An (other) hour with Atelier Cologne

DSC_0966Their success story would make a perfect scenario: Sylvie Ganter-Cervasel and Christophe Cervasel both worked in the perfume industry when they first met. It was love at first sight. After they chucked everything to live their love story, they transformed their mutual passion for Cologne into the perfume house they created in 2008. Atelier Cologne now sells its creations around the world. Just two years after my first interview with them, Sylvie and Christophe once again welcomed me in their apartment/office in the 8th arrondissement of Paris to talk about all their achievements. Among others: eight colognes and a wedding.

When we first met, exactly two years ago, your name was just starting to be known…
Sylvie: In France, we were getting started indeed. That’s because we first launched in the United States. There, we had the incredible luck to be chosen by Neiman Marcus, which is the department store, very luxurious, very prestigious, with customers of great quality. They put us on their shelves in January 2010, and we decided to focus our whole time and energy on that. Only by late 2010 we started meeting sellers in France. We started very slowly, with a few independent ones. Then in February 2011, we did our first press launch in France to introduce ourselves to journalists and let them know that the brand existed. Our real break-through was when the Galeries Lafayette (one of the biggest French department stores) came to find us in 2011. We were part of the launch of their exceptional fragrances program: we were the newcomers next to Serge Lutens, Annick Goutal, Diptyque, L’Artisan Pafumeur, all these established names which have a very special place in the perfume landscape.

What has changed since that glass of blood orange juice we shared in July 2012?
It seems so far… Back then we had already launched the 5 colognes of our Collection Originale, and we had started the Collection Matières. Today, we have eight more colognes. So there’s that to begin with. But in a more general way, what has changed is that everything goes faster. It’s kind of intoxicating, because we are in high demand and that means that the brand is doing well, that people enjoy it. With Atelier Cologne, the possibilites are endless – which wasn’t a given when we started because our whole idea – Cologne – only represents a very specific market segment. But as it turns out, many evolutions are possible: in terms of raw materials, but also in terms of packaging, as shows the Collection Métal with which we really treated ourselves; or the skincare line that I really wanted to develop and that has allowed us to expand in a new way. We also do a lot of work on the leather, with a tannery and a watch bracelets maker in Besançon. We first started with standard colors, but over time we’re doing more and more custom colors, such as our true Atelier Cologne blue. In the spring, we’ll be launching a fragrance whose leather color perfectly matches the tag. So we’re having fun.

Christophe: What has changed, also, is that in two years we became much more international. At first we were Franco-American, now we are in 34 countries. We’ve seen that our story works abroad very well: Asia, Middle-East, Russia… We had a warm welcome everywhere.

Sylvie: It’s true, even in places where we least expected it. I remember a launch in Japan, which I went to on my own. People had warned me: “Japan is a tiny market, no one wears perfume, it’s even frowned upon”… But it turned out that journalists had tears in their eyes during the whole presentation. They were moved by the stories, the materials, the way we worked on them. I came home knackered, but full of emotion. These people love perfume, and not just Bois Blonds or Oolang Infini. They adhere to the story, the concept.

Sylvie et Christophe en juillet 2012

Sylvie and Christophe in July 2012

What are your best launches memories?
Christophe: We did the press launch for Ambre Nue here, in our home, and it was incredible.

Sylvie: We had done this setting in the living room, and then each room presented a fragrance and its spirit: on each of the chimneys, we had placed a copy of the still-life we have shot for each perfume. The appartment has never been more tidy and organized than on that day! The idea of this launch was a suggestion of Nathalie (Franchini, their PR), but it felt perfectly natural to welcome journalists in our home. We work at home and we are very close to our team, so we’re like a big family!

Did your opening to new markets around the world give you the inspiration for new creations?
Sylvie: Yes, very much so. It gives us ideas for materials, packagings…

Christophe: The birth of our Collection Métal, for instance, was linked to our development in Asia. We encountered customers whose tastes were rather classical, who loved our perfumes, but who would have loved a more luxurious object so that it could be a gift. We thought this feedback was very interesting and that metal was a great answer to this demand.

Sylvie: It’s actually a funny story, those metallic bottles. While we were developing our tags in Orleans, in the fall of 2009, the factory’s boss took us aside and said he had something to show us: it was glass bottles, covered in silver oxide. When I saw that I told Christophe: we need to do this. For me, this was totally us. The guy told us the technique wasn’t ready yet, but we kept it in mind and asked about it regularly. Until one day we called them to say we wanted to launch bottles with this technique. It was the beginning of 2013 and as it turned out, they had just begun the industrialization process. The timing was perfect.

