This article is taken from the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine. To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we are making the issue free and available digitally for a limited time only to all our readers wherever you are in the world. Sign up here.
Hermès’s in-house perfumer, Christine Nagel, remembers visiting her grandmother, a trouser tailor, at her workshop as a child. “It was on the top floor of a very dark building in Geneva. I would watch her take her red-hot iron and place it on a damp cloth over trousers to iron them. That smell of dampness – the hot metal and wool – is absolutely unique,” she says. Today, that singular scent is still very present for Nagel. She, too, works in a top-floor studio, but this one is at Les Ateliers d’Hermès, a vast grey-green glass building in Pantin, a suburb outside northeast Paris. Nagel’s office has a tree-lined terrace and was once occupied by Jean-Louis Dumas, the father of the current artistic director of Hermès, Pierre-Alexis. It has a panoramic view of the workshop complex. One floor below is the menswear studio, presided over by Véronique Nichanian, artistic director of the Hermès ‘men’s universe’. A familiar smell of hot metal on damp wool fills this domain.
That persistent, electric tang bolsters Nagel’s new fragrance, H24 – the name references Hermès’s historic flagship at 24, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, opened in 1880 and still its base today. It’s not the first fragrance from the maison to do so: 24 Faubourg, composed by Maurice Roucel in 1995, is a bright and sunny eau de toilette for women with a sandalwood base, buoyed by a bouquet of white flowers. H, of course, is for Hermès. Also homme, human and hour – like the 24 in the day. Put together, H24 sounds cold: technical, chemical and lucid. But the perfume is anything but.
It is also the first major men’s perfume since Nagel joined the company in 2014, and a first for the house since the seminal Terre d’Hermès was released 15 years ago. Terre, as it’s often lovingly referred to, is a tough act to follow. Flinty, mineral and earthy, as the name suggests, it was devised by the near-legendary Jean-Claude Ellena, Hermès’s nose for 12 years. Ellena is famous for his intellectual approach to olfaction: in 1990, he helped establish the Osmothèque, an international scent archive of more than 3,000 perfumes – some otherwise extinct, others ultra rare – based in Versailles. He has written extensively and beautifully on the subject and concocted more than 30 scents during his time at Hermès. So revered was he, in fact, that his retirement was drawn out over two years while Nagel was gently phased in. Much of the perfumery at Hermès – described by the house as a métier in itself – is unisex; the androgyny of the scents included in the Jardin collection and the premium Hermessences (described as olfactory poems), for example, is key to their enduring mystique and appeal. But Terre remains a landmark fragrance for men. Nagel has created a group of five Hermessences, two colognes, one Jardin and two feminine-focused scents since she has been at the maison. That last pair comprises Galop, inspired by the Hermès leather vault, and Twilly, a peppery, powdery scent that channels the effervescent allure of the label’s silk scarves. After Nagel’s tweak of the original Terre with the release of its Eau Intense Vétiver, H24 is her first original masculine gesture for Hermès.
“I was nourished by the creative vision of Véronique Nichanian – and her Hermès man,” explains Nagel over a video call. “And I found a lot of similarities between her work and mine – for example, her relationship with material and this impression that you can almost touch the fabric with the eyes. At her fashion shows, I’m always impressed by the visual sensation – I can almost feel the quality of her cashmeres, of her leathers, her silks.” It should come as no surprise, then, that for Nichanian, materials are king: the artistic director starts with fabric and colour; shape is secondary, unearthed later during the process of creation. Such an approach echoes the history of this luxury leather goods empire: Hermès boasts six generations of craftsmanship, charting back to 1837, when harness-maker Thierry Hermès opened his workshop on rue Basse-du-Rempart, Paris. Having cornered the market on leather – saddles, harnesses, watches, luggage and handbags – the family business turned its artisanal hand to silks: first printed scarves, then men’s ties. Today, beauty, crystal, high jewellery and, of course, ready-to-wear have been added to the brand’s roster – with savoir-faire and impeccably sourced materials front and centre. As such, after 33 years at the helm of the menswear faction, fabrics undergo magical transformations in Nichanian’s hands: a navy nylon rain- coat from Spring/Summer 2021 looks as strong as leather, cream cotton drawstring trousers drape like silk, a ribbed knit sweater undulates like chain mail – shades of putty, mink, steel and frost blue are spiked with lemon yellow and acid green. You can feel their luxurious weight but also a lightness of touch in their urban modernity.
“There’s always this electrical touch of colour – often yellow – in [Véronique’s] work, and I like that spark in my perfume as well. Perfume is not just smooth, there should be something that catches your memory” – Christine Nagel
Such mastery is irresistible to Nagel, whose training is unlike that of her peers (they are mostly male and hail from Grasse, the home of perfume, on the French Riviera). Swiss-Italian Nagel started out as a chemist in a perfume lab. “I would smell a perfume and then write down the formula, only based on the smell,” she told AnOther Magazine in 2017. “It was not creative at all, but it was highly technical. So, for example, when you smell a fresh, citrussy perfume, you must then determine, is it bergamot? Is it mandarin? Is it orange? Once you decide it is an orange, does it come from Israel? From California? From Morocco?” Happily for Nagel, this technical training forms the basis of her unparalleled creativity. With a back catalogue of global bestsellers such as Narciso Rodriguez for Her (conceived with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian), Miss Dior Chérie, Giorgio Armani Sì and numerous formulas for Jo Malone, Nagel now experiments to her heart’s content, manipulating natural ingredients alongside syntheses until unrecognisable. At Hermès she can do so with neither budgetary constraints nor market testing.
