Perfume bottles can make as big an impression on us as the perfume itself. Sometimes mere containers, sometimes true artworks, they incarnate the perfume they hold and are thus the object of very special care from the brands. Thierry de Baschmakoff has been designing perfume bottles – among other things – for more than twenty years: he founded his design agency, Aesthete, at the end of the eighties. Very successful from the very beginning – thanks to the bottle he designed for Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert – the agency built itself a solid reputation throughout the years and worked for big names such as Cartier, Guerlain, Dior, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Kenzo, Givenchy or Balmain.
Can you tell me how you ended up launching your own agency, Aesthete?
The story began in Grasse, where I was born. I must be one of the only Grasse-born people to take care of what’s around the perfume and not inside! But I grew up in a family of perfumers: my brother-in-law was a perfumer, so was my uncle, and Jean-Claude Ellena (Hermes’ in-house perfumer) is my cousin by marriage… I would bathe in this universe while another part of my family was involved in drawing and architecture. In my extended family, these two universes stood alongside. Is this what urged me to draw perfume bottles? Actually, I still don’t know. But one day, I decided I would do it.
Do you have any special training?
I have a technical training, not a funny one, in civil engineering. See, I was meant to build buildings, or factories, which are my specialty. In my creative job, today, lots of people are self-taught. There is balance but I think this will change because schools are getting better and better, and diplomas are still necessary. But for a long time, half of the people who did artistic jobs were self-taught. So it seems pretty normal, after a while, to launch yourself alone because you believe you can. From one day to the next, I decided I would draw perfume bottles and I came to Paris.
Just like that, empty-handed?
I had carved bottles in plaster, which I’d never done before, and I realized it was rather fun and rather easy – I was naïve back then. I had made myself a little collection to understand the intellectual logic behind the exercise. I came to Paris overnight, but once again I was very naïve: no one was waiting for me there, and I had no network. But well, 25 years ago, the market was simpler than it is today, the expectations weren’t as high, and the doors were relatively open. Still, I had asked Jean-Claude a few questions, asked him for advice; he gave me the names of a few people to meet, but not much, really. This is how I got started in the adventure.
Did you set up your agency straight away?
Yes, I have never worked for others! I met, by chance, people who wanted to set up an advertising agency, others who wanted to get started in the perfume industry…. Just like me, they came to Paris to try their luck. And this is how we got started, from scratch, with no baggage: neither commercial nor marketing knowledge, and a poor knowledge of the job… (laughs). I mean, all I had done was carving plaster!
It was a good start!
Well, I did have a bit of knowledge in terms of technical drawing, but I learned this kind of drawing just like that, from watching others do it. I had a friend who was a graduate from a design school and he gave me advice: he works in the agency now! It should be the other way around, but this is how things went back then. Big designers would trust 95% of the market and I had to face that reality: coming out of nowhere, trying to find my way into a market where competition was well in place, in the world of luxury, that is rather codified and closed… You had to be at least a little naïve to get started. But this is what gets you started, really: if you are not naïve, if you don’t make silly mistakes, you can’t get started, whatever the job is.
How did you get your first client?
Because I kept asking here and there, I ended up meeting people, among which a glassmaker who gave me contacts. In the end, the suppliers were a lot more open than the few agencies I went to when I came to Paris and who must have thought, in the best case, that the guy with the plasters was kind of nice! We launched the agency in 1985, and at first its name was Paris Parfums. If I remember correctly, our first project was for Isabelle Canovas, a brand that doesn’t exist anymore and did rather luxurious fashion accessories. We had created a bottle shaped like a pompom, which was the brand’s emblem. It was very particular, but very interesting. Then I did a bottle for Sonia Rykiel. At that time the market wasn’t as tensed as today because only few designers were interested in it. A few big agencies would share the market. New generations were getting started, but they all came out from these agencies. And I came out of nowhere, with my own way of doing things and no school behind me.
