Who wants to join the Hermès girl gang?

Grazia Editor in Chief Alison Tay spends an evening in Paris with Christine Nagel, Creative Director of Hermès Parfums, to discover an irreverent new scent that’s as bold, playful, and free-spirited as its creator
Who wants to join the Hermès girl gang?

"Do you know the story of how patchouli arrived in France?” Christine Nagel asks when we meet under the shade of a beech tree in a stone-flagged, 18th century courtyard lined with hydrangea bushes on a perfect summer’s day in Paris. “During the reign of Louis XIV, the king received a carpet from Algeria. As it was sent by boat, which took several months, they wrapped it in patchouli leaves for protection,” reveals the Creative Director of Hermès Parfums of one of the raw ingredients that make up her latest fragrance in a tale that instantly transports us back in time to the court of the Sun King. “When the carpet was finally unfurled at the Palace of Versailles, a friend of the king walked on the carpet, and thescent of patchouli was released.”

We’re back in Paris two years after the launch of the original Twilly d’Hermès Eau de Parfum to meet her sassier, spicier, more highspirited sister, Twilly d’Hermès Eau Poivrée. Noticing a new generation of Hermès devotees, she’d seen skipping down the boulevards of Paris, Christine observes, “Young girls love to twist their Hermès scarves into belts or bracelets, so when I saw this, I thought I would create a perfume inspired by these girls by twisting my ingredients.” And taking its name from the maison’s skinny silk scarf, Twilly d’Hermès was born.

Christine explains, “For Twilly d’Hermès, I used ginger, tuberose and sandalwood. But two years on, because young girls are so multifaceted, I decided to twist the ingredients once more for Twilly d’Hermès Eau Poivrée. Instead of ginger, I used pink peppercorn because it’s spicy, provocative and explosive; I swapped tuberose with the rose that I reworked to create an cashmere-like sensation; and in place of sandalwood, I chose patchouli, because I love it,” she adds gleefully.  “I think it’s my favourite ingredient.” The result is a vibrant, peppery, capricious reinvention of what’s sure to be remembered a classic fragrance of our time.

And Eau Poivrée may not be the final incarnation of Twilly to join the Hermès girl gang. “Tomorrow there might be a third, a fourth, and a fifth,” teases Hermès, “because nothing can stop a free spirit!” Christine is often called a “painter of scents” because she possesses the extraordinary ability to perceive aromas as colours and textures. “When I talk about patchouli, for me, it’s dark, it’s brown like honey,” she offers by way of an example.

However, the reality – much like her creations – is a lot more layered. Born in Switzerland, Christine began her journey to becoming the first female in-house perfumer at Hermès by studying organic chemistry at Geneva University, which at the time was considered a radical departure from the traditional path to the role, which hitherto included being born in Grasse in France (known as the cradle of perfumery) and being descended from a dynasty of perfume makers.

Yet it’s these unorthodox beginnings – combined with her astonishing ability to capture emotions, and bottle joy – that have been the secret to her success. “There are only three perfumers – Alberto Morillas, Maurice Roucel, and myself – who share the same background,” she points out. “For a long time, I used to play down my knowledge of organic chemistry because it made me different to other perfumers. But since I started working for Hermès, I’ve become proud of it, because having the technical ability as well as the creativity has made me fearless. I’m afraid of nothing. Everything is possible. It’s a gift in my professional life to have this background.”

The house of Hermès couldn’t agree more. “We share the conviction that Christine Nagel will apply her personality and talent to writing new chapters of our métier at Hermès,” declared Catherine Fulconis, then President of Hermès Parfums, on her appointment as Perfumer Creator in 2014. And it
didn’t take long before she proved them right by succeeding Jean-Claude Ellena as Creative Director two years later.

In 2016, Christine signed her first fragrance for Hermès, which was Eau de Rhubarbe Éclatante. Then came a playful jeux des mots on the house’s equestrian heritage in the form of Galop d’Hermès, followed by Eau de Merveilles Bleue, before the first Twilly d’Hermès in 2017. “I’m totally free when I create and this is so special and very unique,” Christine maintains. “There are approximately 500 perfumers in the world but only six in-house perfumers. One for Chanel, one for Dior, one for Louis Vuitton, one for Cartier, one for Guerlain, and one for Hermès,” she lists. “And at Hermès, I am totally, totally free – and it’s not just a word in the sky, it’s the true story. I’m free to choose my subject. Three years ago, I decided the time was right for a feminine fragrance inspired by a young girl, I decide to work with ginger, tuberose and sandalwood,” she cites, to prove her point. “It’s possible for me to choose the ingredients I want from all around the world. If I need a special extraction or special ingredient, anything is possible.”

She continues, “I never have a budget constraint when it comes to the price, and the most important point is that I only have to run my creations past Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the Artistic Director of Hermès, and Agnes de Villers, the President of Hermès Parfums; if it’s a fragrance vfor women, Artistic Director ofvthe Hermès Women’s Universe,vBali Barret, and if it’s a fragrance for men, Artistic Director of the Hermès Men’s Universe, Veronique Nichanian. That’s it. In the whole company,” she adds for emphasis. “All the others have a market test, and a market test, for me, is a pity for perfumery because when you test a perfume, it forces you to remove all the character, to end up with a perfume that pleases everyone. And I’m free,” she trills
with unbridled delight. “I think this is the real perfumer’s job. I’m so happy because I think I’m unique in my profession.”

Nobody would argue, yet to call Christine a hitmaker for Hermès Parfums would be to underestimate the importance of her role. This daring free spirit is, in fact, the gatekeeper of the house for the next generation. “Perfume is the first door to enter into the Hermès universe, because the price makes it the most affordable entry point,” she reasons. “I have an enormous responsibility to encapsulate all the values of the house in every creation. If a young girl buys Twilly d’Hermès Eau Poivrée, the next time she dares to open the door to the boutique, she will discover a marvellous maison. She may be drawn to a Twilly scarf or a charm. The purpose of my creations is to help open that door.” And there can be no bolder pursuit than that.

Photos: Supplied