I've always admired Histoires de Parfums, Ghislain's Paris-based "olfactive library." There's a romance to the brand that seems rare these days. And after talking with Ghislain about his work, I see now where this comes from. Lots of brands like to talk about storytelling, but Histoires de Parfums has something genuinely interesting to say. This may be my favorite interview we've ever done on DESK so without further adieu, I'll let Gerald Ghislain do the talking.
"My enlightenment doesn’t come from books but from people and from their stories."
I’ll have you know I’m not that old. Histoires de Parfums has been around for 20 years sure, but calling us Renaissance is a bit of a stretch.
Jokes aside, I see what you mean and I don’t know if I think of myself as a Renaissance man. I am just very curious and can’t rest. I need different projects, not just to be busy but to keep my mind young. I love going from an idea to another, jumping from owning a restaurant to launching a perfume line to opening a sex shop to owning a flamenco club. I just want to experience everything life has to offer and if that makes me a Renaissance man, then yes I am, but I always felt Renaissance men were kind of dull men, locked up in their towers, drinking up all the knowledge of the elders and talking to the stars. I don’t care for the knowledge of books. I mean, I love reading books but what I want to say is that the knowledge I value is that of the street." The knowledge of experience, of meetings, of traveling, of eating. You can learn a lot from just eating foreign foods.
My enlightenment doesn’t come from books but from people and from their stories. That’s why I started Histoires de Parfums, not with the scent of books but with the scent of characters, of real characters and of what they, not their books, would’ve smelt like.
"Most people think with arts that technique, mastery and rules are somewhat of a cage, when they actually allow you to be free."
Hmm, I wouldn’t say a lot of it comes from talent. The issue and beauty of perfume is that it’s both an art and a craft, and the thing with arts is that talent is everything and nothing. What matters is being creative and having a clear vision of where you want to go. Mastery is something anyone can learn but real talent is using this mastery to serve your vision in a way no one has ever done before.
My perfumes always start with a vision, an image, a story. Once this is settled, then I get to designing the scent and work until the reality matches the image I had, and if I don’t do it myself, I’ll hire someone to do it better like Julien Rasquinet for Fidelis or Luca Maffei for This is not a blue bottle 1/.5.
There are so many paths in perfumery and they’re all as important, just like in any other art. In theatre, you’ll have a stage director, a writer, a scenographer, someone for the lighting. Cinema’s even more huge. And in perfumery, you’ll have perfumers of course but also evaluators, assistants and creative directors, and you can't really be one and all, the same way you can’t really write, direct and star in your own play. You can but it will be one-dimensional in that you’re stuck in your own head and vision. But once you bring someone else in, the plot thickens and unfolds.
Creating a perfume takes mastery of course, because it enables you to not find the most efficient way to go from a point A to a point B, but to actually see all the different ways you could choose. It’s like if you were to play the guitar but only knew one song. Sure you’ll sing it superbly and in different tunes and styles but in the end, it’s just one song. But if you master your instrument, you can play anything you want. Most people think with arts that technique, mastery and rules are somewhat of a cage, when they actually allow you to be completely free.
Yes and no. Perfume isn’t much different than cooking. That’s how I fell into it. There aren’t rules to cooking; it’s a lot of trials and errors but ultimately, if someone could put pineapple on a pizza and make it work, there’s nothing a perfumer can’t do.
I always follow my ideas. They’re not always good but the point of chemistry in perfumery is that it enables you to almost magically, seamlessly blend any of two things together and make it work. Look at Irrévérent for instance, in our En Aparté collection. It’s built on a lavender and oud accord. How random is that? I always saw jasmine and oud, rose and oud, sandal and oud, vetiver and oud and I got bored and thought, “Why not lavender, it could be fun.” And after many trials and many errors, Irrévérent was born and it works out perfectly.
The history of perfumery is all about breaking the rules and glass ceilings. There are so many perfumes that are big successes today that shouldn’t have been born because they weren’t by "the book," because they overdosed this or that ingredient. Look at the first Guerlain perfumes: They were so packed with vanillin that Coty, Guerlain’s competitor, said the only thing he could come up with that much vanilla was crème brûlée. And here’s the food again.
I follow the design so closely that I’m surprised I’m not in the bottles yet. I love anything that has to do with design and that is something you can really see when you come into one of our flagship stores in Paris or Milan.
