Frédéric Malle and Simon Doonan consider the seductive allure of vulgarity

For Document's Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the perfumer and the tastemaker discuss the scent memories of adolescence and the reawakening of our desire for personal, physical connection

Twenty years ago, on the shop floor of Barneys’s Fifth Avenue flagship, the French-born perfumer Frédéric Malle unveiled a set of towering ‘scent columns’ that looked more like an avant-garde art installation, or perhaps one of the department store’s famously outré window displays, than a reimagined perfume counter. Conceived by Malle, and brought to fruition with the help of Barneys’s head window dresser, Simon Doonan, the floor-to-ceiling chambers were christened ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’ by department store staff for their resemblance to the space chute from the Starship Enterprise. Visual drama aside, the perfumer’s concept was pretty simple. Malle wanted to give people a way to examine themselves in fragrances like Angeliques Sous La Pluie or Cologne Bigarade as a kind of casual voyeur, as if they had brushed past themselves on a busy street before registering the subtle changes in the scent trail left behind.

Malle never set out to be a perfumer. His mother was a perfumer, as was his maternal grandfather—Serge Heftler-Louiche had even helped a childhood friend named Christian establish Parfums Christian Dior—and Malle was planning to split from tradition with a career as an art dealer or art director. (Ironically, the catalyst for Malle’s own eventual path to perfumery, and for his enduring view of scent as “self-inflicted pleasure,” was a bottle of Dior’s Eau Sauvage he discovered at the age of 10.) When Malle did finally launch Editions de Parfums in 2000, he was taking after his father—a voracious reader—as much as his perfumist mother. The olfactory “publishing house” champions distinguished and daring scent designers as artists or authors, elevating their concepts beyond the commercial while granting them full artistic freedom.

Malle’s 20th anniversary arrives as perfume’s role in evoking memories and inducing private pleasures is more vital than ever. The streets, at least in post-pandemic New York City, are again filled with what the perfumer calls the scent “impressions” of strangers. Barneys’s Fifth Avenue flagship remains shuttered, having closed in 2020, just shy of its 100th birthday. But Malle is optimistic about a sort of postwar energy rekindling our desire for personal, sensory connection. He and Simon Doonan join Document’s Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson to reflect on their two decades of collaboration, share the scent memories that shaped them, and salute vulgarity as the spice of life.

“When a perfume is too pretty, it’s too perfect, I look for the dash of vulgarity and we sometimes put a little bit in. It’s like people that are too perfect, you’d never want to sleep with them.”

Nick Vogelson: Frédéric, you probably can’t smell me from there, but I’m wearing my favorite of your fragrances, French Lover.

Frédéric Malle: That makes my week, actually.

Simon Doonan: I’m wearing Angeliques Sous La Pluie.

Frédéric: Which you have [been] for many years, being angelique yourself.

Simon: In Shelter Island, our whole backyard is full of junipers, and when I get handfuls of berries and hit them with a rock it smells exactly like your perfume. I don’t know why that would be a big shock, but I’m always like, ‘Look, it smells just the same.’

Frédéric: Yeah, there’s a lot of juniper in it, so no wonder. Are you there now?

Simon: Yes, we sold our apartment in New York and we are here all the time.

Frédéric: Have you? Good, that’s so wise. I love the idea that you wear a tie at the beach, it’s so grand, so très chic. You have the ring! I can see the lights in your glasses. You’re equipt, Mr. Doonan. It looks a bit like an installation. Very grand.

Nick: I was just saying to Simon before you joined, Frédéric, that I wanted to bring you both together on, of course, the occasion of your 20th anniversary. And congratulations! What a huge milestone. How did you first meet?

Frédéric: We met at Barneys early on. Before we launched, we discussed the layout of [my] shop and what we were going to do. But I don’t remember—do you remember our first meeting?

Simon: I remember you had big champions at Barneys. Judy Collinson and Julie Gilhart were the most incredible ambassadors for you, because we didn’t really take on perfume brands like that. It was a new idea to embrace a perfume in that way and create your incredible smelling column.

Frédéric: There’s one thing I will never forget you did, which I thought was very funny. We worked on this perfume for Barneys Co-Op called Outrageous. Simon found the name, and I came up with all sorts of different designs for the packaging. We decided to have a meeting at Barneys when we were doing the window displays. I’m very secretive; I always make these things hush-hush, and I said, ‘Where are we going to meet?’ Simon said, ‘There’s a place where no one will ever look.’ And we had the meeting in the window of Barneys. I loved it. No one ever saw that we were working on the new packaging.

