Interview with Jeffrey Dame of Parfums Retro: Tilting at WIndmills

Don Quixote

Don Quixote

To end my series on American perfumers, I’ve included an interview with Jeffrey Dame, the man behind Parfums Retro and last year’s well received perfume Grand Cuir.

He answered the same set of questions I gave to every other perfumer, but as Jeffrey has been an insider in the US perfume industry for a long time, his perspective is different. He looks on the world of perfume both as someone who obviously likes and wears perfume, but also as someone who has had to develop and market scents professionally. He’s learned the art of launching new scents, and navigating the crowded marina of already existing ones without sinking, and these days that’s not easy. This is his view on creating niche perfumes and how the US fragrance industry has changed since he entered it.

Here is his interview:

1) Do you have a smell from childhood that you loved-anything from your Mom’s perfume to your dog’s paws-and what was it?

While we use our sense of smell in the same manner to experience the aromas of cooking, the memorable odors of a particular place – good or bad – and the scent of fragrance on skin; for me each of these three sensory experiences are separate and distinct in my fragrant mind. Perfumery for me is an expression of self and especially a communication with others, very much a human touch and quite different in recall from say the smell and sensation of a gently simmering beef bourguignon or a bunch of fresh cilantro pressed to my face as I make fish tacos. For place there is of course a direct cross-over to perfumery from real gardens and flowers, but generally the smells of a place fit into a category of its own in my mind and are not a part of my perfumery activities today. But childhood memories of scent as place are as vivid for me as they are for you. The smell of dry summer pine needles layered on the Colorado forest floor, the briny and plastic smell of floating on a rubber raft in a Cape Cod bay inlet, the smell of a sky with pending rain in the Nevada desert – not rain, just pending rain condensed up in the dark dense sky about to release. Thinking about those smells and sensations of place puts me right there, but these only subliminally impact my perfumery. Now for a true childhood perfumery experience that influences me to this day, there was that sort-of girlfriend in high school in 1977 who wore Diane Von Furstenberg’s Tatiana. Now that was a smell I loved which absolutely is in my perfumery today. Yes, that girl.

2) Are you a synesthete, do you “visualize” odors, or “taste” colors, and does it affect your output?

Perfumery for me is a composite experienced in full, as a whole entity. I don’t really work from individual single ingredients or bits and pieces or interpretive transitional feelings. I approach and sense a perfumery formula as a finished product to be formed like a sculpture on a potter’s wheel [Ghost anyone?]. Accords to be molded together, facets and movements to be captured, subtleties to be hidden. I am not a synesthete. I don’t see odors or taste colors. I do feel fragrance as an immediate and complete sensual form.

3) How do you see people using your perfumes, as accessories, personal signatures, or therapeutically?

I long for people to use my perfumes for their own personal pleasure and joy. No more, no less. It is all I hope for in creation. While I have my own personal favorites to wear numbering in the dozens, I don’t create fragrance for myself first nor does my creative spirit derive from my interior. My scents are made for communication and expression with others in mind. I look to the experience of a man or a woman wearing the scent in visualizing a composition. If I can make someone smile with one of my perfumes, I am happy. For me it is all about people. I will throw in that I love speaking face-to-face with those who are wearing and enjoying perfumes I have made [do Twitter and email count as face-to-face?], and the thought of grabbing a tester bottle and spraying people on the street and striking up conversations about perfume is the absolute best. I think my experience in 1982 working behind the fragrance counter at Macy’s Herald Square before the store was renovated permanently distorted my sense of reality and social relationships.

4) If perfumes can be categorized as narrative (like Jean Patou’s 1000) or as abstractions (like No 5) or mood altering (like Eau Dynamisante) or evocative (like L’Heure Bleue) which are yours?

These are all marketing elements really, the “fluff” that comes along to make a little oil in alcohol made for a few dollars desirable as a luxury experience. All these stories are needed, as without them fragrance would be a little dull. Part of my life experience in perfumery was to spent years…well, decades actually…creating and polishing these fragrance stories in all forms. For this I probably should apologize – but won’t. If you step back a little all the themes you mention in “narrative”, “abstractions” and “mood altering” are really all the same – they are simply stories to be told enhancing the ephemeral. What surprises me the most today is how little the marketing of perfume has changed over 35 years. If you go back and look at perfume ads from the 1980′s the messages, stories and camera angles in print, and the looks of the models are all pretty much exactly the same today. Only the shoulder pads are gone. Boy + Girl + Bottle = Done. It could be the instant internet access to history has stifled innovation as it is hard to be truly creative when decades of prior work is staring you in the face on your phone. I miss the creative shock of the original Calvin Klein for men print ad pre-Obsession where it showed a man on top of a woman in a bed, on top of the covers, and they were completely clothed but he had his shirt off and you could “actually” see his muscled tan back. Ooooh. Great stuff, shocking shocking shocking. I loved it. Or the Paco Rabanne morning after print ad with her in his dress shirt and he already at work and the phone dialogue down the page. Pull that off today? I don’t think so, although do I love the new Old Spice guy. At this time with my perfumery creations I have to hold myself back from from a ingrained tendency and instinct to create fluff. Today instead I focus very much on the construction of the scent itself – the formula – and the design elements of the bottle and packaging and product name and how these meld together to reach out and create desire and pleasure of purchase and end-use by a woman or man. The whole experience of the product. But you do need the story, and perfume as an industry will always need fluff – or what do you have left? Always remember the best thing about the guy with the TV tray at 34th Street and Broadway was not the patchouli and sandalwood oils he was selling for cash, it was him, the hat, his chatter, the traffic honking in the background and the discovery event and your purchase experience which made it special and memorable.

