Sophie Labbé spent her childhood between Paris and the Charente-Maritime area of France, encountering contrasting smells: the odours of a capital city, against the scents of the countryside, living to the rhythm of grape-picking and harvesting, swept with a salty breeze…
She studied at IPSICA, Paris’s perfumery school, and at the Givaudan Perfumery School in Geneva for six months. In 1992 she joined IFF as a junior perfumer, where Sophie has worked on fragrances including Bulgari Jasmin Noir and Mon Jasmin Noir, Calvin Klein Beauty, Estée Lauder Pure White Linen and Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina and Signorina Eleganza.
What is your first ‘scent memory’?
My mother’s neck – her scarf with the powdery notes of her perfume combined with the smell of her skin.
When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer/create your own perfume?
I was studying chemistry and I read about a special perfumery school called ISIPCA. Before applying I decided to try to meet a perfumer to find out more about the profession. I was lucky enough to meet Jean Kerléo , the in-house perfumer at Jean Patou. This encounter changed my life! He made me discover all the treasures of that brand, and this unforgettable meeting was the deciding factor for my future. Nothing was premeditated, I just followed the right path totally unawares.
What are your five favourite smells in the world? Only five?? Hmmm…
• Immortelle, the everlasting flower reminds me of the sand dunes of my childhood in the west of France, sunkissed skin, ocean breezes. It has a slightly spicy curry note and a maple syrup facet which is very addictive.
• Chocolate! Melting chocolate when making a birthday cake.
• The smell of springtime – fresh air, sunshine on new green leaves, lilac blossom and lily of the valley. Lily of the valley is such a beautiful smell and particularly precious as it is only with us for a week or two each year.
• The smell of a tea factory in Sri Lanka. The incredible smell of drying leaves as you enter the factory.
• Frangipani flowers in Bali. A wonderful childhood memory from my first visit to Asia.
What’s the worst thing you ever smelled. (Honestly!)
The smell of a tannery I visited on my travels. Awful!
What is the fragrance you wish you’d created? Unquestionably Clinique Aromatics Elixir.
Do you agree that this is one of the most exciting moments in perfume history – and why do you think that is?
Today I feel that all kinds of perfumery can be expressed. We have all sorts of brands from mass to niche, local to global: so many ways for a perfumer to express themselves. We draw inspiration from every part of the globe. We work with colleagues in every continent. I am currently very interested in the approach to fragrance in the Middle East with its rich perfumery heritage and distinctive styles.
If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
Cleopatra – a powerful female figure whose legendary status is drenched in perfume!
What’s the first fragrance you bought. And the first bought for you…?
Cacharel Anais Anais was the first fragrance given to me. The first fragrance I bought, when I considered myself “an adult”, was Guy Laroche J’ai Osé.
Do you have a favourite bottle design, from those that have been used for your many different fragrance creations?
Givenchy Organza, with its beautiful feminine, goddess like curves. Particularly striking when it launched after a decade of clean, neutral bottle designs (the 90s)
How many perfumes might you be working on, at one time?
Up to 10 perfumes – but all at different stages of development.
Does your nose ever ‘switch off’?
No. It is always ‘on’, but in different ‘modes’ e.g. ‘analytical and concentrated mode’ when creating, “enjoying and appreciating mode” when wearing a perfume as a consumer, ‘expecting nothing mode’ when I am suddenly surprised by an odour.
How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
From nine months to two to three years, depending on may factors.
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain?
For me, words are important. I try to translate the words which are contained in a brief. I try to re-tell the story in my perfume with the top notes to the dry-down. The words are key.
What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance? And what is your best tip for improving a person’s sense of smell?
Open your nose – be aware of all the smells around us. Start with all the everyday smells that you take for granted and then move on to perfumes. You can train your nose. Smell as many perfumes as possible, starting with the classic milestone perfumes which every perfumer studies when they start their perfumery degree. Read as much as you can. There are books, and excellent articles about perfumery. And now we have The Perfume Society to inform and educate – perfect!
If you had one fragrance note that you love above all others, what would that be?
Vetivert Heart LMR from the world renowned producer of top quality natural materials, Laboratoire Monique Remy. It has the gorgeous distinctive note of vetiver without its rooty smoky facet, and with a refreshing grapefruit hint.