A new era is dawning at Parfums de Nicolai, the venerable brand that was one of the pioneers of niche perfumery. Founded and led by the legendary Patricia de Nicolaï, the company recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, changed its name to NICOLAÏ: PARFUMEUR-CRÉATEUR (hereinafter simply referred to as “Nicolai“), and brought in Axel de Nicolaï, Patricia de Nicolaï’s son, as both the General Manager and her collaborator in the perfume-creation process.
It’s a significant step for a few reasons. Axel de Nicolaï was raised in the Nicolai perfume and family tradition, but he also brings a different perspective to the mix after working in the larger mainstream fragrance industry with the big perfume conglomerates of LVMH and InterParfums, and spending time in the Middle East. It was his idea that Nicolai should explore the oud genre, resulting in last year’s Rose Oud and Amber Oud, and his influence also helped to shape the direction of Nicolai’s newest release, Ambre Cashmere Intense. In his main role as the new General Manager, he’s made changes to the company’s marketing direction and sales strategy, but he’s equally determined that marketing should never impact or alter the Nicolai olfactory “DNA.”
While it is a collaboration between generations that is infused with new perspectives, it is still Patricia de Nicolai who leads the charge and the perfumes remain primarily her creations, molded by her technical talent and her wealth of experience. For those of you unfamiliar with Madame de Nicolai’s background, she is a member of the Guerlain family, the great grand-daughter of Pierre Guerlain, and a niece to both Jean-Jacques Guerlain and the famed nose, Jean-Paul Guerlain.
But she is also much, much more than that, and her many accomplishments were all achieved on the basis of her own talent and merits. Madame de Nicolai is a professionally trained “nose,” and a pioneer amongst female perfumers. She has been awarded prestigious honours from both her peers and from the French government itself. She is also the president of L’Osmothèque, the famed perfume museum at Versailles that is the archive and guardian for what remains of many of the greatest, now-vanished fragrances of the past. (If you’re interested in more details on this remarkable woman and her life, you can read a profile on Madame de Nicolai that I wrote a while ago.)
I recently discussed many of these matters in a written interview with both Patricia and Axel de Nicolai. It is the first time that they have sat down together to talk about their company, their family, and the perfume industry as a whole. It was an enormous honour and privilege, and I want to thank both of them for taking the time to answer my long questions. I am particularly grateful to Madame de Nicolai who not only spared the time from her incredibly busy schedule at Nicolai and L’Osmothèque, but who also shared a few personal family photos that have never been revealed to the public before. It was such a generous and thoughtful gesture, and it meant the world to me. Finally, I’d like to thank Damien Flynn, the head of the company’s press office, for his assistance, for providing many of the other Nicolai photos shown here, and for his patience. (If I’d been in his shoes, I’d have strangled me at the continuous requests for “more photos,” and “more, more photos.”)
I hope you enjoy the interview, and find the answers about the Nicolai family, the brand, and the perfume industry as a whole to be as fascinating and informative as I did. For the purposes of clarity, the start of every question lists the name of the person to whom it is directed. So let us begin:
Madame de Nicolai: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Parfums de Nicolaï. Let me congratulate you, and wish you many, many more years to come. You were one of the very first “niche” houses, as that term is defined today. What were the biggest obstacles that you faced in terms of launching your new brand and in creating the sorts of fragrances that you did?
Launching a completely new fragrance brand at the end of the 80’s was a great challenge! It was a daring leap in the dark and one of my first objectives was to build legitimacy towards the customers. I needed my brand to be credible. Indeed, the only bond I had with my public was the fragrance itself! It needed to be flawless with a high standard of quality and very audacious…without being ridiculous. Above all, the fragrance had to be recognizable!
- Axel de Nicolai: Your short biography on the Nicolai website states that you first worked for Kenzo/Givenchy Parfums, then went to work in the perfume business in the Middle-East. Let’s start with Kenzo/Givenchy, both of which are owned by LVMH. A designer label owned by a large conglomerate with very commercial, mass-market interests is quite different from your family’s focus on niche perfumes. What lessons did you learn at Kenzo/Givenchy that would help a niche brand, and what do you want to avoid, particularly when it comes to the style of perfumes that you help to create for Nicolai?
