I became the perfume critic of The Times in 2006 owing to a series of coincidences. No one was more surprised than I was. I'd studied in China and worked in Japan and gotten a master's in international economics and Japanese political economy, then — credit the haphazardness of life — became a science journalist for The Atlantic. This led me, after a chance encounter in the Gare du Nord train station in Paris with a biophysicist and perfume genius, to write a book called The Emperor of Scent about the creation of a new, radical theory of olfaction. I'd been talking to The New Yorker about possible projects — I'd proposed articles on Chinese and Indian economic development, Japanese politics — and one day they counterproposed, to (a bit) my consternation. They were interested in my writing a piece on the creation of a perfume. Its development, from the first instant to the launch. Behind the scenes, real time, full access.
I'd never considered such a project. As a journalist, I was an Asianist, and I'd happened to do a book that touched on perfume; I assumed that that was finished. But OK, I said, I'd take a look.
I started going to houses. Not one of them would do it. I proposed the idea to an American designer. I had a meeting in a midtown skyscraper with the designer's PR person. "We'd love to have six thousand words in The New Yorker," she said straightforwardly, then after assessing me for an instant added, "but it would contradict our entire public strategy, the myth that he makes his own scents." She said no. They all turned me down — Givenchy, Estée Lauder, Kenneth Cole, Dior, Jo Malone. The Burberry PR rep, baffled, whined repeatedly into his cell phone, "I don't understand, you want to watch them make a perfume? ..." Then, his neurons overtaxed, he simply hung up. Chanel considered the project seriously but then, radio silence. Guerlain reacted with shocked horror; it was unthinkable. Armani passed. Ralph Lauren's PR person never even bothered to respond.
At one point someone mentioned Hermès. I dismissed the idea. The house struck me as far too constricted. Two months later, with little expectation, I took the project to Francesca Leoni, then the head of communications for Hermès in the United States. Francesca immediately said, "This is a good project; we'll do it."
And then she presented it to Paris.
I don't know everything they discussed, but I know that JeanClaude was an advocate, that Hélène Dubrule, the company's international-marketing director, and Stéphane Wargnier, director of international communications, were cautiously favorable, and that Véronique Gautier was the primary opponent. I say this without the slightest resentment; Gautier was protecting the house and its people. It was her job. Here was some journalist, some American. She knew I spoke French — Francesca had strategically placed us together at a cocktail reception for a photography show at the Hermès boutique on Madison Avenue, and we'd begun a conversation — but she didn't know me. And I wanted total access, for a year. I know that in Paris they were having discussions, and more discussions, and arguments pro and con. Those in favor smoothed feathers and quietly addressed concerns and explained what was this magazine The New Yorker — some of them knew it, others didn't; "That's the American equivalent of l'Express, non?" one of them asked me once (uh, not exactly). They (once again) went over the project's concept and (once again) who I was. And with an expert touch from those in favor, we were all guided to a place where we could see it happening.
Véronique said yes.
* * *
Ellena lives near the place in the South of France where, on April 7, 1947, he was born.
His family lived in Grasse. His father was a perfumer. "He had talent," Ellena would say later with affection, "but he was a dabbler." He himself had learned his craft from the craft itself, said Ellena, and from the place. As a small boy, he would leave the house at dawn with his grandmother to pick jasmine flowers. Sometimes the women who were harvesting would sit him on a wall and demand that he sing for them. He smelled the combination of jasmine — a flesh-scented flower — and sweat. Cumin smells like human sweat.
At age sixteen Ellena began working in the factory of l'Etablissement Antoine Chiris in Grasse, one of the oldest perfume houses in the world. Then at twenty-one, he left Grasse — it was 1968 — for Geneva to enter his formal training to become a perfumer at the Givaudan perfume school.
The daily schedule of the students — committing to memory the smells of synthetic and natural materials, classifying scents, botany, chemistry, learning how to build a jasmine scent, a hyacinth, a rose — he found all of it rather boring. So instead he asked Givaudan master perfumer Maurice Thiboud to give him some real work to do. Thiboud entrusted him with the job of recreating, from smell, a perfume that was on the market. (It was a common task at the time, a sort of reverse engineering, taking some Dior perfume, say, and copying it, like young artists studiously reproducing Mona Lisas.) Ellena did it. Thiboud gave the young man a second perfume. Ellena re-created that one. (To amuse himself, he also deconstructed it, removing materials, simplifying the scent into its elemental form.) A third, a fourth. After nine months of observing him, Thiboud told Ellena, "I'm taking you out of the school. You're going to become a junior Givaudan perfumer under me."
