PARIS — Christian Dior was born with a green thumb. As a child, he memorized the names of flowers and plants appearing in seed catalogues, tended to the garden of his family’s house in Normandy and festooned his home in the South of France, the Château de La Colle Noire.
“The importance [Dior] gave to flowers — he loved lily of the valley, his fetish flower — is inevitably reflected in our work,” said François Demachy, perfumer-creator of Parfums Christian Dior, who has drawn direct inspiration for fragrances from the designer’s cherished, flowerful homes for scents named Granville, La Colle Noire and Milly-la-Forêt.
“We use flowers in abundance in all of the perfumes, including the masculine scents, which is relatively rare,” added Demachy.
To him, it’s important that Dior launched his first fashion collection practically in tandem with his debut fragrance, Miss Dior, a strategy running counter to that of most houses, which wait years to dip into the scent category. “It shows the importance fragrance had for the founder,” said Demachy.
Jean Carles and Paul Vacher concocted Miss Dior, which made its debut in 1947.
“It was a monument in perfumery, because for the first time, someone succeeded in such a brilliant way to introduce a green note into a chypre,” said Demachy, referring to a sophisticated fragrance family generally including a citrus accord, woody base and patchouli note. “It somewhat rejuvenated the chypre effect to make a perfume that’s much easier to wear — notably for young women of that generation. Technically, it was a feat.”
Miss Dior has subsequently become a classic and is among the fragrance formulas young perfumers are asked to replicate at school.
Following the launch of Miss Dior and through to the blockbuster Eau Sauvage in 1966, Dior’s perfumes were developed by Edmond Roudnitska, who lived in Cabris, close the designer’s home in the south.
“For us perfumers, Mr. Roudnitska is the master of perfume,” said Demachy.
After Miss Dior, the next fragrance milestone for Dior was Diorama, in 1949. “It is perhaps somewhat unjustly ignored and forgotten,” said Demachy. “It is an extraordinary accord, perfectly balanced in all its floral notes.”
Eau Fraîche, out in 1953, became the personal scent of Christian Dior. “It was remarkable for two reasons — first aesthetically, because it was a perfume that was [unisex], and it was one of the first, if not the first, to be mixed. And it was the first ‘eau,’” explained Demachy, speaking of an appellation representing a shift away from the historic eau de cologne structure in a more noble olfactive direction. “It is an ancestor of Eau Sauvage.”
Of Diorissimo, dating from 1956, he said: “It was and is always — all perfumers agree — the most beautiful lily of the valley [scent] ever made.”
Demachy said Eau Sauvage “revolutionized — and I always pay attention to words and to emphases — but it really revolutionized masculine perfumery of the time.”
“It was the first scent for men that was easily accessible. I don’t speak in economic terms, but in aesthetic terms because it started out very ‘cologne,’ but it was a cologne [plus more] that pleased everyone,” he added. Further, maintained Demachy, everybody believes it smells good.
He said Dior has always made strong and daring perfumes that could cause a stir. “I am thinking of Fahrenheit, for instance, which was among the first [scents] integrating a violet note,” said Demachy, of the fragrance out in 1988.
Poison, dating from 1985, caused “a tsunami” in the perfume world, since its powerful ingredients include a tuberose note. “It created a polemic everywhere. There were even restaurants that refused people wearing Poison, because it was so strong,” said Demachy. “It was something really striking, a colossal success.”
So, too, has J’Adore been since its debut in 1999, when fragrances tended to be heavier, with an oriental bent. “It was a bouquet of freshness, of youth and clarity,” explained the perfumer, adding that it being an international hit can be credited — as with Eau Sauvage — to J’Adore smelling good to everyone.
These days, Paris is not the only hub for Dior fragrance creation. In 2016, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Dior’s parent company, inaugurated Les Fontaines Parfumées in Grasse, France, to serve as the headquarters of Demachy and Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, Louis Vuitton’s perfumer.
Demachy toggles between Paris and the offices and high-tech laboratories located in Grasse, considered the birthplace of modern perfumery. Both Dior and Vuitton have partnerships with local producers there to purchase crops in the quest to assure the savoir-faire and cull the highest-quality, sustainable ingredients for Dior and Vuitton perfumes.
“I go see the producers because it is important to be sure that in a few years’ time they will still be able to produce as much — if not more. You cannot replace the contact,” said Demachy, who explained that even when harvests are lighter, causing prices to rise, the farmers LVMH works with are ensured business.
“We aren’t there to buy from the lowest seller. We are after quality,” said Demachy.
He added: “Perfume is a human adventure. It starts with the men and women who pick the flowers.”
Also nearby to Grasse is Art et Parfum, the maker and creator of scent accords and perfumes founded by Roudnitska that’s now run by his son Michel and still supplies to Dior.
Demachy said he starts the process of fragrance creation with ideas. “They are a bit like skeletons,” he explained. “We start to construct the [olfactive] accords, numerous accords for the same project because in perfumery, you are never sure of anything.
“It’s something very abstract,” added Demachy, saying that since one’s unsure of being on the right road, numerous directions are tried out.
That’s metaphorical travel. Real-world voyages serve an important purpose, too, for the perfumer, who “pays attention to the people I meet — when I’m in India, in China. You’re sure to have encounters and sensations, different emotions than if you remained in Paris or in Grasse. You pay attention to what you see, what you eat — because often cuisine is a very important indicator of tastes.”
Demachy attends all of Dior’s fashion shows, as well. “That permits me to smell — in the figurative and sometimes the real sense, thanks to the floral décor occasionally present, to be inspired by the shapes, by the colors,” he said. “I need to be nourished by this type of stimuli.”
Demachy noted that at some point in time, the art of perfume is part of each culture, but customs and preferences can change fast. The Chinese, for instance, after abandoning their olfactive tradition for 70 years, are reversing the trend now. And consumers in China, who have had a penchant for floral fragrances in the recent past, are becoming interested in more sophisticated scents.
One challenge overall, according to Demachy, is to make perfumes that are relatively easy to wear while at the same time have a strong personality. “So it’s this marriage of opposites,” he said. “You have to do gymnastics.”