I learnt a lot regarding the fragrance market. When I was at LVMH, they taught me great sales process and a strong discipline. I also liked the way they give specific jobs and missions to everyone at the company. No one is left a part, not knowing what to do. This is something quite important and even if at NICOLAI we do not have the same amount of people to follow, I personally take care of all my employees as I want them to be motivated and committed by a common purpose. When I was in Dubai working for the local distributor of Interparfums, I learnt how to be strategic, where the best spots, the best markets were and how also the fragrances are launched.
When I arrived at NICOLAI, I realized that we could not propose ALL of our fragrances to everyone all over the world; a selection had to be made! I therefore impose an international selection with the best fragrances and I decided to build around it some important POS materials like better packaging, posters, samples on cards…elements that the retailers need to correctly carry the brand. This international selection can also be discussed according to a specific market as the human relation is also very important.
It has been a year now I am officially the general manager of the brand. With the new sales rules I have imposed, we opened some great new markets like in South Korea, Switzerland or the Middle-East. Being strict and coherent on how to develop ourselves do not mean to succumb into a marketing-driven brand. On the contrary, we impose our own marketing according to what we want and using our best element: the fragrances.
- Axel de Nicolai: What exactly did you do in the Middle East perfume industry? On a personal level, how did you respond to the Middle Eastern style of perfumery which is so different from the French or classical traditions represented by Nicolai? Were you responsible for Nicolai finally releasing two oud fragrances long after other companies had already jumped on the trendy, hot oud bandwagon? Given how lucrative the Middle Eastern market is, would you consider giving an even stronger Middle Eastern vibe or aesthetic to future Nicolai fragrances, or do you think it’s important for Nicolai to stick to its signature French classicism?
I stayed 2 years in Dubai as a brand manager for Interparfums and it was great. What I found fascinating is that Middle-Eastern customers are not so driven by big names. It is a market where the quality of the fragrance is more important than anything else. Therefore, you don’t have to be a worldwide famous brand to succeed and actually, you can be very successful if your fragrances are indeed great. The Arabic culture is shaped by fragrances and the people have a strong sensitivity about it. And yes, it is true that I was the one who pushed Patricia to develop fragrances using the different facets of the Oud note. However, it was totally useless to create a simple Oud fragrance like many brands did in order to follow the fashion. If we had to make some Oud fragrances, it needed to be in harmony with our own DNA of distinguished and elegant fragrances. A challenge Patricia faced 10 years ago with the patchouli note, creating the amazing Patchouli Intense, a perfume totally different of all the patchouli fragrances we are used to scent.
The Middle-East market is an important and very competitive market. It is not as ‘easy’ that it looks like to develop a fragrance brand over there. We are very lucky to see that our ‘parisian’ perfumes are well appreciated and that the Middle-Eastern people like fragrances that were not created specifically for the Arabic market (like Patchouli Intense, Musc Intense, Cuir Cuba, Kiss Me…). We do not want to change our olfactory signature for one single market. Since the beginning, our motto is to have a perfumer free in its creation process, avoiding any marketing limits. We have our own boutiques in Paris and London, we have hundreds of retailers in Europe, the US, Korea…every market is important to us and no market will ever impose our way to make fragrances.
- Madame de Nicolai: Out of all the fragrances that you’ve created, which one(s) were you the proudest of, and why? In hindsight, which one(s) turned out to be your least favorite, and why? Were there any fragrances that were particularly challenging and difficult to create?
I have many fragrances from which I am proud of! But if I had to choose one, I will probably say Cuir Cuba Intense. To me, it is one of the most original fragrances of my collection, a warm and deep fragrance having a unique long trail which arouses a fantastic interest. With Cuir Cuba, I think that I have succeeded to find the right balance between power and elegance. And believe me, this is quite difficult! A lot of fragrances are treated in order to be very powerful but they tend to be too overwhelming and sometimes sickly…A powerful fragrance must avoid being overpowering.
I don’t really have a least favorite fragrance. If I made a fragrance, it means that I liked it! Once again, I do not have a marketing service pushing me to create a fragrance I don’t want to do…However, it is true that a perfumer, like any artist, evolves in his making process and maybe some of my first fragrances were less elaborated than my latest ones. I can for example talk about Vanille Intense, a fragrance which is now discontinued. If I look at it now, I would say that it was not well elaborated, maybe too ‘simple’ and too muffled. But I love some of its facets which actually inspired me to create Ambre Cashmere Intense.
