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Next to monster brands such as Chanel and Calvin Klein, Michel Germain’s Sexual perfumes have been longtime best sellers both here and south of the border. We sat down with Germain himself to chat about ancient aphrodisiacs, gender-bending perfume and the possibility of bottling the smell of freshly baked bread.
It’s hard to believe that Michel Germain entered the beauty world with his Sexual Perfumes over 20 years ago. He had no fragrance experience, yet his charm, easy smile and hard work won him a two-decade career of successes. It’s those successes that also earned him the Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent Canadian Fragrance Awards.
So how did this Canadian boy make it big? It started with passion—quite literally. Germain created Sexual because he loved perfume, but his wife Norma never wore it. She said she wouldn’t wear a fragrance until she found the one that made her feel confident and well…sexy. What’s a perfume-loving husband to do? Make his own of course. Luckily for him, she liked it, and so did the rest of Canada.
The Whale & The Rose: How did you decide on the ingredients for the first Sexual perfume?
Michel Germain: In the very beginning, I was blessed to have met Doctor Mukherjee. He was a scientist and he actually discovered living flower fragrances, which 25 years ago exploded our industry. And he would say, “sexuality—let’s look at aphrodisiacs.” So I did an in-depth study of what ancient aphrodisiacs looked like. We got all this history about these notes, but what got me more was: Do all these aphrodisiacs still have an effect on today’s men and women?
I went out to shopping malls and tested hundreds of women. And I can clearly say that they [do]. That takes me to my explanation of fragrance in general: Fragrance is evolutionary not revolutionary. Within our DNA, there’s definitely the thread of these notes that we have enjoyed and lived with over time. The key is to add a special sparkle, I call it “the sparkle of magic dust.” It’s a twist that takes you to a new place of comfort—to the point where you can’t live without it because of the way you feel when you wear it.
And then most importantly: getting the compliments. To me that’s the ultimate value of fragrance, compliments on your perfume.
Q: The ‘what are you wearing?’ factor.
Germain: Oh god. You know how powerful that is? We work very hard to make those things happen. And with a name like Sexual, you really want to feel that value too.
Q: You were talking about scent history in our DNA. The idea of collective memory is very interesting: It’s talked about sometimes in anthropology: The idea that there are notes that we respond to as humans. That’s pretty cool.
Germain: I can’t prove this but some great perfumers say that we only smell fragrance in our subliminal minds. Very good fragrances are well-rounded, have got the evolutionary thread, and there’s like 200 subliminal images that your mind actually sees that take you a bit on a journey. That is a great fragrance. They’re the ones that really hook you and you want to be part of.
Q: Do you think it differs between what makes a fragrance sexy for a man versus for a woman?
Germain: If you look at a man’s fragrance versus a women’s, it’s a much deeper scent. Typically, and certainly in our collection, many men’s fragrances are deeper, richer, edgier. You may have a great opening or crisp orange or mandarin or citrus note, but there’s typically a woodier, sexier drive underneath that is a little different than ladies. You see it in some ladies, but it’s more limited. So the ladies would be a nice combination of florals, ambers, a little bit of wood but it still has a floral or sweet connotation. Men’s you can get into sweetness as well but standing on or hiding behind it is a much more masculine vibe.
Q: I find that with men’s fragrance sweet notes remind me of the sweetness of liquor and with women, it’s more candy, chocolate.
Germain: Yes. Good point. Liquor, leather, there’s even a diesel fuel note; I remember years ago they played with that as a masculine character. You have to do it properly.
Q: And what other fragrances have impacted your life?
Germain: You have to give so much credit to the world of Chanel, right? It’s just incredible. Like the number-one brand worldwide. I give a lot of credit to the work they’ve done. Other greats: Calvin Klein’s Eternity. In fact Sophia [Grojsman], who I created Sexual with, created Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
Q: Would you say that your scents can be worn unisex?
Germain: Oh they can be, yes. What I’ve seen over the years is you have 10 or 15 per cent of women that will actually wear the Sexual Men Cologne. A little bit goes the other way (men wearing women’s fragrance). Some ladies really want a lot of drive in the base notes and they tend to gravitate to men’s.
Q: We did a story on The Whale and the Rose about men’s style and scent pairings where we picked a Marc Jacobs Daisy perfume. It’s a bright pink bottle with floral appliquees. We had to let people know, ‘you have to get over the look of it, the marketing, it’ll work’. It’s unexpected too.
Germain: A little unexpected is a good thing because it grabs people’s attention. Not only in the eye of fashion, you actually do that same thing in fragrance. You throw in a little unexpected that catches their attention.
Q: Do you know of any notable or famous fans who wear Sexual?
Germain: Halle Berry, I remember she got Sexual, about ten years ago. That was amazing. It was in some of the tabloid magazines and they had her at Bloomingdales buying it, they had the photo and a write-up. That’s probably our biggest celebrity. There’s a little number of them. I’m trying to think of who they are. She was certainly the biggest.
Q: If you could pick a man to be the face of the men’s fragrance, who do you think would embody it?
Germain: Probably a Bradley Cooper or someone like that: Very confident, very masculine, very handsome.
Q: Outside of the realm of fragrance, what’s your favourite smell?
Germain: Well I’m big on cooking, so food is kind of like a fragrance to me. It’s a recipe in a different way. I have to tell you about basil. In our Classic Men, we use basil in such a disproportional amount that created such an incredible fragrance. First of all, basil’s an ancient aphrodisiac—very rich. It has a nice feel-good quality. So in our men’s, we added a lot. And we just kept adding, and made this fragrance that had so many powerful, subliminal memories. Your mom’s kitchen, romantic dinners, things like that. It also created a nice, great crispness on the opening. A nice, fresh note. It had great memories.
So basil is definitely one.
Q: Are there any places that hold fragrant memories for you?
Germain: My parents’ house. It’s fragrant in a different way. But you can just smell the hundred years in it.
And I think there’s a really cool thing in the smell of fresh bread, which I’ve been working on—I haven’t perfected it yet though. I’ve been working with the perfumer on making it really, really good for a few years.
Q: I wrote a piece about cannabis notes and perfume and we were talking forbidden scents: things like whisky notes and cannabis and even—because we’re supposed to be so healthy now—sweets like chocolate and caramel. We’re more willing to indulge in perfume because there’s no bad reaction, there’s no adverse effect. The bread thing, because everyone’s so carb-crazy, relates. It’s the comfort of indulgence, right?
Germain: You’re saying the word, exactly. Fresh bread has that comfort. You know when we’re little kids in the kitchen, all of that stuff.
Q: That’s very Italian too… the basil and the fresh bread.
Germain: You were talking about also the indulgences, without the actual indulgence. When you start talking about whisky that reminds me of some of the things that we’ve done. We took caramel whisky and used it in some of the women’s fragrances. And Sexual Chocolate, we got into a little chocolate, and we actually wrapped it in basil for our ladies fragrance. It was a very cool pairing. I love odd pairings. In fact, the more creative ideas that you get with perfume, that’s when you come up with a little bit of magic.
“Sexual: It’s a bold name. We’re making a promise.”
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