Sixth scents: Olivier Creed, the world's most elegant perfumier, explains his art

How do you win over customers from Winston Churchill to Michelle Obama, Frank Sinatra to the Queen? Instinct – so says this sixth-generation master perfumier at one of the world’s most prestigious fragrance houses.

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"You know that colossal slab of whale vomit someone found the other day?" I find myself momentarily disoriented at this point, I think because I'm asking the question in French, and for some reason it occurs to me to wonder whether there is a phrase book, anywhere in the world, that might include this sentence. (I always knew those long evenings spent in the harbour bars of Marseille would come in handy one day.)

"I saw it on the news," I continue. "It was washed up in Morecambe. I remember they said it was worth £100,000. But they never mentioned who the buyer might be. Not you, by any chance?"

"Not me," says Olivier Creed, who points out that ambergris (sparingly used in the world's finest scents) while it might, at a stretch, be described as sperm-whale vomit, technically consists mainly of regurgitated squid beaks. "The thing about ambergris," he adds, "is that, like any other raw material, you have to assess the quality. If it has been in the sea a long time, and drifted through oil, for example, it can be absolutely disgusting."

If ambergris is going to be used in what, in smart English society, is referred to as fragrance (and not, as those of us who are vulgar or uninitiated may call it, perfume) the substance is required, Creed explains, to meet the same exacting standards he demands from any other of the natural products in his legendary range of scents.

"I do buy ambergris," he adds, "and it is, as you say, extremely expensive. I look for the highest quality, then use it to make an infusion. Preparing a fragrance really is rather like cooking; you wouldn't put truffles on everything, just for the sake of it."

It's possible that you have never heard of Olivier Creed, the softly spoken 69-year-old sitting opposite me in Wiltons restaurant, the exclusive establishment close to the Ritz that is his regular lunch venue when he is in London. But in the world of perfume, his name evokes the kind of reverence inspired elsewhere by Pele, Bob Dylan or – this last is an analogy others have drawn – Picasso. And the process of inventing a new perfume, Creed tells me, is not so far removed as you might think from the art of painting.

"Without seeking to liken myself to a genius like Picasso," he tells me, "it's true that, as with the visual arts, when the moment of inspiration comes, you have to seize it, there and then."

"Are you saying that you wake up in the middle of the night, brooding over a work in progress?"

"Absolutely I do," he replies. "I have a small laboratory close to my bedroom. That way, if I have an idea, I can get down there and try it out straight away."

When he was working on Silver Mountain Water, a preparation characterised by "hesperide notes with hints of tea and blackcurrant" (worn by David Bowie among others), he recalls that, "I knew there was something missing from the formula, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. And then – this may sound odd to you – I woke up one morning with the absolute certainty that what it needed was a note of Alpine wood.

"Anyhow, I went straight to the laboratory and prepared the mixture. I knew straight away that I had got it. I knew that I was there."

His main residence is near Brussels, though he also has homes in Lausanne and Paris. In London, he always stays in the same suite at Claridge's. Effortlessly at ease in his immaculate tailoring, Olivier Creed – to borrow an image once used by the writer Hugh McIlvanney in another context – looks like a man who, were he to have stood next to Beau Brummell, would have caused strangers to approach, offering to straighten Mr Brummell's tie.

It's probably fair to say that, if you take away our great mutual enthusiasm for his perfumes, we have very little in common (Creed has a shockingly poor grounding in the history of Manchester United, and I have somehow never quite managed to warm to dressage). Yet, on the one or two occasions when we've met socially, we have always got on. Loaded and accustomed to luxury as he may be, Olivier Creed is a modest and curious person by nature, with an endearing ability to laugh at himself.

In an industry with an unrivalled reputation for vacuous hype, the House of Creed has thrived on a different strategy: being, and remaining, magnificent. Creed fragrances have been worn by Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Michael Jackson, Jackie Kennedy, Elton John, Pierce Brosnan, the Queen, Harrison Ford, both Elvises (Presley and Costello) and David Beckham, to name a few. Others on the roll of what Olivier Creed calls "my faithful" have included Prince Charles, Hugh Grant and Serge Gainsbourg. ("Spring Flower", created for Audrey Hepburn, is worn by Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow.)

"We've always had a lot of singers, actors and artists," Creed says. "And perhaps people who are slightly… different. If you wear a Dior product that sells millions of bottles, you're not different – you're the same."

