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Christophe Laudamiel may have his feet planted in a perfumery lab—sometimes until dawn—but he lives in his imagination. Charismatic, passionate and not a little opinionated, he is a star perfumer who sounds more like a weaver of dreams than a mixer of scents.
This story first appeared in the September 7, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After making his mark at Procter & Gamble and International Flavors & Fragrances, the 43-year-old Laudamiel has thrown himself into the pioneering frontier of environmental fragrance—scenting entire hotels, like the Setai in New York; offices; stores, and even a Ferrari auto showroom—with a driving ambition to turn the stirrings of a commercial category into a mainstay of tomorrow. Moreover, Laudamiel, who abhors what he considers the industry’s complacency and insular thinking (he calls it “a Grasse-style village mentality of France 300 years ago”), burns with an ambition to elevate perfumery into a high art with a capital P, putting it on a par with movies, theater and music.
Demonstrating that his ideas can get off the ground, in 2009 Laudamiel staged his first “scent opera”—Green Aria—using perfumery to aid in the music’s storytelling, thus crossing the boundaries between sight, sound and smell. An audience sat in the auditorium of the Guggenheim Museum sniffing through tubes a succession of concoctions—fragrances, single notes, even the scent of a prostitute—as recorded music played. A total of 33 smells were organized into a kind of olfactive libretto during the course of a 30-minute performance. Laudamiel admits it was a challenging project, partly because the sense of smell is dependent upon the capacity for respiration—registering one scent every four to six seconds.
And the smells had to seamlessly fit together. He explains, “It’s a scent opera, so scent number one is playing, then I create scent number two. When you create scent number two, you have to take into account what scent number one was. Then you play scent number three, taking into account scent number two. Then scent number one plays again after scent number seven. So now scent number one has to be designed also depending on what scent number seven is.
“I had to manage 33 scents,” he continues, noting that all of them had to be safe, well formulated and stable. “It’s like a zoo of animals that you have to take care of.”
Admirers say that Laudamiel is particularly adept at taming such projects. “He brings creativity to a new level and can articulate it in a way that people can get,” says Jerry Vittoria, president of fine fragrance, North America, at Firmenich, which has an exclusive working relationship with Laudamiel. “He gets what’s needed to sell the whole dream behind the fragrance.” Vittoria says that Laudamiel has a knack for pushing the boundaries of the art form and instinctively ferreting out the next “buzzworthy” project.
With the opera, Laudamiel was just getting warmed up. Most perfumers’ résumés list fragrance triumphs. Laudamiel (whose bestsellers include Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce and Clinique’s Happy Heart) also lists art exhibitions—what’s art without a gallery show?—which explains why he headquartered his company, DreamAir, in the heart of Chelsea. At the Dillon Gallery last January, he put on an exhibition of what he calls “air sculptures.” The gallery was filled with six tents, each exuding a different fragrance meant to evoke a picture in the mind. Each fragrance was based on a picture—a cartoon of a monkey with a banana from The Jungle Book, a sensuous photo by Robert Mapplethorpe. But there were no visuals, just titles and brief descriptions. Laudamiel is planning another show in January at Dillon, but with a different concept.
For the future, he says: “The next frontier is when people are lining up the street to go [to an event] because it is scented.”
Noting that the brain is wired to link memories to scent, he predicts: “It will mark [people] emotionally watching the event and they will remember that their whole life.” Once people appreciate the communicative power of scent, Laudamiel believes it will be an absolute draw. “If you scent something that’s happening, people will have to go and be there to smell it.
“You have to raise the bar by showing artistic projects that aren’t about commerciality,” he says, adding: “We are not just bluff or fluff.”
His vision is that, by elevating fragrance, consumers will prize the experience more. “The public will give more importance and more money to fragrances,” he says. “Just as now they won’t leave the house without their shoes, their handbag, their accessories, their earrings, so they won’t leave the house without wearing a fragrance.”
Laudamiel harbors an ambition to have perfumery included in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. As a stepping stone, he established the Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics in 2002 with the hope that it would eventually become a chapter of the Cambridge parent. “The Academy has artists, painters, architects, but they don’t have perfumers or chefs,” Laudamiel says.
His perfumery academy has linked up with Osmotheque, the prestigious olfactive academy based in Versailles, France, and Laudamiel notes that he is scheduled to speak in Washington in September to members of Congress, consumers and industry lobbyists about olfactory heritage and the art of making fragrances as part of a program organized by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA).
Nicolas Mirzayantz, group president of fragrances at IFF, is a fan: “Christophe was always supportive of IFF’s creative initiatives and special projects and displayed his sincere commitment to giving perfumery its right place in the world of the arts.”
But when Laudamiel is asked what the industry needs to do to turn his vision into reality, not to mention fully recover from its previous decadelong market slide, his demeanor turns as combustive as the volcanos that once erupted in his native Clermont-Ferrand in south central France. He contends that the industry needs to recruit better talent, spur internal competition to drive innovation, come up with more resonant concepts, stand up for the creative process against both regulatory and commercial pressures and inject more quality into the product (he fumes that some commercial brands spend only $1 per bottle on the scent itself).
But clearly his top priority is education, asserting that the importance of olfaction should be taught from kindergarten through high school, urging members of the industry to visit their local schools and give talks and demonstrations. “We have to create some educational programs,” he insists. “Everybody is taught a little bit of music at school, a little cooking, a little fashion. Even if you’re not going to work in those areas, at least you know how to appreciate someone writing music or what a painter does.”
Cosimo Policastro, executive vice president of fine fragrances at Givaudan Corp., says, “While our industry is not perfect, it is very inclusive, respectful and places a high value on innovation and innovators. New thinking and creativity is what has driven the industry in the past and will continue to do it in the future. While I may not completely agree with Christophe’s criticism, I respect his passion for change and innovation.”