Yann Vasnier : Perfumer Interview

Gauguin121

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

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23 Comments

  • parislondres: Wonderful interview dear V! Thanks for listing all of Yann’s creations. So – he had a hand in some of the CDG Red series. I absolutely adore Brittany and have visited a few times (especially the north). The north is gorgeous because of its rough beauty. I wish Yann all the best and hope that he creates a signature perfume for a well known brand very soon.

    xoxo September 6, 2005 at 2:04am Reply

  • MC: Thanks for the fascinating interview Victoria. L’Homme de Coeur is one of my favourite men’s scents. September 6, 2005 at 4:20am Reply

  • Anya: Amazing! Thanks for snagging this interview, V. As usual, I am clueless as to his perfumes, being immersed in the world of only naturals for many years. I am impressed that his landscape architect brother who loves aromatic plants influenced him (I am a landscape architect and my main focus was always fragrant plants to feed my perfumed soul!)

    He sounds like a wonderful person, and now, of course, I must check out his creations. September 6, 2005 at 8:02am Reply

  • Robin: Great interview, V. YV is so right that we are overwhelmed by all these bland new fragrance launches. IMHO it is getting harder & harder not to be a “niche snob”. September 6, 2005 at 9:03am Reply

  • Test Subject: Very interesting interview. I’d be curious to know how Yann actually starts a new fragrance. Is there a pyramid of notes in mind from the outset or is it more of a linear process in which notes are added sequentially? September 6, 2005 at 9:48am Reply

  • Tania: Rotten garbage and the Hudson River, and in the middle of the stench, a guy committed to making things that smell good. Bully for Yann!

    I can’t say I’ve smelled any of his creations (except I may have had a waft of Axe or BBW Tutti Dolce hit me in the train once or twice) but now I certainly want to. Thanks for the great interview. September 6, 2005 at 9:59am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you, dear N! Palisander was always my favourite out of the Red Series. I also really like Keiko Mecheri Gourmandises. I know that you are also a big fan of Divine.

    Brittany has a special beauty. Where have you traveled to? September 6, 2005 at 10:11am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Mike, I also really like L’Homme de Coeur, which was the first Divine fragrance I encountered. I love iris, and L’Homme de Coeur is a beautiful crisp rendition. September 6, 2005 at 10:18am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Anya, thank you. How interesting–I did not realize that you were a landscape architect. Speaking of fragrant plants, my image of European cities, especially in Eastern Europe (Warsaw, Kiev) are indelibly linked with the scent of linden trees. That green honeyed scent is amazing. I have been trying to search for an absolute for quite some time now, but from what I understand much of it tends to be adulterated. September 6, 2005 at 10:23am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Robin, you are right. When I made a trip to Sephora recently to see what is out, I left with a sense of disappointment. It is difficult not to focus almost exclusively on niche fragrances. September 6, 2005 at 10:26am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tania, I would imagine that L’Homme Sage would be something that you might like. Keiko Mecheri Gourmandises is very interesting and unique, but it is not like what you would expect reading the description or the notes–it is darker and spicier. September 6, 2005 at 10:38am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: P, thank you. Interesting question as well! September 6, 2005 at 10:48am Reply

  • MC: Victoria, if you enjoy iris you should look out for the new Dior Homme. I tried it today – the opening iris note is very beautiful, and is very close to L’Homme de Coeur in intensity and clarity.

    However, an instant later, a powerful cocoa note is smeared across the scent. At first I thought it was an act of vandalism – vulgar, in-yer-face sweetness defacing icy aristocratic iris, how could they? Given time, however, an extraordinary alchemy occurs and the two notes combine to create something very original. It’s helped by the warm, ever so slightly smoked amber-wood notes that appear as the perfume develops. By this stage it’s quite close to Dior Noir, to my mind the most successful of Dior Homme’s limited edition trio from last year.

    Anyone expecting a perfume with the blast radius of Angel Men will be disappointed. Despite the sweet cocoa note, this is a subtle and intimate scent. I think for that reason it may disappoint men who like to create an impact with perfume: Good.

    Cocoa is usually a deal-breaker for me, but Dior Homme works very well. A quick reference – toned down Angel meets L’Homme de Coeur on a blind date arranged by Serge Lutens. Splendid, one of my favourite new scents for ages.

    The flacon is very handsome, nice and hefty. September 6, 2005 at 11:15am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Mike, thank you for such a brilliant description. Needless to say, I am now on a mission to find it. Your comparison to Dior Noir increased my interest even more, because it is my favourite out of the three as well.

    I love iris for its austere beauty, which is very nuanced. Being that complex, it is not an easy note to work with. Among irises I like, Maurice Roucel’s cold and ethereal Iris Silver Mist for Serge Lutens cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, an interesting twist on the iris sounds like something I would like.

    I shall certainly let you know when I try it. September 6, 2005 at 11:28am Reply

  • parislondres: Hello dear V – we have been all over over a few holidays – but we love the ruggedness in the north and north west (departments of Finistere, Cotes d’Armor) the most. The southern bit near Vannes (in Morbihan) is nice but way too busy and touristy.

    Have you been there yet V? I will gladlu recommend some great restaurants etc. when you do go.
    xoxo September 6, 2005 at 1:16pm Reply

  • parislondres: oops! gladly! ;D September 6, 2005 at 1:17pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear N, I have been in Morbihan, but I always wanted to travel further north. It is the area that fascinates me. I would love to hear your recommendations for when I plan my trip. Thank you for offering.
    xoxo September 6, 2005 at 1:20pm Reply

  • Linda: I loved reading this interview. Palisander is one of my alltime favorites! I am so pleased to see it reviewed. I also like Gourmandises, which means that I have to find other fragrances by Yann Vasnier.

    Thank you for a great interview and a great blog! I have been lurking for the past month, but this is my first time commenting. September 6, 2005 at 2:07pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Linda, thank you for your kind words. I am glad that you liked the interview. If you liked both Palisander and Gourmandises, I would recommend L’Homme Sage in particular. I am going to review it this week. September 6, 2005 at 2:16pm Reply

  • yann: Thank you so much Victoria ! your review are always amazing. September 6, 2005 at 2:51pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you for your kind words! It is always a pleasure to write about perfumes that I enjoy. September 6, 2005 at 7:31pm Reply

  • Diane: What a wonderful read and how cool that you got to interview Yann Vasnier! Among his fragrances, I have only tried the ones for Divine. But I am thoroughly impressed. They develop beautifully on my skin and possess an almost perfect elegance. I love L’Homme de Coeur for the iris, that most melancholy and poised of flowers. September 7, 2005 at 5:08pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: I am glad to hear it, dear D! Divine fragrances certainly sparked my interest in other Yann Vasnier’s creations, although I have been a fan of Palisander for the past few years. L’Homme de Coeur is definitely at the top of my list. Like you, I love iris for its melancholy air and complexity. September 7, 2005 at 7:58pm Reply

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