Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Interview: Mark Buxton On Perfume Mastery, Mimicry, and Moving Forward

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In the world of avant-garde fragrance, it is difficult to pick out a name that looms larger than Mark Buxton. Buxton has been a standard-setter since the nineties, most notably crafting the eponymous Comme des Garçons fragrances that gave that brand the reputation for daring, high-quality perfume that it carries today. Since then, Buxton has launched his own line, co-founded a highly successful fragrance company, and, along with fellow perfumer David Chieze, continued to craft masterpieces for houses like Folie à Plusiers. In this interview, Buxton breaks down what lead him to perfumery, his creative processes, disturbing trends in the artform, and where he hopes fragrance will go in the future.

Where did your love of perfume first come from?

Oof – it started so long ago. I grew up in Germany, and my parents were running a restaurant/bar/fast food kind of thing. That’s when I discovered odors. I used to hang out in the kitchen and help the chefs when they were cooking. It wasn’t that exciting doing the cooking, but rather the smell in the kitchen. Herbs, spices…one of my favorite smells is still roast chicken with herbs de provence, or fresh garlic with chives and olive oil.

A lot of influence in my perfumes today comes from the kitchen, but I don’t come from a family with a history or background in perfumes. To be honest, until I started perfume school thirty five years ago, I didn’t even know perfume existed – so I slid into it totally by coincidence.

You’re also quite into wine and cooking – could you explain how those passions role into your craft?

If you compare the kitchen, it’s a lot like what we’re doing with fragrances today – to create a new sauce in the kitchen, you mix them together in different amounts until you get the right balance, and that’s what we do when we create fragrances. There are lots of similarities. For me, it just goes together. Today my biggest hobby is cooking. I love wine – I love eating and drinking in general. I don’t drink the fragrances though – not yet. (laughs)

You have your own line, and then you’ve also released fragrances through many houses with other artists. Do you prefer having complete control over your fragrances, or do you prefer to have another guide while you’re creating?

Well, when we work – I say we, because I work with another perfumer, David Chieze – when we get briefed, we try to keep it as simple as possible. I always say, “the less information, the better.” It leaves us room for creativity and lets us do our own thing. The pages of briefs that you get when they describe what type of woman the perfume is for – she drives a BMW car and all this shit – just give me a few words or a painting, a picture, colors – something very basic – just let us flow into that. That’s how we usually start.

If you ask ten perfumers to make a perfume that smells ‘purple,’ you’ll get ten different interpretations. So I always say, the less information you give us, the less you’re going to corner us, or push us in a direction we don’t even want to go into. 99% of the fragrances we create for various clients, they come back to us and say wow, how did you do it? Just give us a few words like milky, cloudy day, or lying on the grass somewhere – that’s it. Let us do the rest. That’s how we work – that’s what gets us there.

How do you work with David to create the products you’ve been working on?

Well, it’s been over six years now with David. I trained him a lot, and he also came from a friend of mine who was working with Bertrand Duchaufour at the time – he got recommended to me by Bertrand. I took him over and trained him for several years, and he’s quite a fine perfumer. 

If a client asks us for one fragrance, they get two interpretations. One is David’s and one is mine. They both go to the client – we don’t say who made what – and they chose one that they thinks fits the brief. Sometimes it’s David’s, sometimes it’s mine. Sometimes we get lucky and they say wow, both are great – I think I’m going to buy both fragrances. All this can happen.

But as I said, each briefing – for example, asking for the interpretation of an apricot – when you give it to David and give it to myself, and you end up with totally different fragrances. That’s the exciting thing about it. Everyone has his own handwriting, his own feeling for products – seeking certain materials or using an overdose of some material. 

And I just wanted to add one thing. When we get briefed by any brand, any client – when we send our ideas to them, they come back with their feedback. They say O.K., I like this one, but I need it to be more green, or it’s too woody, or can I have it a little bit sweeter. So after the first round, we create the fragrance together. It’s a dialogue which goes back and forth, and we send it back until they’re satisfied. It goes fast. Two or three modifications maximum, and everybody’s satisfied. In general, we never send anything out if we’re not satisfied ourselves – where we can say, this could be on the market the way it is.

At the beginning, as I said, the less information we get, somehow, is the best. It leaves the most space for creativity. 

So you create original drafts separately, and as you edit it, it becomes a collaborative process. 

Yes. Of course, when I have my idea and I’m working on it, I show it to David to get his opinion, he shows me his to get my opinion. We don’t work separately – we work together. But it’s his idea – the main idea comes from himself, not me, and vice versa. But of course, we support each other. I show my stuff to my friends occasionally, or my wife – she’s also a perfumer. Sometimes I show her something if I get stuck. It’s a dialogue going around, that’s for sure.

