Interview: Mathilde Laurent on art, nature and intelligent marketing

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Mathilde Laurent, Cartier’s in-house perfumer since 2005, met me in her office on rue Boissy d’Anglas, just to talk. I’d been eager to meet the woman that had been described to me as sparkling, generous and slightly rebel – a kind of free agent in the world of renowned perfumers. I was told no lies. Talkative and smiling, Mathilde is like a bowl of fresh air: her immense passion is only as impressive as how naturally she will talk about it. Without fuss, with great culture and sensibility. 

Hello Mathilde and thank you for meeting me…
Thank you! I took a look at your blog and read Mark Buxton’s interview, which I thought was really cool. Because for once, a perfumer shows a little honesty. I especially liked what he says about Lancôme’s latest fragrance: it is so rare that perfumers really say what they mean.

He is independent, maybe that’s why he can afford to talk freely…
The problem is, a lot of perfumers won’t say what they think. Do they actually think? It may sound crazy, but I think a lot of them just don’t think. So it’s too bad that perfumers who have things to say, those with a vision of their profession, won’t say anything. Too few of them will express themselves, say how they see things and what their ideal world looks like… It is a good thing to give perfumers a voice and I hope they will seize it.

It really was my goal when I created Flair. But I slowly realize that the perfume industry is pretty opaque: it is hard to know what people think, no one will take a risk. Some bloggers even choose to write anonymously…
It is true that this is a rather secret environment because a lot of brands are making perfume as a means to an end rather than making perfume for the beauty of perfume. Lots of couture houses will put a huge amount of passion in their fashion and, on the side, have perfumes in which they put zero passion. This is true when they develop fragrances themselves, but especially when they sell a licence and thus have no power over what is done with their name. For me, this is one of the reasons why there is such opacity. Because it is hard for a fashion house to say “well, yes, our perfumes are under licence, we don’t pay that much attention to them”.

Sur le bureau de Mathilde Laurent

On Mathilde Laurent’s desk

But why don’t more houses get an in-house perfumer, which would allow them to develop a real discourse?
Because, according to me, there is a kind of desecration of perfume. Back in the days, when Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and other couture-makers started to make perfumes, they had a real approach: complementing a style, a look, creating a perfume that would correspond to the house’s vision of style. Today, that has seriously changed. Just take a look at all the houses that started making perfume when all of them didn’t need to: not everyone has the amazing, flashy style of Chanel and Dior in 1905 and 1947! It isn’t justified in every house, but it happens that perfume has become that sort of incredibly efficient promotional tool. And this is why a lot of houses have started making their own: it allows their name to penetrate the public at minor costs. Some companies have developed that skill for fashion houses but also pens, cars… It is the licence phenomenon. Lots of brand have a true love for what they do, and because of that, they started thinking that perfume was a wonderful promotional tool. But there is no artistic ambition and, unfortunately, no passion for perfume. It is like going to a three-star restaurant, asking for wine, and being answered “well, no, but we can go get some at the grocery on the corner if you really want it”. There you go. It is supposed to make a whole – because, for me, if a fragrance bears the name of a great house, I feel like it is going to reflect its very soul – and it turns out it doesn’t. Anyone has done it for any house. And there hasn’t been any common work or research or will to do something together. All these launches are coherent with the market, but never with the house. And it shows very well that the goal is to be on the market, to establish a name and a reputation. To do so, you need to be coherent with the market. If you are only coherent with the house’s style, much less people will follow you and buy. So you need to follow the most basic market trend.

Do you think that it influences the work of perfumers or the motivation of those who want to become perfumers themselves?
Unfortunately I believe that, just as much as there is this dichotomy in the brands’ creative process, there is a dichotomy in the reasons why young people want to become perfumers, the way that they are going to work and what will be expected of them.

Do you think that some of them are disappointed when the leave school?
Not only do I think so, I know so! It all depends on each person’s character. Maybe for some of them, the finality of it all is to be in a composition house, to work around raw materials, to be a perfumer, and I often notice that. All perfumers don’t feel like they have an aesthetic vision, so some of them are very happy to be making perfumes in which they invest less of themselves than others do, in which they don’t necessarily put their guts every day. This is not how I do things, but I’m not judging. 

