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.