Thursday, July 2, 2009

Interview with Sylvaine Delacourte, Art Director of Parfums Guerlain

Much as Sylvaine Delacourte has been a rather controversial figure on the online perfume-community venues so far, she has exhibited a rare eagerness to listen attentively to the pulse of our passionate heartbeat and has impressed me as genuinely interested in fragrances, as attested by her French blog. After all she's head of development in one of the most historical houses in all perfumery, Guerlain. I had taken the initiative to invite my readers into posing their questions to Guerlain and in a rare example of generosity, she has agreed to answer some of the most interesting ones. Here are Sylvaine Delacourte's replies on Perfume Shrine, with a little teaser on the upcoming releases!

Perfume Shrine: Madame Delacourte, first of all thank you for your consideration of Perfume Shrine and our readers. Let me begin by the core issue on our minds: The uniqueness of Guerlain has been standing between historical tradition and searching for modernity. But the problem is the core fan of the brand wants the tradition (the classics, the historical re-issues in Il était une Fois and Les Parisiennes), while obviously the house needs to find a new audience that is younger or less fanatical, ergo more modern in order to survive in a competitive market (La Petite Robe Noire, Mitsouko Fleur de Lotus, Elixirs Charnels, L'Art et la Matiere etc). What balance point is taken between the loyalty to Guerlain traditions and modernization?

Sylvaine Delacourte: From the beginning we have always tried to find a balance between the past and modernity.We try to give wings to our past!! This is shown in different ways. Indeed every year a prestigious special edition is launched to remember the past (for example : Champs Elysées tortue, Sous le Vent, Le Muguet etc..) It is a way to celebrate our past but not to reproduce the past. There is an essential goal in the Guerlain tradition: Innovation! Before becomming classics, Guerlain perfumes have always been innovative and were never smelled before. Jicky created in 1889 wasn't successful at the beginning, but it's become a classic. Habit Rouge , created in 1965, the first oriental for men, wasn't a success but since many years it's become a French pilar that performs without advertising. I could talk to you about Shalimar (1925), Samsara (1989) and many other Guerlain perfumes. In our new creations you always detect an attachment to the past that has been modernized. Insolence has been created as a modern L'Heure Bleue or Après l'ondée. The collection L'art et la matière is a celebration of the noble raw materials so loved by Guerlain : the precious rose for Rose barbare or orris for Iris Ganache...As you can see, regarding our creations, we have a large range of perfumes. Everybody can find his or her fragrance : the core fan of the brand as well as other people who are looking for more modernity. La petite robe noire has been a really big success, even if some of the bloggers don't like it; but the younger generation loved it, therefore it appealed to a segment of the market.

PS: I admit that I am not a great fan of La Petite Noire myself even if not middle-aged, but I understand your point. What ideas and motives stand behind the recent modernizations and reformulations? Many of the newer releases have been accused of being "dumbed down" and far less interesting than the old beauties. Does this assessment surprise you, or do you find it legitimate? To what would you ascribe this perception - difficulties in obtaining excellent raw materials? Changing consumer tastes in much, though not all, of the market? IFRA regulations? Something else?
SD: At Guerlain, perfumes are alive. We are still a brand that uses a lot of natural raw materials and as you know nature can't be controlled. That means that even if you don't change anything in a formula, each production is subtly different. For example we have a lot of natural rose in Nahéma. Depending on the weather, the ground, the conditions ... the smell of the rose will be slightly different from year to year, so the odour of Nahema would change a little bit. That's why at guerlain we create our "communelle" or "the rose blend "; it describes a careful assemblage of different roses to ensure constant, consistent quality from year to year. Concerning refomulations, I hear you, but the matter is very complex. We have to conform to IFRA regulations of course and as you know those change often. It is much complex for Guerlain than other brands, because the brand is 181 years old and you can imagine that some old raw materials have disappeared. We have to find good substitutes. So it's a huge permanent work. But be assured that our perfumer Thierry Wasser works on this very carefully and is aware of the latest discovery of new raw materials that could be interesting as good substitutes of some components. Our goal is not to betray our fragrances' soul as much as possible in the frame of the above. Even if Guerlain were still a family-owned brand we would still be obliged to respect the law and to reformulate...

