For years, Frédéric Malle and Alber Elbaz admired each other from a distance—each enamored or the other’s talent. Last year, the two finally connected over lunch, and both friendship and collaboration were born. Guided by a genuine bond and similar view of the world, they created a fragrance called Superstitious, which is a beguiling blend of rose, jasmine, amber, patchouli, incense, and vetiver. To hear firsthand about this exciting partnership, we hopped on the phone with the duo, who spoke to us from the beach in Oman, where they were attending the Condé Nast International Luxury Conference. Below, they share the spirited story of their path to Superstitious.
The Window: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us all the way from Oman! Can you both share how you came to know each other?
Frédéric Malle: It’s so beautiful here, we wish you could see! I became familiar with Alber after his first show for Saint Laurent. Like many people who were brought up with their parents or girlfriends wearing Yves Saint Laurent, I was a bit nervous to see if he’d be able to do it, and of course he did. I’ve been following Alber’s work ever since. I had been working with Barneys for a long, long time. I was friends with the buyers who were buying Alber’s work, and there was a corner on the 2nd floor at Barneys that had the entire Lanvin collection. I would always shop there for my wife. I’ve truly been a fan of Alber’s work for so long. My wife was wearing his designs and later my daughter. I just love the way he complements a woman and doesn’t turn them into what they’re not. He makes women more beautiful, and always in different ways, as his collections are all different from one another.
Alber Elbaz: Of course I knew Frédéric too—not him, but the perfume. I would gift his fragrances to people I love. Gifting someone perfume is a very significant thing. For me, Barneys isn’t really a store—it’s part of my life and my history. When I go, it’s really special. Whenever I go downstairs at Madison Avenue, I’m drawn to the Frédéric Malle area—it’s like an island for me. It’s so personal, human, and unique.
The Window: So how did you first meet?
FM: We had met briefly through a friend, but I was too nervous to reach out to him. Last January, one of our mutual friends told me to just call him up, so I resisted my shyness, and I called Alber and asked him to lunch. We had this blind date, and it was very nice! We left the restaurant at 4p.m. that day because we had so much to tell one another and were on the same wavelength. From that day onward, the relationship was very natural. If it hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone right now! We did not have to do a fragrance together; we just had the idea. When I work with someone on a fragrance, I consider them guests in my home—it’s because I want to have them there and like them!
AE: I was on a sabbatical for a year and really didn’t want to do any work, instead taking time to fall in love with fashion again and gain perspective. When he called me, I didn’t know if I should do it. But then we met, and this idea came up, it didn’t really feel like work at all.
The Window: So the idea for Superstitious came from that first meeting? What happened next?
FM: Yes. The first time we met, we realized that we were against set rules and marketing recipes. We also realized that we were both incredibly superstitious. At one point, Alber said, “There should be more superstition in the world.” He meant there should be more trust in everybody and more spirituality—kind of an abstraction. We knew that was the name of the perfume, so that was decided on the first day we met. It was a Saturday, and I registered the name by the Monday morning. It gave us direction, which is funny because usually I work the opposite way.
AE: A few months later, Frédéric came to Paris in steamy August. He was running like a mad man between meeting with me and the laboratory creating the fragrance. It was never about a big marketing thing—it really felt like him and me. We would meet in different restaurants around Paris, and through six lunches we worked on the perfume. But it wasn’t just those lunches—he had been working on this fragrance for a year and a half with perfumer Dominique Ropion. Frédéric and I just shaped it.
FM: The big hurdle was the perfume, but when Alber mentioned he wanted to scent to conjure a dress, I thought about how an Alber dress doesn’t impose itself—it just enhances a woman like a second skin. That’s what good perfume does too. I narrowed it down to two concepts, and I remember his reactions when I showed him. He loved the more classic one, but asked if we could make it, “a little more punk.” He just didn’t want it so perfect. It’s true it was a bit too jolie madame. He also said he likes the scent more after two hours than right away, so, of course, we tweaked it by increasing the back notes of vetiver and amber making them more prominent, while making the jasmine and rose a little more transparent.
AE: I asked him to make it a little more imperfect, because we are living in a time of imperfection. It was about having these two perfectionists—Dominique and Frédéric—unperfecting a job, not to make it less good, but to reflect the time. Me, I’m a storyteller. Frédéric was able to translate my words and dreams and put all that into a bottle. When people ask what are the ingredients, I truly just say love and friendship. That is what we put inside. At the end of the project, we looked at each other and thought, that was easy! It wasn’t so difficult. It was really just so much fun, and I’ll tell that to anyone who asks.
The Window: The packaging is beautiful. How does it reflect the scent? What has the reaction been?
FM: When I started working on packaging, black and gold made sense because they’re very classic with a twist. I asked Alber to write Superstitious, because I love his writing. We went back and forth a lot with the bottles and boxes. When you trust the person that you work with, you give as many ideas as possible because you know you won’t get judged. This fusion of ideas was great, and I loved seeing Alber edit them and go through them. At one point we had an idea to draw an evil eye that protects you, so we did it in a very minimal way. Alber loved it but not my design, so he took my pen at lunch one day and drew one on a piece of paper.
AE: I wanted the bottle to feel like a part of the Frédéric Malle family and not the neighbor. I really wanted to keep the DNA, and the shape is part of the logo. We liked the evil eye idea because of protection. We live in a world where we need to be protected. It’s about choosing something you like because you like it.
FM: And the response so far has been ecstatic. When you work as long as I have on something, you don’t really smell it anymore. So seeing people love it is quite amazing.
AE: I found so much beauty throughout this process. It was really so special.
You’re invited! Come meet Frédéric Malle and Alber Elbaz to celebrate the launch of their fragrance collaboration, Superstitious. Thursday, April 20 6p.m. to 8p.m. at Barneys New York Madison Avenue. RSVP: FredericNY@Barneys.com.