QUESTION: What is your favourite fragrance? LISA TANT: I don’t…
Carlos Huber launched Arquiste Parfumeur in 2011. Each of his top-quality fragrances aims to recreate the olfactive experience of a particular time and place in history—from 1175 Calabria, Italy to 1837 St. Petersburg, Russia. Deborah Fulsang sat down with Huber recently to talk fragrance on the occasion of his label’s launching at Holt Renfrew in Canada.
Q: I was curious about your fragrances—they reference history between the 1100s and the 1800s—but 20 years ago is history too. Why do you look so far back?
Huber: I’m a little bit of a history buff, and I like going back. I’m not a revisionist, but I’m attracted to the revival aspect of all that. I don’t want to sound cliché, but that movie Midnight in Paris…there’s a romance [in] imagining a life that is different from your own. I don’t know if it has the same strength as 20 years ago. Not to discredit those ideas at all: I’m working on the seventh [Arquiste] perfume now and it’s early 20th century.
Q: Well, I was going to ask, because Paris art deco is such…
Huber: Paris art deco is such a strong moment, [but] for me it’s Chanel No. 5. Chanel No. 5 is so art deco. It really relates to art and, not necessarily architecture, but it relates to culture in a sense that with Chanel, you have a floral heart that is very traditional—very early 20th century—then you surround it with these aldehydes that are synthetic and fresh and modern, and it reflects really what’s happening at that moment. Society is transitioning from the old regime into the modern age.
The one I’m working on now is early 20th century. It’s this whole idea of boutonnieres. You know, a flower worn on a man’s lapel, and this whole evening of this moment in-between. Also Belle Epoque: the world is changing and there’s this decadence of ‘we have it easy, we have wealth, we have everything,’ but it’s also transitioning to something else—you have electricity and you have other things that make it a modern age.
Going back into history was very, very rewarding to me: When you smell one of [the Arquiste fragrances], they remind you of something personal. Whether it’s what your mom’s house smells like or what a friend that you love smells like, or what a city or a beach [smells like]. And for me, having that connection between the 1100s, or the Aztecs in Mexico, or something at my mom’s house, is a very cool idea.
Q: Strangely, it somehow gives meaning to the whole thing: the connectivity of all of this—our existence.
Huber: For us to understand that we’re not just floating around in this world, and that our life here begins and ends with us: we’re part of a chain; we’re part of a whole thing.
The first time I smelled Fleur de Louis and Infanta [en Flor], which are 1660 formulas—these are all authentic, sourced from research from perfume catalogues: Everything that was used to perfume shirts to actual spaces, candles… the materials of a pavilion where this moment took place [were all considered]—you smell them and you realize, ‘wait, I know these smells.’
By the 1660s, you start having commerce with Asia, with the Americas, and you start receiving vanilla, and chocolate, and tuberose, and all these things [that were now] in greenhouses in Europe. It’s interesting that they’re somehow familiar.
Q: That’s fascinating, actually, to look into what they would use for cleaning supplies, or the candles of the house.
So when did the line launch last year?
Huber: September. I’m based in New York and we launched it at all Barney’s: Beverly Hills, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Scottsdale; eight stores. Then we launched as well [in] Mexico. We just launched Liberty and Harrod’s in London, in Zurich, and it launched in France, Italy, Spain, Belgium.
Q: Wow, that’s fast.
Huber: I know.
Q: So, is it just you?
Huber: It’s just me. Well, I work with these two perfumers that are very good friends of mine: Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier. They’re both incredible and they’re very hot perfumers because Rodrigo had like 20 years of experience and he’s the creator of Clinique Happy, he’s kind of like the king of citrus. He’s done everything from Neroli Portofino from Tom Ford to Azure Lime. He just won a FiFi award for Sambac Absolute. He does wonderful, really full-personality perfumes.
Yann Vasnier has done Bang for Marc Jacobs. They’ve done a lot of niche work and a lot of commercial successes, and they’re very modern perfumers. But they also have this respect and this caring about history and they reference history so that’s why we connected very well.
I come from preservation and architecture (Huber graduated with honours in Historic Preservation at Columbia University)—but I’ve always had a sensibility, for [fragrance]. Rodrigo sort of noticed that and said, “I’m going to teach you if you want.” I took classes with him for a year and a half. We collaborate.
