nigh-on revolutionary. The ubiquitous celebrity perfumes (Hollyoaks even launched a scent last week) on beauty counters nowadays are created in a matter of weeks by focus groups and marketing teams desperate to appeal to mass-market demographics. Sometimes, when you smell a new fragrance – one of the characterless fruity florals, or cloying, saccharine "gourmands" that the market is clogged with – you can almost hear the marketing team being high-fived, David Brent-style, for meeting their 18-30s brief, in the background.

When he set up the company in 2000, Malle was inspired very specifically by the venerable French publishing house Gallimard, whose beautifully designed books have always come in plain cream covers with simple red and black lettering. "Not only did Gallimard publish the best authors in its time, but its books also look like nothing else," he once said, likening the volumes in question to other design classics such as Porsche cars and Leica cameras. "I said to myself, 'I'll do an Editions de Parfums like Editions Gallimard. The idea was to put the noses in direct contact with the public, without the filter of a brand."

In perfume terms, Frédéric Malle is something of an aristocrat, being the grandson of Serge Heftler-Louiche, the childhood friend of Christian Dior who helped set up the great couturier's perfume brand. Add to this the fact that his mother was an artistic director for several decades at the house of Dior, and his uncle was the film director Louis Malle, and it's no wonder that there's an air of Left Bank creative and intellectual royalty about him. Malle started working at Roure Bertrand Dupont in 1988, after finishing his degree at New York University, and was subsequently a fragrance consultant for Christian Lacroix, Chaumet and Hermès before he set up his own brand in 2000.

Over eight years, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle has expanded rapidly. Like Annick Goutal, Creed and Serge Lutens, it is a niche brand that has become global and represents the new face of luxury. There are three Editions de Parfums shops in Paris, and the first, on rue de Grenelle, was designed by Andrée Putman and Olivier Lempereur. What's more, there are over 50 outlets and stores-within-stores across Europe, and Malle is also in Russia, Japan, Australia and 10 Barneys across the US. A new store is planned in Manhattan, and a boutique opened this weekend in Liberty of London, the first one outside Paris to feature Malle's signature "smelling columns".

Malle demonstrates to me how these these scent chambers work, spraying one of his fragrances into the column through a hatch-door , leaving it to circulate for a few minutes, then opening the door for the sillage, or trail of perfume that you leave when you exit a room, to be smelt. It's a far more modern, three-dimensional way to experience a fragrance than the usual technique of just spritzing it on to a paper blotter.

Such has been Editions de Parfums' success stateside that, in 2005, Malle relocated with his family – psychoanalyst and social-worker wife Marie and four children aged between six and 16 – to New York. "One in four fragrances coming out of Barneys is ours," he declares proudly. The family now lives in a 3,000-square-foot triplex on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which was recently featured in Vogue Hommes International. Malle is obsessive about architecture, and also collects art and design pieces. The apartment is stuffed with interesting trophies, including a Jeff Wall lightbox, a Saarinen table, an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair and some great pieces by Noguchi and Platner.

"Most of Hollywood is wearing my perfume," he continues, although he's far too discreet to name names. "We're huge in LA. Barneys is the number-one provider to Hollywood, and we're number one at Barneys."

In these days of luxury-brand and celebrity-fragrance overkill, Malle offers something precious, luxurious and different. "Some brands are selling cigarettes, we are selling good cigars," he says on a video on YouTube. "What's wrong is that some of the big brands think that they can please the world with one fragrance. If you think this is still luxury, there is something wrong."

The 15 different fragrances in the Editions de Parfums "library", each an unmediated work of art by a celebrated nose, offer quality, diversity and individualism, from the spicy drift of a Moroccan souk of Michel Roudnitska's Noir Epices, to the cigar smoke and gentleman's-club leather of Pierre Bourdon's French Lover.

