The Aesthete - Nathalie Feisthauer
Following her intervention in a stunning conference on Women Perfumers at La Place, a concept-store in Paris, half shop-half gallery launched by Virginie Roux and dedicated to sharing about arts and perfumes in all their forms -we will talk about it in another interview- we decided to share with you our interview with Nathalie Feisthauer. You might not recall her name but Nathalie Feisthauer created Eau des Merveilles for Hermès (in collaboration with Ralph Schwieger), Putain des Palaces for État Libre d’Orange, Honour Man for Amouage, Pelargonium for Aedes de Venustas and she is behind all the collection of Sous Le Manteau. After having spent 30 years is prestigious groups such as Symrise or Givaudan, Nathalie Feisthauer decided to created her own independant atelier called Lab-Scent. Upon wearing Pélargonium and smelling her last creations for SLM, we felt the dire need to interview her - and she, most delicately, agreed…
Alexandre Helwani - Nathalie Feisthauer, first of all : good afternoon. Let’s jump right into the subject. After working 30 years in Givaudan and Symrise, why did you choose to open your independant lab and most of all, you did you decide to open a lab rather than launch a perfume house ?
Nathalie Feisthauer - Because it’s utterly different. Launching a perfume house would mean knowing everything from marketing to distribution, to bottles and website design and I do believe that every job is a job of its own. Dry cleaning is a job, serving coffee is a job, making perfumes is a job. It’s not just saying « Good morning, I like flowers », it is countless other things not counting the technical aspect of the job and the experience it needs. I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do if I hadn’t spent 35 years working for big companies, which gave me solid foundations. I am not saying I will not do it, but to me it’s just not the same thing at all.
A.H. - So you are more into the creative aspect ?
N.F. - Exactly. I like talking with people who have their own creative universes. I submit propositions but I would never tell them to go one direction rather than another. It is a real collaboration between two persons. What gets me the most is listening to their stories, I need to be fed with them. It becomes difficult when the clients aren’t feeding me enough, because it happens too. What I like about niche perfumery is that, it’s not just a matter of using a beautiful ingredient but it’s about telling a story with a perfume all the while being in tune with a creative director. And that’s how you create big hits.
A.H. - So your creative process is driven by this search of rich histories ?
NF - Totally. Ever since I became independant, I had a little challenge with myself : to always show what my heart was made of. Now I can decide of everything and the number of positive responses I’ve had over the work I’ve done tells me I was right. It is very pleasurable to work for oneself rather than trying to MAKE things. It is important to have a meaning. We always tend to think perfumers decide : we don’t. It is a profession which should have a lot a meaning, which had a lot of meaning and now, I feel that again.
A.H. - You quite rightly talk about meaning. Thus, considering what you just said, how would you summarise a perfumer’s vocation today, in a desincarnate society ?
N.F. - I really do feel like I am now a perfumer in the way of the old era and it is frankly quite rare now as the profession has somewhat become industrialised and standardised so it is quite difficult to find this right place. I often tell my trainees « Your job is no longer the same as mine ». When I started, chromatos didn’t exist, we could create accords from nothing whereas, today, a perfumer who has access to many chromatos can do as much things. The trade has evolved a lot over the past few years, we work for databases, we create formulas that will be launched in five to six years because of all the tests they have to run and we don’t even know who will end up using them. All in all, there comes a time when it’s just difficult to get excited over a projet. And that’s also why I decided to leave. You know, I have always liked the irrational aspect of this craft but today’s irrational no longer is for the good reasons.
A.H. - Would you mind delving a little deeper into this irrationality ?
N.F. - I am thinking about the numerous projects which should have been big hits and ended up being total non-events, even though we had worked mad on them. I recently watched Frédéric Taddei [a French journalist NDLR] and he said : « It isn’t because a show has audience that is it good » and it is the same about perfumes. There’s an inner subtlety to perfumes and that, that is irrational.
A.H. - You made mention earlier of a lack of excitement. Does that mean you have hit some rough patches in your career ?
N.F. - There always are. Sometimes you happen to tick over. Of course, there are times of lassitude. You don’t reinvent the world every day and although there are days when you will create something utterly new –it is unconscious. One doesn’t set one’s goal on creating revolutionary accords.
A.H. - Speaking about revolutions, have you had creative epiphanies coming from your personal life ?
N.F. - Yes. I cook a lot, for instance, and there are ways of cooking, there are ingredients which have unconsciously inspired me, or sometimes flowers when I travel. It is all an unconscious food for the soul.
A.H. - So, to be a perfumer, one must have a taste for fine things ?
N.F. - I don’t know if it is the chicken or the egg but to continue on this cooking analogy, I have a hard time working with low quality products and it is the same with perfumes : I can’t work with low quality ingredients. I prefer my recipes to be good and simple.