So how did you manage to win your first big Bulgari brief?
By chance, people from Bulgari came to me: when they decided to launch their perfume, they wanted to put two big agencies and an outsider in competition. To find this outsider, they asked one of their consultants. He didn’t quite know what to answer, so he asked a plastic-maker whom I barely knew: I’d met the day before, by pure chance. This is how my name ended up on their desk. You see, all this is very fragile! Until 1992, we managed to have a few clients, but it was vey hard. The day we launched Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, everything changed.
Is the bottle we know today the one you originally proposed?
Actually, the story is we almost never presented that one to them! You know, creative jobs imply asking yourself lots of questions. Only at the very last moment did I decide to present it. And the model bottle we had made, which corresponds to the one you can still find today, we had estimated it was 250ml. But when the glassmaker saw it, he estimated it was rather 350… See, we were less precise than we are today… I was very upset because I had to tell Bulgari we would have to change the proportions. And this is when Paolo Bulgari, who made all the decisions, said they didn’t care and liked the proportions just like they were. It’s funny because, today, no client would tell you that! The adventure went off to an uncanny start, with rather positive setbacks. But this is what creation also is. Back then it was constructive. So we launched this very big bottle that gave birth to the brand’s very sophisticated facet, from the very beginning, with no direct connection to jewelry.
How did you appropriate the brand?
We were asked, among the axes of creative reflection, to draw inspiration from jewels. But in the end, they realized themselves that it wasn’t very clever since the competition – Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, in a nutshell all houses from the Place Vendôme – drew inspiration from their jewelry. Bulgari took the opposite stance and it turned out it was best for them, it gave birth to a perfume universe that quickly found a particular echo and that was interpreted as such. We found a guideline we may not have been able to stick to if we had stayed in the jewelry universe.
Today, do brands spontaneously come to you or do you have to go and get them?
Something we have to keep on doing everyday is saying who we are and remind people of what we do, because there is a lot of turnover in marketing teams today. That’s rather new. In the years 1990-2000, we came right after great designers so we were more low profile. And big brands liked it because there is a certain ambivalence about them: they are not afraid to say that such or such designer made such perfume bottle for them, but they won’t shout it from the rooftops either. They always maintain an ambiguity surrounding the fact that the brand has its own intern resources, because this is what they are selling after all.
So you work in the shadows, kind of like perfumers?
Brands put perfumers under the spotlight more because it is such a particular job that one may reckon getting them from the outside is not a problem. This isn’t true about designers. Because when you are Dior, your reputation is such that you want the public to think that everything you do comes from within: rarely do external consultants get advertised about. There was a time when our work was highlighted just as much as the perfumers’. These last few years, the opposite is happening. Some designers choose to be big stars and make it their drive, so they get a lot of media coverage, like Ora-Ïto for example, but that’s a double-edged sword: too much personality can get in a brand’s way. If the designer is too famous, you have to co-sign the work and put him on the front stage. So the situation is rather ambiguous today, because some marketing people would like to go see a designer who has a certain notoriety and who will have great influence on the project. It isn’t easy to position oneself, to find the right level of discretion. Until now, we’ve been rather low-profile.
Which didn’t prevent you from working on an impressive amount of projects!
As of today, Aesthete may be the agency that has cumulated most references among luxury brands. Even in terms of the objects we launched, we are getting close to 6000. But that number includes all declinations.
What about perfume bottles?
We have done more than a thousand. Even more if we count all flankers and declinations. But we have managed to prove that we do not cannibalize the brands we work for and I think that is a major asset. When we work for Yamamoto, we do Yamamoto. It may sound obvious, but sometimes when you are in this creative universe, you can’t help but express yourself through your own values.
One needs to be a little schizophrenic to appropriate the values of so many different brands, don’t they?
In practise, I think of the brand as the microprocessor that’s going to help me work. It’s the DNA, as they like to say today. Things get complicated when we work for brands who have a weak DNA. But most of the time we inherit their universe.
