A honeyed wave of warmth spreads out slowly, its languorous movement revealing a glitter of lily redolent note of rosewood—that unique sharpness of white petals caught in rich woodsy duskiness. A luminous note of saffron falls into the hot wood shavings impression of the composition. A honeyed sweetness underscored by beautiful wood notes reminds me of opening an antique jewelry box—a scent of rare woods, spicy, smooth and alluring. The fragrance in question is Palisander, from Comme des Garçons Red Series created by Yann Vasnier of Quest International. He is a perfumer for the Fine Fragrances division, a position to which he was promoted in December of 2004, after joining Quest in 1999.
A promotion to the rank of perfumer is a very impressive achievement, especially for a young perfumer. Mr. Vasnier was awarded “major” at the ISIPCA (Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique Alimentaire, a prestigious perfume school located in Versaille, France) entrance exam, which attests to his unique talents. As he notes, “ISIPCA is the only way to enter this industry when you do not know anybody inside.” When I ask how he would describe his training at ISIPCA, Mr. Vasnier replies that “it is like a dream come true after years of hard studies, classes preparatoires aux grandes ecoles after receiving a baccalaureate, in not so glamorous mathematics, chemistry, and physics.”
Mr. Vasnier was born in Brittany, France, where he lived until he was 19. His decision to become a perfumer was influenced by a variety of factors, among which his family is the foremost. Mr. Vasnier mentions his parents, who had a large collection of roses as well as the influence of his landscape architect brother, whose passion for aromatic plants left an indelible mark. Moreover, Mr. Vasnier’s other brother, an engineer at the European space agency in South America, has instilled in him a love for travel–Caribbean islands, French Guyana, New Caledonia, and “less exotic, but beautiful” Europe. In addition, Mr. Vasnier mentions his love for beautiful things, “for luxury products, especially from the house of Chanel, where fragrance was the most affordable item I could buy.”
Olfactory memories can be very strong. What scent takes you back into the memories of your childhood?
Mainly, the scents of my parents’ garden–roses, flowers, fruits, as well as the ocean, the dunes, the sand, and the rocks. I lived in Brittany until I was 19.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with (natural and/or synthetic) and why?
I love woody and spicy scents, such as immortelle, which is found typically in the dunes. I am drawn to ambery and incensy odors, probably because of my Catholic background!
Do you have visual analogues for particular scents?
I usually associate odors with colors and textures, because I studied painting. Perhaps, that is why it is easiest for me.
How would you characterize your signature in the fragrances you have created?
It is difficult to say for the commercial fragrances I have created for Bath & Body Works, Axe, Impulse (BBW Pineapple Chiffon, BBW Tutti Dolce, BBW Ylang Rose, Impulse Thrill, Le Petit Marseillais Cheveux Karite Miel, Avon Floral Print Magnolia, Galenic). However, it is easier to speak of signature in niche fragrances, like the ones I created for Divine and Comme des Garçons, which always have woody, spicy, ambery and leathery undertones.
Whose work in perfumery do you admire the most?
I love old Chanel fragrances created by Ernest Beaux, such as No. 5, No. 22, Cuir de Russie, Bois des Iles. As for contemporary perfumers, there are many talents. Dominique Ropion is a great one, he gave me my first perfumery courses at ISIPCA. Sophia Grojsman has done incredible work. Moreover, the perfumers with whom I have worked closely at Quest, such as Calice Becker, Christine Nagel, Francis Kurkdjian, Chris Sheldrake, and definitely Francoise Caron, my mentor.
Given the trend towards watery florals and fruity-florals, where do you see a room in today’s market to be radical and innovative ?
I am sure there is a lot of room for signature fragrances. However, the consumer, and actually myself too, is lost, confused and overwhelmed by all these launches with not that much personality. We have to find a new way to have commercial success with daring fragrances. Among such recent releases are Angel, Gucci Rush, Narciso Rodriguez.
What is your personal measure of success for your fragrances?
Well, I have financial objectives for my company to achieve, but definitely, it is the feedback from the consumers that really appeals to me, like all the compliments on Palisander or on my Divine fragrances I have heard.
Do you think that your work in fragrance leads you to approach other things that concern olfactory perceptions (i.e. wine and food), in an analytical way?
Sure! Sometimes I have to stop myself from analyzing everything by components in order to see the thing as a whole.
Do you have other passions besides creating fragrances?
My main passion is the contemporary art. I love museums and visiting art galleries. I do not have much time and space now, but I used to paint in acrylic a lot. Moreover, I love to travel and to discover new places.
What perfume do you still wish to create?
I wish to create a signature fragrance for a well known brand, something never smelled before on the market.
Since you have been living in New York, have you managed to form an olfactory image of New York City?
In my imagination, New York has always had a really mineral and energetic smell. Since I have been living here, near Meatpacking district, I have added rotten garbage, Hudson river breeze, hot and humid air, and—thank god—air conditioning!
Yann Vasnier’s other creations include:
Donna Karan Gold (2006, with Calice Becker and Stephen Nielsen)
Cerrutti 1881 Collection (2005, with Rodrigo Flores-Roux)
Comme des Garçons Red Series: Palisander (2001, with Francoise Caron)
Comme des Garçons Red Series: Rose (2001, with Francoise Caron)
Divine L’âme Sœur
Divine L’Homme de Coeur
Divine L’Homme Sage
Jack Black Signature Black (2001)
Kangol Red 3881
Keiko Mecheri Gourmandises (2004)
Update: since this interview has been conducted, Quest has merged with Givaudan.
Painting: Paul Gauguin. Haystacks in Brittany. 1890. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Abcgallery.com