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Alber Elbaz & Frédéric Malle: Superstitious Minds

Former Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz and luxury perfumer Frédéric Malle have partnered to concoct a seductive new fragrance. Luxury London meets the two great minds, whose chance meeting over lunch sparked the creation of Superstitious

It has been over a year since Alber Elbaz left Lanvin, the label where he had spent 14 years at the helm. This very public fashion divorce was met with much shock by the industry and Elbaz did nothing to hide his heartbreak, summing up the split in an interview with British Vogue as “my tragedy”. 

“Since I left Lanvin I have a huge scar… If I ever find an interesting job that will make me want to wake up again, I'll teach every Friday and work one day in a hospital. There's no formula. But I don't want to think about Lanvin.” Fortunately, Elbaz didn’t have to wait long for his creative powers to be reawakened, as soon after he was asked by French perfumer Frédéric Malle to partner with him on an exciting new project: a luxury fragrance. Malle – whose niche fragrance house Éditions de Parfums has been going from strength to strength since launching in 2000 and two years ago was bought by Estée Lauder – had been an admirer of Elbaz’s work for many years.

When he eventually invited the designer out for lunch, he found they shared a mutual appreciation for the “irrational” and “instinctual” nature of design. The pair therefore did away with the established and restricted codes of design and let their imaginations run free; the end result is a product of this free-spirited dialogue and the “friendship and love” they developed for each other along the way. Before meeting Elbaz, Malle had already been working on a scent with his long-term perfume partner Dominique Ropion; a “grand aldehyde floral with a classic architecture” as he describes it. After realising the similarities between the two creatives, Malle approached Elbaz with the idea of adapting the scent and he proceeded to infuse his signature style. 

Proving that you can take the boy out of fashion, but never fashion out of the boy, Elbaz worked on the fragrance as if it were a couture gown, designing a scent that is on first appearances simple, but has hidden depth and construction within. Named Superstitious, the complex floral perfume is distinctive and sophisticated, like its creators, and is composed of luxurious raw materials, including essence of Turkish rose, Egyptian jasmine, Haitian vetiver and patchouli, to name a few. A true fashion-meets-fragrance collaboration, it is just as Elbaz imagined: “the scent of a dress”.

How did the two of you meet?
AE: We met through a mutual friend, Elie Top. Actually, Frédéric asked Elie for my number, and then just called and asked me out to lunch. I knew of Frédéric’s gorgeous stores in Paris, and I had also seen his perfumes at Barneys in New York, but I didn’t know him personally at all and I didn’t know if this sort of collaboration would be right for me. So I was hesitant at first. And then I met Frédéric and I really liked him, and during the process of creating the fragrance we became close friends. Now I feel like the perfume is a result of that friendship and love. In the end, we didn’t have to follow anything but our hearts. 

How did the pair of you combine your creativity and design processes?
FM: Superstitious was not so much about a collaboration as it was a meeting of minds and mutual admiration. We truly respected one another’s creative visions. I’ve admired Alber Elbaz for many years, starting in the late ‘90s when Pierre Bergé chose him to take the helm of Yves Saint Laurent. Then when Alber began designing at Lanvin, my wife Marie often wore his dresses. When we first started meeting, I told Alber that I always begin my projects with a concept. Alber immediately knew what that concept would be: he said he wanted the scent of a dress.

Why is it called Superstitious?
AE: Aside from the fact that Frédéric and I are both very superstitious, the idea for the fragrance is linked to intuition – rather than following the established rules and codes for how to create luxury, we follow our instincts. Or put another way, it’s about leaving knowledge and going back to feelings. 

For what sort of occasion is Superstitious suited?
FM: Superstitious is one smell with many facets, and this one scent has been decided by us and locked into a very specific blend, or ‘story’ if you will. Then, like reading a good book, people will smell this perfume and see the images that they want to see.

Are there any similarities between creating a perfume and designing a fashion collection?
AE: It’s similar in that it’s a process of creation. It starts with a blank page. You don’t have a reference point other than your own ideas because you want to create something new. But the difference here is that I felt that my role was that of a storyteller and then the perfumer translates the story into a perfume. Frédéric gave me the key to this world of perfumes; that was very generous of him. 

Frédéric, you have a strong ties with the fashion world as the grandson of Serge Heftler Louiche (founder of Parfums Christian Dior) and having previously partnered with Dries Van Noten. In what ways do the worlds of fashion and perfumery go together?

FM: I think they’re very complementary. I’ve worked on a lot of perfumes with Dominique Ropion, who is probably the perfumer who works most like an architect. He’s not a stylist. His fragrances are balanced in unexpected ways. It is similar in many ways to how Alber creates dresses that appear as though they’re floating on women, but in fact there is a secret architecture behind them. This is when I realised there were parallels between Dominique and Alber. It was very instinctual for me to suggest introducing Dominique’s fragrance to Alber, because it was the perfect illustration of the way I think of Alber’s work.

Alber, after leaving Lanvin you were quoted in an interview saying that you wanted to create newness in your next project; do you think you have achieved this with your fragrance?
AE: It’s a perfume that could be done in Africa, and it could also be done in Paris. And it could be something that was done in the 1930s, and maybe even in 2018. I think that today when everything has to be à la mode, there is something universal and timeless about what we created here, almost like a dream. 

What do you enjoy about doing collaborations?
FM: My love in life is to work with artists, whether they are perfumers, architects, fashion designers. When I work on a product that is made around these other creative minds, we take a leap of faith by working with perfume as a medium, but thinking of it like other art forms. Working with other artists is an enriching experience for me. I always learn from them and they inspire me to push myself further.  

What type of woman has Superstitious been created for? 
AE: I always say that when I design, I have in mind the women I love. 

Superstitious — Alber Elbaz for Frédéric Malle, £158 for 50ml, available at liberty.co.uk