An hour with Atelier Cologne

On a beautiful morning of July, I met Sylvie Ganter and Christophe Cervasel, the two founders of Atelier Cologne, at their cosy apartment in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, just below Place de Clichy. On the third floor of the building where they live, the hall oozes with Cologne, which I told them as soon as I crossed the doorstep. “Everyone tells us that!”, they smiled.
And we sat around a blood orange juice that felt very relevant, not only because it was 10:30 in the morning, but because their very first fragrance, called Orange Sanguine (French for blood orange), won a FiFi award last month.
We spent an hour together in the living room of this large and bright familial space, which is also where they work. 

Christophe: Welcome! This apartment is a great space we are lucky to have found. We live here and work here. It is amazing to have this unique space in Paris.

It is a real luxury indeed! Do you do all your appointments here?
Yes, clients, suppliers… As soon as we have a store in Paris we’ll try to do them there because here is mainly our workplace, our workshop. In the store it’ll be easier for us to introduce the brand.

But it is particularly interesting for me to see the place where you create. How long have you been here?
Sylvie: A little less than a year. We’ve been on the go for many years since I used to live in New York and Christophe in Paris. We’d travel back and forth a lot.
Christophe: Atelier Cologne was created on planes!
Sylvie: We settled here last summer: with the birth of our little girl, it became harder to travel that much.
Christophe: We’re becoming French citizens again, it was important for us. After we spent five years working, we felt like it was right. We have launched ourselves on the American market, now we invest much more of our time on the European market, and Paris is the place to be. The brand has both sides, European and American: it is made in France, it is French, but there is a bit of the United States in everything we do.

It is a strong statement to have people meet you in your own apartment, it gives a real sense of proximity…
Sylvie: It feels very natural to us.

Christophe: We did it for a while in New York but they’re not too crazy about it. In Paris people love it. In Europe, we like to go deep into things, when we meet people we like to know who they are. In the United States, either out of modesty or because they are a little shallow, people don’t do this. 

How did you work before you found this place?
We really shared our time between Paris and New York. I lived in Paris, Sylvie in New York, and we would spend half our time in each other’s country. I would fly out on Friday, get to New York, spend the week, fly back, we’d be apart for a few days and then Sylvie would come to Paris. We did this for almost four years, each of us would fly back and forth twice a month!

Were you both already working in the perfume industry at that time?
Sylvie: Both of us have always worked in the industry. I have worked eight years for Hermès, I moved to the United States for them, in order to develop the fragrance branch there. Then I left for an American brand owned by LVMH, Fresh, which I developed alongside its creators for five years, and then I met Christophe who was developing licensed brands for designers.

Christophe: In 2000 I founded a company, which was kind of like the new InterParfums: we developed fragrances for Sonia Rykiel, John Galliano, Balmain, the Trussardi family in Italy, Max Mara, Agent Provocateur… We launched many fragrances for these brands who didn’t always have an important perfume activity. I did this for almost eight years and then I sold my shares. When I met Sylvie we naturally discussed investing our time and money into a brand we’d own 100% and to which we’d give all of our energy. Sylvie had lived this at Fresh without being the founder, I’d experienced founding my company but I had never dedicated myself to one and only one brand: I handled ten. It was very interesting, but after eight years I grew tired of having to split my time between them. It was the right choice for me, for both of us, to create our own brand and to dedicate ourselves to it.

So you both quit your jobs to launch Atelier Cologne?
(They laugh) We even quit everything, since both of us were married then! We left everything except for our kids, and we changed everything in our lives to start anew. It was kind of crazy when we met, we first worked together for a year before we became a couple. And when I told Sylvie I was going to sell my shares of the company, everything clicked: we fell in love and decided to change our destinies.

Was the idea of Atelier Cologne already somewhere in your heads then?
It was immediate. Actually, Sylvie mentioned it when we first met. 

Sylvie: It was the idea of creating a brand around Cologne and to come up with a Cologne that lasts. The starting point was what both of us wore. We were at the restaurant, soon after we met, we were talking about the fragrances we wear while working in the industry and creating for others, and we realized we wore the same kind of fragrances. I tell Christophe how I dream of creating a brand to make very fresh but lasting things. When you like this kind of notes, the first frustration is that the offer is very limited and not too diverse : always the same recipe, except for Mugler’s Cologne, which is the most different of all. And the second frustration is that it doesn’t last on your skin. This was the starting point. Christophe totally agreed.
Christophe: When we met I was wearing Mugler’s Cologne.
Sylvie: And I was wearing Eau d’Hermès, the very first one, which is a juice I often come back to because I love its aromatics feel.
Christophe: On a personal level, we figured: “We love this, but there isn’t much on the market”. We started looking around and realized that, in the United States as well as Europe, when we ask people whether they like Cologne, they say it is for grandmas, but when we let them smell what it is, everyone loves it. Everyone! We thought there was something to revive here. It had to be a new brand, we didn’t want to buy one that already existed. We had to start from scratch with modern codes and a rather classic design.
In terms of juice we thought we had to make this right: we needed Colognes with character, and it had to last because a perfume that doesn’t last is either a bad perfume or not a perfume at all. Cologne is not perfume, it is meant to freshen up. People think of it as an after-shave, something to rub on one’s self, but they wouldn’t put it in the perfume category. We thought we wanted a Cologne that would be a perfume, and that is why we concentrate it so much and why it lasts. And we also needed a line of fragrances.