Malle holds aloft a phial of the latest opus, Maurice Roucel's Dans Tes Bras, which has taken 18 months to develop, and launches this month. It smells like a little bunch of violets rubbed against skin: a gorgeous fluttering bouquet of violet, iris, jasmine and a touch of bergamot. "The whole idea was to depict intimacy – when you travel through it, you get the scent of skin," he explains, saying that it is comparable to Guerlain's 1906 classic, Après l'Ondée.

"The very best perfumes in the world, such as Guerlain's Shalimar and Piguet's Fracas, have the quality of melding with the skin," Malle concludes later, over dinner at Hélène Darroze. "And I want my fragrances to have this quality."

Eau de original Seven to spritz

Smelling good is as important as looking good – if not more so. The scent you leave behind, whether in a lift or a fading relationship, will trigger other people's memories for years to come. A fragrant mystique is not easily cultivated, and no one likes to smell the same as everyone else, so sniff out an original by one of these perfumers:

Les Senteurs

71 Elizabeth Street, London SW1 (020-7730 2322; www.lessenteurs.com)

When this perfume emporium opened in 1984 it was one of the first in Britain to stock now-famous brands Diptyque and Annick Goutal. Specialising in unusual fragrances, they offer classic scents and forgotten favourites from traditional houses, such as Creed, founded in 1760, and creator of signature scents for George III, Cary Grant and Ava Gardner, among others. Creed's Love in Black is a trademark perfume (£115 for 75ml).


Jo Malone

Stores nationwide (www.jomalone.co.uk)

Jo Malone is known for combining unusual and traditional ingredients to produce nostalgic fragrances that linger on the skin and in the memory. She created her first scent, Nutmeg & Ginger, to be given out as a thank-you present at a society party, and continues to create natural scents with a modern twist, such as her Red Roses, and Sweet Lime & Cedar (£55 for 100ml).

Miller Harris

21 Bruton St, London W1 (020-7629 7750; www.millerharris.com)

London perfumer Lyn Harris is one of Britain's only classically trained (in Paris and Grasse) noses. Her bespoke service doesn't come cheap, at £6,000, but she promises to find your olfactory soulmate within six months. The boutique also has a range of subtle, natural fragrances – try Terre de Bois for a wintry fix (£58 for 100ml).

Penhaligon's

Stores nationwide ( www.penhaligons. co.uk)

Penhaligon's describes its founder, William Penhaligon, as "a Wildean, Byronic rebel, mixing magical vapours". This wild-haired alchemist secured royal approval from Queen Victoria, and the tradition lives on within the brand, which counts Prince Charles among its fans. Traditional floral scents are a trademark, especially Victorian Posy and the ever-popular Ellenisia (£60 for 50ml).


Diptyque

195 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (020-7727 8673)

When three friends opened the first Diptyque shop in Paris in 1961, it was an interior-design store where they also sold their scented candles, designed to remind customers of long Mediterranean evenings. These days, the range consists of 53 candle fragrances, 11 eaux de toilette and 3 colognes. Its bestselling scent at the moment is L'Ombre dans l'Eau (£42 for 50ml), which combines notes of blackcurrant and rose to recall refreshing summery shadows and trickling streams.


Dover St Market

36 Albemarle St, London W1 (www.doverstreet market.com)

Rei Kawakubo's cult fashion emporium stocks a dizzying selection of scents from her label Comme des Garçons. The Comme range includes 8 88 (£47 for 50ml), derived from saffron and coriander, which aims to capture the scent of pure gold, as well as the original eau de parfum, launched in 1994, which the creators claim "acts like a medicine and behaves like a drug" (£48 for 50ml).

Serge Lutens

At www.boutiqueperfumes.co.uk

Lutens' boutique under the arches of the Palais Royal in Paris is a mecca for perfume fans, who snap up such evocative scents as Un Bois Vanille (£58 for 50ml). After working as a photographer and film-maker, Lutens turned, in 1982, to creating perfumes. It's the two base notes in his creations that settle on the skin to produce a fragrance unique to the wearer.

Harriet Walker

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