Thierry Wasser – Fragrance as Art

Maria Joudina

Thierry Wasser‘s path into the world of fragrance was certainly an unconventional one: a school dropout at 15, a herbalist apprenticeship for four years followed by the renowned school of Givaudan that led him to become the first non family member in-house perfumer of Guerlain. We caught up with Thierry to speak about the Guerlain L’Art & La Matière collection, the importance of sourcing and sustainability as well as fragrance being a reflection of society.

Maria Joudina: You’re the first non-family member at Guerlain, as a perfumier, what was it like stepping inside such legendary footsteps?
Thierry Wasser: Easy. No, really because, it is a legitimate question to ask, but I never actually asked it myself. I never felt like I was a non-member of the family. First of all, I have been with Mr. Guerlain for a couple of years, learning the trade of manufacturing and sourcing because our brand, the house of Guerlain is very different: we don’t outsource anything. I’ve also discovered that we are very similar in the way that we are a little rough around the edges, we are very straightforward, we don’t bullshit much, we love white wine and we are at ease in any circumstances – whether in rubber boots or tuxedo. 
MJ: So a perfect fit!
TW: Yes, I think it is due to our love for travels, because sourcing is about travel. When you are in Paris, you tend to forget that we are the same kind of animal. With him we have that dynamic and I felt totally adopted by him and by the brand. When I go to my factory there are over 100 people, I know them all. I’ve been adopted by everyone in the company. 
MJ: And what inspired you to become a perfumier in the first place?
TW: I have no idea! I got into that trade by chance, luckily I would say, I was born a long time ago. Today my trajectory would be much more difficult I think. You still had opportunities to grow without a formal education. I was kicked out of school at 15 and I started to do an apprenticeship for four years on a topic that I loved at the time, it was all those herbs and medicinal plants. So I am a herbalist by trade, but at the end of the four years I was like, well what am I going to do with that? Like everyone on Earth, I think you evolve because you encounter people and I had my encounter with a man who took me in as an apprentice as I was a dropout of school. God knows why, but he trusted me and offered me a position. That was my first encounter and the second was the head of the perfumery school of Givaudan in Geneva because I wrote to them and said, “I’ve read in a magazine that your brand is designing fragrances, so what is it?” And they answered: “Thank you for the interest in our company, we cannot explain that to you, but why don’t you come visit us?” And I did. At the time I was 19 and the guy I met was my age that I am now, and was the head of that school. We talked for an hour about music and painting. I was talking about things that I knew about. I didn’t want to talk about fragrance or chemistry because I had no freaking idea what it was and he was kind enough to react and we saw that we both loved modern art, not contemporary, but modern art and we both loved classical music and after an hour of speaking he asked: “Do you want to take a little test?” and I said, “Sure, why not.” After that he offered me to get into the school. Once again, why on Earth this guy who is looking for people out of university took a dropout from school who had an apprenticeship diploma? No idea, but you see what I mean? 
MJ: It was meant to be, it was your path.
TW: With Guerlain it’s the same thing, that’s why I say, and it’s valid for every kid around the world, you make encounters and after that it’s up to you to make the decision to follow that old fart of a man. That was my path. 
MJ: Guerlain has been around for a very long time and has so many fragrances in it’s history, what do you think does it take to create a blockbuster fragrance? Like for example Shalimar?
TW: If there was a recipe for that, I would only do Shalimar. Unfortunately sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss. Please do believe me that I never wake up one morning and think “Wow, today I’m going to create a huge fragrance”. It’s still a mystery and I’m very happy that there are still some mysteries in the universe, you cannot explain everything. With Shalimar, I think it’s the designer who perfectly matched the spirit of the fragrance that made that fragrance successful.When you see that cartoon silhouette, I think this character became the incarnation of the scent and it was so different, it made its success. It’s not always the fragrance that makes the success, because at the end of the day when you go to Sephora, and I’m not saying Sephora is the temple of fragrances, don’t get me wrong, but if you go you can see a lot of fragrances, and they’re all decent. But why do some work better than others? We all try to express something, it’s like a book. Some sell, some don’t. 
MJ: Do you think there are fashions for fragrance? In the way that there are fashions for clothes? What makes a scent’s appeal last?
TW: There are. You cannot forecast it, very often you see the trends retrospectively and fashion goes very fast. When I was young, you had two collections: summer and winter. Already a fast pace compared to the fragrance industry. Not only do you have winter, you have cruise, you have this and that. The pace of fashion is absolutely crazy compared to that of fragrance. That’s why the pace of trends for fragrance is much more steady, you don’t have a certain type of colour or print or texture that all the brands are going to rush into. You can say, look in the rear mirror: at the end of the 60’s and 70’s it was the hippy phenomenon that truly was very strong in fragrances and in the 70’s and 80’s women were trying to take over almost 300 000 years of slavery by men. That was a very strange feminism, because they describe themselves as men. Look at Saint Laurent – he put them in a tuxedo jackets. Smell the fragrances: Giorgio Beverly Hills, Poison – it was like, “I’m here, I’m in charge and I have status.” I think it was interesting to witness that because it was not a feminine feminism and I don’t think it’s how you fight. Why would you disguise yourself as a man, if you’re not? To me it was interesting. Then, unfortunately in the 80’s the world was shaped and touched to the core by aids and sex was mortal. It was a deadly act, or could be. Everything sexy and overtly sexual like the previous obsession by Calvin Klein saw a huge drop. You had all those clean fragrances and eventually unisex fragrances like CK1, Pleasures from Estee Lauder. In the ad you saw that girl with the puppies and the flowers, it has nothing to do with being sexual. So that was in the 90’s, the clean – Romance from Ralph Lauren etc. And secondly Guerlain came in. Because people said okay, sex is still dangerous, but how do I compensate? With sugar and sweetness! So you see what I mean? Fragrances are, in my opinion, the reflection of society at a certain moment. That’s exactly the point I make – you pinpoint some social and environmental issue into the fragrance. 