A.H. - Yes, that’s what we notice in your work. You seem driven by a love of good raw materials..
N.F. - Yes. For instance, I don’t use fruity notes in my formulas, I don’t use linalool. These are ingredients most people use in high quantities but to me, they are vulgarity incarnate – all the while knowing that 90% of the perfumes contain them, and it works. But I don’t like using them in my formulas and, incidentally, I use very few ingredients in general. Everything is in its place. I never create formulas with 70 ingredients. They don’t have only 15 either, but I try to stick to the essential.
A.H. - Noble materials then. Can we ask what is your relationship with raw materials ?
N.F. - I love raw materials but I am only concerned about what I could find of use, be it hedione HC or lavender EO. Of course it is an infinite pleasure working with beautiful raw materials and there are some projets I am working on with absolutely no budget at all but they are extremely rare and I must admit I faced some technical issues because I had used a lot of raw materials. We often forget that modern perfumery was born with synthetic molecules. Our craft is about learning how to use foul smelling ingredients and actually, perfumery is not only about creating beautiful things but also know how to use some ingredients which smell bad or strong at first smell, it is trying to create beautiful perfumes with things that are not.
A.H. - This delicate equilibrium of beauty and beast, is that not the trademark of niche perfumes ?
N.F. - What is delicate about niche perfumery is that, in the end, a perfume has to be beautiful and wearable, which implies a limit to pure creation. No one wants to wear a stinking perfume. You can paint a slaughterhouse but when it comes to perfumes, the limits are different. We are not yet creating perfumes which smell of despair…
A.H. - There have been some attempts…
N.F. - And they all ended up smelling good somehow.
A.H. - So, could we ascert that your signature is all about oddness or rather unexpectedness ? We must admit you have a knack for moving from a universe to another without ever losing your « touch ».
N.F. - You know, I had created a collection of twelve notes for Aedes de Venustas : nerolis, leathers and all with that incensey Aedes touch. And as they smelled it they said : « That’s amazing, your style IS Aedes » when in fact, it’s not. It’s just that I had integrated their style. In spite of all this, I do believe I have my own signature.
A.H. - Could you define it ?
N.F. - Yes, by negation.
A.H. - Quite the apophatic way.
N.F. - Let’s just say that when people come to me, they are seeking out an expertise but also an aesthetic, a point of view. That being said, I always strive to put my expertise in service of their history – all the while knowing they also come for my signature, my « patte ». It is an equilibrium. A perfumer whom I admire immensely is Jean Claude Ellena [former head perfumer of Hermès NDLR] and his signature is inimitable. When yo go to Ellena, it is also to get the Ellena touch but not all perfumers have a signature. I probably have one and I think it wouldn’t be too far from an Ellena.
A.H. - How so ?
N.F. - When I look at his formulas, I mean I don’t actually have his formulas but I can smell his choices, I notice they are all very simple, everything is in its place. Terre d’Hermès for instance is a real success because it is devoid of all these useless things which do nothing but sugar – and in the mean time, people like them. But Jean-Claude’s signature is poetry. He chooses then he eliminates all that is superfluous.
A.H. - If you do not mind, I would life to digress a bit to speak about Jean Claude Ellena, since you think your signatures would be close. One must say that his work is somehow reminiscent of a haiku, by its precision, its inner fluidity. Is that also which you seek ?
N.F. - Yes but there are other perfumers I admire. Annick Menardo [Bois d’Argent for Dior, Body Kouros for YSL] who is a genius doesn’t work to please. Sophia Grojsman [Trésor for Lancôme, Jaipur for Boucheron, Outrageous for Frédéric Malle] was the queen of diffusive accords. Some people marked minds more than others. All perfumes are not works of art and that is where perfumery is also about craftsmanship. But there are people who stand out from that crowd. You know, more often than not I’d start from a blank page a build perfumes from the scratch, this is something I have always done and loved doing and most of my colleagues did not. I would then use these accords or not, some have slept for ten years or more before being used. This is my moment of creation. That being said, I am always on a search for an aesthetic.
A.H. - Precision, aesthetic, search : could THAT be the Feisthauer signature ?
N.F. - If I had to define it, I would say that I am not looking for easy compromise. There was a time in perfumery when we wanted to wash everything down, with very strong accords that we’d bleach until they’d come out smooth, without asperities. I don’t like that. I prefer depth, I am always trying to impart contrast. Not contrast for itself, but I don’t like trimming every bit that comes out of the frame, rather I go with them without try to drown them in a cloud. I don’t aim at creating things easy to love…but in the end, it has to be beautiful.
Interviewed by Alexandre Helwani.