I'm currently harboring a liking for this line of freshly hand-manufactured scents called Le Labo. Their scents, each named after a primary ingredient (e.g. sandalwood, iris, vetiver), are deceptively complex, with the primary scent giving way to deeper and sometimes unexpected notes singing in harmony with the first whiff. For instance, one of their men's fragrances, Rose 31, starts off with a very planty smell of rose, and then develops into the alluring, savory scent of cumin!
Last week, I had a candid conversation with Le Labo's founder Fabrice Penot, who I found both impressively passionate and hysterically funny. I also had the privilege of observing Isaac, a specialist at the Elizabeth Street flagship store, in the process of preparing a fragrance from start to finish, the photographs of which I am delighted to share with you today.
Le Labo's Fabrice Penot (via The Discerning Brute)
Can you tell us about your perfume line Le Labo and why are they formulated-to-order?
Well, we have a collection of 13 perfumes, created in collaboration with the world's best perfumers. We freshly hand-make them to order in front of you because a perfume is fragile: we keep the essential oils away from the light and the heat until the last moment. But most importantly, what makes our perfume special is their soul... and to get it, you need to spray on your skin and enjoy the journey.
Fragrance specialist Isaac Wolf-Tanner selects from a library of essential oils and mixes them according to the recipe.
Why did you decide to make perfumes?
Because I can't sing.
He makes sure everything is combined in the right proportions
and then adds the alcohol at the very last minute.
I was trying on a few of your fragrances at the Barney's boutique, and found that people’s perception of the gender of certain scents could differ greatly. I sprayed on the Neroli, and thought it was fresh and masculine, but my father thought it was way too feminine! (Perhaps I have a high olfactory tolerance for femininity.) What are your thoughts about gender and perfume?
My point on that is that great perfumery is genderless. A great perfume can be wore [sic] by anyone. The person who wears it will bring the edge of femininity or virility. A perfume should be genderless, and sexful.
Vetiver 46, Rose 31, Santal 33, Bergamote 22: Le Labo suggests that these scents are more on the masculine side, but encourages customers to try out everything to feel what is right for them.
How do you think a man should smell?
Show me the man you are talking about...
The fragrance is given a final shaking to ensure all the essential oils are blended thoroughly.
And an atomizer is affixed.
What about fashion and perfume? As you create new scents, do you consciously respond to movements in fashion? Androgyny? Minimalism? Color?
We don't follow any trends. Trends in perfumery are for perfumes that are here to last just a season. This is not our view of perfumery. Fashion last [sic] 6 months. What we create is here to last decades so we deny trends and we just follow our intuition.
a spice bureau with ingredients found in the fragrances, Le Labo's line of candles on top
Do you find yourself coordinating your scents with what you wear?
Nope... until I find a way to create a scent with holes everywhere.
a bottle of Tubereuse 40 Eau de Parfum, boxed and ready for delivery
What is your everyday scent?
For the last year it has been Santal 33; as we were finalizing the formula, I had to wear it everyday to understand its full personality. Now that it is just launched, I could switch over to another but there is something about it that grows on me, over and over. I think this is going to be me for a while.
Fabrice's everyday scent, Le Labo's Santal 33
In your stores, do you encourage your fragrance specialists to talk about feelings and imagery that came with the conceptualization of the scents, or do you have them keep things technical and let the customers feel things on their own?
Well, our specialists are trained to know about perfumery, but also to forget about the known... There is a risk to choose a perfume with your brain and not with your nose, your intuition. I see too many people saying "Oh I don't want to try the Iris 39 or the Rose 31 because I don't wear florals." We really encourage our clients to trust their guts on what perfume they want to wear. [We ask them,] "What do you want to say to the world about you with your perfume?" I think spraying on your skin, closing your eyes and "feeling" what is happening is the only way.
Le Labo massage and bath oils
and interior perfumes
Anything exciting coming up in the future?
A lot... We are just launching a new sampling program on the web, releasing our last scent Santal 33, opening a new shop in San Francisco, creating a line of amenities for hotel rooms, and trying to keep making our clients happy!
Le Labo vintage candles
and laundry detergents created in collaboration with The Laundress
Special thanks to Gaelle, Fabrice, and Isaac of Le Labo; and to Austin for encouraging me to check out the line.