Frédéric Malle should have quit while he was ahead. His perfume house, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, has a number of popular and well done fragrances. On top of enjoying regular publicity, Malle himself is an Allure magazine contributor and pens “The Fragrance Guy” advice column.
For someone who built a brand to put perfumers in the spotlight, his book Frédéric Malle: On Perfume Making is distractingly self-oriented. Memoirs inherently are, but On Perfume Making lacks the rich insight and detail that makes them so intriguing. Malle’s introduction focuses on his personal frustrations with the industry’s present fixation on blockbuster perfumes, mainly that corporate input and disproportionate marketing budgets are crippling the creative process. For the majority of blog readers, it’s preaching to the choir. Where are the cringe-worthy anecdotes of marketing department meddling? Or the depressing examples of brilliant ideas rendered lackluster by cheap inferior ingredients? Whatever stories Malle has to tell, he’s not telling them here.
The body of the book outlines the creation of each Editions de Parfums fragrance, and it, too, glosses over the good stuff. The perfumer's visions will be familiar to anyone who reads about perfume; the rest is mostly about why Malle admires each perfumer and Malle’s contributions to the final products, skimming right past the interesting details. Portrait of a Lady, for example, went through “hundreds of trials in less than two months to find the right balance” between an oriental base, Turkish rose and red fruits. Did a particularly musty patchouli careen the composition into Miss Havisham territory? Did one boozy fruit take the whole thing to the other side of the tracks? Sure, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez set a high bar for details per paragraph in Perfumes: The Guide, but with a whole book essentially devoted to 18 perfumes I expected a lot more.
Frédéric Malle: On Perfume Making would make an incredible gift with purchase, but in the end it’s more like a lesson in marketing material than a stand-alone publication. Even if it were the new Perfumes: The Guide it would be a lesson in sticker shock: it’s a whopping $150. If someone gave me that kind of money to spend at Editions de Parfum, I’d head straight for En Passant without a second thought for this book. Since my review copy is a PDF, I can only hope the paper and binding are really, really nice. Do comment if you’ve seen it in person.
I wanted to like On Perfume Making; I like Frédéric Malle. But after reading this book I wonder if he isn’t just as jaded about his customers as he is about fragrance executives. I hope that some day soon the book is packaged with a complete set of sample vials — at a lower price point. I also hope that next time around, Malle gives more credit to readers’ intellect and curiosity.
Frédéric Malle: On Perfume Making
By Frédéric Malle, illustrated by Konstantin Kakanias,
foreword by Catherine Deneuve. 112 pp.
Angelika Taschen, 2012. $150.