Christophe: Anyway, the comments and reactions from our customers around the world are very important. They allow us to not rest on out laurels and to discover new universes to explore.

Sylvie: I think that something else helps us tremendously: it’s that we are two in the creative process. Both of us are capable of going in a billion directions, and there is always one of us to slow the other down. But when we both put our finger on something at the same time, we know it’s the right time. Quite naturally, growing as a duo gives us a lot of confidence.

What are the comments that your customers make the most?
Christophe: More than anything, people tell us about the fragrances themselves. They tell us about the bottles, too, and especially the 30-ml travel size ones, who are a great success. And finally, they tell us they love the pictures, these still lives we make for each of our creations. What I regret is that they don’t tell us more about the stories we write. Lots of customers wear our fragrances, know our postcards, but they don’t know that there is a story behind each of them. These stories are for the real fans!

What are your best-sellers around the world?
Christophe: In the United States, on the one side we have our Neiman Marcus customers who wear Orange Sanguine, Rose Anonyme and Silver Iris. At Sephora and in our boutiques, they wear Orange Sanguine, Vanille Insensée and Cédrat Enivrant. In China, it’s Oolang Infini and Vétiver Fatal; in Korea Orange Sanguine and Cédrat Enivrant, in Hong Kong Vétiver Fatal and Gold Leather, and in Japan Bois Blonds, Oolang Infini and Trefle Pur. In the Middle-East, Rose Anonyme is ahead by far, and Silver Iris does very well too.

Sylvie: In France, it’s hard to know because the figures vary a lot depending on our different boutiques. In our first year, we only had the one on rue Saint Florentin, in Paris, and Vétiver Fatal was ahead by far. But that’s because Donatien, our salesman, wore it and he convinced every customer to buy it, men and women as well!

Christophe: And in Europe on a global scale, we have few statistics, but Orange Sanguine is doing very well and so does Cédrat Enivrant since we launched it.

All in all, Orange Sanguine, which was your very first fragrance, remains your best-selling reference…
Yes, and it’s the fragrance we chose to develop a line for a few beautiful hotels.

Hence the recent development of a bath products line?
Exactly.

Sylvie: It’s a project we’ve been working on from the very start because paradoxically, although Orange Sanguine is our best-seller, it is one of the only one that neither Christophe or I wear. This said, we both dreamt to take a shower with it! Because it really is a smell and a sensation you want to feel in the morning. I am pretty strict about the ingredients that I personally use, so we did a lot of work on the base, which is our own: no sodium laurylsulfate, no parabens or petrol derivatives… Nothing you shouldn’t. We feature a big “0%” on our bottles, because it’s something we are proud of, we use a lot of naturals in our perfumes and we want to underline the fact that, when we develop a skincare product, it’s not just a generic base in which we inject our fragrance, but a base that is our own, in which we adapt the fragrance so that it works with that base.

Orange Sanguine Atelier Cologne

Tell me about your work with the perfumers: has the dialogue become easier over time ? And by the way, do you still work with the same ones – Ralf Shweiger and Jérôme Epinette?
Yes. What we have learned over time is to know which project we should give to whom. Because we never had Ralf and Jérôme work against each other: we’ve never made them work on the same fragrance to chose the best one at the end. We know Ralf’s writing very well, direct, straight to the point, but very complex in reality. As for Jerôme, his writing is very faceted. When we want to work on different angles of a same raw material, as we did in the Collection Métal, Jérôme is an obvious choice.

And then we work with each of them differently: Jérôme is highly creative, sometimes he’ll even suggest things that aren’t even in our briefs, and we like them or we don’t; whereas Ralf works very slowly, step by step. We go back and forth between Paris and New York a lot. But we’ve worked with them for such a long time that we understand each other quickly, we share a vocabulary.

What would you say is your olfactory signature?

Citrus overdose. Either the citrus is the star and the base notes prolong the citrus, or the illusion of the citrus, in time – that’s the Collection Originale – either we work on more opulent or more classical materials with citrus to bring them transparency, brightness, elegance – that’s the Collection Matières. In the Collection Métal, the olfactory exercise is rather similar but we had fun working on materials that are more rare, less known by the general public.

Christophe: People tell us about « natural smells ». They feel like they recognize the notes, contrarily to other perfumes with which it’s hard to tell what’s in the composition. Our perfumes are not abstract at all, they always convey images of something.

