The story of Grasse, told in perfumes

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau (The Philippine Star) - June 12, 2013 - 12:00am

L’Occitane perfumer Karine Dubreuil has a special link to the Philippines.

When we meet at Grasse’s International Perfume Museum, as soon as introductions are made and Dubreuil finds out I’m Filipino, she tells me she’s good friends with fashion designer Jeannie Goulbourn and her sister, Frances Lim. They’re such good friends, in fact, that Dubreuil even sang at the wedding of Goulbourn’s daughter, Katrina.

“Ask Jeannie, she knows,” Dubreuil says, smiling.

How did they all meet? “Jeannie has a sister, Frances, who came here to Grasse and studied perfumery with me. So we’re still friends.”

Links are all-important to the story of L’Occitane, Dubreuil and La Collection de Grasse, the new line of fragrances she created for the brand. 

Born and raised in Grasse, she knows the land of Provence as only a native does, and shares with L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan a heritage and resulting taste for simplicity, authenticity, and naturalness.

“It’s really important for L’Occitane to have this natural aspect, because perfumery now has become so abstract,” Dubreuil observes. “The market of perfumery — there’s no message, and for me it’s so important to have a message when you create a fragrance.”

She grew up surrounded by flowers, plants and gardens, and this scented legacy is another link she shares with L’Occitane and Baussan.

“We got along in terms of style because, as I was born here, when I was working on this project it was so obvious for me, because for me, nature is really important,” she says. “I grew up here, and I had a chance to be in families where we had beautiful gardens — my grandmother’s, my parents’ — and it’s my olfactive heritage. So when I was working on the brief for L’Occitane, it was really easy. For me, it was like playing, rewriting the nature where I grew up. So I love that, to write beautiful memories of my childhood.”

One of her earliest memories as a little girl was coming out of the bath and her mother putting eau de cologne on her head, so she really remembers that smell.

“When I was a little girl I was always in the garden, so I know all the plants. So when I studied perfumery it was very easy for me. Perfumes and olfactive scents are really distinctive, so when you’re a little child, you remember but you don’t analyze. And we all have that. Now I analyze and control these scents, but it’s very instinctive, scents, and very emotional. So it’s great to create emotions.”

Her favorite raw materials are those evocative scents from her childhood like mimosa, orange blossom (she’s even created a fragrance based on fougassette, a local bread flavored with orange blossom water), anise, jasmine, rose and woody notes.

“I always say I love to work on floral notes, but I like to wear these woody or oriental notes, maybe because it’s more mysterious. The chypre is a very nice family because it’s more complicated to smell, but it’s very feminine and sexy when you wear it.”

At the age of 18 she chose to become a perfumer over a career as an opera singer, studying at the Roure Perfumery School in Grasse, which today is known as Givaudan, and has produced such famous noses as Chanel’s Jacques Polge and Hermes’ Jean-Claude Ellena.

As a perfumer for companies like Symrise, Drom and Mane, Dubreuil has composed fragrances for France’s greatest perfume houses like Guerlain (Aqua Allegoria Pivoine Magnifica and Grosellina), Lanvin (Eclat d’Arpege and L’Homme Sport) and L’Artisan Parfumeur (Mure et Musc Extreme and L’Eau d’Ambre), as well as L’Occitane itself (Rose et Reine, Eau des Baux and Calanques, to name a few).

For the Grasse Collection she created four eaux de toilette to represent each olfactive family, while each scent links an ingredient indigenous to Grasse and one from abroad. “Olivier wanted me to talk about these raw materials that we have in Grasse — the story of this perfumery.”

Here’s the whole story on La Collection de Grasse.

Thé Vert & Bigarade (Green tea & Bitter orange)

Fragrance family: Aromatic citrus

Inspiration: A summer’s day, a climbing vine covering the walls of a childhood home, the freshness of a courtyard, the sound of water.

