Sexy and the Sexless: Frédéric Malle on New Stores and New Scents

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Frédéric Malle in his new West Village store

“If you don’t like your boyfriend, you go” thwack, a smack Frédéric Malle mimes with a block of aluminum foam, a material that makes up the walls in Malle’s new store. For such an elegant man, he’s awfully feisty. The opening of the Frédéric Malle Greenwich Avenue store marks the first time this aluminum foam has been used in the United States. It’s a futuristic material; very light, but rigid. The foam, mixed with the walnut wood on the semi-circle display sculpture creates a very simple, Zen, unique space.
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Never mind that he’s built a collection of intoxicating fragrances so luxurious and thoughtful, or that he has essentially created a publishing house for perfume, working with top perfumers to build his brand’s library — scent may be the most important thing about Frédéric Malle, but architecture follows right on top of its heels.

Malle’s first shop opened in Paris 14 years ago on June 6; his second in New York, (another is on Madison Avenue,) a West Village location, opens again on the same date, this Friday. “I’m very superstitious,” he explains.

Nestled on Greenwich Avenue, the shop contains its own uniquely warm and modern world. Step through the complex-seeming door, and it’s as if only that space exists.

“God is in the details with these things, and you have to work with god. I work with gods here,” he says, gesturing to the perfumes on display, “So I’ve got to work with gods of architecture… My idea was to put a drawer of modernity done as one piece within the building, and designed by a great architect that would do everything.”

That great architect is Steven Holl. Holl spends his mornings painting watercolors of future projects, and for Malle’s, the idea that fragrance “feeds two parts of the brain” tied both to memory and imagery, inspired Holl’s watercolors of two semi-circles not exactly parallel to one another, a motif rendered on the floor, the wall, the door, and in the secret garden out back.

stevenhollfredericmalleA Steven Holl watercolor from the Frédéric Malle project

Holl mainly had his way; Malle’s only requirements in the shop were the inclusion of portraits of the perfumers who’ve created fragrances for Frédéric Malle, they hang above the cabinet where the refrigerated cabinet where fragrances are stored, (requirement two,) and the smelling columns that Malle invented himself.

Holl also brought in Hervé Descottes, the best lighting designer in the world, according to Malle, who lights projects and buildings for Frank Gehry. Thee lighting is still being finalized when I’m there, but the system is in place for the design to change throughout the day, depending on the light outside.

The salespeople at Frédéric Malle aren’t the kind who stand idly by as customers blindly spray perfumes in the air — you can forget blotters, too. “You won’t have the faintest idea what you will be smelling of” that way, says Malle. Customers at Frédéric Malle experience scent through one of the perfumer/publisher’s own creations, a sort of booth ventilation system built specially into the walls, made of glass cylinders that a fragrance is sprayed into. Poke your head in and as Malle says, “sense the aura.” Try it on for size, make sure it fits. There are three of these cylinders in Malle’s new shop. This after a quick analysis and recommendation based on a customer’s mannerisms, volume control, and even his or her style of hair.

Your appearance and personality may dictate a preference for perfume, who you are will have something to do with what you say through choice of scent.

“Very fresh, citrus fragrances are sexless. And they convey an idea of being clean. And so it’s like a deluxe extension of toiletry. A shower that lasts forever. Or as long as possible,” says Malle.

The anti sexless option then might be the woodier scents.

“This sort of oak musk/patchouli, woody fragrance, of even Orientals based on amber and vanilla… all of these smell of a woman’s skin, and are basically shouting ‘I smell like that when I’m naked.’ It’s sort of that. That’s what a fragrance is about when you think of it… These are very sexual.”

And they work well on both men and women.

Land somewhere in the middle and you wind up with a floral fragrance, which Malle prescribes exclusively for women.

“A white flower, a gardenia, will never work on a man. Unless you want to make a point that you smell like a woman,” he says.

A man maybe shouldn’t wear florals, but a masculine scent on a woman is another story.

“As much as you wear big Rolexes, men’s clothes, which is a way to say, ‘I have a boyfriend,’ or ‘I am so pretty that I can wear men’s clothes.’ It’s a sort of neo-Chanel type of gesture.”

Back to the architecture… The garden in the back features a fountain inspired by Carlo Scarpa and designed by Holl. Malle has created the garden as a treat for himself; it’s not for customers, though if you hang out in the shop enough, you may be lucky enough to receive an invitation for prosecco in the garden. Bonne chance.

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Frédéric Malle and his Scarpa-inspired fountain

Frédéric Malle’s West Village store opens Friday, June 6 and is located at 94 Greenwich Avenue, New York.