In Nichanian, Nagel finds a kindred spirit. “I love the way she mixes two totally different materials seamlessly. They melt into each other. I love to do that in perfume-making as well – I like to put materials together and they should really melt together, even if they have a totally different structure. Véronique once explained to me that she had woven high-tech fibres on an old Japanese weaving loom. And these are parallels I share. I love working with both high-tech and traditional materials.”
Cue sclarene, a chemical compound biosynthesized in the foliage of the mountain tōtara, or Hall’s tōtara, conifer tree – native to New Zealand and typically found in its lush lowland forests. It forms the basis of H24, providing that hot-metal-on-damp-wool clang – at first there’s a static electricity to it and it’s sharp and clear like vodka, but it’s far from two-dimensional. Nagel uses a synthesis of sclarene: “When you smell it alone it’s fresh, it’s quite elegant and difficult to describe. But over time the note develops – it becomes warm, sensual and metallic.” I keep a paper blotter of it in my notebook as Nagel instructs, and return to it in the weeks after our conversation – it deepens to a velvety-smooth texture, like warm skin, a distant memory of that first note. It becomes open and broad: it is distinctly strange.
Sclarene is the first of four ingredients that make this fragrance a modern take on a fougère, a traditional masculine olfactory family designed to conjure the scent of a fern – a poetic reconstruction, since the plant has no aroma. The 19th-century originator of this idea was Paul Parquet’s Fougère Royale, created for the historic Parisian perfumer Houbigant, with citrussy top notes, a lavender heart and a warm, mossy drydown, as well as notes of cut hay. It became the inspiration for the formula of numerous iconic male scents, including 1963’s Aramis for Estée Lauder and Kurkdjian’s stripy-torsoed Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier in 1995. Using her encyclopaedic knowledge of ingredients, Nagel plays with this history of perfume.
“When you smell [sclarene] alone it’s fresh, it’s quite elegant and difficult to describe. But over time the note develops – it becomes warm, sensual and metallic” – Christine Nagel
Clary sage provides H24’s botanical backbone – by way of both essence and absolute – an approach unlike that of most men’s fragrances on the market. “Today, 80 per cent of men’s fragrances are woody, spicy, oriental,” says Nagel. In fact, clary sage is an unusual perfume ingredient full stop – in this case it replaces the traditional lavender heart of the fougère. Resembling freshly cut grass (another fougère nod), this sage is mellower than salvia officinalis, the medicinal kitchen garden herb we’re more familiar with. “When you look at the leaf of the clary sage, it’s soft and sensual,” says Nagel. “At the same time, the edges are somewhat serrated and clearly demarcated. It’s another reference to Véronique’s work. You’re working with sensuality and something very clear – well cut.” In using essence and absolute, Nagel builds a sturdy foundation for the scent – full, like the ubiquitous woody notes, but lighter, crisper and very slightly twisted. The sage is grown in France, which makes it expensive – but “more virtuous” in its carbon footprint, Nagel explains.
The third botanical, rosewood, brings a sardonic touch. “It is rose and wood only by name,” says Nagel. Not at all woody, it is green with a touch of aniseed and oily like eucalyptus. One of its components is linalool, also found in bergamot, which brings a freshness typically derived
from citrus fruits (bergamot is the most common fougère top note). Partly responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, rosewood exportation from Brazil is no longer permitted. This batch is procured from a “tiny” certified sustainable producer in Peru that, in another demonstration of dedication to materials, Nagel’s buyer travelled ten hours by plane, four by bus, four by boat and four by foot to reach.
Finally, there’s narcissus. “They say in the history of perfume-making that it’s a man’s flower,” says Nagel – perhaps thanks to the figure from Greek mythology, she suggests. Or because the delicate spring perennial from the amaryllis family brings a spark of green to numerous men’s fragrances. Nagel wanted to apply it more abundantly than it is usually used (its polleny headiness can prove overwhelming), so worked with the ethical fragrance manufacturer Robertet on a co-distillation process that would tame it. Yet, still: “When you smell the narcissus it gives a little ... in French we call it a ‘slap’.” This spark is almost visible, like in Nichanian’s collections. “There’s always this electrical touch of colour – often yellow – in her work, and I like that spark in my perfume as well. Perfume is not just smooth, there should be something that catches your memory.”
The perfumer had just one vivid image in mind when she set out to create H24. “I’ve often seen these films that explain the birth of a plant. The image of a little seed germinating, pushing through the soil – it is so fragile and yet it has such a force breaking through the earth. I wanted that strength of the sap but also the fluidity.” Like its name, the resulting eau de toilette is lucid, too. Upon first spritz it is green, fresh and vegetal – even sporty – but, like that cotyledon in Nagel’s mind’s eye, opens up into something warm and enduring. With this fresh new life bursting through the terre, the perfumer both nods respectfully to Hermès’s rich perfume tradition and pushes it forward. Nagel combines her technical know-how and passion for synthesis with an image of our contemporary yearning, and respect, for the natural. The result is a vision of masculinity with altogether new dimensions, devised by one of the industry’s only female figureheads.
Hair: Kiyoko Odo at Bryant Artists using AMIKA. Make-up: Lucy Bridge at Streeters. Models: Eman Deng at PRM, Mountaga Diop at Supa, Florence Hutchings at The Hive, Georgia Palmer at IMG and Celina Ralph and Alistair Waterfield at Elite London. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Set design: Jabez Bartlett at Streeters. Manicure: Loui-Marie Ebanks at JAQ Management using YSL BEAUTY. Photographic assistants: Tarek Cassim and Joseph Reddy. Styling assistants: Jordan Duddy, Isabella Kavanagh and George Pistachio. Hair assistant: Kyosuke Tanzawa. Make-up assistant: Martha Inoue. Executive producer: Honor Hellon. Producer: Nicholas Forbes Watson