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From vitality to serenity, from power to vulnerability. Our sense of smell comprises a set of structures within the brain that are believed by scientists to play a major role in controlling mood, memory, behaviour and emotion. It is often regarded as being the primitive part of the brain, because these same structures were present within the brains of the very first mammals. Old fables would even have you believe that the act of kissing developed from sniffing – the first kiss being essentially a primal act during which we smell and taste our partner to decide if they are a match. Understanding this point helps realise the profound impact apothecaries like Louis Vuitton’s Jacques Cavallier have on my general state. I share with you an extract of our conversation on emotions in a cataclysmic year.
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Jacques Cavallier (JC): I’m Jacques. Nice to meet you. You’re in Paris? What a time to be there…
Marne Schwartz (ICON): Indeed. I’m in Paris shooting for Vuitton – it’s still not so crowded, but esprit vivant is starting to emerge, which is good to see. Obviously 2020 is a meteor of emotions for everybody. But now, in Paris, everything seems to be a bit lighter with people trying to get back to a semblance of social existence, you know.
JC: Absolutely, but I think the people who are driving different nations were so afraid by the possible chaos, that’s why they chose to lockdown, they chose to be very strict. But the consequences of doing that are so big from an economical point of view. You’re right, it’s not a mere matter of money, people want just to see others, and to emotionally connect with people.
ICON: You use this word (emotions) a lot when discussing perfume. I wonder how 2020 will shape the Maison of Vuitton going forward. How do you see your own emotions from this year being translated into your future creations?
JC: Well, perfume is not a commodity, perfume is not deodorant. It’s not just a product like any other. A perfume is really something which carries more meaning because it’s something of a deep representation of your personality. It’s really showing others what kind of person you are. It’s connected to our memory, good or bad. We’re speaking about pleasure, we’re speaking about sensuality, we’re speaking about love. We’re speaking about different experiences that we have during the past.
So we love to wear perfume. Why? It’s because it connects us to our own story.
So for me in 2020 I have to be even more expressive in what I am doing, and the way I’m working. Of course, it’s still under the same basis, that means telling an emotional story, even more emotionally than before.
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ICON: Today my story is Ombre Nomade.
JC: Oh, and Ombre Nomade is something very special, right?
ICON: And my partner wears Sun Song.
JC: I love both of you, because I wear Sun Song in the morning, and in the afternoon or the evening I wear Ombre Nomade mixed with Nuit de Feu. I have so many perfumes and a broad taste, giving me the chance to choose what I will wear. Depending on the mood, depending on the day, depending what I’m doing.
ICON: Are you possessive of your designs? Of the signatures in your fragrances?
JC: Frankly speaking, I don’t know, because I’m so open to different experiences. I’m open to newness in terms of ingredients. I’m the guy who plays the most with raw materials, which for me, are absolutely necessary in a perfume; a blend coming from nature. I love to toy with the complexity of nature, exploring even very classic notes like patchouli, by customising the oil in a new way. That’s the privilege of being at Louis Vuitton; working with the best ingredients and customising them in order to create new experiences to the familiar. Every ingredient, especially natural raw materials, is full of possibility – they are very complex.
ICON: How much of your time is spent experimenting with ingredients on different scents?
JC: I would say half of my time. My father was a perfumer, and one of the greatest specialists of natural materials so it became my passion when I was as young as six or seven years old. It’s like breathing to me. To tell you a secret, last night I was at home, and I was working on several bottles of different raw materials but I wanted to compare those ingredients together.
This morning I was smelling the new combination of those ingredients thinking how I might use it in something I’m working on now.
So all at once, I’m creating perfume as well as seeking to understand different facets of the materials. They’re interlinked.
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ICON: You tend to travel a lot to source ingredients and raw materials. A challenge going forward with borders being so restricted, no?
JC: Well I have a bit of a buffer; I must be ready about 15 months before the release of a particular fragrance. The relationship with my suppliers all over the world is the most critical driver of continual success in this moment. We discuss crops and different techniques all on Zoom nowadays. So the network is still working, even if we are really not very mobile for the time being. In terms of how this process eventuates, they make primary extracts and send it to me here in Grasse. So for the time being, it’s okay. But on the other hand, it’s very frustrating not to do this in person. What is even more important than the ingredient itself, is the people who work on it, and all the atmosphere that you have around it. This aspect is a big source of inspiration each time.
ICON: Well I’m glad to see even the House of Vuitton conducts business via Zoom like the rest of us. How do you see people returning to more of an empirical experience when it comes to fragrance, given that we are such a technological world right now?