The first perfume he made was a small thing, of orange and patchouli, destined for the African market.
Ellena had not gone to Geneva alone. When he'd been eighteen a few days and she was still seventeen, he had met Susannah Cusak, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She had grown up in Grasse but spoke English with a quick, sharp Irish accent mixed with touches of French. Her family were artist-intellectuals. Her father, Ralph Cusak, was a painter. Her great-uncle was Samuel Beckett. Both were Irishmen who preferred French soil. "I immediately felt comfortable in this universe," Ellena said. "Susannah liked rational argument. She taught me how to structure myself." He married her, in 1967, when he was twenty.
It was she who, as he put it, gave him the virus for reading. He read Baudelaire, Laborit. His favorite was Jean Giono. "His books give a sense to life in affirming that life has no logic," said Ellena. "Like Giono, I believe in the necessity of a spirituality without religion. I don't bother God, I count on myself, and I believe in people." He read art books, and in particular he read books on painting. Whatever would feed his developing ideas of perfume. (He got a taste for painting watercolors, something he still does.)
Susannah hadn't known anyone in the perfume business. "I didn't know this world," she said. "It's part of Jean-Claude, so it's part of my life. I enjoy Jean-Claude so I enjoyed the perfume."
In 1966 his father had given Ellena, who was nineteen years old, a perfume industry magazine with an article by Edmond Roudnitska. Roudnitska was a legendary perfumer who single-handedly built much of Dior's estimable collection: Diorama (1949), Diorissimo (1956), Eau Sauvage (1966), and Diorella (1972). The piece Ellena came across was titled "Advice to a Young Perfumer." It had changed him. Years later, at age thirty, Ellena went to visit the master in a small town called Cabris, near Grasse. Roudnitska sent him away. "You smell of synthetic musks," he said. "Come back when you don't smell of anything." Ellena returned the next morning, and the two started to talk, and Ellena spent the day in awe.
Jean-Claude and Susannah had a house built in Spéracèdes, a small town of paradigmatic Côte d'Azur idyllic loveliness, and in that house — with a one-year exile in New York for his work with Givaudan — raised two children, a daughter, Céline, who became a perfumer, and a son, Hervé, an architect. The couple still live there. There was no garden by the house, so they created one. So as not to make any aesthetic mistakes, they planted only blue or white flowers. Then they added olive trees, fruit trees — cherry, apricot. Bernard Ellena, Jean-Claude's brother — also a perfumer — lives nearby. Susannah's brother lives in the house next door and has a small vineyard. Every year they harvest the grapes and make wine, which is ready by the holidays. At Christmas there are thirty of them.
* * *
Hermès had made the decision to take Ellena as the house's perfumer either very rapidly or very slowly. It depended on what day you asked him.
When the family started discussing Ellena, he was unaware of their interest. They, however, were well aware of him. He had — as an external perfumer at one of the anonymous scent makers called Symrise — just made them a scent.
The creation of a perfume begins with "the brief," the conceptual road map of the perfume that the designers and luxury houses and the creatives give the perfumers. Basically, the brief is the description of the new scent that they have in their minds. They may convey it to the perfumer in a single sentence. They may write pages. Givenchy created a brief composed of images; the concept of Acqua di Ciò was Armani asking for the smells of Pantelleria in the Sicilian islands, where he has a home. For J'adore, the creatives at Parfums Dior simply told the perfumer Calice Becker to create a fragrance "as sexy as a stiletto and as comfortable as a pair of Tod's." (Becker created a multimillion-dollar hit.) The creative team responsible for the perfume Vera Wang saw a giant bouquet of white flowers in her store. The brief they gave the perfumer Harry Frémont was, essentially, to recreate it in a bottle. Briefs can be videotapes, songs, paintings.
Hermès's briefs were highly determined by a peculiarity of the house. Each year, Jean-Louis Dumas came up with a theme to guide the house. If Hermès launched a perfume that year, like all Hermès products it somehow followed that theme. In 2002, Dumas had chosen the Mediterranean, and Gautier, newly installed, had created her perfume brief from that. She had discovered that the Tunisian-French woman who designed the window displays in Hermès's boutiques had a garden on the beach not far from Tunis. The brief she sent out to the perfumers at the various Big Boy scent makers (among them Ellena) dictated, "Make me a perfume that smells of the scents found in this Tunisian garden." Ellena had thought and mixed things and agonized a bit and changed the mix and sent in his submission with those of his competitors. He wound up winning the brief and creating Un Jardin en Méditerranée. A Garden in the Mediterranean. It was Véronique Gautier's first perfume for Hermès, Ellena's second. He'd done the delectable, sparkling Amazone for the house in 1989.