PS: When 68 Champs-Elysées was refurbished and relaunched, several of the legendary perfumes from the early 20th century were to be re-launched as limited editions (Cachet Jaune, Ode etc). Is this still the intention or has the plan been abandoned? And why have Métalys, Guerlinade and Chant d'Arômes in extrait been discontinued all of a sudden?

SD: We have more than 750 creations written on the secret book, so naturally we are obliged to select some of them in current rotation. All our perfumes catalogue can't be sold at all times, even if it is very important for us to show to our custumer that we have a wonderful past of beautiful creations. Chant d' Arômes extrait as well as Après l'ondée extrait and Parure have been discontinued because it was not possible with the IFRA reglementation to rebuild them whithout irreparable damages! We preferred to stop production than to give a substitute of the original extracts. Regarding Metalys, unfortunately the results of the sales were very bad!

PS: Is there any prospect of new releases which fall into the signature Guerlain category, or is the line now dedicated solely to modernization and "light" fragrances? (for example the new Mitsouko Fleur de Lotus is lovely in my opinion, but very fleeting!). Men fragrances are also becoming increasingly lighter, as attested by Guerlain Homme recently. Is this part of the new Guerlain direction?

SD: In 2007 when we analysed our masculine fragrances portfolio, it was obvious that freshness was missing from the line-up. And today it is a very important element for men. A large category of men don't feel comfortable with "round" or sensual fragrances like our older ones. That's why Guerlain Homme has been created. But if you are looking for a another interpertration of Guerlain Homme , with more body and more oomph, due to the very present woody facet, you will have a surprise next September!

PS: In last year's L'Express there was a mention that Annick Ménardo would collaborate on the upcoming "major Guerlain feminine launch". It would seem that that would be the new Idylle. Did she collaborate indeed or not?

SD: Idylle has been created and signed by Thierry Wasser.

PS: How has LVMH's acquisition of Guerlain affected your own role? If you have been the creative director since before acquisition has your responsibility changed at all, or has your approach been affected in any way? I can imagine heightened work pressure just because Guerlain has had so many new releases lately. So how do you manage to find inspirations at that rate? Are you solely responsible for coming up with an idea which is then executed by Mr. Wasser or is there a panel at Guerlain now? And what have been your latest inspirations: a film, a book, a journey?

SD: My own role is to work beside Thierry Wasser who is the successor of Mr.Jean Paul Guerlain. Today everything can be an inspiration source : a dessert, a raw material , a drink, a travel, a colour, a film, a feeling...life in general is a source of inspiration!

PS: Many perfume buyers report having no access to established classics in most department stores where only some best-sellers or very recent releases are stocked. (ie. often no Mitsouko, no Jicky parfum, no L'heure Bleue, no Après L'Ondée....) Are there any plans to change that? There is a complaint of older loyal clients regarding the disappearing of ancillary products such as soap or powder, too.
Also several people suggest making the Paris-only fragrances available online, although I realise that their vantage point has been their covetability due to exclusivity. Chanel USA has recently made such a move with their Les Exclusifs. Are you thinking of a similar move? And if so, would you direct it only towards the US market?

SD: Our porfolio is so wide, that the department stores or independent boutiques cannot carry all products or lines; this is due to their own space allotment and they opt for their bigger sellers. That's why you can find many references in our own Guerlain boutiques , in Paris , and now in many boutiques worlwide: Tokyo, Moscow , Hong Kong, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Canada, US,etc...there you can find approximately 100 product codes! Which is a huge selection! In certain exclusive scents the initial production is limited, we have little quantities ourselves, but 10 boutiques worldwide carry them.
Regarding ancillary products, it is not realistic to have them in 100 fragrances. Therefore we keep them for the major references such as Shalimar, Samsara etc. The Shalimar powder for instance is only sold in England. Unfortunately, every time we tried to reintroduce soaps in our lines, the sales were very low. Our customers preferred the body gel.

