Sunday, March 1, 2009

Interview with a perfumer: Isabelle Doyen of parfums Annick Goutal

Over the past few weeks I reviewed perfumes of one of my favourite perfumers, Isabelle Doyen, the resident nose behind the Annick Goutal brand ~whose Un Matin d’Orage is breaking new territories in the ozonic white floral genre~ and the perfumer responsible for four of the uber-niche Les Nez fragrances: Let me play the Lion, The Unicorn Spell, L’Antimatiere and the quite individual Turtle Vetiver (exercise1). Her unique style of pairing neoclassical compositions with a decisive and confident approach of broad strokes on her canvas had always impressed me with its conviction and resulting grace. Conducting an inteview with her filled me with excitement, but also trepidation ~wondering if I could put my feelings and questions into words, especially given the language trascriptions~ and I can’t begin to describe how happy I am to share it with you today on Perfume Shrine! Isabelle is a very giving person, who stroke me as especially attuned to the feelings and ideas of those around her and she can also have a wry sense of humour, which made me appreciate her work all the more for it.
PerfumeShrine: Isabelle, you are the daughter of a meteorolist, who spent time as a child in the South Pacific. How did you childhood and past shape you into the perfumer that you are?

Isabelle Doyen: Of course childhood has a great importance in my work as is the case for everyone I believe. Tahiti has been influencing me very much: My familiar memory of flower smells are those of Tiaré, Ylang Ylang, Frangipani; the smell of wild fires in the evening in the hills around our house, the taste of Mangos coming back from the beach,drunk with sun and the lagoon on Sunday evenings, the monoi perfume of the Tahitian women at the church ....But very soon in my childhood poetry became important: I had to learn by heart the "Dormeur du Val" (The Sleeper in the Valley), a poem by Rimbaud, when i was 8 years old and he was mentioning that young solder lying beside a little river, his feet in "Glaieuls flowers"; I thought "Why did he choose those flowers, they are ugly and they have no perfume!”

PS: It’s a magnificent poem, indeed, although I don’t have an answer about his choice either!
You have been composing fragrances for Annick Goutal for years. There is a very discernable aesthetic to the brand which I respect: gauzy, transparent and graceful. How much of it is Goutal's vision and how much of it is yours?

ID: We had a great advantage with Annick, it was that we knew we were "smelling" the same way, the same thing, we were on the same wavelength and wanted to go to the same place. So I really think that the perfumes we made together come from the same vision of that world we had and it continues with her daughter Camille the same way.

PS: In what aspects is the relationship among you and Camille Goutal different than the one you had with Annick, as related to the work produced? I find it endearing that you have both kept Annick's custom-made Organ*!

ID: I didn't wonder a minute if it would be the same thing as with her mother: we know we are looknig in the same direction! At my age I am exactly in-between Camille and Annick. Maybe Annick had a more “classical” education especially in music {she was a trained classical pianist} .Camille and I are listening to the same kind of music, we can work while listening to it, something we didn't do with Annick! Apart from that we work the same way: Camille learned how to set a formula by watching me attentively.The Organ we work with is very important to us, it is a little bit like the blanket or teddy bear that little children need to keep with them.This makes us feel secure in a way and especially when we see the little bottles that are hand-writtenwith Annick's hand-writting.

PS: Wearing the latest Goutal scents in the Les Orientalistes line (Ambre Fetiche, Myrrhe Ardente, Encens Flamboyant, Musc Nomade) I find that they inject a neoclassical style into what is essentially a “thick” school of perfumery: the oriental tradition.
I personally found them very pleasing to various degrees, but the criticism I have heard about them is that while they are out of sync with the previous Goutal style, they are also too “thin” to be convincing Orientals. (People perhaps forget Sables, Eau du Fier, or even Songes and Grand Amour in the Goutal line). What do you respond to that? I have also heard they’re meant to be layered (one on top of the other). Is this true and would you recommend it or not?

