A while ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Camille Goutal, daughter of legendary perfumer Annick Goutal, for a feature in Prestige magazine – which you can read here, if you’re so inclined. I found Camille a lovely, warm and gracious interviewee (especially since I imagine she gets asked many of these same questions for around a decade now!), and I loved how passionate she was about the evocative power of scent – she really gets the emotion and feelings behind creating and describing a scent, rather than just being all about whatever’s new or on-trend.
As always with these things, you put yourself through the torture of listening to your voice on repeat for hours to transcribe your interview, only to end up using about a third of your chat for print, so I thought I’d put up the whole thing for any fellow Annick Goutal lovers out there. Of course, I then forgot about this intention for about a year… but here it is now! And next time you’re met with a snooty perfume assistant, remember that, in Camille’s words, “You’re never wrong when you talk about fragrance!”
For the uninitiated, can you give us a brief history of Annick Goutal and how your mother started the fragrance house?
She created the brand in 1981; what is unusual is that she was supposed to become a pianist and was very good at music, but I think she needed to discover the world instead of practising eight hours a day. So she decided to go to London, where she worked as an au pair; the photographer David Bailey, who was a friend of the family she was working for, discovered her and said she should become a model. So she started modelling and did it for ten years but – although she found it fun, of course – she felt it wasn’t very interesting and that she needed to use her mind.
So she went back to Paris, opened an antiques shop, and then finally with my godmother, decided to open a skincare shop. For that, they worked with a dermatologist; their creams were very good but they had a weird scent, so they decided to add some perfume to the cream. She went to Grasse in South France to choose a fragrance… and that’s where she discovered the world of fragrance, so she opened her first fragrance store! What was different was that she used her emotions, feelings and memories to create – she just put what she loved into her fragrances.
What are your earliest memories of fragrance?
I have a lot – I remember atmospheres more than particular scents, like breakfast in the morning or the scent of my grandfather’s house, which was in South France, so there were lots of nice scents like pine trees and lavender fields. I have memories connected more to places than perfumes from my early years.
So with your mother being involved in fragrance, you obviously ended up growing up around scent and developing more of an appreciation for it?
I think it’s like training without noticing! Because you smell everything but you just don’t realise it; you think it’s normal that your mother makes you smell your tea, your food, flowers, the newspaper… I was smelling everything! It was fun but you just think it’s normal when you’re young; it was only after that you realise.
Your mother passed away in 1999 – was it always natural for you to get involved in the family business?
Not really – I wanted to become a photographer and she was very happy with that. The company doesn’t belong to me because she had sold it years ago but she was still involved in the creation [of scents]. But finally when she died – I knew her associate Isabelle Doyen, who was very good at creating fragrances but needed someone to help her, and I thought that if someone else helped her, it might change the spirit of the brand a little bit so I started to work with Isabelle. I’d known her for a long time so we got on very well, and I started to learn how to create fragrances.
What’s your current role at Annick Goutal? How has your role evolved over the years?
I do many things – I create fragrances with Isabelle; most of the time we work on formulas separately but smell everything together so it really is working together. I work with the marketing team for packaging, bottles, exporting… everything!
How did your mother’s personality and style feed into the brand, and how does this compare with you and how you developed and changed the brand? What ways do you think you’re different and similar?
The way we create the fragrances is the same – we only put what we like in fragrances regardless of markets or trends. We use our emotions and memories so that’s the same, but of course we are different, so we don’t have the same tastes. I don’t know if the brand has exactly changed since I joined; it’s just that the brand has evolved, which is logical as every brand has to reinvent itself.
It seems the trend in the perfume world is moving away from big-name celebrity and designer fragrances and more towards niche, independent brands. Why do you think that is?
Well, mass-market is still very strong!
I guess it’s more that consumers are becoming more aware of these niche brands…
Yes, I think people are more aware. And with globalisation, all the same brands are everywhere – like Zara and H&M, which I also love – but when I travel (and I travel a lot!), I see all the same shops and same brands everywhere. And I think by wearing a fragrance that is not that famous or worn by everyone, you feel different. People are also more aware of quality now – the difference between niche and mass-market – and they start to see the difference.
It’s just another approach. I mean brands like Chanel – which I love, for me it’s the most beautiful brand – they just have to compete with all the other kinds of brands, so their fragrances are different, which is why they created their Exclusifs Collection. People want more quality and they want to be different.
I think it’s also the storytelling behind the fragrances. I mean the latest Justin Bieber scent probably doesn’t have the same evocative power as a fragrance with a real story behind it…
Fragrance is very emotional – you can have strong memories that come back when you smell something, you can think about people you’ve loved, it can make you feel more confident. It’s very powerful, fragrance!
