A couple of weeks ago, we had the chance to review the perfumes from MDCI, owned by Claude Marchal. They are fabulous perfumes, and you all should take the chance to try them. As a result of those reviews, I had the opportunity to get to know Mr. Marchal better. One thing I hear over and over again from anyone who has correponded with him is that he is so kind and charming. And he is… and smart. He graciously agreed to give us this interview.
PP: Names! Your perfumes need names. Any progress?Claude Marchal: Yes, I am renaming, or at last trying to find a decent name for each fragrance. Trust me, it is extremely difficult. For decades, this industry has produced hundreds and hundreds of new entries a year, and at the french equivalent of the US Patent and Trademarks Office, almost every possible name has been duly registered. To add to the problem, you have perfume Greats like Serge Lutens who have come up with real nuggets like “Tubéreuse Vénéneuse”,” Ambre Sultan” etc, names which are little poems per se, hard to improve on… But obviously, “FK something” does not make your heart beat faster, I have to change that.
PP: What is your favorite fragrance, outside of the perfumes from MDCI?
Claude Marchal: It has to be “Vol de Nuit”, a scent associated with remote memories of my mother’s perfume, and an early experience of a night flight in a Super Constellation loooonnnng ago… the reminiscence of the fragrance, and the vivid images of the flames coming out of the plane’s engines on take-off are mixed forever in my brain (along with the smell of the plane cabin!). I have recently walked by a woman wearing “Vol de Nuit” and it was as if I had pushed on a button! This particular fragrance evoques only fond memories, and I find it truly interesting from the olfactory standpoint.
I also like “First” by Van cleef & Arpels, because it is a fine perfume, for sure, but it is associated for me with an earler life, when I worked for the large fragrance house which owned the brand (and many others); it brings to my mind tons of fond memories.
All this is terribly subjective, and scent being one of the most efficient activator of memory, tastes or distastes are deeply connected to one’s personal experiences and story, ( as you well know).
I also really like YSL’s M7, but for the fragrance itself.
PP: Vol de Nuit is just gorgeous, you have excellent taste, of course! When you talk about Vol de Nuit, it is an association with a very powerful memory of your mother that is behind it. Do you think memory is the most compelling force in perfume?
Claude Marchal: It definitely is one of the important factors.
PP: And if it is memory, do you think we appreciate perfume so much more as we get older because we have more memories to draw from?
Claude Marchal: Maybe also because we have learned to appreciate the finer things of life? A good wine, flowers, nature, a nicer, kinder apporach to life as we mellow. Well, men mellow as they get older, it is a known fact.
PP: How did you come to start MDCI?
Claude Marchal: Well well well….where to start… All this is based on…frustration.
In the mid ’80’s, I discovered the fragrance industry as the Export Manager for North America and the Caribbean (a dream job!) of a fairly large company which had the silly idea of hiring me away from the jet manufacturer where I worked, under the pretext that I was in charge of the US and would know how to fix their problems there.
The jump from business jets to fragrances was a life experience, but I liked it, learned a thing or two; in ’87 I moved on to start my own company as the agent for the USA for the same group (and other brands), moved to Miami, after that to the Bahamas (sigh…) and had a ball until the group in question evolved as it grew bigger, into what became to my eyes a corporate monstrosity.
As time passed, I grew more and more disanchanted. However, this display of mediocrity and greed in fact opened new possibilities.
What I had in mind – this was back in 1994! – was that by staying small, it would be possible to reduce operating costs and devote more attention to the product. With lower targets in terms of volume, it could be possible to reduce bureaucracy, keep the bean-counters, (and grey marketers too!) at bay and focus on the product. Small could be beautiful, and smallness went well with exclusivity, exclusivity with luxury, luxury with margins allowing the use of fine materials and designs and so on: a virtuous cycle of sorts.
All this would be difficult to achieve without a good concept, and I believed I had one: an original bottle idea, and a different approach for the content: the perfumers themselves and their creations should be the stars, not the brand.The same way a music studio should be less important than the artists it represents and the music it produces, fragrance houses could find an advantage in promoting their perfumers more than they did.