Design is how art comes into your everyday life and as it turns out, perfume is an art. I can’t imagine a perfume without a bottle, or a bottle without a proper shape or color, because that’s what you’ll associate with the perfume. That’s even the first encounter you’ll have with the perfume before you spray it. And I’m a visual person. I also think in colors or shapes or textures and more often than not, ideas for perfumes came from seeing a painting or a street scene, and I’ll just go back to my design team with a broad picture and we’ll start working from there.
But my ideas are very precise, which means that I have to oversee it as closely as I can to make sure that this idea comes to life and not anything else. For instance, we just released 1/.6 as part of This is Not a Blue Bottle collection, which is our more artsy line inspired by Magritte, existentialism and Klein blue. Our point with this collection was to emphasize emotions over reason, art for the sake of art, perfume for the sake of perfume, beauty for the sake of beauty. We wanted to find a way for the customer to smell a fragrance without being influenced by anything, and we went so far as to blur the lines between perfume and design because the first perfume of the collection 1/.1 is literally a blue bottle. It has no name, no branding. It’s nothing but a blue bottle.
Why blue? Because this is a color in which you can dream. Blue can be anything you want. The sky, the sea, the eyes of a lover. It can be a summer’s sky or a winter’s one, it can be a nice provençal seashore or a colder one. Blue can be anything. The challenge was really to implement, through a creative design in tone with our identity, a way the customer would not be influenced by anything exterior to them. We just give them a perfume, a color, an energy, and the rest is up to their sensibility.
On the contrary, I love it. That’s what I keep saying over the years, that’s the sense of our motto: “stories to be read on the skin,” meaning on YOUR skin. Once you wear them, our stories become yours. That’s the point of art. Once it’s out in the world, it no longer belongs to the artist. I love the fact that your vision is different than mine. This way it broadens the spectrum of possibilities and realities.
Perfume is intimate. My perception and memories of roses aren’t yours, the same way we could both make love to the same person and have two totally different experiences and opinions. But that’s the beauty of it, that it paints an even bigger picture than you imagined in the first place. It’s really great to see that a small idea or memory I had turned into a perfume that touched the lives of people in more ways than I could think of. That’s what brings stories into life.
Perfumes tell much more about our society than we give them credit for, because there’s nothing more intimate than a perfume.
I mean, look at this. When WWI ended, it took down old empires, societal structures, everything we knew. At the same time, we noticed a declining trend in oriental perfumes (the Empire was no more) and floral ones (the old structures were no more) but Chanel boomed with her aldehydes that smelt modern and fit her new vision of femininity.
Then WWII came and what happened? People rushed back to floral and oriental perfumes, because they felt safe, and they kept them through the ’50s to forget the gloomy years of the war.
Then came the '60s, the sexual revolution and what happened? Back to aldehydes, green fragrances, avant-garde scents.
Then came the '70s with the first beginnings of unisex fragrances, or ones that could be read as such.
Then the '80s with their over-the-top, intoxicating, gender-stuck perfumes. And you can also see that people loved going for green fragrances when ecological disasters had happened.
So perfume is a societal and generational marker, because of how personal it is. Nowadays, the younger generation feels concerned about ecology and global warming and there’s also more freedom and fluidity about gender expression. How does that translate into perfumes? On the one hand, a boom in natural and clean fragrances that are respectful toward nature and on the other, a surge of abstract, conceptual, synthetic, unisex fragrances that tick none of the preconceived boxes or olfactory families we knew.
"I remember the smell of this place so distinctly: the flour, the yeast, the orange flower water and caramelized sugar of the brioche buns..."
I get that people feel like having a signature scent but to me, it’s like having a signature dish. Everyone knows you make a great boeuf bourguignon but do they really expect you to only be eating boeuf bourguignon at every meal? No, they don’t. And you wouldn’t even want to.
Look, you talked about moods so I’ll use this as an example. We have changing moods and sometimes mood swings. This is normal. Nobody expects you to only be happy or a hoot or deep or grave or depressed or whiny. You’re one and all at once. There’s a happy Gérald, a hoot Gérald, an angry-boss Gérald, a helicopter-mum Gérald, a pensive Gérald, a peaceful Gérald. They’re all different and they’re all me and that’s how you should look at signature scents.
It raises the question of for whom do you wear perfume? Do you wear it for yourself? If so, why do you care about a signature? Do you wear it for others? If so, stop caring so much about what people think and wear whichever perfume you fancy. Don’t live according to other people’s expectations of yourself. Live yourself, be yourself.
