Looking for the Feminine Form in Indie Perfumery in France {Scented Thoughts}


Tattoo Parlor in Temples of Beauty Series © CHANT WAGNER 2016

This article is part of a collective publication project by a group of women perfume bloggers to highlight the importance of feminine creativity and agency in the field of independent perfumery. We think, I at least will write this, that just like in our own field of perfume writing and criticism, where men tend to be more in the limelight and referenced as bona fide "critics", while their activities, in fact, rely much on the work of female perfume bloggers seen as modern "diarists", the historical, social and artistic role of women independent perfumers should be brought into sharper focus...

I decided to devote blogging space to French women indie perfumers in this round of articles - we could say "indés" in French - by asking the question: Is there a feminine independent perfumery in France?


Young Woman with a Cross Necklace & Macarons // Jeune femme à la croix et aux macarons © 2016 CHANT WAGNER

But First, Why Blog Collectively about Feminine Indie Perfumery in 2017?

First, a preamble. This collective publication work is prompted by an article by Liana Schaffner in the July Allure Magazine "This is American Beauty" dedicated, of all things, to diversity, published on June 20th, 2017 and entitled "The American Perfumers Modern Approach to Fragrance", in which not one woman perfumer is cited, as perfume blogger Jessica Murphy of Perfume Professor was quick to point out on Twitter.

Perhaps, Schaffner's choice of an all-male crew was motivated by her perception that perfume blogs and the indie perfumers they feature are predominantly feminine. But this just does not make any historical, nor informational sense and is unfair to the education of Allure women readers.

It also gives to perfume cognoscenti the impression of a field of cultural endeavor, which has been suddenly and unjustly highjacked by men in the eye of the American public. For the record, men came in years after women opened the indie way, when it was thought too low-brow for men, or simply, inexistent, and very nearly invisible.

So many women have invested the field of indie perfumery with their talents initially, probably constituting a majority, if not an absolute one today in 2017, then without a doubt in that period where they were pioneers. As this feminine cottage industry and cultural field has gained more recognition - we remember our first posting about an indie perfumer in 2006 and it was Ava Luxe founded by Serena Ava Goode - it is in danger of being, once more, overtaken by men - and this started to happen in a mainstream feminine magazine. This, we think, is the time to not let things slide.

It's a bit like male chefs in cuisine who have been piggying back on countless women cooks before opening the doors to titular women chefs - who've had to adopt mostly masculine professional norms.

Male indie perfumers cannot be exclusively highlighted in this way, to the detriment of their female counterparts. All the more so since, actually, indie perfume businesses have been set up by women in great measure to escape the constraints of professional industrial perfumery shaped around male perfumers who are traditionally dominant in it.

In France, it extends to the more invisible custom of seeing sons follow in the footsteps of their fathers and forefathers, while daughters doing the same is the occasional rare case, like for Françoise Caron, whose brother Olivier Cresp is admittedly more publicized. Perfumer Patricia de Nicolaï, a Guerlain on her mother's side, has set up her perfume house with her husband rather than succeeded her uncles as the natural scion of the family.

Women are more easily and traditionally relegated to the role of supporting actresses, muses, shadow figures, sources of undisclosed inspiration, ego masseuses, while their agency and originality are muted or shushed, and male endeavors at the same time are unduly highlighted, as if everyone, including some women journalists working for mainstream media, are more or less consciously reproducing prevalent norms of power, or do not value feminine agency, but their own.

In 2009, we published a series entitled North-American Originals, which looked at the phenomenon of the vibrant North-American indie scene and includes both male and female indie perfumers, starting with Mandy Aftel who has had an important impact on the field through her perfumes, but also perhaps even more so through her books on perfumery.

In 2017, this new article separates the sexes to better ask the question of the characteristics of women-led independent perfumery in France, where it is becoming a more visible phenomenon in recent years, while not offering the same flavor as in North-America.

Looking for the Feminine Shape in Independent Perfumery in France

We asked three French women perfumers for their thoughts on the topic. We begin with Patricia de Nicolaï the perfumer and founder of the house of Nicolaï, which was established as early as 1989 in Paris. This is the reason why she is often thought of as a pioneer. In fact, you have to realize that the setting up of her company preceded that of what we called the North-American Originals movement. She is a French original, with an international scope. But her path is more like that of a French garden, with a great escape at one point towards confidential perfumery.