Frederic Malle came to the same conclusion and implemented the concept later, well before I was ever ready. But it is a good thing in many ways.
I also thought that in this brutal world, “beauty” would play an important role. What “beauty” is is a vast question, but it is easy to see crass vulgarity, plagiarism, bad design, cheap products, making it easy to see what my own fragrances should not be.
In a field where hundreds of perfumers worldwide come up daily with new formulas, from mediocre to excellent, when hundreds and hundreds of new fragrances are launched every year, good and bad, I thought that the packaging would take me a long way. This is why I have worked so hard to come up with something different and hopefuly attractive to a large enough share of the public.
Implementing the whole Plan was another story. Even though I was an insider, after the opportunity to start working on this, it took years and years to get where I am now, strings of mistakes to learn the job, years to finetune products until now where I am nearing the point where “commercial” products are available.
Difficult, but totally addictive!
PP: When I think of the design phase of a perfume, I think of it as a scent sketch or draft.
Claude Marchal: You are right, this is one of the most natural ways to try to communicate an idea ; it could be evocative photos of, say, a beautiful woman in a garden in Provence, Fabio holding her tightly in his big muscular arms…or it could, should be more sophisticated.
PP: When you are developing that first draft of the scent, how much guidance do you give the perfumers? Do they come up with the starting point, or do you?
Claude Marchal: Normally fragrance houses provide perfumers with what they pompously call a “brief” (no, not trunks or knickers, here we speak of a short summary!); generally think of an overworked marketing type with his neck on the wooden block if his department does not find a way to boost sales asap and keep profits high.These briefs often reach summits of idiocy, and are about “the woman of the 21th century”… she is glamorous and romantic but manages to raise her three beautiful kids while managing a multinational company; she is sexy but demanding, etc, etc. Most briefs gravitate about how to attract the younger customer, so it is an accumulation of platitudes and clichés.
Mercifuly, perfumers know their job but most of the time their mission is: do something which sells! The fragrance industry is in fact a true cut-throat business where mistakes can cost tens of millions; most companies are not very adventurous as they must please as many customers as possible, from Dennmark to China. Excessive prudence has led in reaction to the advent of truly creative scents, mostly by smaller fragrance houses going for niches in the market. And it is great! Big houses wait in ambush to copy or in the best case to swallow the smaller companies with innovative products or concepts, once their viability is confirmed; it works pretty much like any other industry.
As far as I am concerned, the only guidance I gave to Pierre Bourdon and Francis Kurkdjian was to do what they wanted, as long as the result was coherent with the flacons. In fact, the flacons WERE the brief: they could immediately understand that the “target” was not the CK youngster with cut-out jeans, that the concept left room for high-quality ingredients. etc.
With Francis Kurkdjian, it became obvious that it would be possible to play with the different impressions potentially produced by the little stopper: “she” could be kind, dignified and caring, or from another perspective she could be totally romantic, or being emperor Caracalla’s companion, (the masculine figure is emperor Caracalla, a true monster. Why the heck did I chose him? Because his looks go against the trends! I am a contrarian) she could be a completely different creature. The fun thing with this concept is the the bottle itself can convey moods, and not only the ads which usually are charged of carrying the message to the potential customer. So Francis came up with three different directions, and we worked from there until we selected what you know as FK1, FK2 and FK3.
PP: Do you have more fragrances that are in development now, and if so, can you give us a tease on what the scent sketch is for any or all of them?
Claude Marchal: I definitely plan to add fragrances in the future. For the time bieng, there is so much to do, to organize, to understand… A new fragrance is also an investment, I think we will be in a position to add more next year, if things go well. There are several perfumers with whom I would like to work, but I’ll be in a better position to convince them if I can show some degree of success. At this point we can be reasonably optimistic, but we should not forget that in this crazy business, casualties outnumber successs stories by a 1 to 100 ratio!
To contact MDCI about buying samples or a scent, go to Parfums MDCI or e-mail them at [email protected]. Even though the beautiful bottles are very, very expensive, the much more accessible refill containers can be had in 1.5 oz and 2.5 oz bottles for 130 and 150 Euro respectively.