Monday, May 27, 2013

Perfumery: Art or Craft? Fabrice Penot of Le Labo Weighs In

Perfumery has come under much scrutiny lately, with exhibitions focused on its merits and implications, critical writing on the subject, a tightly knit community of perfume aficionados. Many believe that the meticulous care involved in creating a perfume and the sensuous pleasure it offers elevates perfumery to the realm of the arts, even accepting a more "pop" element to it, much like cinema or illustration can be; others propose that the lack of a solidly built theoretical foundation behind it, with a theoretical literature to support it, is reason to refute this categorization, insisting that perfumery is a craft with a refined perspective.

I had the chance to interview Fabrice Penot, co-founder and art director for niche perfume brand Le Labo whose scents have often fallen prey to scrutiny on these very pages, and among other things we discussed this pertinent but perennial question to which he kindly answered in detail.

Do you, Fabrice, believe that perfumery is an art or a craft? The difference is subtle but poignant.

Fabrice Penot: "Love this question Elena, I have some time in front of me as I am answering these question on a plane back to New York from Grasse where Eddie [Rochie] and I went for the hand picking of the roses centifolia in the fields....

So, Art or Craft?

Well, the artistic dimension of perfumery is undeniable to me when the process involves pure creation, meaning when the perfume is not intended to meet an identified need in a market ( in that case, it becomes a product) - That’s why we care so much about the quality of intention invested in the creation. If a perfume is created with the only intention to move, to create beauty, to add a new milestone to the history of perfume creation and eventually achieve these goals, yes i believe perfumery can be considered as a ( minor) art. Yet i understand this concept can be discussed widely.

Where your question is interesting to me is in the opposition with craft because there is always always a very fine line between the craftsman and the artist. there is this quote i like that says " a man who works with his hands is a laborer, a man who work with his hands and his brain is a craftsman, a man who works with his hand, his brain and his soul is an artist"

With the industrial production of perfumery, we lost a luxury and soulful moment which happens in the preparation process.

At le labo, there is definitively this permanent artistic quest in the process of creation ( whether or not we achieve it), but there is also the key reverence we have in the craft of actually preparing the final perfumes ( or candles ...) once they are created that is key we believe in the final soulfulness of the creations and power they can have on people.

The quality of the work of our staff, the obsession to details when they handle our oils, formulate each bottle of perfume by hand, the passion, the care, the work values they have, the truth they put in every move they make are as close as you can be to craftsmanship. That makes me think that's maybe why we naturally replaced their labcoats by aprons last year without rationalizing it....

There are not lab technicians or sales persons or store managers at le labo; all the souls who work with us are all defined by the fact they do what they love and take pride in doing it right. It is not a job, it becomes a discipline, an attitude towards creating beauty in the lives of people through perfumery.

So as far as le labo, perfumery is not "Art or Craft". It is about endlessly trying to achieve both. Art in the creation process and Craftsmanship during the making process is what we thrive for, for the sake of the beauty of our lives, our reputation and the pleasure of the people wearing our fragrances."


  1. Thanks for the interview. I am a pretty big fan of these guys work, so I always enjoy what they have to say.

    On the topic at hand, I agree with Fabrice. It can be both.

  2. Thank you for this!
    I couldn't help but nod affirmatively to all said. I also believe there is a fine line between craftsmanship and art.

  3. Anonymous13:09

    I definitely equate perfumery with other art forms. You have your classic perfumes, romanticist perfumes, modern, lifestyle, kitsch, cutting edge and experimental, not to mention the ongoing links with fashion, as there is with art and fashion. These days it's getting quite site specific with artists adding olfactory elements to exhibitions.
    I'm off to a perfume and poetry event on Thursday, so there's mixed media going on too!


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