I'd heard that some customers come to him and have a formula tailor-made for them. It does happen, he admits, looking cagey. "But there's a waiting list." He will offer this service to only half-a-dozen individuals a year. He won't say who the privileged few are, or how much they pay, but Madonna and Gérard Depardieu are believed to have been among them, and the price is rumoured to be in the region of £10,000.

"Are there any more recent clients you'd like to mention?"

At this point he becomes positively bashful.

"Well … Michelle Obama is a regular customer," he says, when pressed. "But then so is Laura Bush."

In the area where I grew up, I tell Creed, betraying an interest in any aspect of your appearance – hair, clothes, or personal hygiene – was regarded as a sign of probable deviance. But of all the accessories it was wiser not to own at school in Manchester in the 1970s, perfume was easily the most dangerous. Wearing colognes or aftershaves (with the exception of an elite few whose names suggested the wearer relished the manlier forms of hand-to-hand combat – Hai Karate, Cossack, Brut, etc) was not something even the maddest would contemplate. The only time I can remember my school contemporaries speaking positively of perfume was in 1982, when Colin Smart, prop forward for Newport and England, drank a bottle of it during the celebration dinner after his country had beaten France in Paris. (In the brief interval before he collapsed, Smart was on his feet, urging his teammates to follow suit. Asked how the player was, his captain – emerging from a visit to his colleague in intensive care – said: "Not very well. But he smells gorgeous.")

It may be because of this upbringing, which led me to think of perfume as either an incitement to GBH or a beverage, that I can remember exactly where I was when I first met someone wearing Creed. A friend of a friend, he turned out (though Parisian) to be arrogant, opinionated and rude. His aftershave was another matter. It was Zeste Mandarine Pamplemousse: a dizzyingly sensual blend of Sicilian mandarin, bergamot and lemon. It was sharp, arresting, exotic and – like most of Creed's products – once encountered, never forgotten.

"Can you imagine," I ask Creed, "coming across Zeste Mandarine Pamplemousse when the only products you knew were things like Old Spice?"

"Hang on a minute," Creed says. "You know, a lot of those old classics, like Old Spice, were really very good."

"I think the first real foreign aftershave I remember was Agua Brava, from Puig of Barcelona."

"Well there again, Agua Brava was very well balanced and carefully produced. It isn't, as you suggest, a luxury product, but you know, naming no names, these days there are some really dreadful fragrances marketed at ridiculous prices, by elitist manufacturers."

I had an email, I tell Creed, while I was researching this piece, from an extremely well-known singer; not somebody I had imagined would have the slightest interest in perfume. "I'd mentioned that I was going to meet you, and what he wrote to me was this: 'I imagine Olivier Creed to be a crashing snob of the first degree. But that will never, ever stop me wearing his Green Irish Tweed. Before I discovered it, I'd never had strange women coming up to me in the street, saying, 'You smell good.'"

(Green Irish Tweed was once described in one of Creed's stockist's older publicity leaflets as, "The favoured scent of the world's most powerful, refined and attractive gentlemen.")

"There is nothing snobbish about what I do," he replies. "My work is my life's passion. I try to do it the best I can."

Accumulating material possessions, Creed insists, has no interest for him. Easy to say, you might argue, when your main concerns in life are cocking an ear for the dinner bell, and combing the mane of your dressage horses.

"Dressage?" I venture. "Come on."

"I do love dressage," he says. "I love sport, I love my work and I love competing. I am not a man who rests on his laurels. When I'm not occupied, I'm bored. I'm not a sunbather, if you know what I mean."

"You married young, didn't you?"

"I married my first wife, Catherine, when I was 21. A year later we were divorced. I was single for a long time, until I met my second wife Fabienne, who is the mother of my son Erwin and daughter Olivia. Then we separated. I'm single now, but I live with my partner, Brigitte, who loves the same kind of things I do." (Defiant glance.) "Like dressage."

"My journalist friends in Paris tell me you are not generally regarded as a socialite."

"No, because I have never wanted to be one, and I have never pursued wealth for its own sake. Creed fragrances are cheap, frankly." (The average retail price for a bottle is £145.) "If I aimed for the same profit margins as some of the famous fragrance houses, who pay a tenth of what we do for raw materials, we would have to charge 10 times the price they do. But we aren't 10 times as expensive as them, or anything like it."