PS: In times of economic recession luxury brands raise their prices or increase the size or both. Yet according to recent articles in WWD, The Financial Times and The Times the fragrance market has taken a blow in lessened sales in the first quarter of 2009 and consumers are rationing their perfume-buying quota accordingly. Guerlain has been issuing lots of super-expensive releases lately, often substituting previously reasonable products with the same composition in costlier bottles and with tighter distribution: Coriolan, Derby, Mahora, Terracota Voile d'été, even the Les Saisons coffret which reprised 3 out of 4 scents, one of them being a previously Aqua Allegoria scent. Do you see Guerlain becoming a superluxury house abandoning more economic releases? What is your own opinion on this?

SD: Guerlain is a master perfumer, our catalogue is wide and all women and men can find their Guerlain suiting their personalities. The higher prices on the exclusives are easily explained however: to create a bottle , it costs a lot , we have to spend a lot of money to create the design, the outillage, the mould for the flacons; additionally most often the exclusives are more concentrated ~Eau de parfum, not Eau de Toilette, as well as bigger quantities, and they come packaged in a gorgeous box which costs a lot too.

PS: Although you have previously made your position clear to us, there is still lots of misinformation in the Guerlain sales force as well as in the press, when they claim several innaccuracies such as Mitsouko never having been reformulated since its 1919 creation for instance, Insolence being the first composition by a non-Guerlain family member etc. It makes the informed consumer feel stupid at the counter when they're met with such conviction!

SD: I see what you mean. Indeed it was L'instant for women which was the first big launch created by a non- member of the Guerlain family. We have taken action and our sales force are now getting informed about the reformulations, so they should be able to explain. However, regretably we can't always control what is said in press articles. We are making fragrances for the consumers and it is not our purpose to misinform them.

PS: Last but not least what is your position on fragrance criticism? The Internet boom in the blogosphere and the reviewing in print has created a lot of buzz around the brands resulting in renewed interest, but has also brought criticism beyond the control of the firms; something unprecedented in the perfumery business! Do you find it annoying (especially when it's amateurish and non fact-checked) , stimulating, interesting or something else entirely? What do you answer to that?

SD: We can't avoid criticism. When you sell a creation, it can be a perfume, a painting, a film or something else, you have to face criticism that can be positive or negative of course. And naturally it is becoming more and more important, since we now we have the Internet with its wide circulation of news and opinions and the breakthrough of blogs. But art criticism in general is largely subjective. One person can give his/her own opinion but that's all. Specifically a perfume is an emotion: Either you feel comfortable with it or not...

My sincere thanks to madame Sylvaine Delacourte for alloting us some of her precious time!

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: the Guerlain series, Guerlain news, Interviews with industry professionals.


  1. Petals13:57

    Congratulations E on that great interview. I am not surprised by her answers (strangely, I did not find myself cringing as I read them, as I did some of her answers to other interviews) because she did answer your questions without getting defensive (especially on the 'making buyers feel stupid' part and on reformulations). I do agree with the differences between batches not based on reformulation but on how flowers do produce different scents based on water, soil etc. I also wonder why Shalimar powder sells in England only (anything to do with the English liking talcum?) and a shame that they stopped making soaps. I can understand that though, with the movement towards body gels and shampoos.

    On the overall, a great interview on your part, a very politically correct PR answer from her (what else can she do?). I also like that photo of the scents in a line-up. Is it your collection E? I wish I could post my Guerlain collection here ;-)

  2. Hello, E. Congratulations on the interview, and for providing a forum for the online perfume community to ask these very good questions of Ms. Delacourte. I found her answers polite and diplomatic, even if I don't agree with some of the reasoning behind the exclusivity and pricing. I do agree that Guerlain is in a difficult position, a bit like a politician, of having to balance the often fanatical interests of "the base" (i.e. the core fans of the past classics) with cultivating new audiences in a competitive market. What I do hope is that this burgeoning dialogue helps to remind Guerlain of the interests of an important segment of their target market.