Which you do, now!
Sylvie: Yes, we have nine so far. The tenth and the eleventh are ready, we are working on the twelfth and it is hard knowing what chapter we want to explore now.

Christophe: The eleventh is a little different, it is a violet we’ve done for the Galeries Lafayette (the Parisian department store). The five first ones are the original collection, Cologne Absolue, the following five are the Matière Absolue : with our Rose and Vetiver, which come out this fall, or our Amber and Vanilla, the idea of this second chapter was to take very famous raw materials and to reinterpret them into a Cologne format. The fifth will come out next spring and it will be the end of this second part. The third chapter will begin in September 2013.

So the first five juices were built around a story, and the following five around a raw material?
Sylvie: The first five are the achievement of our building the brand. They are totally Cologne and the star is the citrus under different angles: we did a fruity one, Orange Sanguine, a floral one, Grand Néroli, a woody one, Bois Blonds, a greener one, Trèfle Pur, a smoky one with Oolang Infini. There is variety but the common denominator is the citrus, and it a strong one.
Christophe: We have created the notion of Cologne Absolue and started exporting it to the Middle East. We wanted to keep this feeling of liveliness one can experience when using Cologne, this energy that cannot be found with heavier, darker perfumes.
Sylvie: Then, for the following five, we took some of the beautiful raw materials everyone knows but that have been turned into Cologne before. This was the second exercise.
Christophe: Some journalists told us: “That’s great, we love it, but will you ever be making real perfumes?” (laughs). But this is a spontaneous question that illustrates the confusion there was on Cologne and perfume. There have been in-depth articles in which we are put on the front stage because we found words to explain simple concepts such as concentration. We explain it systematically in store as well as how a fragrance is built. When we say: “The concentration is 15%”, people ask “15% alcohol?” and we answer “No, 15% essential oils, so roughly 80% alcohol since there’s a little water too”. We explain the crucial role of essential oils, which major brands almost never talk about because this is what actually costs money.In terms of concentration, our juices are between 12 and 20%: 15 for our vanilla and vetiver, 18 for amber and rose. Which makes them eaux de parfum, if not extracts.
Sylvie: They are highly concentrated since parfums start at 8%, most of them being between 8 and 12. For an eau de toilette it’s 5 to 8%, and an eau de Cologne is between 2 and 4%. 

If you chose such a high concentration, is it because a majority of the ingredients you use are very volatile by nature?
We have a lot of citrus notes and fresh things. If we concentrated a vanilla this much without using the head notes like the ones we use, which bring a real freshness, the result would be very powerful, if not too powerful. In our products the concentration is balanced by the freshness of our head notes and how much we use them. It’s all about balance.

Christophe: If we try to explain why there haven’t been other brands in the likes of ours before, we may take Mugler as an example. The explanation is financial before anything else since the market is dominated by large corporations. Clarins, who roughly makes a billion a year, when they launch Mugler’s Cologne, the concentration is typically 8 to 10% maximum. When they calculate how much the perfume will cost, they settle for 10% essential oils because a lot of their money goes to advertising, structure costs, to which the customer still has to add the retailer’s margin, marketing, and the actual cost of the product… In the end, the fragrance is OK, but doesn’t last long enough and lacks character. It is strongly tied to the Mugler brand, which means Angel, which means Alien, so with Cologne they are very far from the image of the brand. When Mugler launched it, I’m sure it sold well, but far behind Angel, which is a best-seller. There is nothing to make it work.
Sylvie: Although it is a beautiful fragrance!
Christophe: The group would have had to take time to explain what Cologne is, to train its collaborators, but they’d rather spend their time selling Angel! There’s nothing to blame, but it is an explanation. That’s why we figured if we wanted to make Cologne, we’d have to de nothing else. And we’d have to be called Atelier Cologne (“cologne workshop”, in French).

So there wouldn’t be any doubt!
There cannot be any doubt, otherwise the product goes unattended. I’ve tried suggesting Colognes to John Galliano, Ms. Rykiel, but they don’t want it.

