The perfumer shares the secrets of her scent-creating day

We’re lucky enough to sit down with many of the world’s leading perfumers, in the line of duty. Few encounters are as pleasurable as when we get to catch up with Ann Flipo, truly one of the world’s ‘greats’ – and a hugely inspiring woman, one of the very few to bear the official title of ‘Master Perfumer’, endowed by her employers, IFF [International Flavors & Fragrances].

Her roll-call of fragrances stretches into the hundreds, and includes Paco Rabanne Lady Million (with Beatrice Piquet and Dominique Ropion), Jo Malone London Basil & Neroli, Jimmy Choo Illicit and Jimmy Choo Man, and recently, the fabulous Coach for Men.

At one point, Anne Flipo was a rarity: a woman working in a man’s world. Today, happily, many of the ‘rising star’ perfumers are women – and female recruits to ISIPCA, Paris’s elite perfumery school, outnumber males. But to celebrate International Women’s Week, we are delighted to bring you the latest in our series ‘A Working Nose’ – in which the world’s greatest perfumers share how they go about creating perfumes.

I often ‘dream’ my compositions. I’ve been a perfumer for 30 years and I definitely have a routine. An important part of my creative process happens overnight. Before I go to bed at night I think about all the projects I’m working on – and when I’m asleep, my brain processes those; I wake up and know exactly what I have to do next, with a fragrance. I always say to people, e-mail me at night – send me instructions just before I go to sleep, because I literally sleep on it.

First thing in the office, I make the modifications to my creations. I take those ideas that have come to me overnight, I write them down on the computer – perhaps three or four studies for what I’m working on – and I give the modifications to my assistant, who compounds everything. [Compounding = making up the formula.] After that, I’ll go to the coffee machine, talk to some of the other perfumers in the Paris office, and smell the modifications with the evaluator. [The evaluator is the company’s ‘bridge’ between the perfumers and clients, with an important ‘editorial’ role, often deciding when a fragrance meets the brief well enough to be shared.]

I always lunch alone. It’s another important part of the process; I need to continue to think. I have my lunch in the same place every day – just a salad – and I come back to the office. I might make some more modifications at that point.

Between 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., I like to do something different. I don’t work at my computer; I might look at magazines, stare into the garden in front of my window; it’s like a meditation. I am thinking, I am focusing. Maybe on another day at that time I’ll have some meetings – but I’m most definitely not sitting in front of the computer. I need to have a lot of time for just smelling and thinking.

Nowadays, several perfumers often collaborate on a single fragrance. We might be responsible for different accords – one of us might do the top notes, another the base… For Coach for Men, for instance, I worked with IFF perfumer Bruno Jovanovic, who’s based in our New York office. That’s not as difficult as it sounds; he will send formulations to the office in Paris, my assistant will compound them – and I’ll smell them.

So it doesn’t matter if we’re in the IFF office in Mumbai, or Paris, or Singapore, Shanghai or São Paolo – they all have the same materials, and we can smell exactly the same things wherever we are. In the case of Coach for Men, Bruno worked more on the masculine sensuality – the suede accord. These collaborations with other perfumers around the world work well – and he’s a nice guy, too.

I try to leave the office at 6 p.m., but sometimes it’s 7 or 8 p.m. In this job you never exactly switch off. It’s surprisingly tiring, because your nose is pretty much ‘on’ all the time.

Nowadays, some of the time, I’ll work at my house in Pas-de-Calais in the North of France. I have set up an office there. I have exactly the same routine. I don’t have my materials at home – but that’s OK, because I compose in my brain. My children are older now – 29, 27 and 20, so I can have a space in the house to work, and I love being able to work at home. I’ve been talking about working from home for years, and last year one of my friends said: ‘Stop talking about it; just do it.’ Perfumers aren’t machines; we’re very busy with a lot of different projects – and to do that, you need peace and quiet.

I have 1200 raw materials that I can play with. I tend to focus on around 40o of those in my own personal ‘palette’. I guess my signature is that fragrances are often very ‘luminous’ – and often with very addictive notes. My key ingredients – orange flower, and gourmand notes – go back to my childhood. One grandmother was a keen gardener and I remember smelling orange blossom in her garden. And both my grandmothers were big cooks, which I think is where the love of spices and vanilla comes from.

Part of my day is spent simply creating things for myself. As a perfumer, you need your ‘secret garden’, your treasures, which you can share later. I do this every day. It’s vital to have your own projects – although always a challenge to find the time.

If a client wants a particular ingredient, I can work with that. But I do have a problem with one particular family, the Pyrazines; they were introduced after my training and I get confused with which is which. These are ingredients from the flavours industry, giving strong notes of coffee or chocolate – and they have to be used with a very light touch. I always have to remind myself which is which…

The first evaluation is always on a blotter. That allows us to make an initial selection. But then we ask for ‘skin’ – this is what we call those people working in the office who have good skin for perfume, which gives a true representation of how the fragrance smells. You’ll walk into our office and see people with their arms out, and perfumers clustered around smelling them. We’ll stand there and discuss the fragrance – and sometimes forget that there’s a body there!

From brief to finished fragrance averages around 18 months. The quickest might be around nine months, whereas with Lancôme La Vie Est Belle, it was three or four years. That fragrance, which had three perfumers – and Invictus (four perfumers) – required around 5,000 modifications, to get right.

A moodboard is useful – but for me, words are even more useful. It might be a piece of text, shared by the perfume house, or it might be sitting down with that client and listening to what they say. Sometimes, it’s about reading body language as much as anything; as a perfumer, I am very attentive to detail. It’s easy to work with a client who knows what they want – but if they don’t know what they want, that’s part of our job: to listen and to guide them.

