Interview: Mark Buxton on the fragrance industry, creativity and perfumes that have balls

When I asked Mark Buxton, upon meeting him at his lab, whether he’d rather do the interview in French or English, I should have guessed his answer judging by the Union Jack slippers he was sporting. The man behind Mark Buxton perfumes is also one of the founders of Nose, the new address for niche perfumery in Paris, and a very nice guy.

Can you tell me the story of how you became a perfumer ?

To everyone this story is so surprising. Well it is, actually. It was a long time ago in Germany – I was born in England but I grew up in Germany where my parents left when I was 8, and after my A-level, my idea was to study fashion design. It was such a fashionable thing to do then. So I went to try a school in Hamburg, but didn’t work the first time: being lazy by nature, I decided to study geology. And while I was doing this in Göttingen, I went to Douglas with a friend a mine a few weeks before Christmas, to smell the new products that came out, and he said: “What do you think we make a bet?”. There is a very big German TV quiz-program, which is on once a month on Saturday night, it still exists today and it is called “Wetten, dass…?”, which means “I bet that”. You make a bet against that TV program, and we made the bet that we could recognize all the perfumes in the world.

Did you have an interest in perfume back then?

No, not really. Only a personal interest because I loved fashion, but I wasn’t a fanatic or anything like that. So we wrote to this program and five days later got a call from ZDF, the second German TV, saying we were in the next program with our bet.

Woaw, how long did you have?

I think we had about six weeks and we thought “how are we going to learn all this shit?!”. And still it wasn’t as bad as today, there were only about 600 references. So we had to go to all the perfume shops we knew to gather samples in Hamburg, in Dusseldorf, and tell them about the show. Some believed us and gave us boxes full of 2mls, some didn’t believe us at all and threw us out, but anyway, we ended up with about 300 fragrances. My friend took the feminine, I took the masculine, and after university at night we’d sit and smell. And that’s where I noticed that lots of fragrances had things in common; I didn’t know what it was, but I started to make my own little families. I didn’t know what I chypre was, or a fougère, but I noticed it was easy to memorize these fragrances. That’s when I discovered I had an olfactive memory, and a good one.

Was it easy for your friend, too?

No, not at all! We finally got to the show in Berlin, it was a live show and we were there for five days. It was a really big thing, they had star guests and we got totally drunk with Falco and Leonard Cohen, sitting at the bar and drinking scotch! (he laughs). It’s a good memory, I mean I was only 21!
So anyway, we lost the bet: it is a live program, 2000 people there, we were the last bet, and we waited for hours. My friend was shaking, he had like a black-out and didn’t even recognize one. They put all the fragrances on a wall in neutral bottles, we had to pick five out of the 300 and we had three minutes. Although we lost the bet I recognized mine, and a week later I got contacted by the biggest German perfume producer at the time, Haarmann & Reimer, which has merged with Dragoco and today is Symrise, the fourth biggest perfume company in world. That’s where I was working until three years ago. And they said: “We saw you on TV, you have a good nose, would you like to come visit our company?”. They made tests with me, we had lunch, the big boss came and he said “look guy, we have a school, we train young perfumers, every five years we take three to four people, we have three and we’re looking for a fourth person, would you be interested?”.

Were you still studying geology back then?

Yes, and I had no idea how perfume was made, I’d never even thought about it! The company was mainly specialized in personal care and household products, and they had a filiale in Paris where they sent me after three years of training for three months, I fell in love with Paris and I never came back. That was over twenty years ago. 23, 25 years ago. 27, perhaps.

Well, you have a good memory for smells but not so much with numbers!

Yeah, I am nul (French for useless) with figures and I am nul with names! But everything around odour I’m good at. But my biggest passion besides perfume is cooking. I grew up in a kitchen, my parents had a restaurant in Germany. And that’s actually where I had my first big contact with odours. I love kitchen odours. That’s why a lot of my fragrances are very spicy or have lots of herbs. I love this kind of products.

There is such a parallel between making fragrances and cooking.

