Gilles Thevenin is creative director in charge of Parfums de Lubin, our most historic and prestigious brand at Perfumology. Gilles' insight has been incredibly helpful in building our perfumery to the strong, inclusive boutique we have today. I asked him a few questions, and as always his encyclopedic knowledge of fragrance truly impresses, going way beyond his own brand.
Nir Guy: You direct one of the most prestigious brands in Paris dating back to 1798, even playing a major part of American perfume history of the last two centuries. How does Lubin's history sway your decisions on directing the brand?
Gilles Thevenin: Lubin’s history is not that important for everyone. To the former brand owners, a German group, Lubin’s history would even cast a shadow on its potential: they saw it as old-fashioned. It was already a 200 years old brand when I took my chance and made a purchase offer to them. After long discussions, they finally considered selling it. In the meantime, the Gucci license they had inherited was requesting huge investments. Lubin as a result had become an even lesser matter of concern. Of course, what I had in mind was Guerlain, another historical house which I had left a couple years before, and its very particular style.
I thereafter realized that Lubin has had a style of its own. It was a slow discovery, with the help of a former lady perfumer of Lubin, Jeannine Mongin, who had been working there as a junior perfumer in 1955. Jeannine is the one who told me all the unwritten stories, like the head perfumer Henri Giboulet being inspired by Grace Kelly, when he created Gin Fizz. He made it a tribute to her personality, without even telling that to the then owners of the house, the Prot family. Or the history of Black Jade, which name was “Jardin secret” in the 1930’s, as a memory to Queen Marie Antoinette’s Trianon Garden in Versailles and one of her personal scents. Not an original perfume of Lubin, though, but a creation of 1786 by Jean-Louis Fargeon, supplier to the Queen, who had been Lubin’s master in perfumery. Lubin dared to take over the formula only after the death of Fargeon in 1806. I heard many more stories you wouldn’t make public in the perfume world until the 1950’s, because people were very shy about talking about themselves, and the companies reluctant then about disclosing any personal details about the perfumers, their inspirations and creations.
The first article which introduced the main perfumers of the big houses to a broad public was published in a major French magazine, “Le Figaro” in February 1952. Before that, the perfumer would remain in the shadow of the brand he was working for. (see attached: the article of “le Figaro”, where perfumers of the great houses are being introduced: Paul Vacher and Jean Carles (Dior, miss Dior), Ernest Beaux (Chanel) Jacques Guerlain (Guerlain), Paul Prot (Lubin). Lubin was still among the big players then. You are right to suggest you can’t neglect the history of the brand when taking care of its development. A brand is not just a name you print on a box or a bottle. The older it is, the more human significance it has, and the more you feel the weight of it when deciding on its future. But you need to make it interesting for contemporary people: from the beginning, I had to create a disruption with a new scent to epitomize the new Lubin. It became Idole in 2005, a creation Olivia Giacobetti accepted to make for us. The next steps were made towards the revival of the great classics which still sold in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Then again, after a few years of struggling to gain a very exclusive international distribution, the global financial crisis in 2008 brought us near bankruptcy. It was a new turn for us, but also an opportunity to learn from the crisis. I felt more self-confident about giving new directions to Lubin, with a bunch of new creations. Some of them, however, still refer to the past, even if they have to be modern interpretations.
NG: Pierre-François Lubin, the perfumery's founder, had no heirs and left the company to his assistant, Felix Prot. How is the Prot family involved today?
GT: Pierre François Lubin actually had two daughters but no sons. It seems they didn’t show much interest for their father’s business. Felix Prot became Lubin’s apprentice in 1825, as a kid, but he could afford taking over only when he was 35 years old, when he purchased the shares of Mr Lubin’s business partner, Mr Saffers, who was retiring at the end of 1843. He was described by Pierre-François Lubin as his “favorite apprentice”. It’s the reason why he granted a personal credit to Felix Prot on several years, to allow him to take over the house. It seems that Mr Prot paid off the rest of the purchasing price to Mr Lubin on a long period, since Mr Lubin would still write letters to his successor long after his own retirement, commenting on the quality of the house’s productions, sometimes being even critical about them. One should not forget that it was the first time in history that products made in large quantities would bear the name of an individual. The beginning of the industry was the beginning of “branding” as well: the first generation of brands were just family names.
