A perfumer at the House of Hermès since 2014 and the head of its olfactory creations since 2016, Christine Nagel recently launched the brand’s first completely new men’s fragrance in 15 years. Called H24 (after the brand’s Parisian flagship on 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré), the scent stands out in a saturated men’s market for its distinct freshness and crispness. Here, Nagel tells us all about her vision and the complete freedom she had to realise it.
How did H24 come about?
The whole men’s universe at Hermès built by Véronique Nichanian happens to be one I know very well—my workshop in Pantin is on the rooftop of the men’s workshop, so every day, I walk past the clothes, the fabrics, the cutters, and I talk to Véronique as well. When I was talking to her about this universe, I realised that there are a lot of parallels between our worlds. She likes to work with high-tech materials, but likes to weave them on old Japanese looms—that speaks to me because I also like working with very modern materials in the old style, or vice versa. There’s also her way of bringing together materials. You have leather, cashmere and high-tech materials— sometimes in one garment, and the way they’re stitched is seamless, magical almost; you really believe the materials exist as such in nature. I, too, like it when materials merge with one another, like an olfactory fondue. I started thinking to myself: 80, 90 percent of all the men’s fragrances in the market are woody. What difference can I bring? And naturally, I thought of the botanical.
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Which botanicals did you choose?
The backbone is a clary sage, which is different from the garden sage we use for cooking. The clary sage has a duality that for me represented perfectly Véronique’s world—the sensuality but also the precision. Then there’s the narcissus, which is way overused in green notes in men’s fragrances, but always in little, tiny touches. I wanted to use narcissus in abundance. It reminds of the electric touch that Véronique has in all her collections— it can be a bright yellow or a pink or an electric blue. For me, the electric touch is an important detail because it gives a rhythm to everything. There’s rosewood, which was banned because obtaining it from Brazil leads to deforestation in the Amazon. But two years ago, I heard about small-scale producers in Peru who are harvesting it sustainably, and we actually went to audit them. Rosewood is neither rosy nor woody—it brings freshness to the fragrance. The last material is a synthetic one called sclarene. It is also always used in tiny quantities. When we were testing one day, I put in an extreme amount and immediately, the scent took me back to a childhood memory. My grandmother made men’s trousers and she’d put them on the table, cover them with a damp cloth and iron them with a heavy metal iron. The steam that came out was like clouds that reached my head. That smell—the metal and the wool—struck me as delicious. And I discovered that smell all over again in Véronique’s workshop—that’s how we still iron the beautiful wools at Hermès.
What was the process of creating H24 like?
I have an incredible playing ground at Hermès. What’s truly important here is that I’m free Hermès gives full trust to its designers. That freedom was the starting point, and then it was me telling myself that a botanical note can be just as strong as a woody one. Once that idea germinated, all the other materials slowly came to me—it’s a bit like a chef creating a recipe and then improving it over time.
How do you know you’ve got the recipe right?
I’m more of somebody who tries for a long time—I’ll keep testing and keep telling myself that I can do better. But there’s a moment when I say: That’s it; it’s right. I can’t tell you why or how I know. I also can’t tell you when that will happen—it can take three days, three months, three years. Some fragrances I’ve still not stopped working on because they’re not whole. There are no rules, really, but you can close your eyes, you can close your ears, you can stop touching, but you can never close your nose, you know? So I’m always smelling—smelling, seeking, and looking and exploring.