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You are known for your artistic approach and  even claim it but I notice that some perfumers will rather stick to a more pragmatic vision and don’t feel comfortable talking about perfume as an art. Among others, I think about Jacques Polge: during a recent interview (for French revue de modes n°22, now on sale), he told me that he wouldn’t dare comparing himself to the real artists that are, for example, painters and writers.
I see. I must say that we are living a sort of reversed time and maybe Jacques Polge is also subjected to it: through some blogs and what some journalists can say, there is maybe an exaggeration of what perfume is. Maybe. Maybe people often ask him about that, you see, and maybe he doesn’t feel comfortable with the whole groupie thing? It is true that, as perfumers, people address us as if we were geniuses, extraordinary wizards. But perfumery is more concrete than that, more real. Maybe that’s what he meant. I think the beauty of perfumery lies in this art, where contemporary art is, too. But one thing is for sure: there is no genius, no magic, no superman. We are creators, just like sculptors. When we say “sculptor” it is easier to picture how concrete the work is, and this is exactly where we stand too. We have nothing more than musicians, writers… There is no more magic. But perfumery is more intangible and it is a field in which a lot of people feel lost or even ignorant. And this is why people sometimes see us as magicians: it seems harder to apprehend. Whereas for us, it is concrete, real, we deal with materials every day. What Jacques Polges maybe tried to say is that we shouldn’t think perfumery is beyond art in general. But for me, perfumery is an art. You can make perfumery with zero art in it and you can make perfumery with nothing but art in it. Everyone should find their own level of art according to what the want and where they are. Maybe in some environments, you can never put more than 50% of art, and I can understand that, and maybe in others you can reach that 100%. Still, it would have been interesting to ask Jacques Polge: if there is no art in perfume, then what is it?

DSC_0833Maybe we expect a lot of lyricism from perfumers because there is, indeed, a kind of fascination for their job: training is the privilege of those who will become perfumers themselves. Most of us have already painted or drawn, if only at school, which helps us apprehend the work of a drawer or painter, whereas few of us have already seen or smelled raw materials, let alone played with them! So maybe there is no escaping this gap between a perfumer and the public, even if it is, in fact, a concrete and totally real job.
Yes, and I think that lyricism in perfumery is to be found elsewhere too, in perfume marketing most particularly. At all these houses who have nothing but lyricism to sell their fragrances. You say perfume doesn’t get taught, and this is my cross: I like to explain perfume. I think it’s just too easy to take advantage of the mystery, to use that blurriness to lose people and be the dominant one. To me, there is no greatness in dominating just because we know what other people don’t. It outrages me. Only houses who make perfumes with no soul do this. Once they have the juice – as they say – in the bottle, they will use cheap lyricism to get people to buy it, because they think it is all about making them dream, talking about travels, incredible ingredients coming from the other side of the world, if not from worlds that don’t exist, and to me that’s just plain manipulation. What should make people dream in perfume is art! The intention of the perfume, the perfumer’s vision, how much soul a house puts in its perfumes. 

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe de Manet

Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

It’s like going to the museum and seeing Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: it isn’t worldwide famous because it is picnic! It is worldwide famous because it is the first impressionist painting , because there is nudity at a time when no one will dare painting it, because this painting went to the Salon des Refusés… It isn’t about the subject: no one care that it is a lunch. It could be a different subject with the same ambitons, the same novelty, the same artistic contribution: it would be just as famous. And this is precisely the mistake that all the houses who don’t know about perfume make: they talk about it from the perspective of its subject. Whereas what makes a perfume interesting is how new it is. What codes has it broken? What vision has it brought? What does it try to say about the history of perfume?