5) Do you have a particular material you prefer to work with or that you always return to?

I don’t focus in on particular ingredients or specific materials, but I am a sucker for an oriental composition. My perfumes are usually a blend of costly naturals forming a rich bed and then marvelous modern aroma chemicals sprinkled about to bring the scent to life and carry the essence into your future. So much incredible work is being done today in modern perfumery and the pallet of ingredients a perfumer has to work with has expanded five-fold and offers visions of creativity previously unheard of in fragrance. Yes naturals are nice, and I use costly naturals in my compositions but alone without modern enhancements these “all-natural” historical formulas can be deadly dull. They went away for a reason. And let’s be honest, with the exception of a handful of indie perfumers, often on the west coast of the USA who are blending with naturals drop by drop, most all modern perfumes have aroma chemicals in the formulas – they couldn’t be made otherwise. Many of the stories being told to the customers are just not correct or right [there's that fluff again], and everyone “inside” knows this. Aroma chemical use in formulas has been true for decades, and is true today. For myself, I embrace the excitement of modern perfumery. Can a perfumer take modern aromas and make up a poor quality synthetic slush? Yes of course. But in the right talented hands modern aroma chemicals can be breathtakingly beautiful. In the editorial world of perfume commentary there is a worshipful attention to natural ingredients, not withstanding how uninteresting the resulting compositions might be, and the empirical evidence that these classic old-timey formulas died a death in the market already once, twice and now three times because the majority of end-use customers have moved on to more exciting and modern fragrance directions.

Grand Cuir

Grand Cuir

6) What is your current best seller?

An obvious answer for me would be my new Parfums Retro Grand Cuir, just introduced last year in 2013 and continuing to grow slowly and attract devotees who recognize what they have in their hands. But here for “best sellers” in this case I will point to two fragrances – one for women and one for men – whose success is measured in decades and hundreds of thousands of bottles sold. That is quite a bit of fragrance on skin, the only measurement which matters to me. Are people wearing my fragrances, and do the scents make them happy? These creations of mine which I would designate “best sellers” are Vicky Tiel Sirene for Women and Perry Ellis 360 for Men.

It used to be back in the 1980′s that as a perfumery “insider” working in marketing and creation you hoped and prayed that one day you might be lucky enough to work on a new perfume creation project from scratch during your career. And that’s what it was too, chance. So few new fragrances were created back then, just a handful – maybe a couple dozen each year – that you needed some luck to be in the right place at the right time to be assigned to guide the creative process. So each new scent was important and well thought through, and also built gradually over time with attention and love. These modern days of course the reverse is true with hundreds and hundred of scents being introduced monthly and dropped just as fast. Nowadays for corporate perfume industry insiders its hard to walk out of your office without getting hit in the head with a new fragrance project. The other difference back then is that in the scent creation process there was just you as the brand creator, your salesperson from the essential oil house and the perfumer themselves. A trio – that was it. There were no inside “Fragrance Evaluators” nor “Mall Intercept Testing”. You sat down, sprayed scent and got it done.

With Vicky Tiel Sirene for women back in 1992 the team was myself at Parlux, Freddy Friedman and perfumer Hugh Spencer from Florasynth. We zero’d in immediately on this gorgeous sweet aldehydic accord Hugh had created with fresh peachy tones and a warm fatty oriental dry. It really is a spectacular scent, one of those singular smells which is so distinctive it only smells like itself and no other. Sirene is a complex scent built with a schiff base and somewhat unstable, hard to keep under control. If you have not smelled Sirene it is worth a look. 2,000,000 bottles later, yes I would suggest Vicky Tiel Sirene is a best seller.

And for Perry Ellis 360 for men back in 1994 it was myself again back at Parlux, but this time with Remi Ricord and perfumer Constance Georges-Picot at Takasago. At that moment Perry Ellis had no fragrances for men, just the original Perry Ellis for Men which had been discontinued. I really have to credit Remi with 360 for Men. As a salesman he believed deeply in this scent and just would not let it go. At its time Perry Ellis 360 for Men was a unique breakthrough and an expansion of the Cool Water universe. Some of the reviews on Fragrantica – now looking at 360 for Men twenty years later, dismiss the scent as “another” aromatic Cool Water type, but they can only say that now after the whole men’s category has devolved into one big giant Cool Water type. Back then 360 For Men was big news in its approach to aromatic freshness, something both clean and sweet at the same time for men. Once again singular and unique. Say what you will about Cool Water types, but with 360 for Men the smell is immediately identifiable. And yes, I would guess again at about 2,000,000 bottles sold over 20 years, maybe more.

