‘When you see the number of perfumes released each year, it’s a miracle there’s even one that stands out.’

Perfume designers Alberto Morillas and Jérôme Epinette discuss the adventure of creating the future of scent.

Interview by Clément Paradis
Photographs by Erwan Frotin

*Composition with Two Flowers N°5*, Philippines, 2014.
From the book *FLUX 1*, published by Note Note Editions. - © System Magazine

Perfume designers Alberto Morillas and Jérôme Epinette discuss the adventure of creating the future of scent.

The power of a fragrance to transport its wearer through time and space, to evoke distant memories and to conjure up emotions is well understood by master perfumers Alberto Morillas and Jérôme Epinette.

Born in Seville, Morillas began his career at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva before joining world-renowned fragrance house Firmenich in 1970. Since then, he’s created some of the most celebrated modern fragrances – the groundbreaking Calvin Klein CK One, the evocative Acqua di Giò, with its top notes of lemon and mint, the charming Daisy for Marc Jacobs and, most recently, Gucci Bloom, a modern floral creation.

It was Acqua di Giò, which he created for Giorgio Armani in 1996, which captured the mind (and nose) of a young Jérôme Epinette, who grew up in Burgundy and whose mother worked in the perfumery where he first immersed himself in the craft. In 2003, after studying at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, he joined natural raw materials and fragrance manufacturer, Robertet, where he has remained ever since.

Over the years, Epinette has created many notable wood-based blends (it’s something of an obsession of his) for well-known houses including Olfactive Studio, Vilhelm Parfumerie, and Atelier Cologne, but it’s his work with Byredo, founded by visionary Swedish artist Ben Gorham, for which he has become best known. Bal d’Afrique, Pulp, 1996, and, of course, Gypsy Water, with its allusions to Romani culture and scents of fresh soil, campfires and forest nights, are all his creations.

With a shared avant-garde approach, both Morillas and Epinette represent the gold standard for perfume today, celebrated for their ability to fuse high-quality natural ingredients with breakthrough synthetics to create constantly surprising results.

System beauty sat down with the pair to discuss their approaches and processes, and the emotional power of perfume.

Clément Paradis: You’ve both worked for large houses and smaller perfumers. What is the key to a good understanding between a perfumer and a brand today?

Jérôme Epinette: The collaboration happens over time. At the beginning, there’s a period of understanding and analysis, and then gradually a certain awareness and trust is established. Our name is of course associated with the brand, which is a huge responsibility, so we throw ourselves into it 100%.

Alberto Morillas: When Gucci and Alessandro Michele called, I was slightly more nervous because I didn’t know him. It’s different to Bulgari with whom I’ve been working for more than 20 years. With Alessandro, it was a genuine exchange between two designers, and I’ve not felt that very often. He adores perfume and he gives his input, but he doesn’t say what he wants; it’s up to me to transcribe an emotion.

Is it harder to work for big or smaller brands?

Jérôme Epinette: There is much more intervention with big brands, with more people involved with decision-making power, so you have to play on all fronts. It can be a bit complex because you have to please both the designer and brand, but in the end, it’s about understanding who is actually making the decisions. That’s the main difference with smaller, more family-oriented brands, which are much easier.

Alberto Morillas: For Gucci, it really is Alessandro who decides the pace we work at. The brief for Mémoire d’une Odeur, for example, was complicated: gender-free and based on chamomile. I would say to Alessandro: ‘Are you sure about chamomile? It’s never been associated with a perfume…’, but he would say, ‘Yes, I like that and want it.’ He said he never wanted to make a perfume that smelled like duty free; he wanted to make one that reflected his ideas.

If I have a niche brand and want to create a perfume, what happens when I come to see you?

Jérôme Epinette: The first step is that I listen. One talent a perfumer must have is being able to grasp the message you want to drive through your brand. So I would ask what you think about life, what your emotions are, what you’re drawn to. Once I have those elements, I can start creating some notes. I don’t like offering a choice of 10 or 15 notes, but just one or two that I really believe in and think could be relevant for you as the client. We take so much pleasure in that as perfumers. It’s about sharing: you tell us what has happened in your life, the journey, and we make a fragrance around that.

‘If I smell Coco Mademoiselle in the street, itinstantly transports me. Yet, if I smell it on a scent strip, it’s not that exceptional.’

Jérôme Epinette

How does it work with established brands, where you already know their visual universe? Are you able to predict what they will want and what will please them or are there surprises?

Alberto Morillas: Every brief is an adventure, even for me. I’ve worked with Bulgari a lot and even now I’m never sure if they’ll like what I’m going to offer them. I never offer them just one version; I have to show all the versions, all the emotions, then it goes to marketing and they decide. You can’t predict anything.

Jérôme Epinette: I completely agree. The perfumer has to go beyond themselves and come up with something quite different each time. There is nothing worse than when a client says, ‘Oh this is just another version of something that already exists.’ People get excited about the next perfume, so we really have to come up with an original twist, a new concept, something unexpected – but will it be liked? That’s the challenge.

Have brands contacted you saying, ‘I want something like Dior Sauvage’, but make it new and original. How does that work?

Alberto Morillas: Everyone has an eye on the market, and we have to as well. A designer who creates in a cellar on his own, he may as well be making perfumes for himself. Perfume has to please a lot of people, I’m not saying everyone, but there has to be something that is surprising, even in its very simplicity. Jérôme has created some astonishing things, but when you wear them, there is always an emotion, really something even if it’s breaking away from the accords. Jérôme made Bal d’Afrique for Byredo, and it’s one thing to smell it on a scent strip and altogether something else when you smell it on a woman. I can understand why it’s so successful. The name, with its energy, can be associated with something sensual.