Is this why you compared it to contemporary art earlier?
Yes, precisely. We are in a contemporary world and what we are expressing today is perfumery’s contemporary art, whether we want it or not! We are people who know the history of perfumery, we have assimilated it, we have masters: at the ISIPCA school, we work on the style of different masters, and then one day we express ourselves and that expression has to be legitimate on the market, it has to bring something. Because if you’re just going to make drawings of people having a picnic, well… we don’t give a shit! We don’t care about the subject, what matters is how, why, when, with what vision, which tools, what research. We are not here to make drawings that have been done before. We are here to work on the how of things. This is what I always try to explain. This is also why I never use olfactory pyramids to explain my juices. There is no need to know what ingredients make a perfume. What matters is what one brought, what was passed on, taught, shown.

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So how should perfume be told?
I’ll take the example of Baiser Volé, which I always called “anti-floral”. To me it is anti-floral because I get tired of how monotonous the market is and I also get tired of the vision of femininity women are offered through floral perfumes that are not floral perfumes anymore. We are stuck in archetypes and redundancy, women are always invited to either be giant flower bouquets, or big vanilla marshmallows. I wanted to make a floral that would be different in the way it addresses women: making a floral perfume doesn’t mean you have to put (she takes a silly, girly voice) the very essence of femininity in it! We can have a floral perfume that is just a floral perfume. And I thought, because we live at a time when people go back to more simplicity, organic products and everything, that it had to be pure and simple and I decided to work around a single flower, a flower that exists but that you don’t see too much in perfumery. That leaves out rose, jasmine, tuberose, all that. I chose the lily because it allowed me to address men as well: women want their perfume to be seductive, but who do they want to seduce? Themselves or someone else? Women want to seduce but they buy perfume thinking only about themselves because perfume houses address them only. I wanted to choose a flower that men like, to say “ladies, it’s about time we turned around and realize we are not alone! Seduction is not about your bellybutton! » During my career as a perfumer, many men have mentioned lily as being their favourite flower. And I believe if we want to seduce them we must address them, be the flower they love and not the flower we think they love or the flower we love ourselves and ask them to love. I also wanted to go back to this essential that is nature and the pleasure is never more intense in a perfume than it is in nature. This is what I tried to convey: the feeling of putting your nose in a big bouquet of lilies, something everyone does when they get a chance to!

Perfumes today tend to wrap up the smell in many other ingredients, whereas a beautifully crafted single smell, on its own, is ideal.
Simplicity creates emotion. Piling up doesn’t. I believe Arman and César are the only ones who can make accumulation interesting! It is also a discourse about nature, to say that it is the origin of perfume. We must stop transforming it so much it becomes abstruse. 

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Did you develop your love of smells in nature?
Precisely. I’ve never wanted to become a perfumer: I was 16 or 17 when I discovered that everyone had noticed I smelled everything. But I hadn’t noticed it myself! And one day I was told “you smell everything, you keep talking about perfume and you can tell what people are wearing. We saw a report on TV about a school that trains perfumers, it’s the one for you!”.

And you’d never heard about ISIPCA before?
Never! I enjoyed smells, I smelled everything I could, but just because it gave me great pleasure! I had never imagined I could be a real job. When I found out about this school I realized there were people behind perfumes and they spent their days smelling things. And I thought to myself: why not? Contrary to what people tell me when they send me their résumés, or when they want to bring in their 7-year-old who absolutely wants to become a perfumer, I wasn’t passionate about it. I wouldn’t have cut my own fingers to become a perfumer at that time. It interested me, but back then I also did a lot of photography and I didn’t really think about my future, although it may sound paradoxical today. I was raised in a family that didn’t pressure me about the future, all I was asked was to get decent grades, which I did. I worked at school, got good grades, the future was a non-problem, so we didn’t talk about it. I did photography, but when I was 16 I didn’t think I was going to become a photographer either. I went on with my studies and only started to hesitate between photography and perfumery after high school.  They involved the same studies because they both required that I took chemistry – back then it was still silver photography, and photography is a matter of light and physical reactions anyway. So I took chemistry and eventually chose perfumery because I’d been experimenting with photography for a long time, I’d had my own lab, developed my pictures, even done some little exhibitions, and I wanted to experiment something else.
This is how I chose perfume, and not, like it happens today, because I admired Jacques Polge or Jean-Paul Guerlain – whose name I didn’t even know before I went to the ISPICA. I ended up working with him for eleven years, but when I got there I knew very few things about Guerlain. I wasn’t a groupie! I think that today, a lot of people chose to engage in the way of perfumery out of admiration. They anticipate a lot of things and I believe this is the best way to be very disappointed.

