Jean Patou Perfumer Thomas Fontaine Describes the Pressures of Developing an Exclusive Fragrance

Creating a bestseller is not among them.
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Eliza Brooke
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Creating a bestseller is not among them.

Back in 2011, Jean Patou — the former couture house transformed into a full-time fragrance company in 1987 — hired French perfumer Thomas Fontaine to re-develop one of its most iconic fragrances: Joy, a rose and jasmine-based scent originally created in 1929. People's tastes had changed — as they are wont to do — and the scent needed a revamp in order to hit home with contemporary consumers. Since then, Fontaine has been steadily working his way through the Patou archive to give new life to its existing perfumes.

We hopped on the phone with Fontaine on the morning of a Patou event at Bergdorf Goodman to talk about his work process, how consumer testing varies from brand to brand (drastically) and what pressures he faces as the head perfumer for a high-end brand.  

Tell me about how you first got into the perfume business.

I’ve been working in the business for 25 years, maybe a little bit more. Basically I’m a chemist, and after my chemical studies in Paris, I went to perfume school at Versailles, at the International Superior Institute of Perfume, Cosmetics and Food Aromas. I specialized in perfuming, specifically. During my years there, I was under the patronage of Jean Patou. I joined a big company, an American one called P&G, where I was an internal perfumer working on fine fragrances — it was at the beginning of P&G's work in the fine fragrances business. And after a while I quit, and I joined some creation companies from the south of France. And six years ago I created my own company, which specialized in perfumery creation, and besides that three or four years ago, Jean Patou asked me to become their internal perfumer.

Has the education that perfumers receive changed since you left school?

I just hired someone to work with me and she has done the same school as me, after almost 20 years. It’s all the same, because basically, you don’t need to be a chemist, but it’s very hard [if you're not]. You need a chemical background and training for young people to become perfumers. The profile [of those entering the business] is more or less the same.

With Joy Forever, you were updating Patou's iconic Joy fragrance for contemporary consumers. What's the difference between people's taste in fragrances today, and when the scent originally came out?

We decided to create Joy Forever for a basic reason, that Joy is so rich because of the raw material used. It came out at the end of the '20s, early '30s. Sometimes it is really difficult for people and younger generations to understand the sense and the beauty of this perfume. If you are comparing it to literature, to catch a younger generation we decided to write it with more contemporary words, because Joy Forever is more or less telling the same story as Joy, using more contemporary words. The rose and jasmine are a bit different in the way they’re built.

How long does it take you to create a fragrance?

We’re working all the time. Sometimes you’re not happy with what you’re doing, and you do some other samples again and again because you’re not happy with it. With Joy Forever, I was working for maybe 10 years on it. I worked on that not all the time, of course; one month later you work again on it, and six months later you work again. You smell it again and you’re not happy. When we started to speak about this project [Joy Forever], I said that I’ve already worked on this before because I had the idea when I was in school speaking with Jean Patou. It was always the idea to rework this iconic thing made of rose and jasmine.

Do you ever feel like a fragrance is done?

When a fragrance is done is always very difficult to say. You may improve it all the time, but sometimes you have the impression that you’ve got it. A fragrance is done when the project, the brief and your fragrance are working very well together. For Joy Forever, at a certain point, we were all sitting around the table [to make that decision], because we [didn't do] any consumer tests. You gamble sometimes, but we were pretty [confident].

Do you ever do consumer testing at Jean Patou? I'd imagine you would have been doing a lot of that at P&G.

For Jean Patou, never. We do a fragrance and we put it on the market without any consumer testing, compared to Procter & Gamble where all the fragrances are tested. It makes a big difference. Those are two kinds of perfumery, and the two have to live together. 

I started my career at P&G, and I know what is a consumer-oriented [fragrance]. When [perfumers] are smelling a fragrance, we can say this is P&G and this is L'Oréal, but we can’t say this is Hugo Boss or another brand. When people answer a consumer test, they like what they know already. Then all the fragrances are made in the same way. For a Jean Patou fragrance, we can’t do that, first of all because we’re not a mainstream brand. We’re a completely exclusive brand. There aren’t so many ones like us on the market: Hermès, Guerlain, Chanel. It's difficult to find another brand that you can compare to Patou. All the main brands — I’m speaking about all the P&G and L'Oréal brands — are tested. The way they develop them is all the same. We have to be different. It’s a risk, but it’s the only way to preserve the spirit of the brand.

I'd guess that with companies like P&G and L'Oréal, there's pressure on the perfumers to develop bestselling fragrances. Is that what you want to accomplish at Patou? What kinds of pressure do you deal with?

Our target is not to create a bestseller fragrance. That’s one that you’re selling a lot — then it’s not a luxury fragrance. It’s more a mass fragrance, because everybody is buying that. If you want to have a long-term business in this category of fragrance, you have to be rare and exclusive. Of course, we have to sell enough to make money, but we focus on the long-term business. Our target is that our fragrance will remain on the market in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.

Then the pressure is different. Of course I’m under pressure. First of all, to be sure that the quality of the product that we’re producing. In my job, it’s creation but also production. Twice a year I go to the south of France to choose the jasmine and rose, rose in May and jasmine in September. Then I’m pressured to choose the right batch, which fits with the Joy fragrance. Then I have to control the raw production to make sure it’s good quality. We can’t disappoint our customers, because our customers are loyal. They’re [sensitive] to the quality.

The second pressure is to create a fragrance that fits with the Jean Patou standard. For example, Joy Forever has to be qualitatively speaking at the high level. And the third is to revive old fragrances. We’re relaunching old fragrances. This year we're doing Vacances, L'Heure Attendue and Colony. When I’m working on this formula, I have to make sure that I’m keeping the spirit of the fragrance. That’s the third pressure. I do not have the pressure of putting on the market the bestseller fragrance. I have to put on the market the number one regarding the quality and the Patou standard.

So who's your customer, if not a mainstream shopper? 

All the people who are buying our fragrances are people who are connoisseurs. They don’t want to buy a fragrance that they know everyone will wear it in the streets. Just imagine that you are in a Parisian building. The contessa on the second floor and the housekeeper is on the ground floor; the contessa would be shocked to smell that the housekeeper is wearing the same fragrance. Our customers are people who don’t want to smell the same as other people. They don’t want to smell like the last fragrance on the shelf in Sephora or the big department stores. It’s more or less could be the same spirit as the niche brand. But we are not niche, we are exclusive.

What's the difference between the two?

It's the standard and the story. Standard because, in a niche brand, you have the best and the worst. [With niche brands] you can smell sometimes awful things. Or sometimes you may smell something original, but difficult to wear. Jean Patou’s fragrances have to be worn. When people are going to Patou, they know they’re getting something original, but not completely weird. And in such a way, rare, but not as rare as all the niche brands. We have a story, also. Most niche brands don’t have a story, or sometimes the stories are a bit artificial.