The email pinged into my inbox: “Come to Paris to smell Bottega Veneta's debut perfume and meet le nez Michel Almairac. Can you leave the day after tomorrow?”
Michel Almairac, creator of quality fare such as Gucci Rush, Armani Privé Bois d'Encens, Burberry for Women, Bond No. 9 Fire Island and Gucci pour Homme? Bottega Veneta, purveyor of luxury leather goods and apparel? Paris, location of Paris? Um, okay!
A few days and more than a few cafe au laits later, I roll up for the BV event at the Bristol Hotel, where lonelyhearted Taylor Lautner fans pine politely from across the street. The Twilight star is in town to promote Identity Secrete (as Abduction is billed in France), and it seems that the Bristol is his Paris bolthole. As much as I'd like an excuse to explore the Bristol's contemporary take on old world elegance, I've got no time to stalk movie star boys -- I've got a perfumer to meet. (Ryan Gosling is the only screen throb who could seriously interfere with my fragrance duties, anyway.)
The BV organizer escorting me to meet Michel Almairac volunteers, "He looks like a musician."
Taking a wild stab, I venture, "Who, Beethoven?"
"Yes!" comes the answer. Da da da daaaaaaahhhhhhhhh....
With the 5th Symphony now firmly lodged as an earwig, I am introduced to M. Almairac. He is certainly a reasonable facsimile of Beethoven, with his air of gravitas and hair of flowing steel, although this master's particular palette is olfactory, not sonic.
The fun continues as I meet the bloggy bigwigs attending, including Grain de Musc's Denyse, Style Bubble's Susie and Cool Hunting's Evan. Waiters circle with trays of champagne and tongue-twitterpating foie gras macarons. And I'm in Paris! (Did I mention I'm in Paris?)
The salon suddenly goes all UN as we don headsets, and a linguist with a mic snuggles in close to Almairac, ready to whisper English translations of his French words into our international ears. Describing his chosen profession, Almairac declares, "I was like Obelix in Asterix -- I was born into it."
As a native Grassois, Almairac's passion for perfume was practically in his DNA. A visit to a perfume factory when he was 15 years old sealed the deal. But sparked as he was by the idea of creating beautiful scents, he didn't shy away from cheeky short cuts –- even early in his career.
"I always use simple, short formulas. If you get it wrong and have to start from scratch, it's easier to correct. A former boss asked why I used such short formulas. I said I can find a mistake easier if it's short. It started from being lazy as a young perfumer. It's easier to weigh 30 ingredients than 300.
"Fragrance is like cooking. The same ingredients can make mayonnaise or Chantilly crème. It's the same mystery with perfume. It's the art of blending. The interaction of ingredients is all-important. A teacher of mine used to say, 'If you can't smell it, you don't need it.' But I'm not stubborn, or obsessed with simplifying formulas. I'll use what's required. What sparks my fancy are the raw materials."
But even after years of creating widely-loved fragrances, Almairac admits that the art remains an enigma. "I wish I knew the secret of making perfume," he says, adding that his methodology is "hard work, passion, creativity and patience."
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For Bottega Veneta's debut perfume, Almairac worked in close consultation with BV creative director Tomas Maier. The brief was "the atmosphere of a well-lived house: beautiful materials, leather, flowers in the countryside. The creation went really quickly. From start to finish it took a year. The first proposal was close to the final result, which was produced after a few tweaks."
Like the hotel in which we're sitting, Bottega Veneta eau de parfum is a contemporary take on old world elegance. Almairac describes it as "blended leather with flowers, patchouli, bergamot and moss. There are quite a number of natural ingredients in the perfume -- unusual in this day and age." Discussing its creation, the perfumer reveals, "Either an idea emerges [quickly], or you don't know which way you're headed. You don't decide overnight what you're going to do. You gather impressions until you have enough in your bag of tricks. "
In Almairac's bag of tricks was his signature leather. The "secret leather" is a combination of two ingredients that he'd stumbled upon and had had up his sleeve for years, ready to deploy for the right creation. "The leathery notes are very important. I remembered a specific smell that I committed to memory. The very essence of leather: leather skin, leather bags. Tomas Maier said that he wanted to create the atmosphere of his bags. When you stroll down Rue Saint-Honoré," where Bottega Veneta's shop nestles in the company of its fellow luxury boutiques, "you smell leather."
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"I never would have come up with this perfume without this leathery smell. A leathery accord is hard in a perfume -- it doesn't sell well. And a strong leather smell is quite stubborn. So I rounded off the leather edges with chypre, softened it up. It's a fruity chypre." Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Bottega Veneta eau de parfum is the prominent apricot, linking it to peachy leather greats from Guerlain Mitsouko to Serge Lutens Daim Blond, as well as to Almairac's own Cuir Améthyste for Armani Privé.
Talk turns to the legacy of individual perfumes. "This perfume is the mark I wish to leave behind,” Almairac tells us. I want this to live as long as possible. It's unbearable when a creation disappears after six months. The first Burberry has lasted, Rush has...."
When he acknowledges being heartbroken at his Minotaure for Paloma Picasso being discontinued, I wiggle excitedly on my salon settee, because I'd just seen it (and spritzed it) the previous day at the Sephora in Les Halles. I eagerly relay my news while he regards me quizzically -- until the linguist translates my frothing. Then the Beethoven eyebrows shoot up with a très pleased "ah oui?"
I inquire further after any of his memorable creations that had been given the chop. Almairac pauses to think, then starts to chuckle. "There was one for Davidoff that turned people into Smurfs. It had a green bottle and the company wanted a blue perfume, so they dyed it. It turned the wearer blue –- German boys became blue! I was asked to clean a lot of shirts!"
Ryan Gosling photo by Roberto Frankenberg