Especially when they graduate and discover what the market really is…
They don’t have to wait until school is over to discover that market! What they discover is a profession where unemployment rates are high, where very few will actually be successful, and where you really have to know why you are there. You have to have something in your guts that’s worth fighting for, because that will make a major difference. It has to drive you and be incarnated enough to make a difference. To go back to your question, nature made me what I am, yes. This is where my aesthetics started to develop. 

Mathilde Laurent a dessiné des étoiles partout sur son bureau

 Mathilde Laurent’s desk is covered with stars she has drawn

You mentioned light when we were talking about photography earlier, and light is actually – according to a perfume blogger I know – a distinctive trait of your fragrances. Could it be because of your interest for both photography and perfumery? Are there correspondences?
Huge correspondences! Well, huge correspondences… in my brain! (she laughs) Whether these correspondences are in other perfumers’ brains, I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never tried other brains. But for me, more or less all smells are linked to a photograph. It is the case for every perfumer: when we memorize a smell, we memorize its context, and what I would memorize each time was a photograph. Like a snap shot, without sound, of the place where I smelled this smell. Maybe it just means that sight and smell are two overdosed senses in my case, I don’t know. A little while ago, Guillaume Crouzet asked me to talk about music for an article he wrote in l’Express Styles. As a perfumer, I don’t work through music at all. I always work with music, meaning I’m always listening to music pretty loud here, I open Deezer, and it allows me to concentrate. But never do I make analogies music/perfume.

Yet it is the most classic of analogies…
Yes, well to me it doesn’t exist. I feel the same way about the analogy perfumes/colors. That, to me, is just splitting hairs. I don’t get it. But I do respect the fact that some perfumers say they work with colors or music! But in my head, it’s all just images.

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On the wall, photographs inspire Mathilde’s future creations

And thus, light, since image is light.
Yes, and I have already composed perfumes from a photograph. Having such a flash of smell upon seeing a picture that I just had to make that fragrance. It happened to me with the magazine Bloom, which is a sort of bible to me. It was the picture of a huge, white chrysanthemum, it was so beautiful that I made a chrysanthemum.

Does chrysanthemum smell?
Yes, and it is great! You must put your nose on everything. They are supposed to be mortuary flowers, at least they are what the industry teaches us to decorate graves with on All Saints’ Day. But there is no reason that the chrysanthemum should be dedicated to that sole purpose. It became a cultural thing, but before flowers were an industry, we would use other flowers too! Today, on All Saints’ Day, if you go te the florist you can’t even walk in the store because there are so many of them all over the place. And it is just as ridiculous there as it is in perfume: idiotic multiplication of the offer with no variations. A copy that’s handed out to everyone. With perfume, the only advantage of all this is that everyone can wear perfume.
It is important that everything exists: 10-euro perfumes and 1000-euro perfumes. What I care about is that you get your money’s worth in both cases. The problem today is that you can spend 500€ on a perfume and get a 10€ worth. It is outrageous and I fight against that. This said, I think it is a noble thing that you can get very cheap perfumes at any supermarket. It’s the same with art: you can spend several millions on a Picasso, and you can hit the gift shop and buy a postcard for fifty cents. And that’s fine. Art has to be everywhere. What is outrageous in this industry is that, because perfume is abstract, because there isn’t much information available, a lot of things are fake superficial and very expensive just because it is a positioning. There is no respect. Not for the consumer, not for the perfume. It makes me angry. There is no dignity there.

And it contributes to making perfume even more mysterious…
This is why I like to explain, to show: I want people to be able to orientate themselves. I’ve been in perfumery almost twenty years and one of the recurring questions is always “how to choose a perfume?”. People feel lost. And I wish they access more pleasure through better information, I wish they will reach for incarnated things, things that will last and make them more beautiful. I care about that.  

