Born to a perfumer in Grasse, the French perfume industry’s heartland, Ellena has spent almost six decades developing over 100 scents, producing international hits such as “First” for Van Cleef & Arpels, “Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert” for Bulgari, and “Un Jardin Sur Le Nil” for Hermès, which have garnered him countless accolades. He has written three books that have filled the void of the world of smells, including “Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent” and “Le Parfum”, a small booklet that talks about today’s perfume industry and his vision. Ellena spoke with Destination Deluxe to discuss his latest perfume for Hèrmes, “Voyage,” a fragrance for men and women, accentuated with aromas of fresh wood and musk.
CAN YOU REVEAL WHAT’S IN VOYAGE?
[Laughs and hesitates] It’s not a question of secrecy. I’ll easily show my formula. If you ask me, I’ll show you. And you can read it, and you’ll go, “Oh, what does this mean?” I know you don’t understand, and that’s why I would show you. The reason why I don’t want to talk about ingredients is because of a few things. The perfume is a result of a combination. When you take A plus B, it’s not A and B. It’s something else.
It’s like when you have a cooking recipe. If you’re not a cook, you read all the ingredients and you have to cook it to taste the final result. If you’re a cook, you know. And if you’re a very good cook, you know right away. So if I give someone the ingredients, it doesn’t say anything about the perfume. And let’s say my perfume contains jasmine, and you don’t like jasmine, you don’t want to smell it. But maybe, maybe – and I’m sure, because of the way I treat the jasmine – you will say, “Oh this is nice”.
WHY DO YOU CREATE PERFUMES?
Mainly, it’s a way to express myself. I create for myself, and afterwards I share. I’m very demanding of myself. Before I started working for Hermès, I followed the demands of the market. I was like a sponge, taking in everything. I know how to make “Chanel No. 5” with a few products. I know everything, basically. I have the technique. I used to play with all this. And “First” for Van Cleef & Arpels is a result of that. And when you smell “First”, of course it’s unique, but you can smell “Fidji”, you can smell “Chanel No. 19” and other perfumes inside. I took what I thought was the best from each perfume. Now I don’t work in this way anymore. I’m myself. What I do comes from me. I don’t care about the market. Now I have to please myself.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SCENT? IS THERE AN ALL-TIME FAVORITE SCENT?
No, all the ingredients are only there to make the perfume, so it’s like words for you. You use words to build the phrase. I use ingredients to build the perfume.
WOULD YOU SAY YOUR LAST PERFUME IS ALWAYS THE BEST?
Oh no, no. Maybe it’s the next one [laughs].
DO YOU ENJOY BEING AROUND PERFUMES ON A DAILY BASIS?
Yes, I never get tired of it.
WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING IF YOU WEREN’T A PERFUMER?
I might be a plumber. No, it’s not a joke! I started in the industry at the age of 16, and I built
my career with my work. Because of that I believe that I can build a career doing anything.
DID YOU EVER READ THE NOVEL “PERFUME”?
Yes, I did. The ultimate scent doesn’t exist. It’s a bit foolish.
WHAT MAKES A SCENT POPULAR? WHAT APPEALS TO THE MASSES?
To smell like the other. I’ll explain. There are two kind of people that wear perfume. There is the elite and the mass. The mass doesn’t want to be different. They want to be like the others. They want to be as normal and as usual as everyone else. When they use the same perfume, it means that they are on the same social level. We can talk with each other. You’re the mirror of me. This year perfume is very strong, because it gives people a social link.
The elite is very different, because the elite wants to be different. They don’t use the same perfume. I’ll give you a mass product with luxe codes. The best one is “Trésor de Lancôme”. The advertising is luxe and the smell is mass. After one hour, two hours, 10 hours, it smells the same. Now, I take what you call elite perfume, “Shalimar”. The smell is never the same. After one hour it’s like this, after two hours it’s like this. And this is the kind of perfume the elite wants. If you want to create something for the mass, you have to play along these rules.
AND IS THERE A PRICE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESE TWO TYPES OF PERFUMES?
No, there’s only a difference in the way they’re built.
WHAT ABOUT FOR HAUTE COUTURE PERFUME?
It’s not only a question of price. Yes, it can be more expensive, but the most important thing is how you create it, if it’s linear or if it’s wavy. It’s the same thing in music. Jazz and classic music is active listening. And if you have passive listening you always have the same tempo. You can also apply it to fashion with the structure of the clothes. Deconstructed is elite. Of course, we’re speaking in general. But you can apply parts of this concept.
SO, YOU LIKE DESIGNING ELITE PERFUMES?
It’s more fun. And you’re freer. I do not use the wording “unisex”, I prefer to say: to be shared. Actually, as I tend to conceive the perfume as an art, it’s an obviousness that perfumes are for everybody and for each of us, as all other artistic expressions. The distinction of masculine or feminine is economic, not creative. The perfumery history and the culture of certain countries show that perfumes do not have a gender classification. The idea is not to wear the perfume of his wife but to be curious, to ignore the social codes, the cultural codes which are mainly based on a commercial value. Then to be open minded, which means being able to wear women’s fragrances if a man likes one.
WHAT INFLUENCE DID THE MASS MARKET HAVE ON YOU?
It influenced a lot of the work of perfumers in general, not only me. Suddenly, the market wanted to have more and more perfumes, but with a low price, because this product had to be ephemeral. And they changed the way they thought about perfume and found other ways to make the perfumes smell rich, not only by using synthetic scents, but also through handling perfume differently. It’s not only the synthetics that decrease the price—some synthetics are very expensive, even more expensive than natural products, and you also have natural products that are inexpensive. So, it’s not a question of natural and chemical. It’s more complex than that.
Because of the mass market, the industry started to think differently, and marketing appeared in the late 70s. This completely changed the perfume industry. I’ll give you an example. In France, the first marketing for a perfume was “Opium” by Yves Saint Laurent. The fellow who made “Opium” for Yves Saint Laurent said, “I will put the money in advertising instead of the perfume”. For this reason, the low cost needs to be half of the normal price. That created a very important turn in the market, because suddenly all the prices for all perfumes in the market decreased by 50 per cent. They’re not less expensive for the customer. But the profitability for the industry was half. So everyone said “Okay, we want to pay half price”. And the people in the industry said, ”Okay, half price, but we have to save money.” So, the perfumers had to change their mentality and they started to figure out how to make low-cost perfumes that smells rich.
HOW IS YOUR APPROACH DIFFERENT?
Before, we had jasmine from Grasse and this was very expensive. Then, we started to use jasmine from Egypt, and then from China, because Chinese jasmine was 10 times less than in France. This is what happened. We started to buy raw materials from other countries because it was less expensive. We also we asked the chemist to think differently about how to handle the chemical product. I’ll give you an example. Edium is a chemical product you can find in all perfumes all over the world. When this molecule came out, at that time it was €1,000 per kilo. Today it’s €20. It’s the same molecule, but the way to create it went from 1,000 to 20. So all chemists had to think and find a different way to produce it at low-cost. So the profitability is still good, but everything else changes.