MAKING MAGIC HAPPEN
When Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi founded Le Labo in 2006 they were ready to break the laws of the perfume industry. We asked what happened in the meantime.
When perfume is communicated it’s all about image, celebrity-cooperations and some kind of dream the customer is buying into. But what makes a perfume is the smell. Not more, not less – an equation, which is as simple as that. When Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi founded Le Labo in 2006 they knew that advertising and creating false promises wouldn’t work for them. Instead, they decided to focus on craftsmanship and traditional production methods. Redirecting budget into development and not towards marketing. The whole range is vegan and every perfume is based on an ethereal essence coming straight from the capital of fragrances, Grasse in France. The vials with the distinct Le Labo pharmacy look hold the unisex fragrances. Within 13 years the self-made New York brand became a global phenomenon, including skin-care products and city exclusives, which are only available in the city they are dedicated for, including Tokyo, Amsterdam, Paris and Moscow.
On the occasion of two new city scents, Miami and Hong Kong, we talked with the two founders of Le Labo about breaking industry rules, the best smell in the whole wide world and doing magic.
Nele Tüch Perfume has to be smelled, it has to be experienced and cannot be described by advertisement or campaigns. Is that why you refrain from traditional marketing techniques?
Le Labo We have trust in what we do and we don’t need anything else than showing up every day, continuing to focus on magic, and the world will come. No need for advertising. Our perfumes do the job when they turn heads on the streets of NYC, LA, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney… That’s where our advertising budget goes, in our bottles.
NT How do you know when a perfume is ready – when does this magic happen?
LL It takes years, sometimes a couple of years because we spend a lot of time working on things that will never be launched. Simply because it’s an idea that doesn’t translate into something that’s worthwhile to launch, because it doesn’t add to the equation. It’s like an 80/20 rule. We will probably share 10% of what we work on with our clients. It takes a lot of time to go through all that creation. Once you do have something that creates a unique feeling, it takes time to finalize it and make it technically better. How we decide to finish that process is either it strikes an emotional cord in you, knowing that it’s right, or you continue developing it and you realize that all of that extra development is not yielding something better so you go back to the initial emotion that you thought was the best one. Sometimes you feel that you’ve gone too far and you need to backtrack through a couple of months of work and decide that that was the sample that we need to launch. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a lot of discussion with the perfumer that requires technical language and fine-tuning and a mix of creative emotional impact and technical performance. You can have great smells or great olfactive stories that don’t stick for a lot of technical reasons and those are not worth sharing with the public.
NT But if they stick, they stick. What’s your favourite smell in the whole world?
LL The pot pourri created by all the perfume being sprayed at the end of the day when you enter our first Nolita store in NYC. It is Le Labo’s soul “bottled” to me, especially because that’s where we started.
NT Since your start your perfumes are unisex. Is there such a thing as a male or female smell or are we talking social constructs and labelling? What makes a perfume unisex?
LL We don’t approach gender in a traditional way at Le Labo, that’s not how we see the world, that’s not how we see perfumery. Would you be asking an art gallery if they would change their layout to have better gender fluidity? Gender in perfumery is an invention of marketing, to split the markets in two and to allow fashion designers to talk to their two different targets differently but before perfumery went with fashion, perfumery was genderless. That’s the way we see it. We create for souls, not genders.
NT You once said that people are arrogant to believe they could buy everything everywhere at every time, but at the same time Le Labo has a global reach. How does that go hand in hand?
LL Some beautiful things in life are hard to get!
As people used to travel to India for spices and to the West Indies to get rum, today one has to travel to a specific city to put his hands-on city exclusive! Le Labo’s city exclusive collection has been created to pay tribute to the cities we have shops in. These 13 scents are usually strictly available only in the city they belong to and nowhere else! This means no online orders, no shipping, no exceptions!
NT You had to learn the rules first in order to break them. What kind of rules are you breaking, except for this global approach?
LL We are not obsessed with creating best sellers, we are obsessed with moving people. Sometimes we fail, sometimes it works; when we succeed to do so, when the magic happens, success is a natural consequence to it. Success is a by-product of creating something that means something but you never consider it before it eventually happens… In every perfume we create, we leave a part of ourselves in the bottle – I think people can feel that.
There is a mystical element to that, that “smart reasonable business people” who are in charge of traditional brands can’t really grasp – the resulted soul of the perfume is our competitive advantage. It is very emotionally demanding on a day to day basis but there is no other life we wish we had…
NT For you, perfume is an alibi to bring people together. How is your hiring process? Do you hire people that don’t have any knowledge at all and teach them – like a master and his student?
LL Of course, we train our staff the smelling techniques and essential oil knowledge, but the most important part of their job is not being experts in the perfumes themselves, it is to be capable of true empathy, of deep psychology for them to be able to connect deeply with our clients and guide them for the right creation. And this is not the kind of skills you can train people for… you get it or you don’t, that’s why we spend some much energy looking for very special souls for our stores.
They listen a lot to what the client has to say about what they are looking for in a perfume, what kind of message the person wants to send to the world about her/him wearing a perfume. Empathy, silence is a big part of our connection with the clients. We give them space to express themselves in a way that they usually don’t in a traditional retail environment. It is key to really refine their search and narrow the selection of perfume they could try on skin.