Among the 100 entries from over twenty countries around the world, in 2014 the prestigious French Perfumers Young Perfumer of the Year Competition saw an entry from a young perfumer working for Jean Niel in Grasse. Based on the deceptively simple brief of creating a composition with a heart of blackcurrant buds, the judges’ decision was unanimous and at the World Perfumery Congress in Deauville, Alice Lavenat was awarded first prize. But the story doesn’t end there…
It just so happened that one of Jean Niel’s clients was Marie Lise Bischoff – founder of the perfume house, Nejma – and she had not only smelled Alice’s fragrance and fallen in love with it, but was determined to nurture the talent of this young perfumer and have the fragrance as the latest in the Nejma collection: Parfum d’Alice. Consequently, the fragrance is unique in being named for Alice, and also carrying her signature on the box.
A personal project from the start, Alice had based her composition on the memories of her grandparents, who produced Cognac, so we couldn’t wait to meet up with her and get to know this rising star of the perfume world…
What is your first ‘scent memory’?
‘Both my grandparents were winemakers, so I grew up surrounded by the smell of cognac spirits and oak barrels. When you enter in a Cognac warehouse, where oak barrels are stored filled with the spirits that mature, there is this extraordinary smell of wood barrel, mineral notes of the cave and the evaporation of spirits named “La part des Anges” (the parts of Angels). These scents remains for me as my first olfactory emotions, and they continue to inspire me to this day.’
When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer/create your own perfume?
‘I always wanted to do a creative job. My passion for scents and perfumes since I was a little girl inspired me to look for work in this world, so when I was 15, the high school teachers began to question us on our future. I started looking for all the professions around the world of perfume and I came across documentation about ISIPCA’s training and an explanation of what a perfumer does. At that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted – to go to ISIPCA to learn the craft of perfumery and one day be able to create all these fragrances that made me dream.’
What are your five favourite smells in the world?
- Just-clipped grass, that reminds me of my childhood in the countryside
- Fresh, cold air of winter morning, one that stings the face.
- Vetiver: woody, smoky, slightly lemony and sensual
- Iris, because I like the powdery facets on the skin and its vintage cosmetics notes.
- The smell of cognac of course, with the woody, liquorous, sweet, smoky nuance. Unmistakable!
What’s the worst thing you ever smelled. (Honestly!)
‘Since I’ve been studying perfumes, I have learned to put words to smells, I learned to analyse, dissect the odours – so now when I smell an odour that is not necessarily very pleasant, I try to understand it and find something positive in it. For example, civet is very strong and animalic, and when I smell this it just makes me think of a dirty animal. That’s no good, so I focus on another memory – picking little daisies when I was a child. And if I think of these little flowers when I smell civet oil, that smell seems less unpleasant, and so it’s easier to work with.’
What fragrance do you wish you’d created?
‘I still like to wear it now – Prada’s Infusion d’Iris. I love the way that citrus in the top mingles with the powdery note of the iris itself, and I also like the musky base associated with the vetiver. The trail is really delicate, it’s an intimate wake.’
Do you feel (like us) that this is one of the most exciting times in fragrance history, because of the creativity being expressed by perfumers? Why do you think that is?
‘I think nowadays, some brands have a very creative world, leaving the perfumers to express their creativity, in my case for example when I work with the Nejma brand, I can work with all the beautiful raw materials that I want without thinking about price, and I can really express what I have in my mind. Working on a new fragrance is a team effort between the brand and the perfumer, in order to be even more creative and innovative. With Nejma we always seek to go further in fragrances and try to find new trends of tomorrow.’
If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
‘This would be Cleopatra, for me – Egyptians in their time already had great knowledge and use of perfumes.’
What’s the first fragrance you bought. And the first bought for you…?
‘The first fragrance that I remember using was the Roger & Gallet Cologne – it was in the bathroom of my grandmother, and she used to sprinkle in on me when I was a child. I remember being fascinated by my mum’s leaf-shaped bottle of parfum d’été by Kenzo and I secretly put a little bit on my wrist to smell all day. As a teenager, my crush was for J’adore Dior, and the first real perfume that I went and bought myself was Flower by Kenzo.’
Do you have a favourite bottle design, from those that have been used for your fragrance creations?
‘Well sure, I am a fan of the bottle of Le parfum d’Alice de Nejma. I like the color gold bottle and the contrast with the pink color of the box.’
How many perfumes might you be working on, at one time?
‘There is no real rule, it depends on customer requests. Sometimes I work on three or four new fragrance creations at the same time.’
Does your nose ever ‘switch off’?
‘Being able to smell for a long time is a learning. We must accustom the nose to smell so it doesn’t get saturated too quickly. It obviously happens sometimes, if I’m working with many differing (and strong) notes at once, but in these cases I drink a large glass of water or sniff my own skin to “refresh” myself again. In winter, I have to be careful not to get sick, because the common cold is really annoying for me!’
How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
‘It’s really hard to say, it depends on customer demand. My job is to put in odour, the idea, the universe that my customer has in mind.
If they have a very clear idea what they want, and we come to understand each other quickly enough, it may take several weeks. Sometimes the customer has more difficulty expressing their idea fully, and so the development of the fragrance can take several months or even years. Also it takes weeks to accord raw material in a formula, find the good balance, mature and test the fragrances.’
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain? If so, in what way…? Is a mood-board helpful?
Creating a fragrance is not purely about the sense of smell. There is no really specific vocabulary to describe a smell. The words to describe odours are borrowed from other senses:
– Colours from the sight sense, we talk about green notes for example.
– Textures borrowed from the touch sense: velvety, fresh, sharp, soft….
– Taste when talking about the effect of salty of calone or sweet for gourmand notes.
– From music, we talk about notes, chords.
So when I work a fragrance, I visualise in my head what exact smell I want to obtain, and it’s not only as a mixture of smells but also a mix of images, colours and sensations that I have to balance and harmonise all the various shades I want to give to my fragrance.’
What is your best tip for improving a person’s sense of smell?
‘Smell all that is in your environment, what you eat, what you drink… everything! Try to take ownership of all the smells by bringing them closer to a sensation of an emotion, a word or a colour in order to memorise them more easily. You need to link the smell to a particular image or memory that is very personal to you.’
(We were especially gratified to hear this, because it’s exactly what we teach people to do at our How to Improve Your Sense of Smell workshops!)
If you had one fragrance note that you love above all others, what would that be?
‘Oh the smell of Iris concrete. Definitely! I adore it.’
Written by Suzy Nightingale