Yeah, it’s the same: if you make a sauce, you need a recipe. A perfume needs a formula. So I became a junior perfumer, did an internship in Paris in Nanterre and a year later the fine fragrances department moved to Faubourg Saint Honoré, just in front of Hermès. Great. I spent the 7 best years of my life there, as a perfumer and being in the heart of Paris. I became a perfumer three years later, and that’s when it all started. First fragrance I ever made, twenty years ago was Babar. You know Céleste and Babar? It’s cute. I was so proud. Children fragrances were the new thing at the time. Then I made Laguna for Dali, in the same year I made Charles Jourdan and Anthracite for Jacomo. There were some of the first successes for Haarmann & Reimer in fine fragrances. I was there from the beginning and I stayed for almost 25 years, living through several fusions.

Why did you leave Symrise just a few years ago ?

I had an opportunity to get out, and I jumped the boat. It was time. It was already clear for quite some time that I wanted to do my own thing. The problem with perfumers in the industry is that it is a safe, well-paid job, you have your company car, you get there in the morning, work on your briefs, get out at night… it’s very comfortable, somehow. But I think, especially in the last five years, the industry is going so much down the drain. I’ve been in the industry for 27 years, and I’ve had maybe the last five years of the golden era of perfumery. Pricing was not a big issue, nothing was a big issue, you could do all you want, more or less. There wasn’t this pressure on the market, pressure of turnover, it was an art, it was prestige, you know. If you won a Dior, you knew the Dior would be still there in 20, 30, 50 years of time. Nowadays, it’s hit and run! You launch a fragrance, it’s on the market, a year later it’s gone. It’s hardly launched and you’re already working on a flanker! Just look at how many launches you have per year. Last year it was 800, ten years ago it was 300. It’s become a gadget. Everybody with a name wants a fragrance, celebrities get theirs, works or doesn’t work, no one gives a shit what the fragrance smells like anyway, it’s all just marketing. The second point is that in the big companies you are not measured on your creativity or your knowledge, the only thing that matters is your turnover. How much money you bring for the company. That’s it. It’s become less and less interesting over the years, and three years ago when I went out of it I thought “It’s now or never, or else I’ll never do it”. I don’t think I could back anymore.

How is it different now?

You’re your own boss, you work on things you feel like working on and lots of different things I never thought of before, for example I’ve been working for 5-star hotel chains which want me to create a series under my name, or candles… I also work for other niche brands, but I don’t work in competition anymore.  Nowadays only get paid for what I deliver.

Because when you work on a brief for the big companies, you only get paid if you win the competition… Creating perfumes that never exist has got to be frustrating…

The company gets briefed, then the perfumers, and there is only the gold medal and the winner gets the business. If you come second or third nobody gives a shit because there are no silver and bronze medals. Let’s say you are working on a project for Givenchy, and you’ve worked on that project for a year. All the perfumers, the evaluations, the marketing, the sales, the assistants, all these people working on it, think about how much it costs. And then if you lose, or rather if you don’t win, it’s all for nothing. It’s not like you’re an architect in a competition when you can say “even if you don’t take it, this is my price”. This does not exist in perfume. It’s all freelance and that’s why these people ask whatever. At the end of the day, they come to you say “we have two fragrances left and you are going to pay for market tests in the States, in Germany, in France”. 20.000 euros, again, without even the guarantee to win!
Everything is wrong, everything is mixed up. On the other side perfumers have no more veto, I think there are only two companies where perfumers still have a strong standing: Firmenich and perhaps Robertet. Besides that, in all the other companies, it’s all figures. You work on 10, 15 projects at the same time, it’s like pissing in bottles.

It takes all the art out of the fragrance…

Absolutely. And you can see, it’s written in the brief what they are looking for. So you’re not going to give them a floral if they are asking for a chypre! The poorest example I can give you is the new Lancôme, La vie est belle. I mean, they’re even proud about it, they wrote it in the magazines, that they made 3500 trials for this. And they worked over three years on the brief. I could have done that in one trial. I mean, to be proud about this, to print this and say “oh woaw, it must be good because lots of perfumers worked on it at the same time and made tons of trials”, they must be mad. I mean either the perfumers didn’t understand anything, or the marketing changed the brief twenty times. But to put this in a bottle, which smells like everything else on the market at the moment, which is maltol and patchouli, it’s just another trickle down of Miss Dior Chérie. It’s sad. A big name like that to bring out something like that, it’s just sad. Nobody has the balls to bring out something different anyway.