Why don’t they?
Simple explanation: a fashion designer is always an extravagant person.

Who will thus choose strong and characteristic perfumes over light, citrus notes?
Exactly. It’s all about their personality. I was reading an interview of Castelbajac, whose perfume was discontinued because it was too much of a statement. The designer said that for him, perfume had to be extreme, that smell should almost be a bother! And they are all like this. His smelled of glue and kerosene…

But do you still think you can make a statement with a Cologne?
We do it. But it smells nice anyway.

Sylvie: The vanilla is a good example. There are three types of people: those who don’t like vanilla and don’t even want to touch the bottle, those who don’t like vanilla but have enjoyed everything else, give it a try, and find it fresh for a vanilla; and those who love vanilla and think ours is different. We like that. We never wanted the biggest share on the market, we wanted to enjoy ourselves.

I still imagine you have studied the market before you launched your brand. So, are you the only ones who do nothing but Cologne?
Christophe: Our market study was the 35 years both of us cumulated in the industry. We had realized many things: first, almost all buyers from department stores wear Cologne. Also, when we spray a Cologne without saying what it is, everyone loves it. In the United States, there have been a number of articles about the word “clean”, which means “clean”, as well as “clean-smelling”, but which also defines elegant, refined perfumes. It goes along with our society evolving towards more subtlety in how we present ourselves. If I come in a meeting room wearing Angel, it’s like I’m saying something loud and proud with a megaphone. This was the eighties and the nineties. Things have changed since 2000.

Especially in the United States, where clean and fresh smells are known to be a hit…
In Europe as well! It is true in Germany, Italy, in the UK, in France… People are eager for beautiful Colognes with freshness and character. We haven’t run tests, but this is what we observe from within the industry. Hermès has launched its Jardins collection, and they were a success. To us, they are Cologne Absolue.

This idea of a Cologne that lasts is a true technical challenge: how do you it?
Sylvie: It’s quite simple. The way we learn how to build Cologne in school is a reversed pyramid. When building a perfume, what we put on top of the pyramid, the head notes, are very volatile materials, then there are he heart notes, that last a little longer, and then heavier notes, that last, come at the base, like things resinous, woody, ambers… When building a Cologne, the pyramid is reversed: there will be a huge amount of a citrus in head notes, no base notes, nothing to make it heavy, and all this in weak concentration. What you get is a big splash of citrus, but after half an hour, nothing left.

Christophe: More often than not, these are created in opposition to real perfume. A brand such as Hermès has its perfumes, 24 Faubourg, Rouge, they last on skin, but  Colognes are intended not to.

Sylvie: I have worked there for eight years and I wore the Eau d’Orange Verte a lot. If a customer says it doesn’t last, we argue that it is on purpose: eau de cologne is meant to be sprayed on throughout the day. You have your little vaporizer in your bag, and you spray it over and over again. It is a different ritual because of the construction.
When we worked on our Cologne, we thought we’d have both! We took two pyramids and superimposed them to get a fresh Cologne start which evolves just like an eau de parfum, with base notes. Our pyramid is actually an hourglass. Base notes are meant to help the head notes last. When you spray Orange Sanguine on yourself, you smell a lot of orange, and when you smell it eight hours later, you still smell a lot of orange: it isn’t orange anymore, because orange is very volatile. But we have used different ingredients to convey a lasting impression of orange. There is geranium, tonka bean, sandalwood… When you smell the juice, you don’t realize all these ingredients are here but they have a technical advantage as fixatives.
Christophe: It is the orange/sandalwood note that lasts. The idea was to have it vary as little as possible over time, and to reach that we had to try a lot of things.
Sylvie: It is microscopic dosage. But Orange Sanguine built as a Cologne wouldn’t last.
Christophe: And it wouldn’t smell the same. It is hard to understand, but the reason it smells like blood orange is precisely that there are other ingredients outside blood orange. It’s like in cooking, when you add pepper to a meat because it enhances its taste.
Sylvie: We spend a lot of time smelling raw materials, and you would be surprised how hard it is to recognize these smells. We know what a rose smells like, but its two techniques of extraction, by distillation or with alcohol, give a result that doesn’t smell like rose. Rose essence, rose absolute don’t smell like rose. Geranium essence smells like rose much more than the rose itself! When you smell a rose in a garden, you smell the whole flower, and when you extract it, it is only in part. To recreate this whole smell, you need many other things. The reason why a lot of people don’t recognize the rose when they smell it in our Rose Anonyme is that we chose to use rose only, without any other flower: the other ingredients are much more woody and mysterious. Same applies to Orange Sanguine: orange essential oil smells nice, but it doesn’t smell like blood orange.

So the thing I smell an hour after spraying on Orange Sanguine is not orange anymore?
Exactly. After an hour, the orange is long gone.