Sometimes you’ll work on a project and not get the job. But if your idea is strong, you have to battle. And if it’s not strong enough, that’s the reason you didn’t get the go-ahead. But it’s not a drama.

It’s amazing to be walking down the street and smell one of my creations on someone. Often it’s La Vie Est Belle, because it’s such a bestseller – and that’s such a ‘wow’ moment, every time.

I am excited that my ‘musical instrument’ is integrated into my body. I really love that I get to work with my nose – I consider myself very lucky to be able to do that.

Interview by Jo Fairley

Photo credit: L’Attitude

Anne Flipo – one of a handful of ‘Master Perfumers’ in the world – shares her secrets and scent loves

Anne Flipo is one of an elite group entitled to call herself ‘Master Perfumer’, a title given by IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) to their most experienced and talented perfumers.

Anne has worked with IFF since 2004 and the list of her creations would keep you scrolling and scrolling, but highlights include Burberry Brit Rhythm, Chloé Love Story, Jimmy Choo Illicit, Paco Rabanne Lady Million (with Dominique Ropion and Beatrice Piquet) – and recently, so-successfully, The Herb Garden collection for Jo Malone London, in which she was able to express her own passion for gardening.

This autumn sees another collaboration between the perfumer and that perfume house, with the forthcoming Basil & Neroli fragrance – and in advance of that, gave The Perfume Society these answers, to add to our growing portfolio of ‘Nose’ interviews (read more here).

What is your first scent memory?
My first ever scent memory is the smell of my mum. She used to wear lot of huge fragrances, but I also remember her own natural smell.

When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer and create your own perfumes?
I had a revelation during my studies at perfumery school in Versailles, near Paris. It was also a school for flavours and cosmetics, but when I began to play with fragrance ingredients and raw materials I saw it as a game, as a challenge. That’s where my passion and curiosity developed.

What are your five favourite smells in the world?

  • Wow! Well the first one, at least, is easy: neroli. I’ve always loved this extract from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. It’s very important to me because it holds personal memories from childhood. I work around this scent all the time and it’s a constant note in many of my creative processes at the lab.
  • I love basil, too, so when Céline Roux at Jo Malone London approached me about using it in the Basil & Neroli fragrance (launch: autumn 2016), I was delighted.
  • I also love jasmine sambac – a very interesting white flower. It’s the variety of jasmine most similar to the orange blossom.
  • I really like patchouli; it’s a great raw material and so effective within a formula. I use it as a ‘modifier’ to adjust a composition.
  • The last one is difficult because I have so many raw materials going around in my mind – but I do love orris for the sense of volume and quality it can bring to a fragrance.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever smelt?
Pigeons – they have a terrible smell! Especially if they land on you – it is the most horrendous odour. I used to play with a lot of odd-smelling ingredients at perfumery school – both natural and synthetic – so nothing really fazes me except that!

What is the fragrance you wish you had created?
A fragrance that I love and that I wear a lot is Guerlain L’Heure Bleue. Astonishingly, it was created at the very beginning of the 20th Century.

Do you feel that this is one of the most exciting times in fragrance history?
Absolutely – over the past five years or so it’s become a very interesting and exciting time. But I believe that if you want realnsuccess you have to take some risks.

If you could have created a fragrance for an historical figure who would it be?
I am so interested in the idea of Britishness – that’s why I love working with Jo Malone London and especially on Basil & Neroli, which is the spirit of British youth, elegance and carefree hedonism. So I would love to choose one of your own very famous historical personalities such as Sir Winston Churchill.

What was the first fragrance you bought and the first bought for you?
They were both Guerlain fragrances; the first I bought for myself was Guerlain Parure, and the first perfume given to me was Guerlain Chamade.

Do you have a favourite bottle design from those that have been used for your fragrance creations?
I am in love with all the Jo Malone London bottles! To me they are so chic and elegant, and the perfect representation of high quality. I love them.

How many perfumes might you be working on at one time?
Good question! That really depends, but usually quite a lot. Luckily they are never at the same level of development, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming. At the moment it’s not too many; I can manage!

Does your nose ever switch off?
Yes absolutely, I need to have certain forms of ‘silence’. Often during the weekends I can cut off and switch off.

How long roughly does it take you to create a fragrance?
It depends, but I would say nine months is the minimum.

Is creating a fragrance visual for you, as well as something that happens in your nose and brain? If so, in what way?
To create a fragrance I use all of my five senses. It’s very much a brainstorming experience. I can visualise in my mind some odours and after that I play with the idea through flavours, textures, smells and even sounds.

There’s a moment during the day, at the beginning of the afternoon, when I think about fragrances in my mind. I go into a meditation period, and after this time I write my formula.

What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance?
Firstly you have to try to relax. Write down or say immediately the words that come to mind when you smell something, and don’t hesitate. Don’t worry if you make mistakes or say something wrong. In fact I personally think there is always something correct in what anyone says about a fragrance.

What is your best tip for improving someone’s sense of smell?
One really helpful exercise is to smell by contrast. So you smell one type of fragrance, and after that you smell something very different – for instance a fresh citrus Cologne and then a spicy Oriental. That way you smell by contrast and it makes it easier to think, write or speak about each one.

If you had one fragrance note you love above all others what would it be?
Neroli – absolutely without question. I love the fragrance of orange blossom: it’s so rich and beautiful; I want to smell it every day. I really love, love, love it!