How do brands brief you?
There are two possible scenarios. The most extreme is the one when we get nothing. All we get know is whether it is a masculine of a feminine perfume and that’s all. Sometimes brands let us know about the target, its age, that kind of things. But I have to say that sometimes, marketing framing helps without helping. For me, knowing that the perfume addresses a 35 to 45 year-old man with a strong purchasing power doesn’t necessarily help. What matters is to understand the brand’s language. Sometimes, when we start working, the perfume’s story isn’t even written yet…
But then, which elements do you have to start creating?
You know, I understand what it is like for marketing people: it is very hard to describe a perfume that doesn’t exist yet! So they have to build a story around things that already exist in our collective memory, recurrent themes such as love, power, energy, whatever, they’re always the same themes! Sometimes we feel like it is copy and paste. The problem is, creation should be the driving force and it is not always so. Sometimes marketing holds all the power. But, normally, if we wanted to make more intriguing, more impertinent, more amazing products, creation should be more free. And at the same time, creation with too much freedom is set to fail! Working without a frame is dangerous. When a brand doesn’t provide us with one, we make one ourselves. And today, that is a mission we offer our clients: define the product territory for a new line. This helps the client picture things, and it gives us indications in terms of style, materials, sometimes even names.
Did you even come up with names?
Sometimes, code names became actual names! Take Hommage à l’Homme: it was the code name we gave to the Lalique brief we were working on, and it became its name.
Which means that, when you get the brief, the perfume doesn’t exist yet and neither does the name?
Usually, we have a code name. Because finding a name has become incredibly difficult: all names are already taken, everyone has patented a name and its declinations, people from the outside get patents for names… So today, you see a lot of compound names emerge, because it is simpler. We, in our conceptual approach, take in account the name because it is a key element. But we cannot always do so: just to illustrate the marketing paranoia, one day at a big group, we were briefed for a rather creative brand, a rather funny one, and the person we spoke to told us: “It’s too bad I can’t tell you the name of the perfume, because it would help you guys a lot!”. See how crazy?
Crazy indeed! But you do get involved in the project way before many others subcontractors. Are you the first ones to get contacted by the brand?
We are contacted at the same time as perfumers, but we need to come up with a project way before, for industrialization matters. We present our copy 10 months before it is put on the market, and we start working on it way before. And this is where it gets paradoxical: when you shorten that time, which is very important, it is like making a mistake in project management. In the years 1990-2000 this is what I would say: I told brands I didn’t understand how they could always work on short notice, while in the creative world, lots of us take their time. This leads us to dumb situations where we have to come up with the project of the century in a record time. I agree, creation needs stress. But there is good stress and bad stress, it’s like cholesterol. When you work on a project for two years and a half, you have time for innovation, but when you have less you need to work with technologies that are already known. You cannot explore. We had worked on a lipstick project for which we had come up with the push-pull system that can be found today in Chanel products, and we suggested that 10 years ago! Bet because developing it required 4 more months, they didn’t take it. And that is a fictional restraint, because, in reality, we can work simultaneously on the same project at two different speeds. But I have to reckon that things tend to accelerate, which explains why the marketing sometimes argue that trends are evolving…
Do trends mean anything to you?
When you work in luxury, you have to make trends. Normally, that’s actually the specificity of luxury. There was a whole period when luxury didn’t create any trends. And I think this is still true, somehow: luxury has drawn inspiration from other universes, because it ran short on breath. Luxury forgot that it was its role to show others where he could go. Luxury has to be extreme! Otherwise it is pointless. Brands today are global, they have a extremely large offer. But in the extremes, they must be extremely sharp. And precisely because this was missing in perfumery, I created The Different Company with Jean-Claude Ellena.
What exactly was missing?