I bet this comes up often, but how was it to collaborate with Wes Anderson to create a fragrance to fill a space in another story?

That was a funny one, actually, because the contact came through the Nose boutique in Paris. I’m one of the founders and partners in that boutique. They were contacted by a film company that asked if Nose knew of someone who could create the fragrance for the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Myself being a perfumer and partner, they said yes, we know Mark Buxton and could hand him over

Apparently Wes Anderson (the director of the film) wasn’t really thrilled because he’d already worked with a few other companies before and he was never satisfied with the result. So these guys said, you have one shot. But if not, it’s off the table. 

So, Nose gives me a call, mentions Wes Anderson – this was like 8:30 in the morning – during the weekend. I was in bed of course – and I said, who the fuck is Wes Anderson? (laughs) So he explains that he does films, and I’m like ok, that dude. The next day I was headed to Turkey to do a job over there, so I said yeah, but I can’t do it for a week. I’ll do it when I come back. He said no, no – it has to be finished by Friday. And I was leaving on Sunday, so I said, fuck.

So anyway, I left for Istanbul, working with a company that also makes fragrances, to do some consulting work. So he sent me over a trailer of the film, I watched the trailer, and I knew the fragrance was called L’Air de Panache. From the images I saw – the short, little trailer – I grabbed a sheet of paper, scribbled down the formula, gave it to the lab, smelled it, said to myself, wow – that’s it.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

I got back to my lab in Paris on Thursday, mixed it again, sent it over to Nose, they sent it to the film company and they smelled it, and they said, wow, this smells really cool. We would say yes but we have to ask Wes Anderson – he’s the dude who will decide yes or no. So they sent it to the states, to his marketing team, and a few days after, they got back to me and said yeah, that’s it. That’s the fragrance.

You know, I’ve never been a big fan of colognes. It’s not really my cup of tea and I don’t have that culture – not Anglo Saxon, or a guy from the south. I don’t like fresh notes too much. So it was a challenge for me to do this cologne, with a form that was very short, and an overdose of a few weird elements, and I think that just struck Wes and we got the green light.

The thing was, with it just being for publicity purposes for the film, they only produced one thousand bottles. They kept 900, gave 100 to Nose as a thank you, because Nose were the guys who also did the packaging – the bottle – and everything like that, and all this was done in a few weeks. And it was like hell to get everything together.

So it all worked it, and the fragrance got so much [press] and so many people contacting me over the site, asking “where can we buy it?” Unfortunately, it was never sold. It was just for the launch in Berlin, the Filmfestspiele, that’s when they launched the film and gave the fragrance to all the press that were there. Luckily, I got one bottle so it’s not too bad. But I still have the formula, so don’t worry about it. (laughs)

The goal of Nose is to connect people to fragrances that connect to them. That’s related to being an artist, but certainly not the same thing. But your role in Nose is often that of a perfumer who can create something bespoke for a particular client, and Nose serves as a sort of funnel for those clients. 

Yeah. And the secret of Nose, and what made the place so successful, is the search engine, which they have if you go on the website. You can find your fragrance by answering three or four questions, and it will give you a recommendation. All these fragrances, which are in the system, all have to be classified. That’s what I do every week, because there are so many new fragrances coming out, so many new brands. Everybody wants to come to Nose, so we get a shitload of fragrances every week, and they all have to be classified. If anybody mentions a fragrance, we know what it smells like. 

We have a system of how to classify fragrances because if you ask five perfumers about a fragrance, one will say it’s a woody-floral-fresh, the other will say it’s a woody-floral-fruity, another will say it’s a woody-floral-green. So at the end of the day, what is it? But if you ask the opinion of one perfumer, who has been doing this shit for years…I have a system for how I classify fragrances. I mean a chypre will always stay a chypre, but it could be a chypre-floral-fruity or a chypre-floral-green. So I decide what it is, then you give primary notes and that’s the secret of it.

You have to be constant and you have to keep the same person, the same schema of how you classify fragrances because if not, the whole thing will be upside down. So this I do every week. It’s not bad – keeps me updated on what’s coming out, what’s new, new brands, what’s around. So yeah, that’s the only function I have at Nose.

How often, if ever, do you stumble across something that is really difficult to classify? Or do you have a system for pretty much everything that comes across, and there’s nothing really that new coming up?