Without his knowledge, this had put him on the family's map.
With the launch of Un Jardin en Méditerranée in early 2002 they started talking internally about him and the possible perfumer's position. In Paris, Ellena met Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès, and they chatted. Ellena's wife, Susannah, was with him, and she remembers Dumas making some typically elegant comments to her: "I like your husband; he's subtle and intelligent, and it's nice to work with him." Ellena was flattered and thought, That's nice, and then thought nothing more about it. Later he heard (he doesn't remember how) that Dumas had said to Gautier, "You should go see Ellena; maybe we can do something with him," and the expression struck him. What could it mean. Probably another commission for an Hermès perfume. Which was great.
"I'd learned," he would say much later, "that everything at Hermès is slow. Which I like, because I'm slow too. I don't like fast things. I'd had a few conversations with [Dumas] of a few minutes each. The man looks you right in the eyes like a child, ready to be delighted. He poses pertinent questions, with just a little control on your points as you speak. They never, ever told me they were considering me as in-house perfumer; it simply happened like a level of oxygen rising very slowly in a room, and it's a tortuous system because you become completely seduced by them and at any moment the bottom can drop out from under you. And at the same time you're not even sure you want it. Or that they're even thinking about it. Until they tell you they are."
In February 2004, Véronique Gautier called him. Not a formal offer. Not yet. Just an idea. Very quiet. Still, she was extremely excited. "Qu'est-ce tu en penses?" So what do you think? He was still caught extremely surprised. "I can be sort of cold in my reactions," said Ellena, "which is to say that I don't jump around. It was interiorized."
Ellena said, We have to see each other. Gautier got on a plane with Stéphane Wargnier to the Côte d'Azur. Wargnier has huge longish curly hair and a presence as large as Gautier's; they tend to make each other expand with exclamations and observations. Wargnier always appears to have secrets and to be on the excited verge of maybe sharing them with you. Where she dresses with rich sobriety, he tends toward brilliant sapphire blue shirts and touches of exuberant Cuban reds and hot pinks mixed with expensive jackets and strange, exotic shoes. Wargnier's style is seventh-arrondissement chic with a nod to Rio de Janeiro.
Wargnier had operated at the top of the French luxury goods game for a while and was known in those circles. He had both supporters (for his control and style) and detractors (who found his particular flamboyance less than appealing). He also had, both sides acknowledged, the complete confidence of Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès.
They met Ellena in a restaurant, La Bastide Saint Antoine. "Jacques Chibois," said Ellena (referring to the chef), and then added not entirely as an afterthought, "deux étoiles." Two stars. They talked at dinner about the possibilities. He found it a grave responsibility and was cautiously elated and cautiously unnerved. To be the parfumeur d'Hermès, to represent Hermès. He found them very positive about this role — yes, they said, he'd be used this way, put before the public as an Hermès creator "mais de manière trés soft." But very gently.
Ellena admired the house, though he wasn't a consumer of Hermès products. "La mode ne m'intéresse pas," he said. Fashion doesn't interest me. (Ellena has a very precise style, about which he is fastidious, a specific equilibrium of formal and informal that could be described as Ralph Lauren in London after pheasant hunting at a corporate retreat. It sounds fussy but actually isn't at all. It's mostly the corporate retreat part. Relaxed country slacks, obviously expensive. He never wears a suit or tie but usually a blazer and always a white shirt. Years ago he decided to, as he put it, "show himself in public" in white shirts almost exclusively. "No doubt the purified aspect.") "I like luxury," said Ellena once, "although I have no use for signs of status." He considered this statement, turned it over in his head. Then he recast the proposition. "I'm not interested in luxury, but I'm interested in the quality of life that is led by people who are interested in luxury." This was much more precise and, thus, pleased him.
The name Ellena means "the Greek," and though as far as he knows he isn't, he certainly looks like he carries the genetics of the Aegean. He is neither tall nor short. He possesses thick, slightly wavy Mediterranean black hair, which is becoming chalked, and the confidence of a man who is conscious of being handsome. Ellena, people said to each other, never had trouble pleasing women. Ellena n'a jamais de problème pour séduire les femmes. Sartre once explained why he preferred the company of women: "First of all, there is the physical element. There are of course ugly women, but I prefer those who are pretty."
They drank a bottle of local white with a smokey-woody taste, and Wargnier ordered a rouge de Loire, much riper and fuller. To Ellena's mind, Gautier and Wargnier made it clear he'd have the right to go in whatever direction he wanted with the position of perfumer.