 

I am proud of all the scents I have worked on over the years, either as brand manager or as the creative director. Each fragrance is like a child of mine out in the world and I smile when I see them on the shelf. Balenciaga, Parfums Caron, Geoffrey Beene, Perry Ellis, Aramis, Vicky Tiel, Bill Blass; they’re all there to be seen and touched and smelled to this day. My most recent creation from scratch is the Parfums Retro house which I have started with my good friend the perfumer Hugh Spencer. It’s a very focused niche collection with outstanding scent compositions. Hugh and I are taking perfumery techniques and approaches from the past and modernizing them for today and the resulting compositions are unique and rather breathtaking. The first scent, Parfums Retro Grand Cuir has seen rave reviews, and we’ll be introducing two new scents later this summer in Parfums Retro Santal Superbe and Parfums Retro Sous Bois; with a 4th scent with an Ambre focus for fall. These four scents are mostly for men, and for women who know how to wear a man’s scent. Next year in 2015 we’ll look towards scents which are more feminine in character. This year it is all about the men.

And on the horizon I am working on a new Perfumery concept store, but that is a story for another day.

8) Is there a classic perfume you particularly admire?

For men it would be the classic Aramis for men, firstly because I was in charge of marketing in the USA for Aramis at Estee Lauder back in the late 1980′s and I wore Aramis every single day. The whole collection to start my day: Aramis hair shampoo and conditioner, bar soap, shave foam, after shave balm, deodorant stick; maybe a little shaker talc or body lotion depending on the weather, and cologne of course to finish it off. No one could stand within three feet of me on the NYC subway, but damn I smelled GREAT! And secondly because Aramis is such a superb fragrance composition – inspired by Cabochard of course. It was wonderful to be able to touch that part of history, plus this was before Estee Lauder became a public company so the focus inside was different and I have good memories of my work day. I no longer have a bottle of Aramis in my collection, but to this day I will wander over into Macy’s or Dillard’s department store and sneak a sniff of Aramis.

For women it would be the original Oscar de la Renta. Such an important, magical perfume. Oscar de la Renta embodied for me everything a woman’s scent should be at the time..beautiful, feminine, singular, compelling, irresistible. I was first exposed to Oscar de la Renta when I was working as an assistant buyer in the fragrance buying office for Neiman Marcus in Dallas in 1980 [J.R. anyone?] just after it came out, and the Oscar de la Renta perfume captured not only me but seemingly every woman in Dallas and across the south. That fall we went to the launch party for Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui in the Highland Park neighborhood at the mansion [no not that Mansion] of a leading Dallas socialite and the night was beyond spectacular; at least for my 20-year-old self. Champagne, every single women dressed in their best Oscar gown, pearls and Oscar de la Renta scent on all; and the man – Oscar himself – striding in with his huge smile as if on a magic carpet. The room just exploded. Oscar de la Renta captured in one moment everything that needed to be right for a designer perfume, a spectacular scent, beautiful bottle, and a fabulous designer. Everything was simply perfect. Several years later I was working in New York in charge of the global marketing for the Oscar de la Renta men’s fragrance and met and worked with Oscar many times. Such a gentleman, and I was fortunate to have crossed paths with him. I have not spoken to Oscar de la Renta in years, but I am certain if I met him again today I would once again fall back into stunned admiration. One whiff of Oscar de la Renta perfume brings it all back in a second. Now I have to go out for a reminder sniff. I am smiling already.

Jeffrey dame

Jeffrey dame

As you can see for me admiration of a classic perfume is not about a particular scent’s formula, or a knock-list of famous scents; it is all about my own total composite experience with a scent and the images and emotions which are brought forth.

 

Because of technical snafus, Jeffrey’s interview didn’t get properly shown until June 1st, so I will be leaving it up until June 6th.  This way people can get a chance to read it and catch up on any interviews with favorite US perfumers they might have missed.  Enjoy!

 

 

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4 Responses to Interview with Jeffrey Dame of Parfums Retro: Tilting at WIndmills

  1. Vanessa says:

    Ooh – I have had a bit to do with Jeffrey lately – talking over on From Pyrgos about vintage scents, and liaising about samples – so it was interesting to learn more about the man and his approach to scent and the industry more generally. I must say I can still enjoy a bit of marketing ‘fluff’ as long as it isn’t too hackneyed and contrived. ;)

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Have to admit to a little bit of fluff enjoyment myself. It is nonsense I suppose, but it’s such entertaining nonsense that it’s a bit hard to jettison completely. Mind you the vestal virgins gathering lillies at dawn sort of thing can get lodged up my nose pretty quickly.

  2. leathermountain says:

    I just found Tatiana, and I concur!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Tatiana is a gem, reminds me faintly of the old Coty Les Muses, which is also a beautiful jasmine perfume.

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