JC: Well, I’m wearing a mask at the office, which is as problematic as you can imagine. Both me and my assistant wear masks, so it’s a little more complicated to smell. I don’t have an alternative solution for the time being. The question raises itself as to whether we need make stronger perfumes to take into consideration masks, but I don’t think so. How long will we need to wear masks? I don’t know but importantly people buy a fragrance because of the emotion, the story in the bottle and of course to please themselves. People are wanting to better understand the products they’re buying and I think this is a good thing.
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ICON: A fewer, but better approach to fragrance, products, how people spend their time, and everything else in life, I suppose.
JC: Yeah, and to enjoy simple things. I mean we are entering the period of truth, I think.
ICON: If you’re working on a scent 15 months before releasing it, how do you know what’s going to be popular in the future?
JC: Well, that’s a very good question, because that I don’t know. The man who is able to say, “Well this will be very popular in a year and a half or two years,” is a liar. I mean who could predict this crisis, for example? When you are expressing something you have to be right in the middle of the brand, trying to bring something new into the brand. When they are asking me, “What do you think of this perfume? I’m sure that this perfume will be a great success.” I always say, “Well you know, that you never know.” It’s impossible to know. But if you put in the perfume qualities, customised materials, emotions, true storytelling… it’s mandatory for success. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I mean that’s life. I mean it’s the same thing in the movie industry, it’s the same thing in–
JC: …Music! So in music if you are too intellectual, if you are creating things that require explanations for someone to understand the lyrics, then forget it. Firstly, I’m not working for myself – my job is to express what Louis Vuitton represents in 2020 to people all around the world. Ombre Nomade is a good example. Ombre Nomade is really a tribute to the Middle East. This part of the world is really where perfume was born, four, five, maybe 6,000 years ago. As a bonus, this fragrance is one of our bestsellers in the world because this kind of scent is really breaking the rules of all the olfactory offerings that are trendy right now. I knew when I was working on Ombre Nomade that something was happening, because my wife was wearing it, my daughter was wearing it, and they had many, many comments in France, here in Grasse, in Paris and Italy. You can feel and you can see when a perfume has something more than the others.
So I can speak about the basics of doing things in a certain way in order to be successful, but the success you can never predict. Never.
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ICON: So at a base level then, how do you decide, or who decides when you’ve got a fragrance that should go on to become a commercial product?
JC: Well, we have a very simple process. We don’t do consumer tests. We work more like a designer of a fashion house. I mean I’m not creating a scent in five minutes. It develops over many years. Firstly, I would never show something that isn’t ready to the team. Once I feel it’s ready and the team is across it, then we share it with the executive team at Louis Vuitton, namely Delphine Arnault and Michael Burke. We decide to green light a fragrance together. Simultaneously we work on the marketing side of the fragrance, like the name.
ICON: Who decides on the name, ultimately?
JC: It’s really something that we decide together. For example, on Matière Noire, I said to the team, “I’m working on the black side of life.” Which is, for me, the translation of the mystery of the universe. So I want to push the darker notes, but to make them distinguished, you need light. So that’s why I used jasmine, cassis and the narcissus flower. I always use code names in my creations. So, the code name for Matière Noire was Back to Black. Our universe is made up of about 98% black matter. It’s still mysterious because we don’t know what it really is, so this was quite fitting in terms of the name, Matière Noire. I’m doing exactly the same with the fragrance I’m working on now. It’s full of mystery and I think the name is so important in a scent.
The names should be a doorway to people’s dreams. My job is to surprise my clients with the scent linked to the name on the bottle.
ICON: So maybe the fragrance you’re working on now should be called Cataclysm, because of the state of 2020?
JC: [Laughs] Well I’m very positive, in general, but actually in a way, yes. It will be the expression of extreme love. I think the crisis has created a requirement for a greater focus of meaning. To even meet with somebody today is becoming a luxury. As soon as the social settings become less restricted, I hope that we will not forget that in fact it’s a luxury. Those very simple things are luxury. For Vuitton, the definition of luxury is really the expression of all those moments translated through craftsmanship, through a bag, through a scarf, through a pair of shoes. It’s not really the consumption of things, but a more diligent selection of things. I’m convinced of it.
ICON: I like this definition of luxury. Not everyone will agree with you, though.
JC: Yes, you’re absolutely right. But I guess just like my job, if you’re seeking universality, you never find it. The only way to go on is to find your own truth in this age and tell your own story.
Interview: Marne Schwartz