Fabrice Penot says he has never been asked about his first scent memory … until now. This seems astonishing, as he is the co-founder, with Eddie Roschi, of Le Labo, arguably the most important game changer the fragrance industry has sniffed since the brand was launched half a decade ago. In any case, he answers the question this way: "I am a notorious amnesiac, but my grandmother had huge a fig tree in front of her house in the south of France, where I would go on vacation. I remember sitting under this tree and the sweet smell of fig and I would allow my mind to wander. Without knowing it at the time, I was actually experimenting with the power of meditation."
Certainly, Penot has thought long and hard about what Le Labo is and what it isn't. In the process, he has significantly challenged the fragrance establishment. The brand, which is available in Canada at newly opened 6 by Gee Beauty in Toronto, is radical for a number of reasons, starting with the fragrance names. Each refers to the dominant essence and the number of ensuing ingredients - Bergamote 22 or Patchouli 24, for example. Once you decide which one to buy, the fragrance is composed fresh in a matter of minutes, a trained sales associate combining the concentrated essences with alcohol. The name of the wearer and the date it was made is then stamped onto the label in retro typewriter-style font; the box it comes in is thick, unadorned cardboard. The conventional marketing aesthetic is completely removed from the equation, although what results, of course, is a no less branded product: It just eliminates many of the levels that separate perfume lab from customer.
I know what you're thinking: I have yet to describe the actual scents. But I could use any combination of impressive adjectives and still fall short of capturing their elusive beauty. Penot apparently feels the same way. "It's really important for us not to [ascribe]too many words to the perfumes," he says. "Our audience is able to trust its own intuition and emotions. That's actually what we are focusing on - it's not about look."
The Le Labo vision, Penot explains, draws heavily on the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection. "These perfumes are imperfect on purpose in order to create a personality," he says. "With human beings, there is nothing more boring than someone who is perfect; you love people for their imperfections also. But the shelves of the world are filled with perfect perfumes, which are boring."
Collaborative projects notwithstanding, there has only been one truly new Le Labo fragrance over the past five years. A second has been in development for 19 months and has been reformulated 184 times. Why? "It's still imperfect," Penot replies, without a trace of irony. In this case, though, the imperfection refers to the elusive harmony of structure and aesthetic. "Sometimes you have the shape you want, but you don't have the performance you want," he notes.
Although he isn't out to seduce the masses, Penot acknowledges that he and Roschi have great confidence in the public's willingness to embrace new scent paradigms. "Every day, when there is a huge launch for a boring perfume, there are people disappointed and wanting something else - something more special," he says. "They will come to us … and, frankly, they will never go back."