Those people’s most precious asset was the reputation of their good name, a heritage of the aristocracy. Their good fame should reflect in the quality of the productions bearing their own names. It was a question of self-respect, more than a signature, but a brand name, their family name, embossed on thousands of bottles. After he sold his company, Lubin realized his name would outlive him through the products made by the house he had founded. There was nothing obvious in 1844 to make that kind of decision. Most of the time someone would purchase a company, they would rename it after their own name. Felix Prot made another decision in 1844: he decided the company would keep his founder’s name, thus capitalizing on his good fame. There was no brand registration by then, and after Mr Lubin’s death in 1853, Felix Prot would have to fight against other people who would usurp Mr Lubin’s name. Many of the first industrialists of the 19th century were confronted with brand hijacking. It often took years before the legitimate holders of a trademark could assert their rights before the courts.
While looking for information about the Lubin perfume production when still in family hands, I first interviewed Mrs Jeannine Mongin, who started her career at Lubin in the 1950’s, under Mr Paul Prot’s direction, Henry Giboulet being the house perfumer. She made a career afterwards with other companies, and ended up being of the first generation of perfumery teachers at the perfumery school in Versailles when it was created. She is a founding member of the Osmothèque as well. She is the one who introduced me to Laurent Prot, one of Paul Prot’s sons. Paul Junior was the last family president of the Company.
Laurent, his son, had recently retired, and he had started a research on his father’s work at the helm of Lubin between 1945 and 1969. The company had to be sold when he was only 20 years old. As a result, he had no opportunity to fulfill his dream of working with his father at Lubin. Laurent had gathered a huge bunch of Lubin archives as well. He had collected them when the Parisian factory was closed. It was situated in an industrial suburb of Paris that had become very residential in the meantime. Therefore, a building contractor was about to tear it down. Everything had been left as it was: machinery, archives, all papers. Everything was deemed to be destroyed. Laurent saved what he could, mostly the oldest documents, and brought them back home, filling up his parents’ basement with boxes of ancient Lubin stuff.
He was surprised that someone would have taken the challenge to bring back Lubin to its former glory, but he became my first investor, and brought along his brother as well. He still plays the role of a senior advisor, and still today he is the head of our shareholders’ committee. He remembers having played in the factory as a kid. Lubin represents something very special to him. He was of great help as well as far as older documents are concerned.
NG: You don't release perfumes frequently in the Classic collection, often going more than a year or two without a new perfume. I've seen (and smelled) the great, unreleased perfumes at your desk. What do you need from a fragrance before you give it the green light for production?
GT: Green light comes mostly when we can secure a long-term sourcing, because we always have a lot of fragrances cooking as you know. There is a permanent exchange of views with the perfumers. It’s very much informal, not rationalized at all. For instance, Delphine, who lives in the south of France, is a researcher eager for discoveries. She likes to walk off the beaten tracks. She has a huge network of contacts abroad, and knows many outsiders of the scent industry. She calls me when she gets a new quality or even a new extraction that could be interesting for us, and sends me samples to smell. Then we talk on the phone, about how to use it. It’s like when you cook and that someone gives you a new trick for a recipe. Most of the time, it takes months or even years before something comes out. It’s a slow process, we never hurry up. At a certain point, everyone is convinced a perfume is ready, but still, we make mistakes. Some perfumes do not meet their public, or not enough public to make them profitable, but one should never regret a sincere decision.
NG: How would you like to develop the Talismania and Classic lines? What do we have to look forward to?
GT: Quite a bunch of fragrances are on the waiting list for Talismania, that we would like to release in the next 2 or 3 years, based of new natural extractions which have become available, but I can’t say more at this point. As far as Classics are concerned, we presently work on new versions of older scents of the turn of the 20th century some 120 years ago. Some of the finest French writers of this era were the first generation of men who would include perfume in their daily lifestyle. For that they were considered “decadent”. A very important exhibition about one of the most significant of them, Karl-Joris Huysmans, which has been postponed to fall 2020 because of the pandemic, gave us the opportunity to look again into our old formula books. Until now, besides Black Jade, we had focused on our Lubin perfumes between 1910 and 1940, the “Golden Age” of perfumery. The museum of Strasbourg, where the exhibition takes place, asked us to produce some original perfumes among the Lubin scents Huysmans mentioned in his books. Which we did, and it was a revelation. But the big issue once again is to replace what is now banned by the health authorities with what’s available on the market. Those scents from 1880-1905 are apparently far more difficult to deal with than the next generation. But really interesting!
NG: Why is the Aristia line so exclusive? We feel honored to carry the fragrances. How do you pick your perfumeries?