While at Symrise, did you make any fragrances that you are proud of?

Yes. I am proud of all the Comme des Garçons, I am proud of the Kapsule line I did for Karl Lagerfeld, an excellent unisex. I hate the word unisex anyway, it’s something a man or a woman can wear, I never draw a line when I create anything. If it’s masculine or feminine, I don’t give a shit. It has to smell good, it has to be creative, unique, different, and it can appeal to anyone. I don’t know who ever defines that and writes it on the bottle, pour homme, pour femme. It’s cliché. Why can’t a man wear muguet (lily of the valley)? Is a woody note more masculine?  Why the separation? I don’t get it. You wear what you like.

Has your creativity changed since you launched your brand?

It’s always been the same. All these ideas that are in my bottles today, I’ve had them for years. I have a scrapbook with hundreds of ideas. They’re all moments of my life that I tried to capture. Devil in Disguise is in Italy on a terrasse, I was having a drink and there was a smell of a fragrance in the air, I couldn’t pin it down although I know a lot of perfumes. It was kind of a chypre but it was so hot, so sexy, it was driving me mad. And the worst thing was I couldn’t locate it, I couldn’t see the person who was wearing it. I was lost. That’s why I called it Devil in Disguise, because I couldn’t see her. Or him, whatever. So I went back to the hotel, I wrote down this idea of a chypre, and to give you this sign of frustration, which I had at the time, there’s this overdose of rhubarb in the top notes, because I hated rhubarb when I was a kid. Awful! That’s how my ideas pop up, and it’s always been like that. The fragrance I did for Karl three years ago, Kapsule, internally was called Eau de Patchouli and I made this fragrance fifteen years ago! I’ve always been in advance of my time. You know when you have something and it’s too early?

You mean you have to wait for the trend to become more general to justify your idea?

Yes. When I trained, in the products I fell in love with was ethyl-maltol. It is the product you need to make Angel. It is the sugar note. And all my first fragrances had ethyl-maltol. Everyone said to me “you have this sugar note in there, very sweet, it doesn’t work. It’s kitsch, it’s bonbon, perfume is luxe and this is gadget, forget it”, because internally no one liked ethyl-maltol. And eventually I stopped working with ethyl-maltol! Until, right time, right moment, Olivier Cresp made Angel, and bim. Since then every fragrance has ethyl-maltol.

It was a surprise back then…

Yes, it was one of the first to overdose it that much. But it was in the brief apparently. Mugler wanted something to remind him of his childhood, with barbapapa, stuff like that. But then, the accord that Olivier made, of course, that was original.

And now apparently, all we want are those sugary perfumes that are supposed to be comforting in times of crisis!

I think after a certain while it should go a step further. We should do the same, but salty.

Are there any raw materials that you especially like?

There are lots! One of my all-time favourites is vetiver. Ambroxide, which is an sythetic amber. I also love the woody notes like cashmeran, trimofix. Patchouli is a great product, elemi is a great product… With only ten products there are so many combinations, I mean all this is endless! I love experimenting. I like to overdose one ingredient when other perfumers use traces of this and traces of that. That’s why my formulas are very short: I told you I’m a lazy person.

How many products do your formulas typically contain?

Fifteen, twenty.

Would you say you’re a minimalist like Jean-Claude Ellena?

A bit, yes. He has a very good formulation. So does Michel Almairac. He’s the shortest man I’ve ever seen. And you know why his fragrances are so beautiful? Precisely because they are short! They have balls, they get to the point! It’s like a quartet in jazz: with four people, you can do so much. Everybody has their purpose, every note has its meaning. That’s what Miles Davis said when he went over to free jazz: the gap between two tones is so big that it leaves you to imagine what’s between them. Same applies in perfumery: when you only have fifteen products, somehow it smells different for everybody.

Photographies: Sarah Bouasse 

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