Fashion & Beauty / Culture Talks

A Night of Passion with Helmut Lang

We discuss the musky scent of a "night of passion" with master perfumier Maurice Roucel

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Courtesy of Helmut Lang

Late last year, ten years after being discontinued, Helmut Lang re-released his eponymous fragrance, and a generation of fans breathed a sigh of relief. No longer enslaved to eBay seconds or scouring charity shops, they could simply buy the deliciously musky, sweaty scent in boutiques. Revived by original perfumier Maurice Roucel, it bears a DNA identical to the original, just in slightly different packaging – according to Roucel, "the good taste of Chanel, but with a minimalist, Japanese approach". A man whose career in fragrance started out in the chemistry laboratories of Chanel back in 1974, his renown within the industry is immense; he has created perfume for everyone from Le Labo (Jasmine 17 and Labdanum 18) to Gucci (Envy) and Frederic Malle (Dans tes Bras and Musc Ravageur). We spoke to him about his unusual path into perfume and just how he managed to capture the scent of a "night of passion."

On becoming a perfumier...
"I wasn’t originally a perfumier, I was a chemist looking at the synthesis of organics – I was fascinated by alkaloids like cocaine and morphine, and finding out which chemicals made what smells in nature. But in 1973 I was looking for a job and the chief perfumier of Chanel received my résumé and he liked me, so I started there – not as a perfumer but creating a chemistry laboratory. I didn’t know about perfumerie, I knew about molecules, but I kept seeing people putting little pieces of paper under their noses and that surprised me. Little by little, I started to learn about it and my passion for chemistry transferred to perfume."

On originality... 
"For me, the most important thing about perfume is its originality and the quality of its raw materials – there's no point in having something that is original but poor quality, it means nothing. If you are creating something from diamond, gold, platinum without any ideas, that's ridiculous. I'd rather have origami paper nicely done. But, if you can make origami with beautiful paper, that's the best. I'm so fed up of all these perfume houses that launch a hundred scents every year; they are all the same, it's so boring."

On the smell of sex...
"Helmut and his work were the inspiration behind the fragrance… thinking about the type of perfume that he, Helmut, wanted to wear. He wanted it to be the smell of a companion left on the sheets after a night of passion; those were the exact words that he used and he wasn't afraid of musk, of animalistic scents, of it smelling a little bit sweaty. Basically, he wanted it to match the human body and the human smell.

"Helmut wanted it to be the smell of a companion left on the sheets after a night of passion"

On gender in perfume...
"Helmut asked me to make a masculine fragrance and a feminine fragrance, but both are extremely close in scent and they're not labelled 'for men' or 'for women' – there is an Eau de Cologne and Eau de Parfum. Perfume doesn't have a sex; if it's good, you like it and you wear it regardless of gender. There's no gender in music or art, and it should be the same with perfume. The concept of 'for men' or 'for women' is for people who aren't comfortable in their own space, aren't confident in themselves, and for marketing."

On the animalism of musk...
"When I was at Chanel, for six years I was in charge of researching musk, and the real question in the creation of Helmut's fragrances was looking for the right dosage, the right combinations, so that it smelled animalistic and dirty but didn't make the customer afraid. All of the animalitive derivatives – civet, musk, amber – have a problem on the topnote, but if you evaporate that, then you are left with something smooth – and remember, the Americans don't like something too animal, they are afraid of germs! When Bogart went to Africa to make The African Queen, he would brush his teeth with whiskey because he was so afraid. So, I think they like a gentle perfume – we made the musky scent but without the animalesque note; it was all about the dosage. And we made the cologne a little more aromatic and woody, with just a touch of lavender and vanilla – but not enough to destroy the clarity of the scent's skeleton. For the feminine, we added a little more vanilla on the drydown, and some floral undertones like jasmine and orange flower. The two are close in proximity, but still unique."

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