“Long after one has forgotten what a woman wore, the memory of her perfume lingers.” — Christian Dior
The power of scent is undeniable. Perfumes and other aromas can attract people, evoking powerful memories and emotions. Famous designers, from Coco Chanel to Christian Dior, have waxed lyrical about how perfume is the ultimate accessory, an indispensable complement to someone’s personality.
So, what is the secret behind the alchemy of an alluring scent, and how does one become a perfume creator? To find out, INSPIRELLE spoke to perfumer Stéphanie Poulage, an internationally-minded French mother of two who, after working for years on big brands, took the plunge and launched her own line of unique fragrances under the label Poulage Parfumeur.
Is it true that you knew, from the tender age of 13, that you wanted to be a parfumeur creating scents? What was the defining moment?
Yes, it is true. When I was 13, I read an article about Alain Mamounas, the Rochas perfumer. Before that, I didn’t know that being a perfumer was a profession. I believed couture designers created their fragrances themselves, and they made it seem so effortless. But, of course it is not — a signature perfume, like any other masterpiece, is the result of many years of experience.
Did you grow up in a household with smells that infused your senses?
Yes, we used a lot of perfume in my family. No woman would have left home without wearing any. I remember vividly all the perfumes my mother was wearing in the 70s, like Charlie, l’Interdit, Choc, Coriandre, Chamade and more. There were also many scents in our house, especially when we were cooking – each room also had its own smell. For example, the smell of our attic reminded me of wood being struck by the sun. I was always scared to go up there, but the smell was rewarding and very comforting.
How does one become a perfume maker?
There is no set rule, but it is like learning music – if you do not get a rock-solid background, you cannot go very far. I started my training at a perfume school, ISIPCA in Versailles. You learn the raw materials, the mixing, the classic combinations, the compositions, and about the work of Master Perfumers. It is learning art through initiation, just like painting. You work with a palette of natural and synthetic raw materials. From natural plants we can use parts – sometimes the buds of cloves, or the roots of vetyver or the flowers of the rose. From orange trees, we use everything! After two years of schooling and a two-year apprenticeship at a big company, I earned my diploma and started working. But the route to becoming a perfumer can be very different for everybody, depending on your own training, your skills and which company or Master Perfumer you choose to work with. You have to be creative, have good taste, perseverance, a capacity for deep concentration, and be passionate about your work. Remember that fragrance is not something tangible; it can be very abstract, and it starts with your imagination.
Did you have to train your nose to recognize smells and the endless combinations of scents?
Yes, exactly. You smell raw materials every day, and you are tested on them at school. I continue practicing to keep my nose sharp, like a piano player would practice playing scales. But, that is not enough. You need to have ideas, new ideas. It can be easy to make either an original or beautiful fragrance. It is, however, challenging to create an original and beautiful fragrance. The creative process for each perfumer is different. For me, I start with an idea, and then I start composing with the raw materials to reach the destination and realize my idea. The most difficult part is to handle the modifications efficiently enough so I don’t lose myself in a maze of ideas.
Why are the French renowned for their use and creation of perfume?
I do not know for sure, but one can observe the taste for it in France, in the same way as there is a love for “haute couture” and “gastronomie”. The use of perfume is part of the French “art de vivre”, or art of living.
You have worked for several major houses, which own a famous perfume brand. Why is perfume so important to a fashion house?
Because when you are naked, they can still claim you are wearing their brand! But seriously, and you might not expect this: It has not always been like this in the past; but, nowadays, perfume is just cash flow for a fashion house. Perfumers in a big company have no audible voice, either to speak their mind or influence projects. But an independent perfumer that creates a brand can decide, with enough capital shares, that perfume is important.
You also love to travel the world. Does your nose discover new smells and combinations when visiting the different continents?
Traveling puts you in a special spirit that awakens all your senses. Each time you go away, you come back as a slightly different person, with new smells in your mind included. For example, England makes me think about cut grass, apple crumble and narcissus.
How do we know which scent is best for us?
Just as everybody has his or her own story, each perfume has a story to tell as well. I look for stories that can meet and unite. Of course, you can find a perfume you feel good in all by yourself, but a little help cannot hurt. It is about taking the time to test different scents on your skin until you find what suits you and makes you feel good at that moment in time. Our tastes in scent can also change over time, or with our diet.
You recently launched your own perfume line “Poulage Parfumeur”. How exciting! What inspired you to create your own fragrances?
My emotions, my love, my life. When you are creating for someone else, you are translating their personality and their universe. I am a dreamer, and I’ve always dreamt of creating my own line of perfumes — now, I’m living my dream everyday. To live the path you have chosen for yourself is liberating and exhilarating. At the beginning, you will always have critics or those who don’t believe that your idea will work, but you have to listen to yourself and pursue your passion.
What is unique about the perfumes you have created for women and men?
It is the journey I take to get to the perfume as a destination. No overused pathways, no short cuts. Sometimes it means years of exploration — so you can feel good and renewed in your own skin.
Tell us Stephanie, what is your favorite smell that awakens all your senses?
Coffee, but the taste is never as good as the smell!!