Rumours began about five years ago that Louis Vuitton was planning to return to the perfume world after a seven-decade absence. They firmed up in 2012 when the maison appointed a maître parfumeur, joining a small set of exclusive brands with in-house perfumers.
The master chosen, Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud—a third-generation nose from the fragrance capital of the world, Grasse in the south of France—brings the project to fruition this month with the launch of not one, but seven fragrances to join a luxury heritage dating back to Louis Vuitton’s founding in 1854.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” says Jacques, whose creations during 22 years at the fragrance and flavours conglomerate Firmenich include Jean Paul Gaultier Classique, L’Eau d’Issey, Opium Pour Homme, Stella by Stella McCartney and Lancôme’s Poême.
While most brands outsource their scents to specialist companies and demand a quick turnaround, Jacques emphasises: “We are revisiting and essentially starting an entire new department of a traditional trunk company—and simultaneously rebuilding a historic house that I grew up beside.”
The perfumer is referring to Les Fontaines Parfumeés, a mansion in the centre of Grasse that was home to a fragrance house of the same name from 1640 until its closure in 1926. As a boy, Jacques passed by its wrought iron gates every school day, and the place had a profound effect on him.
“I went to school a few hundred metres from the house. At eight years old, after falling in love with the intoxicating scents of lavender, citronella and orange blossoms wafting from it every day, I went to my father, a perfumer, and asked him to teach me the art of fragrance. Thankfully, he said yes.”
Today, Jacques’ office and creative workshop are housed in Les Fontaines Parfumées, which Louis Vuitton bought in 2013 and is restoring to its former glory. “In many ways, I feel like I’m home and exactly where I’m supposed to be. Except now, instead of looking through the iron gates of this mysterious house, I’m inside it, creating fragrances that once entranced me.”
The beautiful setting and its history helped inspire Jacques through the four years of patient experimentation and testing that culminated in the fragrances about to be launched.
Also part of his inspiration was a heritage shared by Louis Vuitton and Grasse—that of leather. Centuries ago, before it gained its current fragrant reputation, Grasse was a malodorous leather tanning centre.
A fashion in the 1600s for scented leather gloves saw the fields around Grasse transformed into a patchwork quilt of flowers to produce the scents for the gloves—and to mitigate the nasty smells of tanning. Eventually the tanning industry was replaced by the perfume business.
Jacques was particularly inspired by the delicate floral scent of the beige leather used on the handles and straps of Louis Vuitton’s trunks and handbags. He found its light notes mesh effortlessly with the scent of centifolia rose and jasmine.
To capture the essence of flowers, Jacques developed a unique extraction system using carbon dioxide. “The method is a worldwide first,” he says. “I was obsessed with getting the pure scent of flowers into a bottle without heating them up, which is necessary during the traditional steam distillation method. Many people said it was impossible, but I didn’t stop until the impossible became a reality.”
The Louis Vuitton collection began with the “airy and light Rose des Vents, which is a vibrant combination of centifolia absolute, Turkish rose essence and Bulgarian rose oil.” Each of the six scents that followed celebrate a different aspect of femininity and the heritage of the maison, says Jacques.
“It’s nearly impossible to describe each fragrance succinctly. But I would say that Turbulences is intoxicating, Dans la Peau is a musky celebration of leather, Apogée is a perfect expression of simplicity, Contre Moi is light and oriental, Matière Noire is an exploration of the darker side of sensuality, and Mille Feux is an explosion for the senses.
Thankfully, our clients don’t need to choose just one bottle as there are multiple large, small and miniature bottles and options to choose from.” The minimalist bottles, the work of influential Australian designer Marc Newson, are available only at Louis Vuitton boutiques, where they can also be refilled.
In creating the fragrances, Jacques was given all the time he needed. He “had carte blanche,” says the maison’s executive vice-president, Delphine Arnault. “We wanted to offer creations that reflect life as it is now: modern and multifaceted. Louis Vuitton perfumes correspond to all kinds of women, and I’ve worn them all. Each one of these perfumes is unique, and each one has its own personality.”
Asked if he has any final thoughts on his magnum opus, Jacques smiles humbly and says, “The result surpassed even my expectations.” And on that note, the master perfumer opens a small bottle of Rose des Vents and transports us to the fields of Grasse.
(Text by Dervla Louli)