Tell me more about the perfumes inspired by you, Eau de Camille and Petite Chérie?
For Eau de Camille, I was eight years old and my mother had created Eau de Charlotte for my sister so I was a bit jealous, saying “Oh why don’t I have my own fragrance?” And she said, “Oh I thought you were too young!” but finally she agreed to create one for me, so she created Eau de Camille. We had a terrace with ivy, honeysuckle and jasmine, and she created the scent inspired by that.
For Petite Chérie, it’s funny because she didn’t ask me what I wanted – it was more an evocation of what I was like at that time, which was when I was about 20 years old, and it’s the image that she had of me that she put in the fragrance. When you’re 20, you just want to have fun, you’re pretty without doing anything because you’re young… it’s a very refreshing, joyful and happy fragrance.
Rose Pompon window display, designed by Many Many
How did you come to collaborate with Philippine Courtière for your latest scent, Rose Pompon?
It’s funny because usually I always work with Isabelle and I always will – we’re like the four nostrils, we’re almost the same nose! But with Philippine, it’s because we had been working a lot on rose – there is rose in Petite Cherie, Ce Soir Ou Jamais, Rose Splendide, Rose Absolue – and we wanted to have another approach, a kind of fresher and younger look. Philippine is like 27 or something, she’s much younger than me! She was actually the assistant of a friend of ours, Francis Kurkdijian [of perfume house Maison Francis Kurkdijian], so we thought it was nice to work with a young perfumer. But she had to fit into our brand; we gave her the idea of the fragrance and she made me smell things, and I said “Oh that’s not enough Annick Goutal” or that’s nice, or this you should lower, that you should refine. It’s nice because it’s a bit different from what we do usually, but it’s still really nice in our range.
Do you foresee any more collaborations with Philippine or anyone else in the future?
I don’t know – maybe with Philippine. We have a lot of ideas with Isabelle and a lot we want to do. It was specifically for Rose Pompon because of the rose and we had done many rose fragrances before.
How is Annick Goutal different from other perfume brands?
Well, I think she was one of the first to do what we now call a niche brand but at the time, there was no niche branding! It was just a brand doing things different. She was really a pioneer.
It’s a brand that is very feminine, even though we do have masculine fragrances that are very nice. We actually have a lot of artists buying our men’s fragrances. It’s funny because it seems classic but the fragrances themselves are unusual. I really think the main difference is that the fragrances are created from memories and emotions; now some brands have started to say they have stories behind their fragrances but really, it’s in our DNA and it’s what we have been doing since the start.
Why do you think scent – almost more than any of the other senses – is so powerful at evoking memories?
It’s a mystery! Some scientists say that it’s because the part of the nose is the closest to the brain, so that’s maybe why it’s one of the strongest senses. I think there is something very instinctive, almost animal [about scent]. You don’t realise it but you use your nose all the time without even noticing. For me, it’s also a way of experimenting and experiencing – if you don’t like someone, you don’t like his smell, if there is smoke, you can smell danger – it’s very instinctive, fragrance. It’s a mystery!
What are some of your favourite scents and the stories behind them?
For our brand, I’m fond of Ce Soir Ou Jamais [French for “tonight or never”] – I don’t wear it but it took ten years for my mother to create. It’s a rose scent and what I like about it is that men are crazy about it! It smells like a rose, very chic and delicate, but when you wear it, it’s much more sexy and mysterious.
I love Songes [French for “daydream”] – it’s the fragrance I created for myself after a trip to the Mauritius and I came back wanting to have the scent of the sea, beach, coconut lotion and frangipani again.
What words would you use to describe a typical Annick Goutal customer?
We have two types of clients actually. We have very feminine, delicate and classic women, but also we have very trendy, artistic, funny women buying our fragrances. I think the feminine and very chic women like the delicacy of the fragrance, and the very fashion ones, they like the fact it’s different and there’s quality and a story behind it – maybe it’s pretentious to say, but it’s almost like an artistic creation.
Have you found different scents do better in different markets?
It’s very funny actually; our two bestsellers are more or less the same everywhere, which is unusual – Eau d’Hadrien and Petite Chérie. Usually, brands have a big difference depending on the market but those two really are number one.
The packaging of your products is so distinctive and feminine – what was behind that?
It’s very funny, when my mother started she had no money, nothing, so she needed to find something [for the bottles] that already existed but that no one had before and other brands hadn’t used. So she went to a glassmakers and searched all their old ancient boxes and found this one, saying “Oh, it’s this one I want!” because it fits well in your hand, and she found it very feminine and elegant… and now, it’s our signature! It’s funny how when you have nothing, you can create something and make it something special.