De Nicolaï, who is also the president of the Osmothèque in Versailles, a conservatory of perfumes, was classically trained at ISIPCA. She describes her itinerary as one which allowed her to determine that it was the creative process that interested her most after several training jobs, adding that she knew that "the path would still be a long one, filled with obstacles," It took her five years after she graduated from perfumery school to start being able to claim for herself that she was a "junior perfumer." She honed her craft with "talented perfumers" at "two fragrance composition houses" and then set up "from scratch" her current house with her husband Jean-Louis Michau, who is in charge of the managerial part of the brand.

Patricia de Nicolaï herself is in charge of creation, technical aspects of the job - and what is less known but also less practised by perfumers - production. While she is aware that many persons consider her a pioneer, she is quick to add that there were women perfumers before her. As she underlines this fact, I am reminded of the house of Mary Chess, which was a woman-led business and whose vetiver was an inspiration for both Givenchy Vetyver and Guerlain Vetiver. She elaborates on the idea that "even if there had been other women perfumers before me, it's true that I belong to the first generation which saw women gain access to the profession." She compares this to the larger context which came to include more women in the justice system and the medical profession.

But one shouldn't read a feminist manifesto in her desire of independence. She explains that "it is not the fact that I am a woman which pushed me the most to become a perfumer. On the other hand, to be stuck in a fragrance company, which dictates you briefs which are led to the extreme by marketing in answer to clients' requests, quickly got me tired and brought me to the decision to make the great leap."

Just like for other perfumers, men or women, it is the love of beautiful natural raw ingredients which is a strong motivation for her. To be her own perfumer too, and be able to "build a collection of perfumes which agree with my taste preferences," This "golden job is not risk-free however." "There are challenges on a daily basis". "The brand must continue to grown, the creations must be irreproachable in a competitive professional environment, which never ceases to evolve."

She ends on the importance of individuality and on the freedom that her independent business allows her to experience and pass on to perfumer wearers. "My role as an independent perfumer-creator within my own brand is primordial. It is the signature of the brand, the soul of the brand, which must be legible throughout the Nicolaï creations." For her, "the independent perfumer creator is a story-teller of dreams, who sows both wellbeing and happiness."

Perfumer Céline Ripert of Expression Parfumée since last year (she was formerly with Mane) and founder and owner of her own brand Nana-M confesses that she is "moderately feminist" (moyennement féministe). She likes to emphasize the point that she believes in "merit", so that the path might be a bit harder for women, but she doesn't mind, seeming to think that there is a historical gap that needs to be filled, and will be overtime.

What I found interesting is that she phrases her desire to found Nana-M as the wish to see more feminine bottles, round, sitting prettily in a bathroom, at a time when bottles are becoming more and more unisex. Her main motivation for founding her business was "passion" and a love and appreciation for natural perfumery ingredients; she hails from the Var region in France and has family roots in Grasse, a historical craddle of perfumery.

When I ask her, but doesn't "nana" mean "woman" in French slang? She says that it is actually the name of her daughter. And "M"? What does it stand for then? She explains that this is the initial of her son's first name, but that it also alludes to the word "aime" in French, which means "to love." Her approach is therefore, I think it is fair to say, more affective and passionate than motivated by a feminist agenda. Her agenda could be called "feminine" and individual rather than feminist and socially engaged.

As a perfumer, our talk leads her to reflect that she thinks, for example, that there are no feminine or masculine notes in perfumery. She says that in the perfume industry, perfumers are often asked about that aspect of perfumery creation, but that both for her and her male colleagues, it's not envisioned in this way. She adds that she can take any note, and make it very feminine or very masculine. Vetiver, for example, she says, is perceived as masculine, so it is interesting to make it come across as more feminine. When I tell her then that if a note is not gendered, then the style of the note is, she agrees.

What is interesting also is that while for Ripert, her original desire was this visual cue of looking at feminine, round bottles of perfume, dispensed also from rotund atomizers, as she underlines, she thinks that a man could have also wanted the same thing as her. It's not only women who aspire to enhance femininity in design, men can very well feel the same desire. We talk about Marcel Rochas Femme, famously shaped after Mae West's generous curves. Again, there is no feminist positioning, as she prefers to adopt a philosophical attitude.

