Parfums MDCI Interview with Claude Marchal

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!

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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.

29 Comments

  1. I think I’m in love, but I guess I’ll have to settle for my version of Fabio holding me in his ‘big, muscular arms’. Claude, I salute you, for your unpicking of brief culture with all its second-rate gussets, and this opportunity to see inside your world…^:)^

    Now, I must get on and order those samples before Claude gets sensible and increases the price. What a guy!

  2. Patty, thank you so much for bringing us this fascinating interview. And thank you, M. Marchal, for sharing with us so much of your thinking.

    Patty, clinking on the link to the MDCI Web site failed twice for me. Through Google, I reached the site at:
    http://parfumsmdci.free.fr/

    Are the samples still available at the rates you quoted in an earlier post, Patty?

  3. I received my samples yesterday, 5 x 10ml for Euro 45.– including postage (London). I understand the Euro 45 are redeemable against first purchase. You need to send your request by email as the website doesn’t yet allow you to purchase directly. Claude Marchal is a darling throughout the purchasing process. ^:)^
    Thank you for the fab interview, Patty !

  4. Fascinating interview. M. Marchal is truly wonderful! And the “sample” coffret of his beautiful perfumes is a truly great deal! Emperor Caracalla, huh? I will have to look into that! 🙂
    Thanks so much, Patty!!

  5. Patty, what a great interview. You asked all the right questions. I love the ideology behind their creations, the fact that he is creating works of art and not passing fads for teenagers. We need more like him.

  6. What a fascinating interview! And, may I now retract anything unfortunate I ever said in my unenlightened past about the bottles? I’ve decided I love them. In all truth, I love the idea and reason behind them. To hell w/ minimalism. And, where is the line forming for those of us who would like to join M. Marchal’s harem? Intelligence combined w/ a great sense of humor…deep sigh.

  7. Well he had me in the palm of his hand when he described Vol de Nuit. I just bought the parfum and LOVE it so. Thanks Patty, your interview reveals a charming creator. Count me in the harem wearing first class gussets of course!

  8. Great interview! I love that guy.:x I’m one of the folks who liked their flacons anyway — you and I can bling the bling. I hope he comes up with some names worthy of the fragrances.

  9. Leo, you are such a slut. :d Now flowers?!?!?

    I’m still sorting through my memory about the bottles, and if I said anything bad about them, it was only because they were out of my reach. You should hear what I say about Lamborhinis!

  10. Someone has to be the floozy – it’s a role that always needs filling.:x

  11. Maria, I fixed the link, thank you!

    I’m not sure. I know they were for a limited time, and I forgot to ask! But if you e-mail him, I know he will quickly tell you.

  12. Quelle charmante!! My life will not be complete until there is a Frenchman in it, I fear.

    Now… where do I get me some of those to sniff…

  13. Judith, I Googled Caracalla as well. I thought I remembered him half-rightly. He was wicked, had his brother killed.

  14. Flor, I agree.

    Now, with all this class today, I am going to totally trash this place tomorrow. I’m feeling really bad about it too.

  15. I feel terrible at how churlish I was before. :”>

    I am willing to be just as slutty as Leo to make up for it. :d

    There, Patty, I trashed it up (or down, as the case may be) for you!

  16. March — yeah, I’m down with the flacons too. We’ve arranged all my pretty bottles on the ledges (there’s a word for this) above the kitchen cabinets. Now I’m thinking I need to put some colored fluid in them to pretty them up.

  17. Ina — Claude is really great. I can’t wait to see what he will bring next.

    In contrast to the Etat guys, the styles are so different, it just boggles the mind!

  18. Leo — ah, it’s a spot I had hoped to fill myself.

    But I will fill it with tomorrow’s post, which is so bad, I’m having second thoughts about even posting it.

  19. Aim, just e-mail the company, and they can set you up with an amzingly generous sample set. It’s 10 mls each of each of the five perfumes, really a great coffret set. I’m not sure what the price is now, it was 35 Euros, I believe, but that was for a limited time. They may have gone up to 50 Euros, which is still a spectacular deal!

  20. Claude is a gem! I can’t wait to hear his selection of names for the fragrances.

    And you questions were perfection.

    Thank you both for a wonderful post!

    Hugs!

  21. Tom, I have no doubt you can be as slutty as Leo.

    Just tune in tomorrow, it will get much worse. We could likely lose half of our readers/commenters. 🙂

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