Harper’s BAZAAR Singapore (HBS): You didn’t set out to create perfume. Could you tell us more about how your career started?
Christine Nagel (CN): I am Swiss, was born to an Italian mother, and was brought up a long way from Grasse and the world of perfumery. I came to perfume through studying organic chemistry and my first professional experience was with Firmenich. There, I discovered the diversity of perfume at a molecular level. Then I couldn’t wait to become a perfumer, to learn, experiment and perfect my art.
Two perfumers played pivotal roles in my wanting to become a perfumer: Firstly Alberto Morillas, from my office window I saw him asking two young women to smell his perfume trials – I saw them smile, knew what they were feeling, felt their pleasure. At that exact moment I knew, I was convinced that this job that allows you to give so much was for me. Then later, at Création Aromatique, I set up the Chromatography department and met Michel Almairac. He became my mentor and it was under his supportive, watchful eye that I created my first perfumes.
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HBS: Tell us more about your time at Hermès so far. How was it like discovering the richness of the Hermès archive? And what has been your favourite encounter since joining Hermès
CN: The incredible thing about Hermès is the constant challenge set down to the creator and the creation itself. Working for Hermès is like an end in itself. When you realise your dream, you have a huge sense of happiness. That’s the effect that call had, that announcement. If they have chosen me, then it’s for this distinctive signature; and I have to say that the recognition is a pleasure for me every day, because I’m realising a dream, the dream of creating perfumes that communicate all the values of this house. Today, what clearly and deeply inspires me is the entire Hermès’ world and heritage. It is very vast and rich, but it is also a great source of inspiration. I feel proud and honoured.
HBS: What is so different about working at Hermès?
CN: The most noticeable difference for me is having complete freedom and plenty of time. Decisions are actually made between the Chairman of Hermès Parfums, Agnes de Villers and I. There’s no market research, no consumer panels. Marketing is only there to support the creation, it doesn’t influence it. I’d never seen that before. This stance gives the creation and the creator essential roles. It all starts with a blank page. With a feeling of emptiness which is attractive but also frightening. It’s horribly exciting, a big responsibility, all the bigger, in fact, because perfumes may be the most accessible objects from the House of Hermès. We have a duty to create, then. As I said before, it’s the space that’s given to the creation and the creator. It’s unique not having any pressure except the pressure you impose on yourself, it’s wonderful being in control of your own creations.
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HBS: What do you hope to achieve moving forward?
CN: Now it will be for me to preserve, develop and make perfumes and values live. To perpetuate this pattern of a perfumery of commitment, free and bold, made of encounters but also to immerse in the heritage and innovation to better understand the present.
HBS: Many of your creations are known to encapsulate femininity by representing strength and sensuality (like Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her and Giorgio Armani’s Si). Is there a particular way you approach each project?
CN: In my perfumes there’s often something tactile, textured, a particular sensitivity to the raw material, to touch and the sensuality of hands. People often describe my work as physical perfumery. I’ll quote Rodin: “To give my figures more breadth, I give them more life, I exaggerate them and get more life.” That’s absolutely true of my perfumes, I recognize myself in that quote. I accentuate features, bring out raw materials. My perfumes are never linear.
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HBS: How did the idea for Galop d’Hermès, your first perfume for the House, come about? Could you tell us more about its creation process?
CN: For Galop, I immersed myself completely in the utterly unique world of Hermès. From the start, every door was opened to me, everyone was very generous and frank; I discovered all the in-house crafts, there are 16 of them! The story began in the leather library, this secret an silent place where the heart of Hermès beat. A place where you can hear the leather breathes and I chose the Doblis Because its name is like a caress. Its softness is like a woman skin. In an instant, I understood that the leather was feminine; When I met the Doblis, I discovered all the femininity of Hermès. A tactile, gentle and elegant power.
HBS: Why did you choose to focus on leather and rose?
CN: I had to surprise the Doblis, I needed a partner and this partner, the rose inspired me through a new dance. The notes of rose and leather – both traditional to perfumery – bring with them an audacity, express a degree of nerve and a great concern for detail. Rose and Leather, leather and rose….. and rose and leather, leather and rose again. Two partners who reveals themselves to each other intensify each other. Leather carries the rose, the rose animates the leather. In a dance where they match. I wanted to offer up their harmonious and mischievous cavalcade to you. And when you close the bottle, the two materials live on and continue to dance. Every time you inhale Galop, rose and leather appear, come together and hold you.
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HBS: Is there an underlying message behind this scent?
CN: I see Galop d’Hermès as a manifesto and a tribute to the house. But the most important thing is for the in-house values to be showcased and fittingly expressed in this perfume
HBS: What’s the most incredible thing that inspired any of your past creations?
CN: Only one word: Encounter.
HBS: What are some of your favourite notes to work with?
CN: Amazingly, any scent can be inspiring. My loves fluctuate and I have no preconceptions about any ingredients or smells. When I discover an ingredient I want to know everything, to knead it, crush it, work it, experiment with it. I want to take it where I like, coax it. I want to push its boundaries. I want to force it, tame it. I work sparingly with few raw materials because I’m convinced that what matters is, by definition, simple. At Hermès the beauty of the raw materials is central, it’s at the heart of all their crafts. It goes without saying it’s central to mine. Hermès gives us unique freedom to choose our raw materials. It’s an absolute luxury which lets me go where no one else goes. It’s a unique luxury.
HBS: How do you personally wear perfume? Do you apply the scents on pulse points or on your clothes?
CN: No personal fragrance for myself but at the same time all of them. My skin is my work tool; it is the tester of all the trials I make. I am well known for wearing colorful stickers all over my arms. The places where veins pop out, pulse, are the most interesting to perfume. However you can also perfume your clothes, your scarf, your sweater. The skin or the clothes, it comes in two different gestures, one is more intimate and selfish, the other is more generous.
Galop d’Hermès is available at Hermès boutiques, at $406 for 50ml.
By Joyce Cheo