Musc Intense is probably the most challenging fragrance. The musk note is quite used in perfumery as an accessory to enhance the trail and the tenacity of fragrances. Use musk as a main chord is very challenging because it’s a very heavy base note. You need to associate musk with the right ingredient in order to make it vibrate. I eventually decided to link my musk with rose, carnation, violet and a pinch of pear top note.
- Axel de Nicolai: Your sister reportedly is uninterested in perfumery, according to an interview your mother once gave. You’re obviously different. What was it like growing up with a famous perfumer as your mother? What stories can you share with us? And what were your earliest scent memories?
I think that growing up with a famous perfumer unconsciously forms your nose. Look at the Guerlain family! You practically find a great perfumer in every generation and Patricia herself was very much influenced by all the scents she felt as a child. Your nose is constantly solicited and becomes well elaborated during the years, giving you your own fragrance taste and sensitivity. When I was a child, I used to do my homework at Patricia’s lab! I therefore discovered loads of different natural and synthetic scents. My favorite one was actually a synthetic note: the vanillin. When I smell it now, I automatically see myself as a child in the lab. It’s fascinating to see the memory power of different scents.
- Madame de Nicolai: Could you share details of your process in creating a perfume, from how you come up with your initial inspiration, to how many “mods” or versions you go through on average, how you work with the specific ingredients in fine-tuning the quantities, or when you know that a fragrance is truly finished? I realise it is a complicated, lengthy, and detailed process, but perhaps you can give us a few glimpses into each stage?
As the brand grows, a certain logic in the fragrance making process is now established. As far as I’m concerned, my logic is driven by curiosity and the will to fill empty gaps. For example, I currently realized that I did not have a real ‘incense’ fragrance and I am wondering what kind of perfume I could make with it. It is with these little interrogations, looking back at what I already did, that help me to think. The lack of something is my main motivation and I take my time to do it, as I do not have any pressure. However, I can also be inspired by other perfumers’ creations or by something that struck me while simply working. I have the chance to use very high quality natural raw materials without any budget limits and this is something that helps me a lot.
However, it is not because a fragrance is full of natural elements that it is automatically the best! You need to find the right and solid chord without forgetting to use synthetic elements – which I like to call the ‘element of progress’ – in order to open new olfactory paths. And then, you can play with this chord. It’s like in fashion: you can have the best high quality fabric, but if you don’t know how to cut, you won’t do great. This is a fantastic liberty that many of perfumers working in big fragrance companies would love to have! Finding the right chords and the right ingredients is something but then, I also taste its lasting, which is very important to me and even for Eau de Toilette. Before the fragrance is officially launched, I like to see people around me – and myself of course – wearing the fragrance (people from my family, my assistants, sales people, my friends…). Like a fashion designer who needs some models, I need ‘skins’!
- Axel de Nicolai: When you were growing up, did you wear fragrances from Nicolai, Guerlain, some other companies, or a mix of brands? Which Nicolai perfumes best represent your own personal aesthetic or tastes? With apologies to your mother, is there any Nicolai fragrance that you personally don’t like and, if so, why?
Of course, I have always worn some NICOLAI fragrances! What else could I have done when you live with a perfumer so committed like my mother? I wore many NICOLAI fragrances and my current favorite is Rose Oud. Do not tell me that a man cannot wear a rose fragrance! The classical separation between male and female fragrances is totally obsolete. It is a question of personality and I think that the oriental rose of Rose Oud is perfect for me.
But NICOLAÏ is not the only brand I used. I actually liked some more mainstream fragrances from KENZO, MONTBLANC or GIVENCHY. I really like these fragrances like Kenzo Homme which is very recognizable. But I also realized how different they were and it actually helped my nose. Regarding the fragrances I do not fancy much, I would say fragrances having a strong citrus start like L’eau de Sport.
Madame de Nicolai: You trained at the famous ISIPCA perfume school, then went to work for Quest (the precursor to today’s Givaudan). In past interviews, you’ve said that your uncle, Jean-Paul Guerlain, helped you get a job after you left school, but that your family also discouraged you from entering the perfume industry. As a female perfumer in the 1980s, you faced a significant amount of obstacles, discrimination, and a pretty rigid glass ceiling. I recall reading something a while ago that said the number of women in one of the perfume schools has risen substantially over the years. Even so, it seems that things have not changed all that much today, more than 25 years from when you first went to perfume school. There are very few professionally trained female “noses” who also head their own perfume house today. You’ve always been extremely diplomatic about the sexism and glass ceiling that you faced when you began, and you rarely talk about how Guerlain went outside the family to find a successor to your uncle, Jean-Paul Guerlain. Do you think there is still a glass ceiling amongst the big perfume houses? And, looking back, have your feelings changed about the situation with Guerlain?