‘Perfume has to please a lot of people. A designer who creates in a cellar on his own, he may as well be making perfumes for himself.’

Alberto Morillas

What makes your own specificity? You are both known for major perfumes, but also niche perfumes, like Bal d’Afrique and Mémoire d’une Odeur, that have created small-scale revolutions in contemporary perfumery. Neither were runaway commercial hits, but both were critical successes and had an impact on people.

Jérôme Epinette: With Bal d’Afrique, we were trying to create something surprising, different, and with a wonderful sillage that people talked about. If I smell [the Jacques Polge-designed] Coco Mademoiselle in the street, it instantly transports me, and I have to stop and breathe it in. I can actually follow someone down the street because I fall into a trance; you gravitate towards a particular note. Yet, like Alberto with my perfume, if I smell Mademoiselle on a scent strip, it’s not that exceptional; it doesn’t really affect me.

Alberto Morillas: It’s happened to me, too. I’ve gone up to women and said, ‘Madame, what are you wearing? It smells so good.’ Every time I smell Coco Mademoiselle I’m surprised by it. It smells so good, extraordinary even, with that sillage, and yet it seems so simple. Even one I made, Acqua di Giò, still surprises me when I smell it in the street, over 25 years later. It doesn’t belong to me, but I smell an emotion. It’s a formula that works so well, with material elements that were so avant-garde. Adding new material to compositions is actually very difficult because the client isn’t used to it. No one liked ethyl maltol [which has a candied scent] to begin with – I didn’t – but it’s become the vanilla of our era. It’s like calone [which gives a sea-breeze odour]: when you use too much of it, everyone hates it, but now there isn’t a perfume that doesn’t contain calone! When I create a formula, I have no idea it will be such a success. If I knew how it works, I’d be a billionaire!

Jérôme Epinette: You don’t know if it’s going to be a great success, but very quickly you know if you’re onto something. It has an effect on people and you’re proud of that. When the sample arrives from the lab, there really is this joy and that helps with the message for the brand.

*Composition with Two Flowers N°1*, Costa Rica, 2014.
Opening image: *Composition with Two Flowers N°5*, Philippines, 2014.
From the book *FLUX 1*, published by Note Note Editions. - © System Magazine

Composition with Two Flowers N°1, Costa Rica, 2014.
Opening image: Composition with Two Flowers N°5, Philippines, 2014.
From the book FLUX 1, published by Note Note Editions.

Your fragrances have poetic, evocative names such as Gypsy Water, simple names like Bloom, or more outmoded ones like Mémoire d’une Odeur. Do you know the names in advance? Do they influence how you work?

Alberto Morillas: I never know the names until the last minute because often the brands haven’t patented one yet or they’re still looking for it. Bulgari always comes with an idea for the name, but for other brands, I generally find out when the label for the bottle is printed!

Jérôme Epinette: The brands develop everything at the same time – the name and the packaging – while we’re developing the perfume. There might be an inspiration, a concept, but generally we don’t visualize the name in advance. With Byredo and Atelier Cologne, I am part of the naming process. Black Saffron for Byredo, for example, we came up with that name and the brand liked it; it was perfect for their audience and image. Sometimes they give us the name and we don’t agree, but that’s how it is.

‘If you don’t have the desire then you can’t start working on creating perfumes. Talent is one thing, but desire is more important.’

Alberto Morillas

If we look back through time, are there perfumes that continue to fascinate you?

Jérôme Epinette: I have mentioned Coco Mademoiselle; I’m forever shocked by it. Then there are other older perfumes like Opium or Poison, because my mother wore those, so you attach emotional value to those memories. Then also Acqua di Giò. When I smell it in the street, it remains exceptional. I wore it for a very long time. I would almost shower in it, and everyone around me would be like, ‘OK, you have to stop with this perfume.’ It was so strong with such a powerful sillage. Alberto, it really is a creation that I have studied because I had to know what was in this exceptional perfume.

Alberto Morillas: It’s difficult to choose, but even if it is old, there is Chanel N°5. I have tried so hard to make it myself, but never managed! I started in the perfumery business because I loved all the Guerlain perfumes. Shalimar is the most Parisian of perfumes.

What do you think is the future of perfumery?

Alberto Morillas: No more ethyl maltol – we’re fed up with that, even if it is still popular! I don’t know what the crystal ball would say. Who would have thought that Baccarat Rouge 540 would be such a success? A brand that’s barely known for perfume, an accord that’s very simple, and it’s been incredibly successful.

Jérôme Epinette: I think there will always be surprises. As you said, if we knew the future, we’d be billionaires! You mentioned the maltol accord. The combination of orange blossom and maltol is very fashionable right now. Also wood and maltol, it’s always an association of notes, never just one. Otherwise, we’d go around in circles. Baccarat Rouge is very maltol-based, but it’s combined with Ambroxan. It has a very long, diffusing sillage and I think that’s why it’s so successful.

Alberto Morillas: In perfumery, I do like to see the success of others. I think it keeps perfumery alive. When you see the number of perfumes released each year, it’s a miracle there’s even one that stands out. I don’t know how consumers smell them all, I certainly don’t! I have to force myself because we have to be part of the zeitgeist – you can’t just be an old fart!

Jérôme Epinette: Yes, you have to have an open mind.

Alberto Morillas: You’re young! I’m nearly 73.

Jérôme Epinette: There is no age for perfumery!

Alberto Morillas: I agree, as long as there’s the emotion of creation, passion and desire. If you don’t have the desire then you can’t start working on creating perfumes. Talent is one thing, but that desire is more important.

Taken from System beauty No. 1 – purchase the full issue here.