Agar wood can cost €24,000 a kilo, iris €8,000 and Bulgarian roses €5,000. "So certain well-known houses tell their people that they can't use much; it has to be synthetic. It's as if you said to Francis Bacon: 'Look, red is far too dear – don't use any red. You can have a bit of yellow. Or green. But not both.' And that," Creed adds, "is very sad."

"Who cares if the scent of rose, say, is synthetic or real?"

"At the beginning," Creed says, "the two smell pretty well identical. But leave the essence on your skin for 10 minutes. The real one will still smell of rose. The second will smell of God knows what."

Olivier Creed was born in Nice, close to French perfume's spiritual home in the town of Grasse. The House of Creed was established in London in 1760, its main activity being bespoke tailoring.

"Prince Louis Napoleon," he tells me, "was wearing a uniform designed by Creed when he had the misfortune to die in a field in South Africa, perforated by Zulu spears." That was in 1879. Control of the company has passed, for more than two-and-a-half centuries, from father to son. Olivier is only the sixth man to run the business, now based in Paris, since it was established by his ancestor James. Erwin, who is 32, will take up the reins when his father retires. (Olivia, 34, is also employed by Creed.)

But where perfume has been concerned, Olivier Creed's tenure has been the most glorious and inventive in the history of the company. Paradoxically perhaps, because – despite being an only son – he indicated, as a young man, that he would prefer to develop his talent for painting, and pursued that interest at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He abandoned his easel in his early twenties, however, and joined the family firm. Some ancient Creed fragrances, such as Royal English Leather, have survived largely unchanged, though very many of the current range, like the intoxicatingly splendid Royal Water (one of the Millésimes – extra fine, highly concentrated products) are Olivier's own inventions.

"There's a long history of sons who have conspicuously failed to match their parents' ability," I suggest. "Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, comes to mind; we could debate the case of Mark Thatcher. I imagine it can be a great source of anxiety to do the same work as your father."

"Well, if you're lucky as a family, what you get is different. You can see it in art – and again I am not seeking to equate myself with them – with Bruegel the elder and his son. It happens in industry. Think of Porsche. The father [Ferdinand Sr] was a genius. His son, Ferry, was outstanding, too. You have to be allowed to follow your instinct. In my case, with fragrance, as with painting, what attracted me was the idea of creating something exciting and innovative. That is the one single thing that has driven me in my life. Obviously it's nice when people appreciate what you do. But praise has never been the motivation for me."

I've noticed something curious about the Creed range, I tell him. Think of another famous perfume house; for the sake of argument, Guerlain. Speaking personally, some of Guerlain's products I like – such as the bold and arresting classic Mitsouko, first produced in 1919 – but other scents in their range are, to my taste, overpowering to the point that they could put you off your dinner. To own every one of them would be like trying to buy and love all the albums ever released by Warner Brothers.

"But with Creed," I suggest, "there is a consistency of house style. You can see why Winston Churchill, say, would have chosen Tabarome, with its heavy, intoxicating notes of tobacco, and probably wouldn't have been smelt dead in David Bowie's Silver Mountain Water. That said, Creed perfumes all seem to me to share some essential attribute. I'm not sure what that would be?"

They do share a quality, Creed tells me, and it relates to the nature of the base materials. "I have one core belief," he says, "and one only: that we must always use ingredients which are natural. I've travelled thousands of miles to find the right fruit or flower. My bergamot comes from Calabria. My favourite iris is from Florence. I found a rare and extraordinary sandalwood at Mysore, in India."

"Part of the perception of your company as elitist," I suggest, "derives from the fact that your products are available in only a handful of outlets." (Globally, Creed has a few stores of its own; in London, it is sold by Liberty, Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and a few highly respected specialist shops such as Les Senteurs.) "Why not sell more widely?"

"That would be very hard," he replies, "because these fragrances are made, as I say, with natural products which are by definition very expensive. We could make a lower-grade version, as certain car manufacturers have done, by compromising and using synthetic products. But that's really like asking a Formula One designer why he doesn't make a saloon car."

To go into mass production, Creed adds, "would mean that we could never maintain the quality. Things are better as they are. One small glass of vintage Lafite every evening," he adds, "is much more pleasurable than three pints of house red." (Time being short, I don't have the opportunity to contest that.)

"Can you get Creed in – I don't know – Newcastle?" I ask his friend and long-standing British distributor Christopher Hawksley, later. "Yes," Hawksley says. "But as in most cities, you'd have to look for it – in Newcastle, you'd find it at Fenwick."