It is true that when I started my formation, female perfumers were very few…but things have changed and now and it is actually the opposite! When you go to perfume schools, there is far more women than men. In current big companies like in Firmenich or Givaudan, they try to be very careful in order to have a certain balance in their creation teams between men and women.
Regarding women who have their own perfume house it is true that we are not many…But actually, there are very few independent perfumers who have their own house! Regardless the sex of the perfumer…Hundreds of brands are created each year but how many of them are created by a perfumer? Most of them are established by marketing people who know the market, find a concept and work with purchased fragrances. I am proud to be one the few perfumers having her own brand, her own lab and above all – which is quasi unique for a niche brand – her own factory creating only NICOLAI fragrances.
Regarding Guerlain, it is different…Back in the 80’s my uncle did not see me as the potential Guerlain perfumer. My uncles were very old-fashioned and did not think that a woman could handle the creation process. Besides, since the creation of the brand (1828), women of the family were never involved in the business. Anyway, the question was totally out of everybody’s minds as Guerlain was about to be taken by LVMH…My destiny was elsewhere and I am so glad about it.
- Axel de Nicolai: You are the company’s general manager, but you recently began working with your mother in the creative process. Your biography doesn’t mention perfume school, so did your mother informally train you as you were growing up? If so, how? What were the challenges or benefits of being taught by a famous perfumer who is also your mother?
Mathematics and chemistry were my main subjects during my high school years and I then did a prep school in Chemistry. However, I have decided to finish my studies by doing business and sales as I knew I was predestined to join NICOLAÏ mainly as the general manager. So no, I did not do a real perfume school, I learnt everything on the field and Patricia was of course the best teacher anyone could have.
She taught me all the main basics and all the subtleties and I know how to make the different evaluations during the fragrance making process, exactly like Frédéric Malle or Serge Lutens who are not trained perfumers like Patricia or Francis Kurkdjian. One of the great benefits of having a mother who is an international recognized perfumer, is that I can tell her anything I want! There is no taboo between us and I can dare tell her that one of the directions she for example takes is wrong. But at the end, it is Patricia who signs the fragrance by writing the exact formula from which she will always takes time to explain the details.
- Madame de Nicolai: how has the perfume industry changed in terms of the business and creative side since you started Parfums de Nicolai? I’m not talking about IFRA or the EU, but in terms of your experiences as a perfumer and any pressures created by the business in terms of yearly output, popular perfume genres, or the nature of the industry as a whole?
The market has of course totally evolved. For a long time, it was the conglomerate of big brands which set the tone of the industry. They decided the fashion and they decided what to wear. Marketing was the main objective and creativity was not respected. Things have changes thanks to the ‘niche movement’ of the 80’s and brands like L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Diptyque, Serge Lutens and NICOLAI of course, which wanted to offer more creativity in their perfumes. The niche movement arrived as a lively reaction and became successful. Today, as success was there, marketing did arrive in two different ways. On the first hand, you have big groups or hedge funds which have purchased some famous and successful niche brands (like Annick Goutal, Frederic Malle, Penhaligon’s…) and on the second hand, you found some trained marketing people, coming from big groups, who have the goal to create their own ‘niche’ brand with a strong marketing concept (like Atelier Cologne).
There is for sure a market for ‘alternative’ fragrances in this uniformed world. Consumers evolve and are ready to explore more creativity. All this proves how dynamic is our profession.
- Axel de Nicolai: When the time comes for you to take over at Nicolai, will you create the fragrances or will you serve as a Creative Director who collaborates with outside “noses”? As someone who has worked in the business side of the industry, are there any changes you think Nicolai needs to make in order to keep the company competitive with the evolving perfume industry, new trends, and modern perfume tastes?
The question of the step down of Patricia is not at all in our agenda. Patricia will be the main perfumer of the brand for a long time and I am sure that her different masterpieces are yet to come. The great Edmond Roudnitska signed Eau Sauvage when he was 62 and the sublime Diorella at the age of 68! Nevertheless, Patricia’s role, when the time eventually comes, will be to train a commited perfumer. Someone who really understands our history and who has the affirmative will to pursue the creation with the NICOLAÏ style. A bit like a young fashion designer who joins a famous ‘Maison de couture’…