So… the next one is Flor y Canto, which is this Aztec offering of five flowers. The Aztecs, they had a very refined culture of taste, and of smell, and of fashion, and of arts and all this, and their poetry was very much inspired by flowers. They thought the flowers had the capacity to communicate things from the gods to human beings that other things in nature didn’t have. It was the only thing that was beautiful visually, but also had a scent. So they would make these offerings of heaps and heaps of flowers, and offer them in temple altars. They would burn copal, which is that white resinous thing in the middle.
Q: I can see men wearing this one too.
Huber: Exactly. I don’t really [say], ‘this is men’s, this is women’s.’ I define them as this is floral, and this is not floral. People gravitate to different words.
Q: So which scent is this next one?
Huber: Fleur de Louis. It is actually the first moment I did research on. It was my first inspiration. I was reading on the meeting of the French court with the Spanish court in 1660, and this is when Louis XIV rose up to prominence and he sort of asserted himself in front of his own court, and the foreigners. They were signing a peace treaty with Spain, the political enemy, but also they were related in family—his mother was Spanish, his future wife was actually his cousin.
Louis XIV came to see this girl (his proposed bride, the Infanta Maria Teresa, for the arranged marriage)—you’re not supposed to see the bride before the wedding—but he wanted to see her to see if she was pretty, to see if he would be happy with her.
So this—Fleur de Louis—is the French court. This is everything that was in fashion at the time in France in the 17th century. So for this, I went to Paris to the Bibliotheque Mazarine in the Institute de France. I found a catalogue from a perfumer [who] was called in by the cousin of the king to be the perfumer at that meeting.
I found the skins that were used to perfume the [meeting] space [on the Isle of Pheasants on the French-Spanish border]. There’s a long-known formula of what they used to wash [the king’s] shirts in—what they called eau d’orange. We have also the notes of the pavilion: The cousin of the king said that the pavilion was so magnificent and so well constructed, and quickly constructed, that it still smelled of pine and cedar wood. We had all of these woody notes that we wanted to evoke in the background [of the fragrance]. If you notice, there is also a very crisp, refreshing aquatic part of it.
You get the orange; you get the jasmine.
Q: And you get the fir, I think that’s what I’m smelling. I smell the sharpness of something in there too.
Huber: Well there’s a lot of iris. I think that iris is going to give you that powdery-ness that is very velvety. They used a lot of iris. The most expensive iris comes from Tuscany. Remember the Medici queens had come to France before.
His grandmother was actually a Medici. She was the first one to bring perfumers into France. Perfume was more of an Italian thing than a French thing at the time.
Q: These are such great stories. How do you educate your customers about them?
Huber: You give them bits of information to spark their curiosity. You give them the story. You give them clues into what the ingredients are that they are smelling: make it short and sweet, and give them the bibliography. Give them the tools to go learn more and more and more.
Q: And Anima Dulcis?
Huber: This is this convent in Mexico City that was my thesis project for Columbia. Of course, I knew everything about this convent. I knew the layout of the space, I knew the materials and the construction, I knew the likes of the nuns there, I knew the activities that each group was divided into. Cooking was a very important thing in these convents. And Mexico is the first world to have ingredients coming from Asia, Africa, Europe, and from, obviously, the Americas. It’s the middle point of the commerce between Asia and Europe. A dish like mole—a Mexican dish—very chocolaty; it has ingredients from all around. It’s the first fusion food. I found specific recipes from this convent: one recipe for chocolate had chili and jasmine, and cumin and cinnamon.
It’s a beautiful unisex fragrance. It’s very much like the spices floating in that kitchen.
Q: You can smell the chili. It’s wonderful.
Huber: It’s also the one that men respond to really well. It’s the one that is very much a statement. On blotter, it’s a lot stronger than it is on skin. On skin they are long-lasting. Do you like the line so far?
Q: It’s beautiful and original. There’s so much sameness in the marketplace, so I love these stories of fragrance, and I do also think that element is becoming more important again.
Huber: With a thousand new launches every year.
Arquiste Parfumeur lineup: $165-$175 each, www.arquiste.com, www.holtrenfrew.com
L’Etrog: citrus chypre
Flor y Canto: white floral
Fleur de Louis: woody floral
Infanta en Flor: floral musky amber
Anima Dulcis: baroque gourmand
Aleksandr: ambery leather
PHOTO (CARLOS HUBER): KEVIN TACHMAN