I suspect that one reason Olivier Creed is reluctant to boast about his stellar client list is that the great majority of people don't buy his products because they are fashionable. "They don't," he says. "You are absolutely right. When I was starting out – this would be back in the 1960s – people were not always encouraging. Some retailers would say, well, we already have Chanel and Dior, why should we bother with you? I remember going to Lille. OK, so we are talking about a northern [industrial] French city with a population of 300,000 or so. I went in to the Soleil d'Or, which was regarded as the leading perfume shop in town. The owner loved our products. Three years later, in Lille, we were doing as much business as Guerlain. People buy Creed fragrances because they love them."

At which point, by the very nature of perfume, users become a kind of human billboard, advertising his creations. Yet the power of Creed, I suggest, is not so much in its effect on others, as its impact on the wearer. I can remember a conversation with the fragrance expert Michael Donovan in which he described the effect of one Creed product (I think it was Olivier's own most famous creation, Green Irish Tweed) as "like wearing armour".

Is it insane, I asked Donovan, to believe that you can feel more energised and readier to face the world if you are inhaling the tangerine and grapefruit notes of Creed's Zeste Mandarine Pamplemousse? "I don't believe so," he told me. "The olfactory sense is tied to early memory, which you may find comforting and supportive. Then there is an escapist element to wearing fragrance. Something like Olivier Creed's Virgin Island Water (lime, coconut, ginger, sugar cane, rum and jasmine) literally takes you somewhere else; you could say he has bottled the smell of the Caribbean."

I ask Creed whether he has any personal experience of his products having a psychological effect.

"That is very hard for me to say, because I never wear fragrance. Though I believe it can change your experience of the world. I mean…" k

He removes a display handkerchief from his breast pocket and hands it to me to smell.

"There is a little geranium in there," he says, "vetiver and patchouli." To wear more scent, he implies, would hamper his ability to discriminate in research.

The American Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist trained in neuroscience, wrote an excellent book called What the Nose Knows in 2008; a fascinating social history of scent. "I think that putting on a perfume like Creed," I suggested to Gilbert, "can alter your mood in the same way that you might drive differently, depending on whether you're listening to some dismal Bach fugue, or to ZZ Top. The only difference with smell is that you could be – for marketing reasons – exposed to the equivalent of ZZ Top without knowing it."

"I think that's a useful analogy," the American academic told me. "I have definitely noticed that effect in my own driving, depending on whether I want to relax, or I feel like partying and crank the music up a bit. A large number of my passengers have remarked on it."

Not everybody loves Olivier Creed. Five years ago the pharmacologist Luca Turin, working with his wife Tania Sanchez, produced a fascinating if pompous encyclopaedia called Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Turin (himself the subject of a captivating 2002 biography called The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr) writes about perfume in the kind of way that gets wine critics a bad name. He describes Mitsouko as "pure Brahms, the string sextets, extremely intricate but rather monochrome", whereas "Tommy Girl" (by Tommy Hilfiger) "gives you Prokofiev's first symphony". Of Black, by Bulgari: "A friend used to say that one type of carnaroli rice seemed to understand his intentions… I can now extend this to perfume… Black [can] strike you as a battle hymn for Amazons, emerald-green plush fit for Napoleon's box at the Opera, or plain sweet and smiling."

Turin is less effusive about Creed, and goes so far as to suggest that Olivier might have been on the sauce when he devised his Virgin Island Water.

"When I read Luca Turin's book," I say to Creed, "I got the feeling that he dislikes you personally. Have you offended him in some way?"

"Luca who?" Creed asks.


"Who is he?"

"He's a physicist with a special interest in fragrance."

"Does he make it?"

"No. He analyses and writes about it."

"I don't know him. I've never met him. I'd like to."

When Olivier Creed took charge of the company, he says, "We were selling about 1,200 bottles a year. Now it's more than a million." I mention one of his greatest recent creations, Acqua Fiorentina. "Yes, that's quite a new one. There are notes of plum … underlying notes of wood… a little cedar, bergamot, iris. I think – if I can say this without sounding immodest – that it is a really good fragrance."

At which point Creed seems to lose himself for a minute, as if wondering, even now, if there is anything he could add to what has already been a hugely successful product. "You know," he says, "this is a really curious thing: the way in which creating a fragrance really does differ from other works of art: in some kind of way, for me at least, a fragrance can always evolve, if only subtly. It's like the painting that is never finished. And perhaps that is why," he adds, "my work goes on."

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