“You have to understand when you spray a fragrance of ours, that there are thousand voices coming out of that spray – being liberated, because I jailed them in a bottle.”
MJ: It’s very fascinating to look at it that way. You mentioned how important art and literature is for Guerlian, and I’ve read how many of the past fragrances were inspired by literature and you compare haute perfumery collections to art and specifically to painting. Could you paint an imaginary picture for one of your favourite scents from this collection?
TW: Well, let’s take one example which is closely linked to painting which is Neroli Outrenoir. The word Outrenoir is directly inspired by the art of Pierre Soulages who painted black paintings. It is not a black colour if you can call it a colour, it is the texture of his painting and how the light reflects and plays on the painting. So, the interest is not the black, but the light on the black, and if you think that way, Neroli Outrenoir is what? It’s the light of the orange flower – Neroli, and the darkness of black tea, and how does the white impact the black? That was the construction of Neroli Outrenoir. You have a movement between the light and the colour black. The problem with explaining your creative mode is, you become either metaphysical, satirical or crazy. The idea was to translate in scent the effect of light on black.
MJ: And can you tell us more about the new L’Art & La Matière collection of fragrances?
TW: So this collection started in 2005, it was the idea, the dream, the mind, the desire from our marketing director – who decided we have to elevate the perfumery. You mentioned that word before; people were chasing blockbusters and this is exactly the antithesis of blockbusters. The only collection in fragrance prior to 2005 is another Guerlain. Her idea was to become something like haute perfumery and that’s the background of that collection. Every collection is like a family, sometimes you have newborns and sometimes some family members disappear – that’s what happens. That’s why the collection is still alive and why I call it a family. Now in the family we have 17 fragrances with two newborns. Some of those fragrances getting into the family already existed but have been renamed for the sake of clarity. We will see how this family grows, but the idea of haute perfumery is to express an artistic point of view. How do you make this so special compared to, as you call it, a blockbuster? You are much more free because when you create a blockbuster, the business and investment are huge to back that launch. The fear of failing is something that is a great limitation to creativity. How would you feel free if you’re in fear? It’s very simple. What I do is no rocket science, so here in the collection where you don’t take any financial risks, so you can be free and you can express yourself the way you wish. Moreover, the raw materials you can pick can be much more specific in a way that you know you will produce small quantities. You can use very specific raw materials without the fear of running out of them. If I want to use a very special orange flower, I know that I can use that even if the production volume is small. If I put this type of material in a blockbuster or future blockbuster, I might shoot myself in the foot because you cannot get the supply for it. In this collection you have very interesting, small production of raw materials which makes, I do believe, a huge difference. This collection is about staging the raw materials. 
MJ: As you said, raw materials are extremely important to you and specifically in this collection. I read that you spent 3 months of the year on the quest for those materials. How did you manage to do that during the pandemic? And what is the next place that you’re excited to go to on this quest?
TW: I’m always excited to go everywhere in the world because you don’t buy a rose, jasmine or sandalwood. You buy it from someone and those someones became my friends over the years. Some of them have been working with Guerlain for three generations. Those trips are important since you experience that closeness and bond with our partners, you cannot sustain a relationship if you don’t go visit. If you don’t go visit or pick up the phone when they call, they tend to disappear. Sourcing is before the ingredients a human quest, it’s about bonding. You have to understand when you spray a fragrance of ours, that there are thousand voices coming out of that spray – being liberated, because I jailed them in a bottle. Every flower is hand picked, every tree is chopped into pieces by people and their pride and hopes are in those bottles. The only thing I can do by visiting them is exacerbate the pride and hope. I’m fulfilling some of those quests. So yes, the pandemic was preventing me from travelling, but I think more than that, the problem is that people died of it. I mean what the fuck. Excuse my French, but what is not taking a flight for 18 months compared to people dying around the planet? Obviously we are proving right now that you can be in Germany and LA and still talk. It’s okay, it didn’t affect me.
MJ: It’s truly fascinating to think about scent in the way you describe it. It’s very inspiring.
TW: Guerlain is a beauty house and sustainability today is something that people grapple with, but it’s not a concept, it’s a state of mind. If you are a company that is almost 200 years old and you are still relevant today, it’s because you have been sustainable all along. Otherwise you would be dead. Sustainability is about your own survival first, it’s not about making out a check to the Red Cross and feeling good about it. It’s doing, and caring and once again being involved and engaging with people – that’s how you survive. I think our trade being in beauty is about sustaining the strength of self esteem. A little lipstick with some terracotta, you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and say, “Yeah, I look good”. If you do look good, you fight better. If you like yourself, love yourself, you’ll be able to love someone else and that’s what beauty is. Because of that trade of ours, Guerlain has a strong feminine image, but since I am here I guess we also took a turn. Not only being feminine, but eventually feminist. Beauty is about showing you who you are and what you can do. I wish also eventually men can use makeup. At the court of Louis 14th or before, men were made up. It’s a cycle, but what we do is a boost of self esteem. You give something. The best way to receive something is to give and I see that when I do my sourcing trips. Flower pickers, distillers in very often tough countries to make a living in, I get so much love over there, that’s why I come back to my sister and brotherhood. That’s where you experience that. But first, you have to have an open mind and heart, then they recognise you and they give you ten billion times what you started giving. That’s what fragrance is about and that’s my take of what we do.
“If you like yourself, love yourself, you’ll be able to love someone else and that’s what beauty is.”