by Joshua Katcher
The sophisticated olfactory genius of Le Labo continues to impress most nostrils that come across it. In addition to their most recent writeup in the May issue of W, Le Labo has received international acclaim and garnered a cult following of obsessed aesthetes. From their stores in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Amsterdam and every other major city you can think of, to Barney’s and Colette, to their exclusive line for Anthropologie – the world of Le Labo fragrances is full of intrigue and desire; it is an art, a science, an obsession. I am reminded of the plot from Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume where two of the main characters are questing for the mysterious secret ingredient to a 300-year-old fragrance that is believed to posses magical properties. And there is something magical about this brand. People are mad about Le Labo – and they aren’t ashamed to drench themselves in the stuff, and fill their home with their candles, myself included. All of their perfumes are unisex; Rose 31 and Santal 33 are rituals to my day – and forgetting to spray some on often feels like I’ve left something crucial about myself at home. All of Le Labo’s perfumes are 100% vegan – as are the founders Fabrice Penot and Eddie Roschi (all “musk” and other ingredients are synthesized) – two men that are changing the fragrance industry through their commitment to esthetic olfactology, the environment, and animals.
(On a side note – I will be carrying the entire line of Le Labo on BraveGentleMan.com, and rumor has it that an exclusive fragrance for Brave GentleMan is in development. Shh..)
I had a chance to interview Fabrice recently, and this was our conversation:
Discerning Brute: What is it about fragrances, perfumes, odors, and smell that you love so much?
Fabrice Penot: I am not sure… I think I like to express myself through perfume creation because there is something pretty magical by creating an emotion in people through something unseen.
DB: What is your favorite bit of history about perfume, and how does that influence your work?
FP: There are so many, but the one that pops into my mind since I guess we’ll talk about animal products is the story of maybe the most mythical ingredient in fine perfumery which is “ambergris”. Ambergris comes from the sperm whale – it smells of a magical thing that you can’t really define, and you find yourself between disgust and attraction. There is a fecal part for sure, but there is also a soft, musky, very white part that is addictive.
In a nustshell, this ingredient can be found on sea shores, as it is the result of the sperm whale’s vomit (looks like a black stone, with the weight of a sponge). The magic happens while the floating “stone” travels on the ocean, being washed by the water, baked by the sun, and eventually ends on the sand near the coast, adding the marine and musky smell to the repulsive original smell of the rejection. Knowing that this has been used for decades in fine perfumery and that it was one of its most precious elements was always fascinating to me as a young perfume student. Even though you did not hurt the animal to produce this, (you actually don’t even see him or her), nowadays the natural ambergris as been replaced by a synthetic version for perfumery use and Eddie, my creative partner, and I are using a lot in almost each one of our creations. Dirty musky notes are part of the secret of every sensual dry-down at Le Labo.
DB: What is Le Labo, and why is it different from other brands?
FP: The dirty musky note! And many other things, too – but I guess the more important one is the intention behind everything we do: we want to make the life of our clients more beautiful through our craft, perfume creation (and do no harm while doing so). Of course, there is a cult around our creations for what they are and we are proud of it, but I think at one point, people don’t only buy what you do, they buy why you do it, and that would explain to me why our clients are so hooked with our creations.
DB: Tell me about your relationship with animals and how that plays into your business?
FP: I don’t know how to answer that. I guess my relationship with animals changed when I understood my belief in and hope for global peace between humans was kind of useless because there was something about this humanity that was rotten in the first place – that mankind was just a piece of the puzzle, and that of course, there will be no peace between humans as long as they will not respect any kind of life on this planet.
I understood you couldn’t believe in the power of non violence and close your eyes to the violence created by your own life style, eating habits, shopping habits or even creation habits on other living things. I think the quote from Tolstoi was kind of a “a-hah” moment for me at that point: “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields “… And since then, I never looked at an animal the same way. I understood simply that I do not want to hurt anyone. I need peace and harmony for the world and I am hoping to start here, from my home, my family, my creations, my office, my business. So I became vegan a few seconds after I realized that. My girlfriend and I decided to jump together and all became very natural. Our children have been raised vegan. My friend and business partner Eddie is now vegan and deeply committed with me to change the habits of the perfume industry with the few animal ingredients still used, So I feel like the happiness and the beauty in my life comes from the coherence of everything around.
DB: Is there a code of ethics that is followed at Le Labo concerning people, animals, and the environment? What is it and how to you make sure it is followed?
FP: Well, not everyone in the company is vegan but i can tell you everyone cares. Not only because the owners both are, but also because when they live in the environment we built, they can feel the logic behind it. Everyone has a high level of compassion in our team, and there is no need to recall an ethic code or anything… we are a small company and you can tell when everyone is working with the same quality of intention. The only thing we do is we challenge our suppliers (or even new partners) to commit to cruelty-free ingredients and try to inspire perfumers by using synthetics over naturals for civette and castoreum.
DB: What is something people need to know about the modern fragrance industry?
FP: The good news is the industry is being more and more concerned about environment and cruelty issues.Mainly because of the pressure of consumers and I am glad that works. I am sure some big beauty corporations continue to test their cosmetic products (not perfumes necessarily, but creams for example) on animals secretly, but they know they are taking big risks with the public if this becomes known. I think in a near future this will not exist anymore – one big scandal would be enough to scare them all. We need a Wikileak on this to solve it. Unfortunately, I have no access to these infos, but what I can tell you is that in the world of perfumery, there are very few animal products left to be used by the perfumers. To my knowledge there is only 2 left: castoreum (which is a by product of beaver) and civette (from a little wild cat that is trapped to extract that smell). There are synthetics available for these 2 products and we are an active force to raise awareness in perfume houses for the use of synthetics over naturals for these ingredients.
DB: How do people respond to different smells, and how does that influence your recipes?
FP: A perfume is very personal. The sense of smell is very linked to your memories. You can love a fig smell because it relates to a happy memory in your childhood and in the same time I can hate it because my first girlfriend dumped me under a fig tree…you can’t create a perfume anticipating people’s reaction to it, you just try to reach a certain kind of esthetic, beauty, surprise, elegance, soul with the shape of it. Then, if it is well done, it will connect with the person at a deep emotional level and be worth existing. Or not…
DB: Talk about your favorite aspect of the science and the chemistry involved in our attraction to certain smells.
FP: I am not so much on the science part i have to say. Eddie my partner is a scientist by training (and a poet by choice) so he is more the one who is the expert of that. I am more into the intuitive search of the creation of an emotion. There is actually no science behind that apart from quantum physics maybe, but it is a posteriori, not a priori, meaning after the experience.
DB: You also are very good with presentation – from packaging to the store interior design. How did yo develop this?
FP: It is just Eddie and I trying to marry our love for industrial design, perfumery and the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi, the art of impermanence.
DB: Which scents do you recommend for men?
FP: All our creations are genderless…but men might connect more with Rose 31, Bergamote 22, Vetiver 46 and our new Santal 33.
DB: What music are you listening to, and food are you obsessed with right now?
FP: Music ( as we speak): my morning jacket, food: Dr Cow’s cheese and your seitan bourguignon!!
DB: Why are you vegan?
FP: Because i think it is key for us to stop taking advantage of other living creatures in the world if we want to see humanity evolve in a more peaceful and sustainable way. I think it might be the most important choice I ever made in my life. Not that I made a lot of them, but still…