DSC_0824Do you try to fulfil this mission with the custom fragrances you create?
Yes, exactly. Custom fragrances is about showing that no one has to be submitted to this market, and that no one has to buy perfumes that don’t mean anything. Of course, it is an extremely expensive service, but it is also a way of showing that no perfume can be made in five minutes. I have to say we are one of the most expensive houses when it comes to this service (about 50.000€). But you have to understand that if you come to have your own fragrance custom-made by Cartier, we will make a real fragrance for you. You meet the perfumer directly: he will select the materials, talk with you for two to three hours, and work on the fragrance as if it were Cartier’s next big launch.

But… this perfumer is you, right?
Yes, yes, of course! I say “the perfumer” just because there are many houses that offer that custom fragrance service, but oddly you don’t always get to meet the perfumer… This is intolerable! A perfumer who has never spoken with the person he creates for cannot be inspired. Custom fragrances cannot rely on simple hearsay, so I do meet the person myself, for no less than two hours, and I ask all the questions I need. I make research. I call it a stroll along the person’s olfactory biography: I try to virtually see their pictures, gather lots of elements, ask tons of questions about their childhood, their travels… And it is also an initiation because we get to work on the fragrance together. It really is a great thing and it cannot but cost that price. You know, there are places today where you can get a custom fragrance made in fifteen minutes or an afternoon… You just need to know that how well this perfume will fit you depends directly on how much time you’ve spent on it. It’s as simple as that. When I make a custom fragrance, it is your style: it is like a cuddly toy or a box containing all your dearest memories. This perfume will give you goosebumps because this is what it’s made of. It’s fantastic. People often ask what is the difference between a custom fragrance and one that addresses everyone: to me it is exactly the same thing, except the reasons why I do it and what it brings me. Because when you let someone smell the perfume you made for them, it is a moment of eternity. I get goosebumps and shivers down my spine when I hand them the strip. When the person loves it and sighs with content, I burst inside, it’s beyond reality. It is wordless communication between two souls. Very interesting, very deep. You could even say magic.

And, contrary to a perfume you make for everyone, the recipient sits right in front of you…
But you know, when you create a perfume for the public and run into someone who wears it, it’s also crazy. Yesterday over lunch I was sitting next to a man who wore Roadster and that was quite something. It’s magical, too. It’s like fairy powder! (she laughs). And the night before last, I get out of the office, open the door and run into this young woman who was on her way out too, and she turns to me and says “thank you for your fragrances, it’s fantastic, they are with us everyday and we wear them with so much pleasure”. I say thank you, thank you, thank you. It gives me so much strength!
What interests me in perfume is art and the human dimension. First, when I make the juice, it is art and I don’t care who it is for. Not that I don’t care about people, but it is untrue to think that we create for (she takes the silly voice again) a 25 to 35 year-old woman who’s active but also likes to enjoy herself… that kind of typical marketing briefs. When I create, all I think about is the why and the how. Still, there is a difference between Les Heures du Parfum, which is almost a collection for insiders, and Baiser Volé which is more open and seeks a certain kind of universality without being consensual. Adressing everyone is art. And then, once the juice is out there, it becomes all about the human aspect of it, and I only work and live for that human aspect. So when people tell me this kind of things, it reboosts me for millions of years.

I can imagine it gives a meaning to your work: a perfume is created for itself, but its finality is to be worn, and that’s when it starts to exist…
This is why it is so important to me: I thank people for understanding my art. Because in the end, perfumers who think that they create for this or that type of women, maybe when their perfumes get worn they feel like it’s a logical thing. Whereas I don’t feel that way at all, and everytime someone thanks me it’s like they kiss me and tell me they love me. I am very touched.

Besides, perfume has this very intimate dimension: when a fashion designer sees a woman wearing his clothes in the street, I can only imagine he is touched, but he also knows that tomorrow that woman will be wearing something else. Whereas perfume is usually something you wear everyday…
I can’t remember who said that “smelling someone is swallowing them”. Wearing someone’s perfume is swallowing them, too! We breathe constantly and have it inside our body! It is a very strong thing, we should be thankful for that.