After our FLAIR x Atelier Cologne event, people who attended it told me they were glad they could recognize the notes in your fragrances: although they weren’t all fragrance experts, they felt like they “understood” your fragrances and I think it felt very nice to them. It’s almost like your collection is a game for one to play!

Sylvie: And this is what we aimed at from the beginning: the names we chose didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s always an ingredient and an adjective. And this ingredient will always be the star of the perfume. If it is a citrus, it’s at the heart of the composition; if it is vanilla, we bring it a different lighting so that it becomes “insensée” (meaning foolish in French). We take a material as a starting point, we look at it from different angles, always with citrus to give transparency to the writing. I think this characterizes our style very well. 

And it illustrates the authenticity you claim. Your fragrances are direct, very readable, and I think that for lots of consumers today, it’s a good start.

Christophe: Customers are drowning under big blockbusters, so when they encounter a brand like ours, they think: “now, that’s different”.

Sylvie: Because we both come from the industry, we’re able to make the difference: one the one side, there are fashion designers selective brands with this big floral-fruity pot-pourri – these perfumes all smell alike – and on the other side there’s the niche perfumery where, by definition, the fragrances are more polarizing: these creations are more abstract, more differenciating, but I think that in both these worlds, the communication to the consumer is identical in a majority of cases : super sexy for her, super sexy for him! And that’s not our discourse at all! We talk about materials, emotions. I think we can move the client in other ways than constantly talking about seduction and we can make them dream in a much more natural way.

La robe de mariée de Sylvie, brodée de fleurs de jasmin. ©Carole Dugelay

Sylvie’s wedding dress, embroidered with a jasmine flower pattern. ©Carole Dugelay

Is the starting point of your perfumes always a material?
Sylvie: No, it often comes from an emotion. For example, there is a material we love, which is jasmine. But not in perfumery because, when you distill it, it becomes opulent, if not animal, syrupy, greasy… so not in our codes at all. Whereas real jasmine, outdoors jasmine – Christophe had a whole bunch of it on his terrace in Paris – has the most magical smell. We have always wanted to work on this material because the moments we spent on that terrace were perfect. Then, a few weeks ago, we left on a pre-nup trip to Italy and the walls of the place we went to were covered in jasmine. So we looked at each other and thought “we have got to make this work!”. And this summer, on the day of our wedding, the upper part of my dress was in transparent embroidered lace, and the pattern was jasmine flowers, which I hadn’t even noticed when I bought it! That’s when we thought we had no choice and had to do it. It was obvious. We have to work on a jasmine, and it won’t be a Sambac jasmine but an Egyptian jasmine, rather green, and we have to make it very green, or with a lot of spices, because that’s another rule we have: if we work a traditionally feminine material, it has to be wearable by a man, and vice-versa.

What was the starting point of Blanche Immortelle, which you recently launched?
For us, the immortelle flower was synonymous with Corsica, the maquis, holidays, a sunny and warm smell. The starting point was this feeling, this emotion, more than the immortelle flower in itself.

Christophe: In terms of bottling, we wanted to work a pink gold, and we wanted to make a flower for this Collection Métal, a flower men would be able to wear.

What about Santal Carmin?
Sylvie: Sandalwood is a material we love and which is used a lot in perfumery, but often in a similar way and often as a tool, to give a woody facet and create very soft base notes. When perfumers work on sandalwood as a star ingredient, it’s often to underline its creamy, sweet, milky facet. We went the opposite way. We thought it was already very smooth and we wondered what we could associate it to in order to make it different. We followed the idea of spices and when we stumbled upon saffron, it felt very obvious. Besides, it was a nice echo to the immortelle flower who is already spicy by nature, and it allowed us to constitute an olfactory family that we didn’t have until then.

Last question: what did you wear to your wedding?
Sylvie: I almost wore something that wasn’t Atelier Cologne but Christophe told me “no, you can’t do that!”. It was Thierry Mugler’s Cologne, because it’s the perfume he wore when I met him, and I adopted it afterwards. We both love it. It is a beautiful fragrance, that symbolizes out first moments together. But eventually I chose Bois Blonds.

Christophe: As for me, I wore Blanche Immortelle. I think it is very nice on a hot day.

Sylvie: Of all our perfumes, it’s that one that suits you best.

Atelier Cologne loves FLAIR readers! Enjoy exclusive privileges on the House’s online store with the following codes:

Receive a free Orange Sanguine candle for every purchase of a Cologne Absolue in 100ml, 200ml or gift pack with the code FLAIRABSOLUE

Receive all samples for 10€ instead of 19€ with the code FLAIRDECOUVERTE

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