IS: Concerning Les Orientalistes, maybe we haven't been so intellectual about them! The very sperm of the idea was the three holly kings, the orientalist school of paintings that we like very much and the fact that we wanted to work on those ancient and beatiful raw materials; especially when we knew that to get Myrrhe and Frankincense people need to wound the bark of those trees, which are the only things growing in those arid parts. Then the resin drops gathered are called “tears”, so this idea of wounds and tears is very beautifull and melancholic. Besides it is the only chance for people living there to get a little money for living.
Regarding their classification, they are called orientalists but i don't think they fit in the heavy oriental perfumery family; they are more like woody, spicy, ambery…
It is the same with every perfume we create: it may be important to know that we never ask ourselves "Are we in the right Goutal direction, would Annick create this type of perfume?"We create going on our instinct, as we did with Annick anyway.
For Les Orientalistes, we don't recommend layering one another, this is something we usually don't like, but in this case we noticed just that they harmonised quite well between themselves, maybe because they all are of the same kind.PS: On that point, how do you feel about the materials’ restrictions as posed by IFRA guidelines and the EU law-frame? Everyone has heard about oakmoss (some classic chypres are not the same any more), coumarin and birch tar and many know about bergaptene and citrus oils being heavily restricted. I hear eugenol, as well as frankincense, are next to get axed. How can a skilled perfumer bypass such obstacles?

ID: Maybe soon we won't have so many ingredients left to build formulae so maybe we should convert ourselves into neurologists and study the place in the brain that reacts to the stimuli of jasmine smell! Then all we would have to do would be to find how to artificially stimulate this place and then the person would smell jasmine without anything under the nose!
I personally think Monsanto is a much bigger danger for health than frankincense!

PS: How is your work for Les Nez different than the one for Annick Goutal brand? Obviously Les Nez has much more limited distribution, while Goutal is owned by a large American group, yet your style is discernible in both. This brings me to the question of how much is a perfumer ~you specifically~ restrained by a "brief"?

ID: For me Lesnez is a wonderfull place of experimentation. René is absolutely respectful and humble in front of the work of the perfumer and also is always ready for strange adventures such as Vetiver Turtle for exemple, so it is fantastic! In any case with René or Goutal we never work with a "brief", we choose to work on what we want according to our feelings. For us the only "test" we are listening to is when we wear a perfume we are working on and two people in the same day exclaim "Oh, you smell so good! What is it?"

PS: Vetiver Turtle is a perfume project and it has impressed me that you want to constantly change the formula. The first "exercise" I sampled seems quite earthy and very true to the essence of vetiver to me. The name is quite intriguing for a vetiver fragrance, as the word "tortue" brings to mind turtles of course, their green colours, their proximity to the earth, their longevity....all those things which materialise in the fragrance. But in French it reminds me of "faire la tortue", that is the Roman defensive alignement; and also the Greek writer Aeschylus who allegedly got hit on the head by a turtle (trying to escape his destiny/wife, according to writers Pliny and Valerius Maximus). How do you feel about a fragrance writer pondering and writing about associations to a perfume's name? Is there so much thought given behind the onomastics of perfumes or are we overanalysing?

ID: About the name of this specific perfume, there is nothing complicated behind it except that we wanted "turtle" to be in the name (because of the Turtle Salon project) while the idea of “perfume in progress” and “outlaw” is exactly representing turtle too: something that has no definitive frontiers or established limits.

PS: Vetiver Turtle is tied to the Turtle Salon which is an artist's project. I feel that there is some personal history attached to it, reading about the poet's stay at the Switzerland clinic, your visit and this:"shared their work with Margarethe and a few patients, especially Cédric Schatzl who cannot smell" So how does the fragrance connect those aspects, what's the story? Is it a means of therapy through the senses, through art?

ID: It is difficult to explain "turtle "in few lines. Turtle was initiated by Michael Shamberg ,a film maker. He says, as you yourself felt in your own review, that for him it is a kind of therapy through art to recover his health, and for all the people approching, a territory of kindness that links human beings through poetry. In that "territory" there is no stress of dead lines or profit, but only the idea of sharing, of contributing to make peolpe meet and build more poetry with their own talent. Michael called that Turtle in reference to that place in Lebanon where Sea turtles, almost extinct, could come and find peace to live in the middle of a world disturbed by war. So Michael identified this place to poetry which will be the territory that will make him win his hard internal war (he had a huge health problem, his brain had been attacked by a virus and he almost died but finally survived with big physical outwards and inwardsscars). No one seeing him can stay insensitive to his kindness and his generosity, so I wanted to contribute myself to his battle for life and the only thing I know how to make is perfume, so I decided to create a scent that would follow his road of rehabilitation…and hopefully would bring him some money to constructively help.So Turtle is a story that’s just beginning...