Can you tell me how creation goes for you at Cartier? Do you have an artistic director?
Not at all. Actually, at Cartier, I’ve always felt the need to have someone to talk to. I can’t work without it. But I choose these people depending on who I have around me: when I got here it was someone from the marketing department who had evolved in perfume throughout her careet. There has to be a sort of perfumistic connexion between us. This person has to be able to talk back to me, to give me an impression that is not personal but that will serve the purpose of the perfume we are making, this person must share my vision. I let these people smell my juices to get feedback, help me go further. At the moment, I have this connexion with the head of marketing department: we work together intelligently. These people are not here to restrain me. When you are the in-house perfumer, you are not here to do just what you want. Besides, we are often unaware of what the house needs. What I like is team work : I couldn’t have done Baiser Volé by myself. I have imagined it because there was a need, a context: we knew we had to create a new feminine fragrance. At that point, we try to reach a certain form of universality, and it is my job to find it. I get to decide it will be a floral, I get to decide it will be lily. And then, with that person from marketing, we try to turn that idea into a Cartier fragrance that we will be able to put on the market. And this is what I need, because I can very well make a lily by myself. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean that, without exchanging views, without that vision, we could put it in a Cartier bottle and sell it across the world. 

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Are there certain codes that you use to create a link between your creations and Cartier?
Very much so, and I try to be so invested and informed about the house, its style, its history, its actors, that it just comes out naturally. I have given the Cartier style a lot of thought, we could talk about this for days! When I create, I always try to fit the house before I fit the market. And this is the reason why I need a dialogue: being Cartier doesn’t mean you’ll be coherent with the market. You need to find a way to be Cartier and address everyone at the same time. To care only about the art of perfume and still be understood, to give people pleasure and not just artistic aridity. It is a fantastic dialogue, and I don’t get it with everyone.
I’ve been lucky enough, until now, to meet these two people who followed each other at the same position. They happen to be marketing people, but I am very lucky because I know a lot of marketing people with whom such a dialogue would be impossible to have. Marketing is like perfumery: some people are incarnated, they know why they are there, they are passionate, in love with perfumery, aesthetics, beauty, discourse. They know that this is what makes the soul of a house and thus they will respect it, preserve it, cherish it. And then there are people who show total cynicism, who make perfumes and that’s it. I’m lucky not to work around such people, but I’ve met tons of them. It’s the problem with this profession: you can come to perfume after having worked in laundry, deodorant… I remember at Guerlain, there was a marketing director who came from Narta! Terrible. This is how this industry is terrible: there are people who do this job as an industrial one. But as I often say, I have built great friendships along my career with marketing people. I like the idea of restoring a smart vision of marketing. Because it’s stupid to say “I make art, marketing is bullshit”. It is so easy and exaggerated. We are in a beautiful luxury house who lives out of  its creations: at some point, there has to be people who allow Baiser Volé or Déclaration d’un Soir to find their audience. And it would be dumb to discredit a whole profession. It leads nowhere. We must be more refined than this, campaign for a smart marketing. Let marketing people feel invested with a mission: if they do their job intelligently, with vision, respect, perspective, then it can be great. And I believe this is the secret of a beautiful collection, of beautiful perfumery in a great house: having such alchemy. At Hermès, it is precisely the case. And when Jean-Claude Ellena gets awarded prizes, he always goes and get them with his marketing directors, Catherine Fulconis and, before that, Véronique Gautier, who also worked for Cartier at a time, on Déclaration among other fragrances. Marketing people can be our best friends and our worst enemies, but we need to explain that. And this, again, is pedagogy. 

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Photographies © Sarah Bouasse

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One comment

  1. […] As a perfumer, I don’t work through music at all. I always work with music, meaning I’m always listening to music pretty loud here, I open Deezer, and it allows me to concentrate. But never do I make analogies music/perfume…I do respect the fact that some perfumers say they work with colors or music…But in my head, it’s all just images.(1) […]

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