Grasse, the famous epicentre of the perfume industry, is a sort of mythical land to me. Somewhere I’ve read about extensively, most notably of course in Patrick Suskind’s novel about a scent-mad serial killer, but have never had the chance to visit because I’m not technically a beauty journalist. Nor am I by any means an expert on the perfume industry. Its relation to fashion though is more than obvious. In many cases, its revenue dwarfs that of ready to wear and accessories. The launch of a perfume has catapulted a fashion house into stratospheric levels, giving a brand household stats.
In the case of Louis Vuitton though, the order is somewhat unusual. First of course came the luggage – the outfitting of the privileged for their travel needs on the waters, by rail and road and eventually by plane. Then its foray into fragrance and cosmetics with crystal perfume bottles called ‘Editions d’Art’ and then their first scent in 1927 entitled Heures d’Absence, followed by Je Tu II in 1928 and then Réminiscences and Eau de Voyage in 1946. This buried fragrance history of Louis Vuitton was something which I only learnt about in last year’s Volez, Voguez Voyagez exhibition held at the Grand Palais. Sadly no traces of those original perfumes – its physical form or formulae – exist anymore because of an archival fire in the 1970s. And so Louis Vuitton – the perfume – as a project was shelved for decades. Until about four years ago, when Jacques Cavallier Belletrud was hired to become the official Louis Vuitton “nose” or more formally, their Master in-house perfumer. As a third generation perfumer, Belletrud has architected many award winning perfumes such as Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio and Issey Miyake’s L’Eau D’Issey.
He began to go on a journey, collating experience and artefacts from around the world to come up with what would form Louis Vuitton’s collection of Les Parfums. Why seven? There wasn’t a specific number in the brief and Belletrud had the tough task of whittling it down from an initial batch of ninety. It was perhaps too difficult to compress Belletrud’s research into one singular scent. Or on a more practical level, having seven very diverse (yet unified by their idiosyncrasy) fragrances mirrors our perfume shelves for both men and women. In our household, Steve has about four or five in steady rotation and I normally grab from a selection of about seven or eight depending on mood, occasion and even what sort of clothes I’m wearing. You’ll gravitate towards specific scents in the Louis Vuitton’s Les Parfums but equally, three or four of them might take your fancy, hence why they have produced miniature sets comprising of all seven as well as travel atomisers that allow you to switch around.
To begin this journey of LV’s Les Parfums, after Paris Fashion Week, I flew to Nice to experience Grasse and more specifically, a dream of a fragrance laboratory for Louis Vuitton and Parfums Christianne Dior, known as Les Fontaines Parfumées. Housed in a former tannery that harks back to Grasse’s roots as a centre of leather goods dating back to the 12th century, Belletrud has a pretty idyllic setting to experiment, create and explore. The perfume project for Louis Vuitton of course is an ongoing one, which is why we got not just a presentation of the now released parfums but an insight into the working life of Belletrud.
But this initial seven is what we came to discover. Nestled in a recreation of a flower-filled trunk known as the Malle Fleur, which Louis Vuitton once sent to clients as a token of goodwill, are the chosen seven fragrances that form Les Parfums encased in the French-made flacons designed by Marc Newson. As we smelled each one, it was clear there was definitely a strategic thinking behind the diversity. The journey begins in Grasse’s field of roses where Rose des Vents was born. The distinctive smell of lily-of-the-valley continues that floral wave in Apogée. For fans of sweeter fragrances, you have the heady Madagascan and Tahitian vanilla of Contre Moi. The intensity of tuberose is worked into Turbulences along with a jasmine native to Grasse. Naturally leather would somehow be involved. The tanned leather used at Vuitton’s Asnieres workshop is incorporated with two kinds of jasmine and narcissus in Dans la Peau. Upon seeing a raspberry leather at the workshop, Belletrud also managed to weave in the contrasting scents of leather and raspberry into Mille Feux. My personal favourite is Matière Noire, perhaps the most masculine of scents with its notes of agarwood, contrasted with an intense mix of blackcurrant and jasmine.
In Belletrud’s office, a custom made Louis Vuitton trunk houses the myriads of scents that form the tools to a craft that is difficult to illustrate in words and pictures and yet evocative to see. We went one step further and got to sit in Belletrud’s laboratory space where the delicate and scientific task of mixing up a fragrance is done. Working with milligram scale, pipettes and precise formula, we got an idea of mixing our very own perfumes. Going for a woody scent, it was up to us how much of the key components named ‘Coeur Floral’ and ‘Bois Moderne’ would go into our fragrances. The result? Something that probably smelt quite crude and common to Belletrud’s fine nose but for me wasn’t a bad fragrance to tote around when travelling.
The simplicity of the fragrances we created of course pale in comparison with what Belletrud has achieved with Louis Vuitton. By the time you’ve had a whiff of all of Les Parfums, the combination lingers like a storied voyage around the world, where different places leave their olfactory traces on your skin. Belletrud doesn’t have a prescriptive method of mixing Les Parfums. “It’s not my property anymore,” he says with a shrug. Meaning you do with the seven bottles as you will. Just don’t spritz the perfume and rub furiously into your wrists, which kills the perfume. That’s apparently the equivalent of trampling all over a bed of flowers with your feet. Duly noted Jacques. Duly noted.
Wearing Molly Goddard dress, J Brand trousers, Missoni x Converse slip-ons and Off-White bag