But there actually is orange in the head notes?
Yes, there is blood orange and bitter orange. But the head notes are, by definition, very volatile.

Did you do the same thing with all the other fragrances?
Christophe: Systematically. It is a lot of work, but time is key. That’s yet another reason why big corporations cannot afford the research.

How does the creation go now that you are in Paris?
Sylvie: It’s moving constantly. There is no common guideline for all the juices. The ingredient has been the starting point for some, like our vanilla, but everything that came around it was inspired by what we were living at that time.

Christophe: For the vanilla, we were selling the New York apartment, opening the store and leaving to Paris at the same time…

Nigritella Rubra

Now that’s a major turn of events!
It was. Ambre Nue was a trip we took to the Dolomites, in Italy, where we discovered a flower that smells of amber, a red orchid called Nigritela Rubra. We are the only ones who use it, but you won’t get Ambre Nue just bu distilling it! We use many other things too. And our perfumers have a key role: Vanille Insensée and Ambre Nue are by Ralf Schweiger, and vanilla was a real challenge for him. He’d made our very first fragrance, Orange Sanguine, and vanilla interested him a lot. It was the first of our second collection and we had to outdo ourselves, to make something different. We explained what we wanted, told him the story, a man in New York who comes into a bar, smells a perfume and realizes it used to be his, then finds himself face to face with the woman who left him ten years earlier, taking his fragrance with her…

Do you write all the stories yourselves?
Yes. He loved that one and asked: “And what is the main ingredient?”. We said vanilla and he said “Awesome! I want to work on the vanilla, it is super hard. In the United States everyone wears it, it’s all over the place, but we can do it differently”. And the vanilla is great, it’s the one he’s the most proud of. He won a FiFi with us for Orange Sanguine, but the vanilla is his favourite.

Sylvie: The amber was also a thrill because when we came back from the Dolomites we were like: “We’ve found this amazing flower, it’s incredible, you have got to look it up!”. And it just clicked, he’d heard about it but never worked with it so we did some research, found it and had a lot of fun. I really wanted to work on the rose, but I wanted it neither fresh nor flowery, which isn’t obvious.
Christophe: As for the vetiver, it is closely linked to the fact that we live in Paris. With the rose these are two fragrances with crazy stories, we had a lot of fun writing them. These two ingredients are magical.

You have created a duo with two great classics, one masculine, one feminine…
Sylvie: Yes, with a juice that is not classic. I like woody, fresh and masculine fragrances: giving this twist to a rose was fun, and we gave vetiver some beautiful freshness.

Christophe: Now I wear the vanilla. When we created it, I was the one who had to say whether or not I would wear it, and today many men wear it.
Sylvie: As for the creation, the visual aspect matters a lot. We like to tell stories with words, but we also like to do it with images, assembling objects into still lives.

On the chimney, in the living room, the still life for Vétiver Fatal

 

Do you use these images to brief your perfumers?
Very much so. A perfume always begins with the story and the collage we make on paper.

Christophe: Perfumers love this, they say we give them inspiration while framing their work. They say: “What we hate is not having a brief and knowing at the same time that, if we come up with something too creative, it won’t work. If you know what you want, or know what you don’t want, tell us so”.

 

And how did they react when you said you wanted a Cologne that lasts? Were they scared?
Jérôme (Epinette) and Ralf (Schweiger) loved it. Just like Cécile Hua, who created Grand Néroli. But other perfumers didn’t like the idea and said they made Colognes precisely not to last.

 

Do you think perfumers who liked the idea were interested in the technical challenge?
Yes, the very fact that they had to answer that demand. Ralf and Jérôme have a great sensibility, and at the same time they like characteristic things: it is hard to conciliate the two. The idea was to be creative, unique, to make something recognizable that would be enjoyed by many. This is what interested them. 

The boutique in New York

How did you choose your perfumers?
We chose to go with Robertet and Mane because these are two small, familial structures who work with beautiful raw materials. Ralf had just joined Mane in the United States, he is a renowned perfumer, he did Eau des Merveilles for Hermès, things for Frédéric Malle, and the fact that he loved our project and wanted to be part of it was a great chance.

You want to open a boutique in Paris. How is that going?
We are still looking, and it’s not easy to find!

Will there be other stores?
At the same time we are looking in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and maybe a second one in New York. In the United States it is easier: business goes faster. Here, transactions take ages. There, you say “I’ll take it”, pay three months of rent, and move in.

How many juices do you think you will build around your concept of Cologne Absolue? Will you want to make perfumes at some point?
We will always make Cologne Absolue, it is our trademark… 

Atelier Cologne in New York:
247 Elizabeth Street, New York , NY 10012

www.ateliercologne.com

Photography: Sarah Bouasse

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