  3. Thank you E. for the great questionnaire and thank you Sylvaine Delacourte for giving answers i take as serious and credible. A satisfying read and a completely new approach: this contact between a blogger and THE perfume house. I especially liked what she said about innovation-tradition of Guerlain and the search for the raw materials.

  4. Fernando15:17

    Very nice interview. You asked good questions. Alas, many of the answers were evasive, which is a pity. For example, in her answer about availability, she completely avoided discussing the Les Parisiennes line, while suggesting to the not quite attentive that you can actually get them at the Guerlain stores.

    In any case, it's clear that she is not the villain in the Guerlain story, but is working within constraints imposed by the market, by IFRA, and by the bean-counters at the company.

  5. Fiordiligi15:48

    Congratulations and thank you, dearest E, for this interview. You did your usual excellent job and didn't avoid asking awkward questions! I think Mme Delacourt is also to be thanked for being a good sport given the current hostile climate.

    Still no answer to our question about the re-issue of the "greats" like Cachet Jaune and Ode though.

    Oh, and I got my Shalimar dusting powder in Paris last year; it is in the Guerlain Paris 2009 catalogue too. I am crazy about Guerlain soap; I'm sure I could single-handedly support its reintroduction!

  6. Great interview, E!

    But I guess Parure, Chant d'Aromes and Apres L'Ondee extraits are gone, baby, gone! What a blow!

    If you read between the lines, it looks like Guerlain will continue to release new fragrances for the younger market, like PRN, and continue with the uber-expensive special ones, too.

    Oh well!


  7. PhinClio16:59

    Thanks for a fine interview, E! As others have said, the answers were evasive, but no more than I would have expected and you handled that fact as well as possible.

    I do think it's ridiculous that, e.g., Jicky EDP is now nearly impossible to get even at Guerlain boutiques. What's worse, the SAs at Guerlain boutiques that happen not to stock it seem to have been instructed to (falsely) tell costumers that it's been discontinued. Whatever's going on here with distribution and customer relations, it's gotta change.

    Incidentally, I would be more than willing to forgo the wonderful box and expensively designed bottle and get Derby at the old price in the old packaging. Deal? I thought not.

    I also hope, for Guerlain's sake, that they're not spending oodles of money on bottle design for a fragrance offered in a bee bottle that, lovely as it is, was designed over a century ago. You'd think that reusing that design would actually save in development costs!

  8. Anonymous17:33

    A wonderful interview - your concise interesting questions prompted Madame Delacourte to answer (IMO) succinctly and honestly.

    I'm curious, how did you conduct the interview? Were you face to face, over the phone, or was it through email? And I'm even more curious as to YOUR opinion about the interview....you asked some difficult questions - did you feel that Madame Delacourte responded with integrity? or was she "glossing" over her "stock" answers? (I'm so much better at accessing a dialogue between 2 people when I can actually hear inflections in the voice and see body language - do you know what I mean???)

    Thanks again,


  9. Thanks dear T!
    It was good of her to devote the time to listen to the questions and reply with some thought and not mechanically churning out ready-made snippets. I believe this was the first time that she knew she was answering to people very attuned to the reformulations and knoweldegable enough, so she responded without denials nor inaccuracies. Her position is delicate so she cannot step outside certain boundaries (she's the ambassador of the house after all.

    T, I'd welcome the pics of your collection if you'd like me to post them any time! (just mail me!)
    I should post more photos of my collection too, I suppose.

  10. J,

    thanks and you're most welcome. I thought it would be better if I invited the readers instead of just authoritatively only ask what is (perhaps) only on my own mind, because it's a podium for our community to be heard. We have been complaining for long and now we have a chance to be heard, by someone who does show an interest. So it was a fine opportunity and I could not exclude my fine, discerning readers :-)
    I sincerely feel that although as you succinctly point out there is a certain politically delicate situation on her hands, this is a fine ~and free of charge!~ chance for the brand to see the demands of what is essentially a large (in expenditure quota, if not in number of heads) segment of their market. And hopefully act accordingly.