That’s why I prefer a signature “alchemy," a blend of perfumes that will somehow always smell like you. Plus it’s fun to choose your different perfume or perfumes of the day from your fragrant wardrobe and try layering them. That’s actually why I launched an on-demand bath line, so that you can mix and match your perfume with any other fragrance from our house in your body lotion or shower gel to create a real signature.
And you also have to keep in mind that perfumers seldom wear perfume because they’re covered with different mods all the time. I try so many perfumes every day that I can hardly keep count of what I am wearing. I have one on every little patch of skin and fabric I wear.
I have two. When I was a child, we lived in Morocco and there was no French bakery in our neighborhood, so my mother would bake her own bread and brioche twice a week. Once all the doughs had risen, we’d go with the nanny to the public oven. It was a sort of communal hearth where everyone could come and bake their cakes, bread, pastries you name it. And I remember the smell of this place so distinctly: the flour, the yeast, the orange flower water and caramelized sugar of the brioche buns... it was a delight.
My other vivid memory also comes from my childhood. My father was a jockey so every Sunday we’d go to the racecourse and just before the race, the jockeys and horses would all come together and the air was thick with the smell of leather, horses, fresh plowed grass. I know it will sound weird, but this is one of the smells I find most comforting. That’s actually what I love most about perfume and what I was telling you about with our scent memories being unique. Some people would find this smell of horses and sweat absolutely disgusting, but I don’t.
Histoires de Parfums is about these personal stories, my personal stories with Sade, George Sand and Hemingway – but they become your stories because you can’t and won’t appreciate a smell the same way I do. All I can do is tell my story through a perfume to the best of my ability, and hope that you’ll find your own truth in it.
"Do you think Picasso, Hemingway or Verdi hired teams of marketers and copywriters to create a story around their works? No."
You said it. Be genuine, not manipulative, not empty. Customers aren’t cattle. Feed them lies and they’ll notice it, especially since there are new brands coming up every week, and a lot of reviewers trying to educate the customers, and a global sense of awareness that applies to every aspect of our lives.
If you don’t have anything to stay, better stay silent. You want to tell a meaningful story? Have one. You want it to be genuine? Be it. And you don’t have to have a complicated story to be genuine. Art can just exist for the sake of it, but do you think Picasso, Hemingway or Verdi hired teams of marketers and copywriters to create a story around their works? No. They had something in their guts that needed to come out. They took their little brush or pen and expressed themselves. And that’s real. There was a Desperate Housewives episode about this, I recommend it.
So, to answer your question, I’d say the main thing would be to look at perfume as an art again, and not a craft. We don’t need art to survive – we need food, water and sleep. So we don’t need another rose perfume, but ask yourself what makes your rose perfume different? What’s in it that keeps you awake at night? Do this, just ask yourself this and you’ll have a genuine, meaningful story and if you don’t, well, drop the perfume and work on another one.
Why change a winning team? If these ads work it’s because they speak to the audience and have done so for decades, but it’s even more relevant in perfumes because perfumes are a luxury item and the most affordable one at that. And the most universal.
I mean, whether you’re Julia Roberts or a teacher in Manila or a flamenco dancer in Malaga or a firefighter in Sydney, you can somehow all wear the same perfume. You’ll never wear the same shoes as Julia Roberts, or the same jewelry. You won’t have the same house or go to the same parties or clubs on Saturday nights, but at least you know that you can smell exactly like her. And that’s not nothing. That’s why these ads work.
Could brands do better? I don’t know. If their aim is to create a sense of identification, there’s nothing better. Also, you can’t smell a perfume through a screen. You know what the Birkin bag looks like but you don’t know what the perfume smells like unless you smell it. And the only reason why someone sitting on their sofa in the middle of nowhere would want to get up and head to the nearest Macy’s to smell a perfume, is if they felt they could somehow become Ryan Gosling or Julia Roberts.
Now if I had full creative freedom, I think I’d just want to create scent experiences in different cities. Just big perfumed happenings, finding new and creative ways to tie in people’s stories with that of our perfumes. It’s not a commercial per se, but this is what I’d love to do.
"I would love to create the scent of the future. The perfume of someone who isn’t born yet."
There is and this has been following me for years. I would love to create the scent of the future. The perfume of someone who isn’t born yet. To create a perfume of a generation we do not know, of words we haven’t heard yet, of cultural tropes and references we couldn’t fathom.
It’s not just about creating an abstract perfume but really finding a way to travel into the future and bring back their life lessons and insights and put them into a perfume. And it’s even more pressing that our future changes shape every week. It has never been more uncertain, so the possibilities have never been more infinite somehow. I hope I’ll find a way to capture this...