Well sometimes if you have a really strong overdose of something, and it brings you slightly out of the normal, you say, well, what is it? Is it an ori*ntal woody, or an ori*ntal floral, because there’s a flower in there that’s unusual or there’s some chemical in there that can be disturbing but gives it something edgy, something new. But it’s rather rare actually.

Let’s forget about prestige mass-market fragrance – your Dior, Givenchy, all that shit – because they’re totally lost. I don’t know how you feel about it but if you smell the new launches, everything smells like caramel sweet-fruity-musky, they’re all the same. You have La Vie est Belle and then you have twenty five La Vie est Belle twists after that. They’re turning in circles.

That was a big difference when niche started to breakthrough ten years ago. Things were still new – new ideas coming up, new accords, exploring things that hadn’t been used for ages like leather.

A lot of influence came, for the last five years, from the middle east, with perfumery exploding over there. They brought out oud, which is not European at all, and nobody wanted to work with it. I remember the first time I smelled oud, fifteen years ago, I said what is this shit? It’s so powerful, and really, it stinks. But if you start working with it and you understand the product and how to use it in a fragrance, it becomes quite interesting really.

All this is an influence that came from the middle east, with an overdose of all these piercing woody notes. They’re so powerful and they used them in overdoses. So you’re seeing influences in other countries that don’t have the French know-how and culture of fragrances, but these guys just dare something. It’s not about the money-making, it’s just that they would like something new, something different, something original, which just stands out. And that’s what niche used to be ten years ago.

But I’ve been noticing, the last few years, that as soon as something has success in niche, then [all of a sudden] you have brands which bring something similar. Black Afgano is an outstanding fragrance. Like it or dislike it, it’s such a great accord – so unique. And now, you go through several brands and it’s like, this is a Black Afgano twist, this is based on that as well, and it’s the same with Baccarat Rouge – it’s a great accord – and you smell it everywhere – and then every fragrance coming out is a Baccarat Rouge twist because it was successful and it worked. So we’re starting to copy each other in the niche as well. And I think that is very very sad.

As I always say, we have to look forward – we should be globetrotters. That’s why I left the industry twelve years ago, because I was fed up with all this shit. Copying and trickle-downs and twists and all that. And now we’re starting to do the same. That’s why I say, when we get a brief, we don’t have a library. We don’t have a marketing person. We don’t have an evaluator. It’s the two of us with an assistant, and we start from a white page. We don’t start to mix two formulas or whatever – we start from zero. And that’s how it should be.

It’s like old school, how it used to be a hundred years ago. And that’s what we do. And that’s why people come to us, because we have a certain handwriting in the company, which comes out of this house, and people say it’s different – it has something. And that’s why we get approached. We don’t copy. 

As you mentioned earlier, niche is falling into the habit of copying its own hit fragrances. What would your hope be for the future of niche so that perhaps that trend can be bucked?

As I said, we have to look forward. What’s done has been done, and we don’t have to invent it again. That’s why we’re always seeking some new materials – it can be chemical, it can be natural products – something which is rare or very expensive, and that’s a good thing about niche. Nobody really cares about how much your concentrate costs. 

You know if you work in the industry – say you’re working on a fragrance for Burberry, they’re going to give you 23 Euros for a kilo. Well what does that mean? It means you can basically put sparkling water in there, you have no money for anything. 

Then if you work on niche products, you’re talking around 200, 300, 500, 700 Euros a kilo. It’s totally different – it changes everything. We can work with natural products which the other houses – big houses – can’t ever work with. If they use rose oil, they put one gram at ten percent concentration in a fragrance and think they invented the wheel. We can put ten grams pure in there – if it costs you two hundred Euros to put rose in the fragrance, so what? That’s the way it is, that’s the way it is! 

We have to look forward and that’s why we’re always looking for new accords. We try a lot with overdoses of weird products and try to dress them up, and it gives character to the DNA in the fragrance and people will ask, oh, what is this? I haven’t smelled this before. We are always looking for ‘wow’ or ‘aha’ or ‘what is this,’ you know – surprising elements, that’s what we’re seeking.

And we have a good company we work with in the South of France, PCW – Perfume Cosmetic World – and the guy’s been in the industry fifty years, he’s a good buddy of mine. He used to be responsible for chemicals and raw materials – a company called Quest at the time, they were bought by Givaudan – but that’s beside the point. Anyway, this guy travels a lot – it’s one of his big hobbies – and he comes back with some weird new flowers or some new herbs.

Of course everything has to be legal, everything has to be tested. We’re not freaks, you know – we work by the rules. Just keep your eyes open and see what’s going on, look forward, and try to do something new. That’s the key to success.

Images courtesy of Mark Buxton

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