Thomas Fontaine: I was invited to Jean Patou by the new owners of the brand, English company Designer Parfums Ltd., based in London. It seems like Procter Gamble did not know what to do with Jean Patou brand. They bought it aiming for another famous brand with great marketing potential which belonged to the Patou portfolio at the moment —namely Lacoste Parfums. So they kept Lacoste and sold Jean Patou—as PG seemed to have no idea how to treat and develop such an historical heritage and high-luxury brand as Jean Patou. Designer Parfums Ltd. also owns perfume brands such as Parfums Scherrer Paris and Worth Paris, and some younger brands: Etienne Aigner, Agent Provocateur, Ghost.
Serguey Borisov: What is your area of responsibility? Do you work for Aigner or Agent Provocateur as well?
Thomas Fontaine: Mostly I’m responsible for all the Jean Patou perfume development as the in-house perfumer. But I’m also creating for other brands: Ghost, Jean-Louis Scherrer—in that case, as a competitor with all the perfumers who want to participate in the bids for these brands. Like, for example, I created the new feminine Aigner perfume which is to launch soon. In Jean Patou, it’s different because I’m in charge of everything concerning perfume.
Serguey Borisov: Do you have a big team?
Thomas Fontaine: No. In fact here you have seen them all: my assistant, me and Bruno Cottard, my boss, he’s a vice-president—that’s our entire team.
Serguey Borisov: Please tell us about the results of your efforts.
Thomas Fontaine: First of all, the Big Three of Jean Patou— Sublime, 1000 and Joy—are on the market now. And when I arrived at Jean Patou, they were my first job—to organize the new production of them. During the Procter Gamble period, everything was produced in the United Kingdom, and now it has come back to France. The concentrate is made in Grasse again, the glass is coming from Verreries Brosse, Normandy and the bottles are also filled in Normandy. In PG times the sources did not fit the brand image, so we changed the sourcing also, and now the concentrate is more expensive but the quality of it is much higher. That was my duty: to restore the previous quality of Jean Patou perfumes.
Then, at the end of May 2013 we’re going to relaunch three other perfumes—Jean Patou pour homme, Eau de Patou and Chaldée will be on the market again. The bottles will be of the same simple design that recalls Ma Collection Jean Patou. The first salespoint will be here, in our flagship boutique at 5, rue de Castiglione, and then these perfumes will be presented in a very limited number of selected department stores worldwide. Like Bergdorf Goodman in the USA, maybe Harrods in London, and we are going to choose places in Dubai and Russia.
Serguey Borisov: Could you describe the three new perfumes?
Thomas Fontaine: The first perfume, Chaldée, was originally created in 1927, and it was originally Huile de Chaldée, a tanning oil. Just remember that Jean Patou as a designer created his own company just before World War I, and he began to develop his company right after the war, in 1919—after he spent four years in the trenches! He was the first designer who created a lot of new things that fit his time—sportswear, swimsuits; he created polo shirts and tennis skirts for tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen. Jean Patou begin to work for La Garçonne. You know, right after WWI we had a huge emancipation movement and the scandalous novel of that same name by Victor Margueritte, which defined the tastes of women at the time, was published in 1922. Flappers, those free young women of the 20s, wore short skirts and excessive makeup, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz music, smoked and were quite free in casual sex. So Jean Patou created fashion that inspired that movement.
Serguey Borisov: Describing that flapper fashion and era, historians usually talk about Chanel…
Thomas Fontaine: Yes, Jean Patou and Gabrielle Chanel were contemporaries, they did the same business and they hated each other. Because Coco Chanel was an absolutely free woman, and Jean Patou was a real man with a magnetic aura—they were very polarized people. And most of all they were competitors in business—Jean Patou had made the first knitted swimsuit and designer’s ties, he popularized cardigans, she also was the first to make some things … By the way, Ralph Lauren was inspired a lot by Jean Patou fashions and it brought him huge success! Remember Ralph Lauren`s logo, the polo player? Jean Patou was the first who put the monogram ‘JP’ on his polo shirts! But let`s come back to Chaldée. One day, Jean Patou found out that people at the Riviera spent a lot of time by the sea—they swam, they suntanned, they enjoyed their time by the sea—he even opened his boutique for bathing-dresses in Deauville in 1924. So he asked his perfumer to create a perfumed tanning oil, Huile de Chaldée. Chaldée for Chaldea, the country of Sumer in Babylonia where beautiful golden-skinned women lived. And the perfumer—Henry Almeras—created the perfume around narcissus, orange flower, and vanilla.
Serguey Borisov: Was it made fragrant to mask the unpleasant smell of its active ingredients?
Thomas Fontaine: No, no. There were no sun-protecting or tanning agents—it was simply pure castor oil that was perfumed just to smell nice. And people used it on the beach because of its great smell! After its great success Jean Patou decided to launch a perfume with the same smell, to remind people of summers by the sea. (And by the way, Ambre Solaire sppeared just because of the success of Huile de Chaldée—the only difference was that L’Oréal put some benzyl salicylate into it for some sun-protection effect.)
