Written by KATHERINE CHAN
Photos courtesy of LE LABO
There is a quiet revolution brewing in the world of perfume. As “celebuscents” from the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber earn millions in department stores around the world, there are rene-gade perfumers who are trying to fight the tyranny of corporate culture by doing things their own way. Among them are Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi, the founders of Le Labo (meaning laboratory in French), who chose simplicity in design and a slightly irreverent edge as their dominant attitude. Since their minimal concept store opened in 2006 in fashionable Nolita, they have worked with some of the greatest perfumers to create a sophisticated unisex line that draws a loyal following.
Penot and Roschi met while taking a course in Grasse, the French capital of perfumery. Their teacher was the renowned “nose,” Jean-Claude Ellena, who has created scents for Bulgari, Frédéric Malle and Hermés. Both went on to work for Armani, and after a few years the young perfumers soon realized that the commercial world was not for them, and set out to start their own independent line of luxurious scents.
Every revolution must have a manifesto, and Penot and Roschi have penned their own “Treatise on Olfactory Resistance” that begins stridently with this:
In a world where luxury perfumes are mass-produced in places that look like supermarkets, where advert campaigns try to fool consumers into thinking they are unique even though their “one of its kind” fragrances are worn by millions across the globe, we believe there is another solution. As a result, Le Labo has decided to take matters — and perfume — back in hand...
The laid back atmosphere of their store on Elizabeth Street in New York belies the fervent ambition that drives Le Labo. Every design detail of the boutique has been executed carefully to seem effortless. Softly lit with dark, wood accents and a metaltopped bar, you would think you entered a trendy cocktail spot until you realize that the white-aproned people behind the counter are making perfumes instead of vodka tonics. Upon walking into Le Labo, a salesperson gently guides you to a wall lined with bottles and paper blotters where they assist you with narrowing down your favorites to one or two. After a spray or two on each wrist, it is suggested that you go home to allow time for the scent to fully express its poetry on your skin before you decide to invest in a bottle. Each perfume sold is made on demand, so there is no waste, no inventory sitting on shelves, and after the mixing, your bottle is personalized with your name, the place, and the date it was made.
Le Labo’s scents are meant to be worn by both men and women, and they run the gamut between woody and floral, animalic and clean, ensuring that you will find something you will like. Each scent is named after an accord, like Iris, Ambrette, Oud, and is then followed by a number designating how many individual raw materials were used to make it. Their most popular scents for men are combinations of leather, musk, and wood–think Dennis Hopper hanging out on his motorcycle at a bonfire.
Santal 33 opens with a fresh violet accord darkened by cardamom, and then rounds into a creamy smoke with an unexpected metallic bite, almost like the smell of freshly polished wood. Sexy and mysterious, it’s the most robustly masculine of all of Le Labo’s unisex scents, though don’t be surprised if your girlfriend adopts it as her go-to perfume.
Another bestseller is Patchouli 24, where instead of patchouli, that symbol of hippy counterculture, a smoky vanilla hits you with a tinge of oak and burnt rubber all wrapped in leather. The patchouli note presents itself much later in the drydown rounded out by a powdery incense accord.
Le Labo’s perfumes work into our imaginations without flashiness, allowing the perfume itself to be the star of the show.