PS: You have composed a perfume for Jeanne of Cecile & Jeanne, costume jeweler brand, called Eliel and I know you have created Le Baron Perché (after Italo Calvin’s novel) for your sculptor friend Catherine Willis. Please tell us a little bit about them!

ID: Regarding the Cecile & Jeanne perfume, it came about also as a result of meeting a wonderful person: Jeanne. And I think the perfume reflects what she appeared to me: delicate,colourful, happy, glimmering, tender, very feminine.
About Catherine Willis, I've known her for a long time and when she came for a scent with the idea of Le Baron Perché she knew exactly what she wanted, so I just had to set the formula under her direction.

PS: Literature obviously is an inspiration! I loved the reference to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Let me play the Lion. Christophe Laudamier had been playing with the various scent images of Suskind’s novel “Das Parfum” for years before formally collaborating on the Thierry Mugler coffret to accompany the movie “Perfume, story of a murderer”. Do you perfumers have some secret library of a plethora of scent “snapshots”?

ID: Ha! A secret library of scent snapshots…If we’re talking about me, I have many little notebooks in which all kinds of descriptions of all kinds of things are kept and am using them to build my formulae and I hope quite soon to build something unusual.

PS: I have read how you admire Reminiscence Patchouli (and I adore it as well!), Mousse de Saxe, Prunol and Tobacco Iso**. Usually the things we love have some influence in our work. Do you find yourself loyal to the above axiom?

ID: I consider the De Laire bases such as Mousse de Saxe, Prunol as masterpieces so of course they can sometimes inspire me or yet again I can use them directly.

PS: Apart from a "nez", you're also a teacher at ISIPCA. What does your teaching position entail and do you feel that young, aspiring perfumers have new things to offer to the world of perfumery? Surely there is no parthenogenesis in art, but do you ever feel that everything has been already done with so many new perfumes out, so unless there is some technological innovation things are bound to repeat themselves?

ID: I am absolutely convinced that there are always new things to offer, also new ways to offer things,and the base to succeed in accomplishing that is to stay open, full of curiosity and always wanting to learn and exchange with other creators.

PS: You're a mother of two (a boy and a girl) and I had fun hearing Emilie say that iris fragrances smell "like grandmother" to her. Do you believe there are some smells that are inherently/universally tied to specific images/impressions (ie. vanilla standing for comfort or iris for melancholy) or is it only a factor of personal associations and memories?

ID: Well, I don't think there are universal smells right now, but mostly smells are linked to our culture which denotes a certain country, a certain way of life. Maybe because of the growing connections between countries some smells will become universal.I think Coca Cola is a universal taste, so maybe a smell too?

PS: There has been a big “explosion” of perfume writing lately, especially since the latest publications in English. What is your opinion about fragrance writing in the press and on the Net, especially in relation to taking perfumery as an art form and in shaping the niche/mainstream market? Is it flattering to be acknowledged/ frustrating to be critiqued?

ID: I think it is generally interesting to read what is written about the perfumes we make! I realised that it’s a way to know if I succeeded in setting my idea properly.

Sincere and heartfelt thanks to Isabelle Doyen for taking the time to share a bit of her brilliant talent and nose with us, perfume aficionados, on Perfume Shrine.

You can support the Turtle Salon cause here.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Interviews with perfumers, Les Nez scents, A.Goutal scents.

*Organ is the perfumer's "bureau" with essences classified according to volatility and family, named thus because it resembles the musical organ with many "levels" of pipes, keys and pedals. You can see Isabelle's one enlarged by clicking the picture and peruse the rare Lalique flacons, the Arpege and Ricci ones and the butterfly Goutal bottles.
**Those are "bases" by the famous aroma-producing company De Laire, ie. ready-made accords that give a specific impression for perfumers to use when they need to inject a specific idea.

Pic of Isabelle Doyen on her Organ, copyright Annick Goutal & Perfumeshrine.


  1. That was so interesting. I do like the goutal range but I wonder if we will get the new ones here. I have yet to see the Oriental trio here.

  2. What an utterly charming interview, E! It is always a great pleasure to me to hear a perfumer talk about their work, especially one who is both thoughtful and humourous.

    And I must say, that photo of the perfumer's organ makes my heart jump. Looks like a lot of fun.

  3. I knew I would love this interview. She and Camille create beautiful fragrances, and from what I have read about both of them, including this wonderful interview, they seem so down to earth and just delightful! Thank you, E, for sharing this with us.