Serguey Borisov: In your new, relaunched Chaldée fragrance, you also used only those notes (Narcissus absolute, fleur d’orange and vanilla)? Yes, there seems a huge amount of narcissus absolute here and it’s not as sweet as Chaldée1984. Sooo animalic…
Thomas Fontaine: Yes, its formula has been changed due to new regulations that have emerged since then—but also what you smell now is not fresh and new Chaldée1984, but the 30-year-old juice that has undergone almost 30 years of maceration (let’s assume that you stored the perfume perfectly and never opened it). And that’s crucial for the perfume that has such a large amount of natural oils and absolutes in it—Jean Patou perfumes always have a lot of naturals in their compositions and they evolve over time! It’s the same thing as with a fine Bordeaux—if you drink it 15 years later, it’ll taste and smell different. And perfume (like wine) is very sensitive to storage conditions. The Bordeaux you should keep in a cellar—no light, in a well-sealed bottle. Fragrances are not kept in such great conditions—light, temperature changes, humidity, etc.—and are they really left unopened for 30 years?
Serguey Borisov: The second new relaunched perfume is Eau de Patou. Is it a clean citrus eau de cologne, as it was?
Thomas Fontaine: Not a cologne, it’s an eau fraîche. It’s very hesperidic of course, green and fresh, with a clean aldehydic feeling. Lemons and petitgrains, very fresh but not aggressive, it reminds us of its era, the 1970s. The formula is still the very same and that’s a great green citrus fragrance. Citruses are ever-green in modern perfumery, they are the origin of perfumery. It was chosen from Jean Patou’s heritage as something that we could address to men and women likewise, like something unisex. As you know, most Jean Patou perfumes were addressed to women.
Serguey Borisov: And the third one is the great Jean Patou Pour Homme… [sniffs]. It’s fruity, caressing and the very tender fragrance of a gentleman who knows how to treat women… am I correct?
Thomas Fontaine: Yes, you are describing it right… For us it was absolutely obvious that we were going to relaunch Patou pour Homme. We needed some masculine fragrance to relaunch—and I do believe that it’s better to relaunch something from the 80s than from the 90s (like Voyageur). You can smell vanilla, lavender and fir balsam here also—it gives the sweet fruity-sugary and strawberry note to the perfume.
Serguey Borisov: I believe that you need some special principles in order to maintain the heritage of such an historical perfume house… Could you share them?
Thomas Fontaine: First of all, I have to be very strict and careful about the quality of the natural materials. We are not just luxe, we are one of those perfume houses which can suit all those superlative words. When we choose raw materials, I have to choose the very best ones. Next month, in May, I will travel to Grasse to choose the best oils from the rose de mai crop. The quality is crucial for us—for example, our perfume Joy does mostly consist of natural and very expensive Jasmine and Rose oils from Grasse, and both of those products have very specific and original qualities. When we get them I have to be sure that we get the best oils that would meet Jean Patou’s standards for excellence. Of course, we have our own plantations, and sometimes when it’s not enough, we try to buy more from the other producers of Grasse. But if their quality is not high enough for Joy, we just limit our production to a smaller scale. And sure, we control all stages of the production operations—from gathering of the flowers to storage of the prepapred oils. And we do all these same things with every natural and synthetic material—if we have osmanthus from China in 1000 de Patou, I have to compare products from different suppliers and be sure that we got the best osmanthus absolute available. Sourcing is a key element for our brand.
Serguey Borisov: Joy was at one time the most expensive perfume in the world. How is it now?
Thomas Fontaine: It still is. Not at the selling price—forget about “the most expensive perfume.” In French it was a words game: Le Parfum le plus cher—which could mean not only the costliest, but also the most beloved perfume. The most expensive Jean Patou products now are the small 1 oz. Baccarat bottles of Joy, at 1200 euros per bottle. It is not the most expensive product on the market , but believe me—regarding the cost of its concentrate, it’s still the most expensive thing. Normal jasmine could cost you between 5,000 and 10,000 euros per kilo, and jasmine of Grasse will cost you 80,000 euros per kilo! It’s one of the most expensive raw materials in the world! Nobody can use such an expensive raw material, except us.
Serguey Borisov: What are the plans for the future?
Thomas Fontaine: Yes, I’m working now on the next new perfume of Jean Patou. It’s not the time to reveal the secret. I cannot tell you the name or many details. All that I can tell you for now: it will be a feminine perfume, it’s going to be a Grand Floral, and I’m going to make it as gorgeous as the Big Three. And it will be launched in the same iconic Jean Patou octagonal crystal bottle created by Louis Sue and Andre Mare, who were the designers of Jean Patou for a long time. Their company Française des Arts had created and decorated all the buildings of Jean Patou: homes, offices, showrooms, etc. And of course they created the architectural design of this bottle, which is as famous as Chanel’s, so we will keep it for all the new perfumes to be created, and for the bespoke perfumes also. And then, next year, we want to relaunch three more Jean Patou perfumes from the past. I’m now working on those projects, and there are more than just three from which to choose. The first three—Chaldée, Eau de Patou and Jean Patou pour homme—were easy to choose; now the choice is much harder.
Photo by Serguey Borisov
Serguey Borisov has been known in the Internet world of perfume under the nickname moon_fish for more than 10 years. Now he writes about perfumes for GQ.ru and Vogue.ru, and contributes on the subject for glossy magazines.