Roughly how many launches do you have a year?
It depends – usually it’s two. [Camille fingers a bottle’s paper label, which is coming apart.] See that’s something I’m working on – when I see that I’m like, “Ugh”!
How long does it take to create a scent from the initial idea to actually having a scent? What was the scent that took you the longest to develop?
Anywhere from six months to two years, in general. It can be five… it can be less, it can be more. Songes took the longest for me to develop; my mother needed ten years to create Ce Soir Ou Jamais – it was her perfect rose. Of course, when we work on a fragrance, we develop other fragrances at the same time.
Talk us through a few of your scents.
Rose Pompon: It’s rose but it’s fruity, with blackcurrant, raspberry, patchouli, musk, so it’s sweet but not too sweet. I personally prefer white flowers and vanilla; rose is less what I would wear but I like smelling it.
Petite Chérie: It’s rose, but there is a fruit inside – pear and peach. I prefer this one as well! This one is funny because it doesn’t age, it’s timeless – whereas Rose Pompon is more for now, stronger, a bit more sugary. It’s funny actually because a lot of clients enter our shops and say, “Oh I don’t like florals,” and we’re like, “Ok ok”, but once we make them smell things, they are like, “Oh I LOVE this” and it’s the most flowery one!
Gardenia Passion: White flowers… lots of people really don’t like them. It’s a fresh gardenia, I did it after the rainy season in Japan; during May and June, the flowers are blossoming and then when the rain stops, the scent is amazing.
L’ile Au Thé: A fragrance we did with Isabel – it translates as “the island of tea” – this one is more fresh. We went to Jeju Island in South Korea to see the tea plantations and we really really loved the atmosphere; we discovered mandarin trees everywhere where we didn’t even know there would be mandarins… the sea… the tea plantations… it was very peaceful. We went in October when it was very windy, but there were no tourists. It’s interesting when you tell stories – I wouldn’t wear this one either; just sometimes you like the scent but it’s not what you would wear, it’s another memory. It’s doing really well this one.
Songes: That’s the frangipani I smelt every night on the beach in Mauritius; I didn’t know where it was coming from because I couldn’t see the tree. When I left, I asked the man at the reception what was this incredible scent I could smell every night on the beach and he said, “Oh it’s the frangipani behind the hotel!”
It reminds me of Chanel No 5…
Maybe because it’s spicy? You are the first one to say it! But you’re never wrong when you talk about fragrance – if you say that, it might be because there is something in the fragrance that reminds you somehow of Chanel No 5. One funny example was when I had a client smell Petite Cherie and she was adamant she could smell lemon, but there is no lemon in that scent! So we started talking about why she could smell lemon and it was something like one time, she ate pears with lemon; as there is pear in Petite Cherie, she was associating the pear scent with lemon!
It’s very personal – it’s something I always say to our sales ladies, never say no to a client who thinks there is something in a fragrance. First because you don’t know what happens in her mind; second, although as a sales lady, we give you the top five ingredients in a fragrance, actually there are thirty or forty or fifty ingredients and some clients are very good at discovering what’s hidden! You can never be wrong when talking about fragrance.
Actually, one of my favourite scents is lavender, which doesn’t seem to be that common in fragrances anymore; one perfumer told me it was a masculine scent!
I think lavender is beautiful, feminine, rich – I don’t know, people are not used to lavender anymore and they don’t ask for it. I think it’s very feminine but you know, in the 80s, the masculine fragrances all had a lot of lavender. It’s nice on both men and women. But that’s something that really annoys me – classification that “that’s for men, that’s for women” – NO! It’s a scent!
What lies ahead for Annick Goutal?
We are launching another fragrance this year… different packaging but I can’t really tell you much about it [note: this turned out to be Tenue De Soirée, which has a very different bottle to the rest of Annick Goutal’s range, plus a distinctive oversized pompom decoration]. I’d like to have more shops, not huge shops but very cosy boutiques, in big cities. We just opened two in New York! Of course, more creations and maybe other ranges, like for the house…
And with that, our time was up! I left our interview even more obsessed with Annick Goutal fragrances that I had been before (getting to play with fragrances with the person that actually helped create them never gets old)… and Rose Pompon is gorgeous! As has been extensively documented on this blog, I am no lover of rose fragrances, but Rose Pompon is really fresh, fruity, a little bit spiky and invigorating – a really different rose-based scent. Highly recommended!
Annick Goutal is available at JOYCE BEAUTY; see all Hong Kong store locations here