Le Labo's Founder Has Mixed Feelings About the Success of Santal 33

"We have a family of scents we are proud of and are sometimes overshadowed by Santal."
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Photo: Courtesy of Le Labo

Photo: Courtesy of Le Labo

Fabrice Penot has spent years defying convention. In 2006, along with Eddie Roschi, he founded the boutique perfumery Le Labo with no formal investor funding, no advertising and a philosophy that favored reliance on pure ingredients and in-store perfume blending. All of this constituted a rebellion from beauty industry norms, especially at that time.

Penot's first scent for the brand was a candle with an intoxicating leathery smoke: Santal 26. By 2011, he'd altered the formula and made Santal a wearable fragrance, a creation that changed Le Labo's trajectory. Since its release, Santal 33 has persisted as one of beauty's most ubiquitous It-girl (and guy) fragrances. Doused on bodies, in hotel lobbies and throughout boutiques, the Le Labo brand became synonymous with Santal. However, the scent of success is bittersweet for Penot. "That's the price every creator has to pay when something takes off,” he says. This is what happens when the rule-breaker makes it big.

This success catapulted Le Labo into the big leagues: In late 2014, beauty giant The Estée Lauder Companies acquired the company, allowing Penot and Roschi to continue creating the scents and remain independent while letting the big wigs at Estée Lauder handle the business logistics. ("I firmly believe that creation is an autocracy, it's not a democracy," Roschi said in an interview last year.)

I first received an email from Penot after I wrote a piece for this very publication bemoaning Santal's omnipresence. He wrote not to condemn me, but to share his mixed emotions at having created something so adored and criticized. Over the course of several weeks and a series of emails and conversations (which have been edited and condensed here), Penot and I discussed Santal's legacy as well as his habits as a creator.

Tell me about developing Santal 33. What did you feel when you first smelled it?

There is nothing like the first time you smell it, because it becomes 'it' after a pretty long process of trials. I start with very rough accords and then play with them until something happens… when it happens. For Santal, something started to kick in around modification number 93. I felt we had something there that had the potential to be powerful. Then I got lost in hundreds of other trials to realize that the theme we had in 93 was lost. We decided to throw away a year of work and start back from there. The solution was a few moves away, adding a 'key' that unlocked the whole formula. That key is the secret of Santal that prevents all the copies out there of it from achieving the same effect.

Do you often start from scratch with other fragrances or was this process unique with Santal?

I can't think of another perfume for which it would not have been the case. It is just the only way we know how to work.

Do you think of the lives and experiences of Le Labo customers when formulating? 

No, what I think about is their feelings. I imagine the pleasure someone will have by spraying this perfume I am working on, or smelling it on someone else. 

What does Santal 33 mean to you?

Quite a lot: It was the first perfume I made for the brand, as a candle first. It is also what I wear when I am not in the creative process. (When we create, we focus on wearing what we draft in order to feel it — we don't work with blotters.) [Santal 33] is what brought us a certain recognition. We owe a lot to Santal, but we would also be very happy without it — we have a family of scents we are proud of and are sometimes overshadowed by Santal.

I sort of see Santal as the "gateway drug" to the Le Labo collection. What other scents do you wish got more love? (My signature is Thé Noir 29. It is so special.)

The Noir, Rose 31, Oud 27, Fleur d'Oranger 27… pretty much all of them, to be honest. But you are right, Santal is often the gateway, the poster child, and then you enter a world you might have not discovered without the nudge of Santal, but that is much more profound than just one scent. I would hope so, at least.

How do you think the world views Santal 33?

I don't know, really — I just know when people talk about it, their eyes light up. From a perfume that they can't live without to maybe a certain olfactive fatigue from the people upset by its growing presence and yet, [they are] often unable to replace it.

You've said before, "In every perfume we create, we leave a part of ourselves in the bottle." What parts of yourself were you giving to consumers in 2011 with Santal? What parts of yourself do you want to share with customers now?

Same thing today as in 2011. A part of our soul, of our joys, struggles, discoveries, visions… trying to share the most universal part of that through an invisible medium is pretty fascinating.

With any level of success, there comes critique. At what point do you relinquish that feeling of protection and revel in the fact that you've created something so impactful?