Simon: And people outside, they can’t hear what you’re saying to them. Once, I tried to get Donatella Versace in the window, and she was like, ‘Oh no, I’m very shy.’ I said, ‘Once you’re in the window, you can say anything to the paparazzi outside, you can insult them and insult their family,’ and she loved it. She got in the window and said all these outrageous things because you’re in a goldfish bowl so you can’t be heard.

Frédéric: I felt very protected.

Nick: Simon, could you elaborate on what a scent column is?

Simon: Well, Frédéric Malle—I’m going to blow some hot air up his dirndl skirt right now. He’s an unbelievably strange combination of being very multi-reference and very passionate. He’s the best of what French people can be, with a million ideas and suggestions, but then he’s also incredibly rigorous. If you look at his packaging, and his vision for the shop, it’s very considered. It’s like a great combination between this tour de force personality and this incredibly rigorous art direction—Andrée Putman would be the other person who springs to mind.

Frédéric: My God, it’s like my obituary.

Simon: These smelling columns were incredibly large. Everyone called them ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’ because they were similar to Star Trek. You should take it from here and explain how you came up with this idea for these columns.

Frédéric: It’s very simple. They are exactly what mirrors are to garments. Before these existed, when someone smelled a perfume on those little blotters, it was like seeing a picture too close. You can only see the details and you don’t have the full effect. So I created this chamber—it’s like a huge tube of glass—which allows you to smell the perfume as it’s expanded. It’s as if you were following yourself. It’s giving you an impression of what trail you will leave behind if wearing the perfume.

Simon: Why is it better than the traditional way of, you know, when the sales associate rubs it on your skin?

Frédéric: I think that perfumes are a little bit like theatrical decor. If you see a jungle at a theater, you will feel that it’s a real jungle from your seat, but when you are actually on stage beside the leaves, you realize that they’re made of plastic. If you want to really live the illusion of the perfume, you have to have a little distance.

Nick: Frédéric, you talk about ‘impression,’ and I wanted to ask both of you about your first impression of fragrance that really made a memory for you?

Simon: My first memory is very specific. My mother was a working-class lady from Belfast who left school at 13, and she was very tough and fought in the Second World War. She was streetwise, Irish, and didn’t take any shit from anybody. But she was very glamorous as well. She was in drag the whole time. She was a devotee—I don’t know where she even heard about it—of L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, which is tuberose mostly, I think.

Frédéric: A lot of jasmine. It’s one of the best perfumes ever made. It’s probably the perfume that has been the most copied in the history of perfumery.

Simon: Wow. Well my mom died quite a long time ago. She was born in 1918 so she would be over 100 now. Me and my sister had a little get-together for all the people that remembered her, and I got a bottle of L’Air du Temps and we all smelt it. Because when you smell it, she comes back. It’s the most incredible thing. We were all remembering her through her L’Air du Temps. Because she left school at 13, she didn’t know how to pronounce it. She just liked it. She had an instinct for something that was special or unique. But then she figured it out. ‘Oh, it’s L’Air du Temps,’ she would say, because she thought French was a very funny language. She ended up clawing her way into this job at the BBC, so she had a lot of educated colleagues, and she picked up French from them. You know in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, how Holly Golightly keeps saying recherché and de rigueurand à la distance and all these things? My mom would pick those up and use them in a kind of piss-taking way, like, ‘Oh, that’s very au courant and Entre-Deux-Mers.’ She would say it with a camp kind of irony. You don’t need an education to understand camp.

Frédéric: I have a very bizarre rapport with perfume because my mother used to work in this industry. Of course I have memories of my mother, and also of other people around me, wearing perfumes and being dazzled by them. But the memory that left a mark on me is from when I was playing a lot of sports. Although I had access to perfume, I had a huge bottle of Eau Sauvage, and put Eau Sauvage on. I was a dapper brat at 10 years old.

Nick: You were playing sports with Eau Sauvage on?

Frédéric: Covered with Eau Sauvage. I was the only kid, and sort of trying to be an athlete—but, yes, a smelly one. And when you sweat a lot, perfume gets mixed with you even more. I remember one day when I said, ‘Whoa. This smells so good.’ It was almost like discovering masturbation. It was this sort of self-inflicted pleasure. I understood that day how addictive this was, and I was very young. I was wearing it not to show off but for my pleasure.