  11. N,

    thanks honey!
    I think this is a unique situtation for Guerlain, because they are one of the oldest houses and because they did not begin through fashion, therefore what makes or breaks them is their fragrances (and cosmetics). I am all for dialogue and providing a stepping stone for the community to be heard. What will follow is out of my hands of course. But I try to be optimistic. :-)

  12. Fernando,

    thanks! I tried not to be disrespectful (that was never my intention) but neither to be subservient, asking only the "easy" things. ;-)

    I believe she didn't want to give false hope or make promises she couldn't keep. From what I was given to understand she has to answer to higher powers herself. Ultimately all do. It's regretable and I wish she was given more free reign, but alas even the big companies have to comply with the laws of the market and the law in general.

  13. D, dearest,

    thank you and glad it was an enjoyable read, which hopefully sheds some light to some things that were at the back of our heads for a long time.
    You know me, I like the ackward questions. But yes, she was a good sport and as a matter of fact I was impressed by this!
    Re: Cachet Jaune and Ode, I believe there are no definitive plans to re-issue them, although in 2005 there were some batches made as preliminaries which she was gracious to share sniffing with Parisian fans, as impressions of what could have been. \

    I am noting down your excellent observation about the Shalimar powder being available in Paris (haven't checked for this item on my own archive) so if anyone was wondering now they know!

  14. R,

    a lot of thanks for your support!
    Yes, I think we can collectively mourn. I knew about this for some time now (since the beginning of the year at least in regards to Metalys, Guerlinade and Chant d'Aromes extrait, as I wanted to get some more and couldn't) but was hesitant to post it, as sometimes they have a way of bringing out things from the most unlikeable places.....

    And there are no plans to stop producing "younger"-smelling things. I just hope that the prices are contained in the exclusives. They're already high and they don't need to go higher.

  15. PhinClio,

    you're very kind in saying so!

    The salesforce is being instructed to be more truthful, as the headquarters have realised that education is key in keeping and acquiring new customers. This is a good development.

    Regarding packaging, I am of your mind! I can do with a less luxurious packaging if it means I can buy more of my beloved fragrances (with no discounts on the quality of the formula, I mean). But I guess the boutique refurbishing was the perfect opportunity to go over the top glam and it was almost impossible to get the prices down afterwards. Once they're up, they're all the way up!

    In regards to the designs, I believe she was talking about the special editions (Plus que Jamais, Les secrets de Sophie etc.) although to be fair and based on my Guerlain catalogues and reference tomes the bee design has changed over the decades. It's not exactly the same, which necessitates a new design and new mould. Of course there wasn't a dire necessity for that! But there you have it!

  16. Marko,

    you're very kind, thank you and thanks for your comment.

    She gave me the impression she wanted to be honest as well, she certainly sounded so, from what I can tell, and I felt that I did put her into some rather "tight" corners, although there was no intention to offend and I think she appreciated that. She reacted diplomatically and gave as best as she could. What she evaded was what should have been evaded and what she couldn't publicly divulge was what could not be publicly divulged.
    The mere fact that she listened to us is important. Hopefully she will propose things with some suggestions at the back of her mind. Or so I like to hope myself!

  17. You could say Sylvaine has had a little time to practice her responses since she started her blog -- she was absolutely thrashed at first, remember when I "outed" Esprit de Parfum? And she's been quite responsive in her own blog.
    The fact that she asked me to help her get the Paris bloggers and perfumistas together for a discovery of raw materials and historical Guerlains is further proof that she enjoys the dialogue -- we're planning to do it again, as this non-Guerlain event was very successful, though marred by what happened to Octavian the very next day...

    Anyway, I'm glad you got the opportunity to do this interview, as the only one available, by Méchant Loup, is in French.

  18. I'm sure there was some seasoning going on! LOL!
    I have been happy to see she's responsive and not a Draconian figure like people made her out to be before. You surely gave her an ~excellent~ nudge and I hope more of those get-togethers can be arranged; it's only good for the community! And you too!

    Yeah, you can say I was glad as well. I believe it's a first in that it answered some of the perhaps ackward questions on the mouth of many, as it was based on actual feedback from my readers. I thought this would be a better approach to it.

