Hermès' masterclass in patience, potions and poetry...

Grazia travels to the atelier in Paris to discover the secret alchemy of Twilly d’Hermès
Hermès' masterclass in patience, potions and poetry...

WE’VE ALWAYS HAD A VERY STRONG SUSPICION THAT ALL PERFUMERS ARE POETS. By and large, they’re all romantics and storytellers, collecting and disseminating fantasies, moments and memories the world over. They conjure and create, knowing full well that whatever they dream up and bottle holds the power to do that most valuable of all tricks – make someone feel something. 

It’s exactly this notion that struck us on meeting Christine Nagel, the first female in-house perfumer for Hermès, in her workshop on the outskirts of Paris. “Hold this!” she instructs as we walk in, handing over a test strip spritzed with cinnamon, followed by another sprayed with lime. “Now twirl them both under your nose. What do you smell?” she asks with the knowing smile of someone who’s well aware she’s about to delight you. It’s Coca-Cola. Strong, sweet, and as unmistakable as if we’d opened a can right then and there. We laugh, unable to not feel a childlike sense of awe. It sets the scene.

A colourful corner of Christine Nagel’s office in Pantin, a neighbourhood about 6km from the centre of Paris

She ushers us from her lab, set on the top floor of an airy townhouse next door to Hermès’ storied ateliers, and into her office – a space overflowing with books, art, colouring pencils and, of course, perfumes. The reason we’re here. The unveiling of the brand’s newest scent, Twilly d’Hermès. Within the industry, In-house Perfumer at Hermès is known as one of the loftiest titles you can have, coveted not only because the maison is quite so fabled, but due to the complete creative freedom afforded to the nose. There are no budgets and no deadlines, so like all great art, the perfume is simply ready when it’s ready. It’s testament to the brand’s unwavering respect for creativity – and, above all, craft.

It does mean, however, that when Hermès sends out a new fragrance, it’s met with the required reverence – a job that up until recently fell under the purview of Jean-Claude Ellena, its beloved nose for nearly a decade. Now retired, he chose Christine as his heir, handing over the reins little by little to the woman responsible for countless olfactory successes over the years. Prolific, she had created hit fragrances for everyone from Dolce & Gabbana to Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, spending 11 years at Jo Malone, to boot.

“Any time I’ve worked for a designer it’s opened the doors to a fantastic new world for me,” she enthuses. “When my mother read me books as a little girl, if it was a story about monsters, then I was a monster; if it was about princesses, then I was a princess. It’s the same if you want to understand these people; you need to enter their universe, really live it. I’m not being blasé when I say they have incredible skills and talent, so it’s a great gift when a designer opens their doors wide to you. But if you don’t like them, there’s no way you can make their perfume!” she laughs.

This is far from a concern in her new posting, however. Christine is now palpably Hermès family, embraced into the fold as if she’d been there all along. “I’m the most inspired when I’m cheerful,” she tells us. “I can’t work in gloom or pain – I’m not a tortured artist, that’s not me!” So does that mean every perfume she’s ever created has been when she’s happy? “Ah, oui!” she smiles broadly, “There are only around 500 perfume makers in the world. That’s fewer than there are astronauts. And of that, only six are in-house perfumers. It’s the dream.”

Happiness seems to be the emotion Christine is most intent on evoking in others, too. “When I started out, I was working in organic chemistry research for a company called Firmenich in Geneva. Opposite was a tower block where all the perfumers were, and every day from my window I could see a perfume maker who would get the receptionists to smell all the fragrances on his arm. The girls were always so excited and chatted away, and I thought, ‘What a fantastic job, to give people so much pleasure. That’s what I want to do.’”

It wasn’t all roses, though. “I applied for a job at a school of perfume making and was told no. And not just a no, an absolute, blunt no way,” Christine remembers. “The reasons I was given were a) you’re a woman, b) you don’t come from a dynasty of perfume makers, c) you weren’t born in Grasse – the cradle of perfumery, and d) you’ve studied chemistry. Back then, they only looked for literary people,” she explains, with the matter-of-fact tone of someone whose talent and tenacity prevailed regardless. “The irony now is that there are two perfume schools in France. In them? Only girls,” she sighs. “For one, you need to have studied chemistry for two years. C’est la vie. It’s unfair for boys now, and for people who didn’t study chemistry but have creative energy. Now, when I look for trainees, I never say that they have to have a given profile. I don’t want young people to suffer what I suffered.” She denies it, of course, but in the world of perfume, this makes her a pioneer.

It’s this balanced outlook that’s also central to Christine’s philosophy on fragrance, insisting that “there is no gender when it comes to perfume. It needs to have character, personality, but it’s not about sex. That’s like someone saying dessert is for girls and meat is for boys. It’s just silly.”

The fragrance’s lid was inspired by retro-style bowler hats 

Silly it may be, but Twilly – named after the long, skinny version of the brand’s iconic Carrés scarves – was still inspired by young, cool girls on the streets of Paris. Whether it’s them that choose to wear this new scent is another matter. Indeed, Christine’s last fragrance, Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate, is now worn by as many men as women, so despite Twilly’s sweet, powdery mix of ginger, tuberose and sandalwood, it may still hold a universal appeal. She describes a male journalist trying it on his skin the day before as “beautiful. Just fantastically chic. It just suited him. Men are much bolder now – it’s a good thing.”

The story behind Twilly, however, could – if you squinted – look like a commercial attempt to court a new generation of customer – the millennial. In fact, with its name under embargo at the time of meeting Christine, we are asked to refer to the perfume as “the scent of the Hermès girls.” Was this the brief? “No, no – that would be me working in marketing, and that’s taboo!” she bats back, good-naturedly. If it were another brand, we’d be less inclined to believe her. But this is Hermès. Commercial is a dirty word, and there’s very little – if anything – that is contrived. “Creation comes when I have an encounter. A fragrance occurs from a desire I have – a desire for colour, a desire for youth. I kept seeing these young girls in Paris using the Hermès codes – the Carrés, the Twillys – but not in the way I’d use them. They were more creative, wearing them as belts or bracelets. I thought it would be brilliant if I could make them happy by using raw materials in the same way they use our codes. I wanted to offer them an olfactory creativity in keeping with the spirit of Hermès – the fantasy and the imagination in the silk and colour.”

The Hermès Twilly is printed on the perfume box

We picture hordes of young Parisians striding down Rue du Faubourg, enveloped in clouds of Twilly d’Hermès. “Perfume is the most beautiful vehicle for communication in this world,” Christine says, looking us in the eye. “Every now and then, when I smell my perfume on someone walking past, I turn around to see their face. We probably have nothing in common. Nothing at all. But what they don’t know is that on their skin, they wear a little bit of me,” she pauses, “and that’s just fantastic.”

Images: Supplied