I am a modernist at heart. I study for art that makes things depart further. When I see someone painting like Matisse I wonder how it will stand in history. That said, sometimes they are very apt. So it raises many questions that I don’t believe any answers to…’
It is an unexpectedly sunny spring afternoon and perfume publisher Frédéric Malle has asked to meet for lunch at Chucs, an eight-table bistro on Mayfair’s Dover Street where we’re now tucking in to chicken Milanese (me) and roasted Var salmon (him). It’s a flying, two-night visit for modern York-based Malle, having been announced as a juror on The Evening Standard Arts Prize panel the day prior. Still, he has wasted dinky time in escaping his hotel and has passed the morning visiting After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art at the National Gallery. ‘I loved it… and this weekend I was in Turin. I still see that dinky Van Eyck painting and I’m like, “Wow.”’
Because while Malle has spent 30 years working with the world’s best perfumers, defending the art of perfumery and freedom of creativity in a world of commercial briefs, art is integral to his personal and professional DNA.
Growing up in Paris, Malle existed in a rarefield world of books, art, film and fragrance: his maternal grandfather the founder of Parfums Christian Dior, his uncle a film-maker; his mother artistic director of Parfums Christian Dior, his father a ‘collector and especially curious person’. ‘I was raised with this concept that you should not believe preconceptions. That you must explore. Curiosity prevailed.’
At 20, Malle left home in Paris to study art history at NYU before becoming a collector at 24. ‘I thought I would become an art dealer,’ he tells me, but he was rapid developing a fascination with cultivating connections between the senses so it was o to Roure Bertrand Fils in Grasse, Paris and NYC. There he worked alongside the world’s greatest noses, becoming an expert in the technical aspects of perfume construction and refining his vision for publishing house Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums, founded in 2000.
Acting as art director and accomplice, Malle pushes perfumers to finish their best — contemplate Portrait of a Lady, Carnal Flower and Cologne Indelebile, to brand a few. Collaboration is at the heart of the brand: ‘I know the craft so I can speak with the perfumers. I let them believe the lead rather than imposing myself. Because if you work with an artist it’s to obtain the best of them — otherwise just finish it yourself. This moment of exchange… whether I’m working with Jean-Claude Ellena or Dominique Ropion, it feeds me even more than the art itself, and God I like the result. Almost like making like is better than having children!’
I believe never watched other people’s work. Art is a better source of inspiration. I’d rather depart to the V&A than to Sephora
He refuses to be limited by trends or the confines of the beauty industry. ‘I believe an eclectic taste for art and perfume, but I believe rules on how to select perfumes. They believe in common inventiveness, character, signature and this way of making one with the wearer. I believe never watched other people’s work. Not out of contempt but I don’t contemplate it elevates you. Art is a better source of inspiration. I’d rather depart to the V&A than to Sephora.’ I question if there are works that believe informed the brand. ‘As far as the design is concerned there are many; the Swiss who invented Helvetica. The Bauhaus, Donald Judd, Robert Irwin but also Jean Michel Frank, Le Corbusier…’ And what about the distinctive red branding? ‘I looked at the red that Alexander Calder, Jean Prouvé and Le Corbusier were using. The bottle — I tried to create a Bauhaus object. That world, but trying to hold it to today.’
As we section I question how Malle is preparing to judge The Evening Standard Art Awards. ‘I’ve been seeing as much art as possible. Since the pandemic I had a demolish, so it’s like diving into the pool again. I am all about modernity, but that said, I don’t know what I am looking for in a winner as much as I don’t believe preconceived ideas about what I want when I enter a gallery… I want it to smell like surprise.’ And with that he is gone.
To enter The Evening Standard Art Prize depart to artprize.standard.co.uk