Interview: Le Labo21 May, 2015
Le Labo has always been driven by intention and passion. That’s what makes it a strong brand with personality and feeling, not just a collection of bottles on a shelf. If we’re going to launch a new fragrance, we need to ask, ‘what is this perfume’s purpose for the planet?’
Pinned to a wall in Le Labo’s headquarters in SoHo, New York, is a piece of brown butcher’s paper with the words ‘you’re not deep, you’re not an intellectual, you’re not an artist, you’re not a poet, you just have high speed internet access’ handwritten across it. Sitting in his office, where the windows open onto a wrought iron terrace overlooking a grey skied Manhattan, Fabrice Penot seems to be all of these things. Though just as Le Labo, the fragrance company he co-founded with business partner Eddie Roschi in 2006, has never let success squelch its authenticity, Fabrice has never let labels – artist, poet, perfume genius – obscure his original goal.
“The purpose of Le Labo is to make life more beautiful,” he says in a heavy French accent, seemingly unaltered by his 11 years in New York. “It’s not about perfumery. Perfumery is a strategy, it’s the media. We would be musicians playing on the street if we could make beautiful music, but we don’t know how to do that. The only thing we are good at is perfume, so that’s how we tell stories, how we move people.”
Le Labo’s fragrances have moved people. Fabrice has piles of letters describing romance, passion, and heartbreak set to the scents of Rose 31, Santal 33, and Patchouli 24. Despite its recent acquisition by cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, the brand is still a niche one, available at only 35 locations worldwide and launching, on average, a single fragrance each year.
“We are not a brand that releases five fragrances every year in order to do big business,” says Fabrice, noting that he and Eddie will retain complete creative control of Le Labo following the Estée Lauder deal.
“Le Labo has always been driven by intention and passion. That’s what makes it a strong brand with personality and feeling, not just a collection of bottles on a shelf. If we’re going to launch a new fragrance, we need to ask, ‘what is this perfume’s purpose for the planet?’ If it’s to add one more bottle to the 1,400 new bottles launched every year, then frankly, it’s a crime. Before we start talking, we make sure what we are going to say is worth more than silence.”
Fabrice and Eddie launched Le Labo (French for ‘the lab’) with 10 fragrances in 2006, after long stints working in product development for L’Oréal. Their heady, bespoke scents quickly found their audience, and from its humble flagship store on Elizabeth Street in Nolita, Le Labo established itself as a renegade brand with strong artisanal values. Fragrances can’t be patented, which leaves perfumers vulnerable to copycats. Though Fabrice admits to being irritated when Le Labo imitators appeared early on, these days he says he’s more focussed on making fragrances so unique they can’t be copied. Now, with 32 products in its range, including nine interior fragrances, Le Labo is known for its thoroughly modern, unisex perfumes, and its use of extraordinary ingredients. Rose 31, for example, uses rose petals handpicked in Grasse, France, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars per kilo.
These ingredients are, he insists, simply a means to an end. “Yes, we’re using the most expensive and exclusive ingredients we can, but if you can’t create a beautiful perfume out of them, they’re pointless,” he says. “Nobody cares how much Edward Hopper or Picasso paid for the pigments they used for their paintings. If we don’t create something new from them, if they don’t change the world, then they’re useless, whatever they cost. People shouldn’t wear Le Labo because of the expensive ingredients. The craftsmanship behind it is not a justification for ‘you should wear this perfume’ either. You should only wear a perfume if it makes you smile in the morning.”
Fabrice anticipates Le Labo will grow and expand in the coming years, though he is adamant the brand will only exist in ‘meaningful locations’ where its mission won’t be diluted. “Life needs to remain an adventure, and the next adventure, for me as a human being and for the brand, is really about digging into new territories,” he says. “I want to make sure the feeling of passion and of bringing something meaningful to the table is still very strong. At some point, people buy what you do, but they also buy why you do it. The strength of Le Labo is to keep that ‘why’ alive. The ‘why’ is always the same: to make life more beautiful.”