  19. Rappleyea23:45

    Terrific journalism, Helg, and it is posts like this that show why you have earned the well deserved bloggers awards. Congratulations.

    And a huge thank you to the very gracious and lovely Mme. Delacourte (love her name - honestly, central casting couldn't have come up with a better name than Sylvaine Delacourte for someone holding the position of Guerlain's artistic director). We may not have gotten ALL of our questions answered, but she didn't have to answer any of them, so I for one, am very grateful to her for her time and her desire to keep the lines of communication open with Guerlain's fans.

  20. Alexandra08:10

    Great interview!
    But this information is not great, it seems that Parure is gone f-o-r-e-v-e-r. My favourite chypre fruity family is getting smaller every day, Molyneux Fete, Van Cleef Gem, Jean Patou Que Sais-je? and Colony (my bottle is on the way). Hope at least Femme Rochas will survive.

  21. I read this interview with much interest. It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of a perfume industry insider. Looking forward to more!

  22. Wonderful interview E, though Mme Delacourte only gave the obvious answers.

  23. Donna,

    awww, you're too kind!
    You're right: she isn't obliged to answer anything, so her eagerness was gracious and I thank her for that. I think between the lines we can understand certain things ;-)

  24. Alexandra,

    thanks and I think I agree...the news are rather grim. Do hang on to your Colony bottle, it's fantastic. I believe you might also love Jubilation 25!! Don't despair just yet!

  25. Audit,

    I think so too. Hopefully :-)

  26. Darling L,

    thanks for saying so.
    I suppose she couldn't do otherwise, could she? She had to stay within certain limits and we both knew that all along... as did the readers. So I suppose a level of honesty has been upkept.

  27. Hi Helg! The sudden discontinuation of Chant d' Arômes extrait is a shame. I'm troubled by one thing here: if it's "not possible with the IFRA reglementation to rebuild them (Chant d'Aromes, Apres l'Ondee) whithout irreparable damages", why is it still possible to produce a complex extrait like Mitsouko?

  28. A ha! An excellent question!! (I assumed you'd pose one!)

    There would be two schools of thought on this: either Mitsouko has been already altered in the extrait quite a bit (very true, I'd wager), so rebuilding it following the IFRA restrictions wasn't an impossibility OR the formula is not that complex as one would assume (It has been mentioned a lot in the Guerlain PR material that it is an elegant, short formula). Or last but not least, not that many people use the Chant d'Aromes and Apres L'Ondee extraits anyway, as opposed to Mitsouko.
    These are all my personal theories, please note! ;-)

  29. Dear Helg,

    Thank you for the nice interview and asking questions reflecting concerns of many bloggers and perfume lovers. I really enjoy reading it as it was a good dialog beyond the disagreements. To me it helped to understand a difficult position of a brand wich has to balance between the demand of new clients, loyalty to older clients and traditions, economical factors and the regulations. I still might regret some choices Guerlain makes, but... it's easy to judge when you are watching from aside. Probably I had to make the same choices being in there position.

    Anyway - I was a bit surprised by such what seemed to be a cagy reply about the role of a creative director and the sources of inspirations. I thought Sylvain would love to explain more about this side. But ok, may be I get an answer one day :o)

    I am really glad with the fact they are instructing their SA's to be open about reformulations. Of course it's a slippery slope - you never know what the reaction of clients would be. But... with a good approach you can always turn it into a profit :o)

  30. Max,

    you're welcome and thanks! I guess we ~as fans as well as fragrance writers~ are thinking it's easier than it really is, very true.

    And the reformulations are a touchy subject, but I think honesty is a better handling than telling lies to the customer (on the part of SAs).

    Still you're right, I would have expected some more elaboration on how they come up with their concepts. I wonder why this wasn't grabbed as a chance of a nice poetic reverie into how the creations come to be.
    However mme Delacourte told me she would ask mr.Wasser about the newest Idylle and its concept and perhaps there will be something later on. We'll see about that, I'm hopeful:-)


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