I thought that this ultimate expression of luxury – luxuriously useless, I confess – was missing. What, in the years 2000, could make a difference? There were plenty of well-designed bottles, there were plenty off fragrances that smelled good… What would have brought perfume closer to the soul of luxury would have been to choose quality ingredients regardless of their price. That’s the aspect on which we focused, as well as the concept of a bottle made not to be thrown away. Our approach wasn’t especially ecological in the beginning. Luxury doesn’t pollute that much anyway. But, in luxury, the beauty and perfume segment is the biggest polluter because an empty bottle ends up in the trash, and so does an empty lipstick, and there are questions to be answered. With The Different Company, the perfumer gets carte blanche, even if his formula costs 1000 euros per kilo. And even if it seems kind of absurd in regard to the market’s logic. Luxury must be absurd and stick to its provoking side. Originally, luxury is a French word and belongs to a logic of uselessness: it’s got no point, but it is a pleasure. In the end, luxury is making one’s heart beat. So that was our idea with Jean-Claude: using the best ingredients and make no concessions. This is why we ended up with high retail prices. In 2000, we were almost out of market! We were the niche de la niche. But what is interesting is to see that, today, the market caught up on us. We are at the heart of high-end now, but not excessively expensive.
How do you cooperate with the brands’ artistic directors?
We meet them a lot less than we used to. Back then, there was a conversation and we tried to convey what they asked for. Today, when and if meet them, some of them have a very intellectual vision of perfume, others tend to rather describe the person who will wear it. Some of them don’t have a clue, and they know it, and they are waiting for us to help them, others will be more precise, like Albert Elbaz at Lanvin. Yohji Yamamoto had witten a dozen pages for us about the “non-fragrance” he wanted. The Japanese have a very poetical writing. For the bottle’s color, he told us he wanted “the color of the wind blowing through the trees”. The interest of such a sentence is that you are free to imagine whatever you want. And he wanted a non-bottle. So we ended up with a testing tube. This shows that you can have a real exchange with an artistic director, and I think it’s always best like that. Unfortunately, things are very compartmentalized today, you don’t get to meet creators anymore. I guess this makes it easier on marketing people.
…who are the only people you speak to?
With 80% of the brands, yes.
And when you work for brands under licence, do you speak with the brand or with the group?
With the group. Which is not a problem, except that when you don’t meet the designer you can’t gain their trust. A simple encounter, even a brief one, can help tremendously.
What are your best memories of bottles?
There are lots of them, but the ones that marked a step in our evolution, the ones that got noticed, mattered very much. L’Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert is one of them because it is a product that brought along many things: on the whole, it didn’t care for conventions. It is a product that wasn’t fit for the market: no one splashes on perfume with such a big bottle! That’s a form of pleasure I find interesting, because luxury must make one’s heart beat. I, as a consumer, do not think like a designer, or as a marketer: I listen to my guts. When I buy a product, I don’t analyze it like our clients try to analyze their product. And that is where they are wrong. I think we over-analyze products.
I agree all the more that the bottle is our first encounter with a perfume…
It is a means of communication. Obviously. And it is global. In this regard, it is a real communication tool and has a true, archeological responsibility: if one day you take all products from a single brand and put them on a table, and you can’t deduce something from them, a guideline, an emotion, then there’s been a mistake somewhere. That means the brand’s story has been built with lots of different stories. And this is what happens a lot in perfumery, I have to say. Each launch brings about a new story. It makes sense, but it creates disparities in style. There are brands you just don’t recognize. That’s a problem. In fact, more and more brands want to get back the power on their perfumes when they are under licence. It shows they are asking themselves questions.
Are there bottles you especially liked recently?
Yes, one of my ex-collaborators, Patrick Veillet, as made the bottle for Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom, this engraved heart which I thought was beautiful. I also love the bottle he did for Diesel’s Only the Brave. In the past, designers have done wonderful things: Lalique invented the contemporary bottle and it is sublime. I think were are going back to more figurative things.
Photographies (except for packshots): Sarah Bouasse