GT: The more premium the fragrances the less they usually fit with the international regulation, which is very much under the influence of the industrial lobbies. The sourcing of high-quality natural ingredients is all the more difficult as well. Aristia is very exclusive because it was for me like issuing a kind of statement for Lubin, to say in a way “look at what you are going to miss in a few years’ time”. I just seized the opportunity to make it, because I felt I wouldn’t have another opportunity to dare it again. Not really rational anyway. I wouldn’t dare it anymore at this present time, with the threat of a worldwide economic crisis.
The idea was to choose noble ingredients that would be coherent with the kind of hero we were talking about, but not really “reasonable” from the cost point of view. The line is based on the ingredients which we don’t really know how long the sourcing will last. The demand for such noble stuff has been decreasing constantly over the past 30 years, and the offer as well as a consequence. Larger groups sell image and social status, not perfumes as such, they are not obsessed with that kind of offer which addresses people with a real discernment.
For big companies, natural stuff makes it far more difficult to deal with the marketing of their production, which it makes less flexible. Moreover, selecting such cutting-edge fragrances is not a piece of cake. That leaves us some room to exist and express ourselves. On top of that, local conflicts and political instability in most of the producing countries deter the peasants from trying to plant in a view of harvesting a crop, sometimes years later. If you compare with the 1980’s, when I started my career, natural ingredients have hence become much scarcer, and high quality among them is even more difficult to get. Fortunately, we still have some companies based in Grasse, like PayanBertrand, with an incredible portfolio of more than 300 natural ingredients. To secure the sourcing, they took the initiative of producing by themselves locally in Asia, Africa, India or other places, without go-betweens to interfere.
But I am afraid we are now drawing to the end of an era, since more and more legal restrictions are being implemented by western health authorities, under the pressure of big private interests, with the false pretext of their alleged harmfulness.
As far as retailer selection is concerned, we said from the beginning that we would not supply more than 100 perfumeries in the world with Aristia, and we have now reached 64 on all continents or so. We might reach 100 one day, not sure: you need people who are able to explain and present that kind of fragrances, and whose clients are very requesting. It’s quite elitist, but this was not meant to make volumes, more to give the best retailers in the world the opportunity to sell something special to their best customers. It’s a way to show that we can still do it, for our image, more than for business. There’s no e-commerce with Aristia.
NG: Each line seems cohesive. How is that accomplished?
GT: Each line has a name, like a “sub-brand”, and some of those names are even registered. The name actually contains the intention of the line itself. Then you go down further into each individual scent, with its individual name. But there is always an overall idea at the beginning. Talismania for example says “talisman”, the lucky charm travelers carry on them to protect themselves against bad luck, plus “mania”, which says addiction, fascination. Akkad or Korrigan create addiction, with an overdose of certain mystical notes, plus the idea of a very deep scent that mixes well with different skin types in an individual fashion and remains present. This is the way it has been explained to the perfumers. Talismania scents are time machines as well, they bring ancient memories back. Aristeia, or Aristia, in the Iliad, by Homer, describes the quality of exceptional people, not only heroes on the battlefield, but also exemplary people with outstanding virtues. Literally, it’s the virtue of the best: it’s an exceptional scent for an extraordinary personality. That is: a strong heart which should be “supernatural”, and a momentum, an inner strength from the beginning which we describe as “the lift” of a perfume: the initial notes that carry you far away very fast. This is a way to communicate with the perfumer, instead of describing what notes you expect, and they make their own interpretation of what I describe.
It’s their vision in the end that prevails, but actually, you realize that, when you tell different people the same story, the creators will end up with similar visions. Of course, we spend so much time talking about all this, because it’s a shared passion. It’s an intense quest actually.
NG: Customers and other brand owners love your fragrances, bottles and presentation. What is a challenge that we don't see to accomplish such high-quality perfumes?
GT: I don’t really see it as a challenge. It’s been 36 years now that I live with perfumes, I have never done anything else. At the beginning, when I was working at Guerlain, I was not allowed to contribute to the scent development, only to give some comments at the private sniff sessions Jean-Paul Guerlain would set up for me at his mansion near Paris, which was already a great privilege. He was fun, completely eccentric, and he would cook a lunch after the session, and serve incredible wines from his wine cellar. I didn’t feel any frustration, because I was learning. I actually had the feeling I didn’t deserve to be there, and I felt like an intruder. I had not been trained in the art of perfumery; I was there by chance. But once you have started doing it by yourself, with your own brand, there is no way back. You really don’t see it as a challenge, it’s only your lifeline, and each time, every new scent an opportunity to explore new paths. It’s very rewarding when a new scent sells well, and very depressing when it doesn’t, because you feel guilty of having missed a chance by your own fault.