  4. What a great interview! She has such an original viewpoint, and of course I love her perfumes. It's intimidating to see how the mind of a true master perfumer works, I will never know all these things, but at least I can enjoy the fruits of her creativity. And I love the questions you asked her!

  5. Anonymous10:13

    Hey Helg!

    Lovely review! It's almost 3 AM here so I'll have to finish reading the rest of the new posts at a later time...but congrats on writing such gems!


  6. Brava, helg! That was a very fine interview. I so admire her enchanting Les Nez scents in particular.

  7. Wonderful interview, Helg. Isabelle has such an imaginative and fluid style, and you captured it perfectly.

  8. You are SUCH a skilled interviewer, E !
    This is one of the more wonderful ones I've read in ages...

    I love this woman, and her perspectives.
    I would DRAW BLOOD- I think-
    For that perfume organ...
    Along with everyone else here, I suspect [LOL].

  9. I'm going to echo everyone, great interview and that desk/ organ she is working at looks so fabulous. Ah sigh I wish I could make perfumes.
    You have inspired me into bidding on the new AG!

  10. Oh that desk looks like heaven! Absolute heaven! Fantastic interview!

  11. M,

    comparatively the Goutal line is smaller than say YSL or Chanel, so this is why things go at a slower pace down under I bet. The Orientalistes are very nice (they retain some of the grace and gauzy feeling of the Goutal range), I think you might like at least one.

  12. J,

    thank you for being so kind! It is interesting in that it gives some perspective on things are thought out. This dialogue between perfumers and perfume lovers is beneficial to both, as attested by Isabelle herself. :-)

  13. R,

    my sweets, thank you :-)

    She is certainly very interesting to talk to and quite a sensitive person. Their rapport with Camille is wonderful to see. It gives a very personal touch to everything.

  14. F,

    thank you! I tried to ask things that are on perfume lovers' minds, interested in seeing how the perfumer's mind "ticks". Isabelle is very prolific!

  15. Thanks A!

    Get some rest!! :-)

  16. Thank you dear Mary!
    I was surprised by the Les Nez scents myself. I didn't know what to expect and they were quite fetching in unexpected ways. You love the Unicorn Spell, right?

  17. Thank you Anya, you're very kind!
    "Fluid" is a perfect description. :-)
    I like the personal feel they have retained at both lines (Goutal and Les Nez) -as you well know, a smaller scale brand allows for more creativity- and that she collaborates on individual projects still.

  18. Aww, sweet I, you're flattering me now. When the subject is rich in nuance, questions automatically flow.
    I suspect you've all been quite taken with the Organ. That's all right, hehe. We're among like-minded people who can understand! :-P

  19. K,

    thank you. There is such a plethora of quality essences it would be truly magical to be able to create with so many things at one's disposal.
    Hope you like the new AG!

  20. Thank you Jen, how are you honey?
    Indeed, I thought the photo would be fabulous for you all, to see Isabelle at work.

  21. what a beautiful interview. i love the feel of family & history in the Annick Goutal line and fine the scents so comforting. the thought of sitting in front of that organ just gives me shivers. your questions were poignant & moving, bringing out what i love so much about Annick Goutal.

  22. Thank you :-)
    The feeling of "family" is palpable: they talk with much love about each other.

  23. This was fascinating. I liked the "dormeur du val" reference. In answer to why he chose the spot...he didn't choose. He's a dead soldier in the Franco-Prussian war, and the gladiolas, whose name means "little swords", are an appropriate choice to show that violence can penetrate even the romantic haven of nature. I had never considered that they are ugly and don't smell good, so that added another layer to the poem for me.

  24. Thank you Marc for your comment!

    Though I agree whole-heartedly with you on the literature appreciation points you make (dead men can't be choosers!), and the Dormeur du Val is one of my favorite poems in French as well as in general (you can see it referenced in my Fleur de Narcisse review on the site back in 2006), I can see how the little Isabelle -who was ordered to learn this by heart at school- might rebel and have her mind trace a different path for distraction (a scent-centric one!)

    Yes, I hadn't thought of the scent of the flowers as having anything to do with the poem either, but in a way they do, because they add to the sense of deceptive decay of the corpse etc. So Isabelle provided a new nuance indeed. (And you mention of the little swords is also very welcome)

    Glad to read like-minded people jump on board and comment away, thank you!


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