We don't bother too much, really. We are in our bubble, focusing on our craft. We can imagine critics out there for sure, but that doesn't affect us — not because we despise them, just because it doesn't matter. What matters is to stay with our beliefs.

Do you feel a bit of pressure with every new release, knowing that people have likely heard of you and your brand through Santal 33?

No, the worst thing that can happen to a perfume is the smell of fear. That's why most big brands fail in moving people with their perfumes because there is too much at stake financially in the launch of a perfume — mostly because of the enormous amounts of money spent in advertising — for them to take any olfactive risk. 

We don't spend anything on advertising. We like to say that we focus on creation, and hope for business. We launched Santal [by] putting it on a table one day and waiting for it to grow up. We keep acting that way and the existence of Santal doesn't impact that. Some will touch something universal like Santal, some will only talk to a certain crowd. That's okay too. If anything, the existence of Santal allows us to push even more boundaries because we know the rent is already taken care of.

Le Labo has often defied convention, from the brand's inception and lack of advertising to each fragrance's on-the-spot blending and city-specific scents. How do you continue that rebellion against tradition while still acknowledging your success?

That's definitely the biggest challenge we face. We created Le Labo opening our little lab on Elizabeth Street in New York City because we wanted to fight the rising tide of conformity in our lives. When we traveled, we were kind of fed up to find the same stores in LA, Tokyo, Paris. We wanted to add a cultural experience that you would not be found anywhere else. 

Now that we have stores in the main capitals of the world, the risk is becoming the exact thing we were resisting in the first place. How to fight that? Making sure that the experience is not uniform everywhere — in the stores but also in the perfume collection. That's the reason we created the city exclusives where a specific perfume honors the city we are in and will not be sold anywhere else (except one month a year), defying any business return but feeding our initial intention.

What makes a city worthy of having a Le Labo store and a specific fragrance?

You have no idea what it meant to us when we flew to open our [second-ever] store in Tokyo: We arrived and sat on the sidewalk in front of this store and had tears in our eyes. Creating a perfume to honor that was important to us, even if it would never make financial sense. (Though in that case it did, as Gaiac is the best-seller in Japan, despite being two times more expensive than the normal collection and our city-exclusive best seller worldwide.) 

Then we kept going to stay true to this spirit, [which is] not always easy, as not every city in the world can be as exotic and emotional for us as Tokyo was but we make sure we pay attention to still honor each step. As far as how we choose cities, at the beginning, it was where we liked to go — and wanted to go personally. Now it is a little more rational: We ask ourselves if there are enough people with our style in this city to make it worth going.

What is the future of Santal?

I don't know. Santal is unleashed by now, our child has become an adult and lives its own life. It could very well become the next Chanel No. 5 in the history of perfumery. That's not being pretentious — it has nothing to do with us anymore, and frankly tells more about luck than our own talent. You can't make Santal without what my friend Isaac called 'a stupid amount of luck.' It is its own thing and it will follow its own legend, whatever it becomes we'll be ok with it.

Who and what inspires you?

I am being very honest by telling you I don't know anything anymore about what's going on in the perfume world and who is doing anything noteworthy. I am sure it is there, it just doesn't interest me. As soon as you look around, you start to want to know if you are winning. [Eddie and I] have pretty competitive personalities that can take our focus away from what's important. We realized this 'weakness' pretty early on and became wary of it. 

I use a lot of energy in order to remain unaffected — by modernity, by technology, by trends, by all the nonsense of today's world. That's the only way I succeed: By protecting my soul and being able to share part of it with our clients and staff. Inspiration to me comes from connection with nature, with silence, with solitude, with experiencing beauty through a book, a sunset, an encounter, a crack on the wall. None of that you can find in the beauty department of a department store.

Does it work in your favor to not be so entrenched in the perfume world?

I think it works in our favor. A lot of my friends are in this world themselves, and it is full of great people, but I also see how it can limit you. We would have never created Le Labo if we hadn't learned the rules first in order to be able to break them. But now our natural distance with the perfume industry allows us to not be affected by comparisons, trends, awards. We very rarely recruit people with a perfume background. We prefer to recruit people with a story, with a passion, with their own craft, and then educate them about what we do. They bring their soul to the table, it enriches us, it makes our work, our lives much more interesting. Perfume is just an alibi to bring all these people together and build something worth building.

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