“Me and my sister had a little get-together for all the people that remembered [my mom], and I got a bottle of L’Air du Temps and we all smelt it. Because when you smell it, she comes back. It’s the most incredible thing.”

Production Director Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production.

Nick: It’s really interesting because it makes me think of several different roles of fragrance. I think, of course, of memory, of an impression of a memory. I think of, as you said, that emotion when you like how you smell, when you like how the fragrance is on you. And, of course, the idea of desiring someone else in a romantic or an erotic sense because of scent.

Frédéric: I was too young to be sexually attracted to girls when this happened, but a few years later, I understood the power that it gave me. By then I had switched [from Eau Sauvage] and I was the only boy in Paris wearing Halston. Z-14 was like magic. Then I discovered girls wearing perfume, and I understood what effect it had on me; the power of it, the intimacy, and then the fusion of those two smells and the magnitude of that.

Nick: Do you remember the first scent that you were attracted to on someone? Where you just said, ‘That is so sexy. I’m so attracted to that.’

Frédéric: I remember I came back to Paris because I was in love with a girl who was wearing Paris by Saint Laurent, which is actually a copy of L’Air du Temps—so, you see, Simon. It’s built on the L’Air du Temps idea. I was completely in love with this girl, but a big part of it was because of her smell.

Simon: I think the word ‘addiction’ is very apropos. I had a friend who used to carry a little bottle of Joy by Jean Patou around in her handbag, and the drunker she got, having fun, out would come the bottle. It was almost like poppers, she would have a little [sniffs], and then carry on, and by the end of the evening she smells, you know, strong, shall we say? One has to resist that addiction, otherwise you go through a whole crate of perfume.

Frédéric: I am not against people wearing whole crates of perfume.

Nick: Simon, do you remember the first scent, natural or otherwise, that made you say, ‘Wow, I desire this person, I need them sexually, immediately’?

Simon: Well the first time I went to a gay disco was in Manchester, probably around 1970. It was sort of provincial, a bit naff. It was at the time when Aramis was the perfume du jour for men—specifically, gay men, because straight men in England, and especially in Manchester, were not sloshing on Aramis at that point. It had only recently become legal to be homosexual. So in my mind Aramis was synonymous with sex, liberation, and all these guys that wanted to kiss you and meet you. Then, yeah, over time, I grew to not particularly like it, and I sort of stopped associating with it in that way.

Nick: I hadn’t thought of the idea of associating fragrance with liberation, but there’s something poetic about that and something very powerful.

Frédéric: Oh, yes. When I was wearing Halston Z-14, it was the beginning of Le Palace and all of that in Paris. I was brought up in a world framed by very Parisian codes and French men could wear perfume. My mother had worked on Eau Sauvage, which was a huge success, but perfumes had to be fresh. They were sort of a more sophisticated version of cologne. Strong perfumes were considered American perfumes. They were seen as fairly vulgar. And it was, like, a new thing to wear the big ambery Halston perfume. It felt like breaking a little taboo, somehow, crossing a certain barrier, which I did very happily every night.

Simon: I think Freddy and I both share a fascination with vulgarity. Somebody says to me, ‘Oh, that’s very vulgar,’ and I’m, like, reaching for the bottle and sloshing it on, because I’m a contrarian. Diana Vreeland said vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life, it’s like a dash of paprika. There’s nothing more stultifying than relentless good taste, you need a little frisson, a little soupçon of vulgarité.

Frédéric: When a perfume is too pretty, it’s too perfect, I look for the dash of vulgarity and we sometimes put a little bit in. It’s like people that are too perfect, you’d never want to sleep with them. You don’t want to wake up in the morning with perfection. First of all, perfection makes you feel ugly and horrible. But perfection is incredibly boring. You have to have a little humor.

Nick: You’ve both been instrumental in crafting trends in the worlds of fragrance and fashion. Where do you see us going after the pandemic in the next few years? What are you excited by?

Frédéric: I hope that this post-pandemic era is going to be as fun as the moments that we have after great wars. After each war, there is this moment of creativity, appetite for life. The fact that New York might be a bit broke might be a good thing, because then it will be more affordable for more interesting people. And I hope that there will be this energy of people that want to see each other, touch each other again.

Simon: Moi? I feel very optimistic. But I know the vision for the future will not, nor should it, come from old farts like me who are 68 years old. It’s not going to come from Park Avenue. Whatever happens, it’s going to come from young people. Like Freddy says, young people will see this lull, the void, as a petri dish. A petri dish of possibilities.