When talking about the perfume industry at large today, she points out that the situation has evolved a lot since she started out in her profession 25 years ago. Once dominated by male perfumers, it is not the case anymore, as she estimates that the balance is now 50/50. She is even concerned that there might be too many women perfumers in the future as she thinks that an overwhelming proportion of women perfumers would be to the detriment of the fragrance industry, constituting a source of imbalance. We should never be surprised that a perfumer thinks about harmony and equilibrium. It's what they seek out for their art. She is for "gender parity", as I propose to think of it.

She muses and comments that her artisan flacons made in the village of Biot in the Alpes-Maritime region - renowned for this craft - by master glass-blower Christophe Saba is made by a "maître verrier". Are there, she asks then, how shall we call them "maîtresses verriers", I suggest. We laugh. Yes. She hasn't seen women master glass-blowers, but she's noticed the presence of women trainees, so that might change in the future.

While the image her brand projects to this perfume critic and blogger is eminently feminine, it is important to note that it's a balanced view of femininity, which celebrates it rather than has any defensive aspect to it. She specifies that two of her perfumes are unisex, even if the others are feminine. The 11 women appearing in her press materials are olfactive models, persons on which she tests her perfumes, from her own entourage. It's not, consciously at least, a feminist position. I am left with the impression that Céline Ripert's approach to the question is undeniably feminine rather than feminist. She however indicates that she thinks there are not enough women in politics.

Kitty Shpirer is the founder and perfumer of Grasse-based niche perfume house Bissoumine, which means "perfume" in Aramaic. She explains that her starting point is more of an universalist, all-encompassing human one. This is why she chose the Arameic word "bissoumine" because all three monotheist religions used the language.

She is most interested in what we have in common, as humans, perfume being one of those. She is very active within the association Les Savoir-Faire des Pays de Grasse, which is awaiting for an answer in 2018 from UNESCO as to its status as a World Heritage industry. In her work, as she so aptly puts it, she is most interested in "The power of smells on human beings," all of them.

Her background is in the arts, she studied at Les Beaux-Arts and drawing was her previous calling. So, while she does think about what it is to be a woman, she says that she does so preferrably with her daughter, teaching her that "anything a man does, she can do too." She is not interested in having a feminist message be expressed through her perfumery though, separating it from what she calls the field of "education." Interestingly, she deplores, just like perfumer Céline Ripert, that there are not enough women in politics. But as for perfumery, she prefers to concentrate on an artistic message, regularly collaborating with painters, opera singers etc.

When I ask her about the gender of her perfumes she answers that "perfumes have no sexuality, they touch our souls," Two of her perfumes are particularly popular with women she goes on saying, Temps des Rêves, a Baudelairian opus with an overdose of Turkish rose. The other one is Soir Ensoleillé, which is inspired by her vision of a free woman dancing with a veil in Italy in the sunset.

When she thinks about issues linked to gender in society, the image that comes back twice in our conversation is that of her mother who lived in a masculine world. Kitty Shpirer's sense of freedom is to do what she likes with her own perfume house. Her motivation is not money. She even pushes her sense of independence to the point where she confesses to "living a bit as a recluse" artistically speaking, so that she does not "copy unconsciously" others. Her independent positioning is to "stay on the wayside" in order to remain "very objective." She however says that a feminine model for her is perfumer Olivia Giacobetti; she loves "her writing". "Her style knows how to showcase nature, it is airy and intuitive."


Millenial Girl in Pink // Une jeune fille de la génération millénale en rose © 2017 CHANT WAGNER

Finally, she muses that perhaps what feminine perfumery does bring to the table in 2017 is softness, love and sharing, in a world which is pretty aggressive and violent. When she goes to Paris, she notices that there seems to be a "hippie-chic" atmosphere of love and sharing which is trying to counterbalance the brutality of the world.

The flavor of French female-led independent perfumery is not so much "indie" or "indé" as "niche". It is not interested in counter-culture but rather in a harmonizing of the world. Or it would be a new sort of counter-culture, which looks like what is said about millenial pink. It also turns out that all three perfumers recused a priori the idea that being a woman impacted their choices.

If we get glimpses of the feminine shape here, it is only indirectly. There is no overt interest in feminism. We had conversations with two out of the three perfumers - and I also realized then that I should have had a conversation rather than a correspondence with Patricia de Nicolaï to better listen to what is said in-between the lines. Another time.

You can read more on Bois de Jasmin, Bois de Jasmin 2 (from Wednesday), EauMG, Perfume Professor, Scent of Self and The Non-Blonde

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