Star ingredients: Green tea extract from Japan, bitter orange essential oil from Tunisia

The scoop: The freshest fragrance of the collection, this unisex fragrance for men and women is the encounter of two freshnesses: the aromatic freshness of the green tea coming from Japan, and the bigarade, which is a bitter orange scent. “The bitter orange tree is a very important tree for us because we distill everything from it,” Dubreuil says. “We use the fruit to get the essence de bigarade, the flower to obtain essence de neroli, extract the flower to get absolute fleur d’oranger, and distill the leaves and branches to obtain essence de petitgrain that we use in colognes. Here we use the fruit and it’s very fresh — a citrus note that brings a sparkling effect.”

Designed for: Men and women, sports and daytime wear.

Magnolia & Mûre (Magnolia & Blackberry)

Fragrance family: Fruity chypre

Inspiration: Shimmering, crimson velvet

Star ingredients: Magnolia essential oil from the Far East, blackberry infusion from the South of France.

The scoop: A chypre means an accord of floral notes with woody notes. “We decided to have a chypre because magnolia is a beautiful flower that we have in Grasse, but they don’t smell, so we had to find them in the Far East, and use essential oil of magnolia. It’s a floral, very opulent note, and we used woody notes like patchouli to create the wood accord, but those can be dark, serious and intellectual, and that’s why use the mure, which is blackberry. It doesn’t exist in the perfumer’s palette, so we looked for a blackberry and found an extract that we added to this fragrance.”

Designed for: Women, day and evening wear.

Jasmin & Bergamote

Fragrance family: Jasmine floral

Inspiration: A graceful, sensual dance

Star ingredients: Jasmine absolutes from Grasse and Egypt, Bergamot essential oil from Italy

The scoop: Chosen because it’s the flower of Grasse, “the jasmine here is not called jasmine, it’s called ‘the flower’ — la fleur,” according to Dubreuil. “When you talk about la fleur, they know what you’re talking about: the jasmine. It became very rare because you saw that we have very few fields, and now it’s a very expensive extract because all the big companies like Chanel or Dior have booked cultured jasmine, so it’s very hard for us to find jasmine from Grasse.

“What I wanted in this creation was really the jasmine in still life, in the fields, in the morning when you pick it up very early, because you have to pick it at 4 a.m. until noon because after that it’s too hot, and it damages the flower. And the smell is very special, it’s the best smell. Even during the night it’s great, because you have all the fresh, fruity and vegetal aspects of the flower. That’s what I really wanted to recreate.

“Jasmine in France is like gold. It’s the most expensive ingredient, now it’s around 70,000 euros per kilo or even more. Here I played with two jasmines: a delicate one from Grasse and a heavier, more sugary one from Egypt, and refreshed it with bergamot, a very soft citrus from Calabria, Italy.”

Designed for: Women, day and evening wear

Vanille & Narcisse(Vanilla & Narcissus)

Fragrance family: Vanilla oriental

Inspiration: A burst of laughter, the mellow warmth of the East

Star ingredients: Vanilla absolute from Madagascar, narcissus absolute from France

The scoop: “It’s the encounter with the black vanilla, which is very sensual, very sexy,” says Dubreuil. “I wanted to have the best vanilla that comes from Madagascar, and it’s a very natural smell of vanilla, not the sticky or gourmand one with caramel. And the narcisse that are growing uphill in Grasse — it’s a very delicate, floral note, at the same time a bit green and earthy. I played with these two ingredients that had nothing to do with each other, but I found the link by the spicy notes in both of them. The ampersand (on the packaging) means the link between these two worlds, two raw materials, but this is a very contrasted fragrance — floral and delicate with this very opulent vanilla.”

Designed for: Women, evening wear.

Now that L’Occitane has a talented perfumer to shape the olfactive signature of the brand, who knows, maybe someday it will take its place among France’s great perfume houses. One thing’s for sure: Dubreuil has authored only the beginning of L’Occitane’s fragrant story.

* * *

La Collection de Grasse will be available in July.

L’Occitane is available at L’Occitane boutiques in Power Plant Mall, Rustan’s Makati-Glorietta 4, Rustan’s Tower-Shangri-La Plaza Mall, NAIA Terminal 1, Rustan’s Alabang, Marrionaud SM Mall of Asia, and TriNoma Mall.

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