Le Labo: Putting “soulfulness” into the fragrance industry

There are very few scents in the world that make you turn your back on your perfume collection and vow never to wear any other scent again. Le Labo’s Rose 31 comes close to being that sole scent you just may wear for life.

A gorgeous, sexy scent based around the famous Grasse Rose, Le Labo’s Rose 31 takes one of the most feminine of all scents and combines it with warm, spicy and woody notes of cumin, cedar and amber, to make a unisex fragrance that is as mesmerising and captivating as it is ambiguous. Far from the “smell of roses” as many are aware of, Le Labo’s Rose 31 instead is more rebellious, enticing and spicy with its woody kick notes. And a rose that men would proudly choose to wear.

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In a world where we are constantly being bombarded by new fragrances hitting the shelves and adverts promising to make us stand out from the crowd or “live with passion”, Le Labo is a breath of fresh air quite literally. The New York-based brand certainly does what the perfume industry and advertising industry endeavour to do but in its fallacy fail to do and that is “stand out from the crowd”.

Bringing creative spirit and craftsmanship to the fore, Le Labo founders, Fabrice Penot and Eddie Roschi, have created a high-end perfume brand that single-handedly challenges the stagnant mass marketing philosophies of the perfume industry. These luxury formulations are hand manufactured, with highly trained staff compounding the perfumes freshly in stores, before the customer. The idea is to keep the scent so fresh that it allows the alcohol and the essential oil concentrates to stay separate right up until purchase, giving a particularly full but delicate end result.

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What’s more the simple brand philosophy of administering no advertising, plain packaging and limiting distribution to their own stores and a handful of exclusive perfume counters still exists today, 11 years after the brand was first launched in 2006.

Instead “focus on creation, hope for business” is the mantra that Le Labo observes, Le Labo co-founder, Fabrice Penot says.

“Le Labo was founded 11 years ago to be an alternative to the raising tide of conformity in perfumery,” Fabrice Penot explains. “By working with the best perfumers in the world, by making every perfume to the order, by a permanent reverence to craftsmanship, we decided to challenge the perfume status quo.”

Le Labo focuses on scents made of a single essence rather than blends. Each fragrance is built around a principal natural essence that comes directly from Grasse, France’s ‘perfume capital’. They range from florals, like rose, fleur d’oranger, bergamot and neroli, to citruses, spices and musky scents, like sandalwood. The number in the title refers to the exact amount of raw ingredients used in the formula. Le Labo’s range of fragrances are also unisex.

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All Le Labo stores – with boutiques in New York City, London, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles – epitomise the apothecary lab concept. A cool, minimalist space where ingredients are blended together on the spot, poured into plain glass bottles, wrapped in a brown paper packaging and personalised with labels displaying the date, scent, name of the buyer and name of the ‘lab technician’ that made it.

And whilst the brand admittedly “does not shout its ecological commitment from the rooftops”, Fabrice Penot says it’s in the brand’s core. “Our ecological impact is very small and we are reducing it every day by for example, refilling your perfume in its old bottle (with 20% off) or reducing the shipping impacts by formulating all our perfumes in each one of our stores,” he says. “Also, we are a vegan company making sure no one is hurt by our work. In our manifesto, we say we believe that it is more humane to test our perfumes on New Yorkers rather than animals.”

The brand has built a loyal following based on its high-quality products and unique retail experiences. Le Labo also sell limited-edition “City Exclusive” scents, available only in certain boutiques by region, as well as candles and body products.

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Le Labo’s mastery of craft is evident from inception to packaging on the shop floor. The niche perfume brand’s manifesto states that the future of perfumery lies in craftsmanship. Le Labo does this “by a reverence to hand made products”, according to Fabrice Penot.

“All our perfumes are made one by one by our lab technicians,” Fabrice Penot adds. “Our candles are hand poured one by one in Mississippi, our new concrete candle vessel is made by craftsmen in California. We make sure that the soul of our perfumes is carried by a soulful process across the board.”

Soul is markedly at the forefront of everything that Fabrice Penot and his business partner, Eddie Roschi, do. Having met while working for Giorgio Armani, the pair became disillusioned by the industry and the homogenisation of perfumes. With a shared vision for a line of scents that would instead be fresh, personalised and refined, they decided to launch their own brand.

“Soulfulness is what’s missing in the perfume industry,” states Fabrice Penot. “We just remind ourselves every day why we are doing what we do. And when you are centred with the why, the rest of the decisions are very easy to make. There is no reason why to take short cuts to get there faster when beautiful and slow work, make your clients and staff happy. We are never pushing the process. Great brands don’t chase clients, clients chase great brands. So if we keep doing what we do with passion and integrity, we’ll still be there in a long time.”

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The alchemy that goes into Le Labo’s creative process is truly inspiring as Fabrice Penot animatedly explains. “A woman, a man, a landscape, a tear, a leaf, a look, a silence…anything, anytime, anywhere,” Fabrice Penot says. “The process starts by this inspiration, then you go to the lab trying to shape this inspiration with a perfumer by a first draft with several ingredients, and then it is a back-and-forth process of a few years of wearing, smelling, feedback… some of our perfumes required over 400 modifications – some less than 50. You never know when the magic will happen.”

The production process, like the creative process, is ultimately magic. As Le Labo’s manifesto states: “We believe the soul of a fragrance comes from the intention with which it is created and the attention with which it is prepared.”

Referring to two of Le Labo’s best sellers – Rose 31 and and Santal 33 – Fabrice Penot says: “Their soul can’t be put on paper. Frank Zappa said ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. Well here we are with perfumery too. I let your readers spray these on skin and let the perfume molecules dance in the air till their nostrils pick up.”

Fabrice Penot describes Santal 33 – with its rich notes of smoky wood alloy, spices and leathery tones mixed with sweeter scents of iris and violet – “like my second skin now after all these years”. But when asked which Le Labo scent he would reincarnate as, it is an amalgamation of the scents that lives in the heart and soul of Le Labo and its co-creator. “The pot pourri created by all the perfume being sprayed at the end of the day when you enter our first Nolita store in NYC,” Fabrice Penot says. “It is Le Labo’s soul ‘bottled’ to me, especially because that’s where we started.”

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Travelling is a large part of the Le Labo co-founder’s job – if it’s not to oversee the opening of a standalone Le Labo store or exclusive perfume counter, it is of course to source ingredients. “We source the best ingredients on the planet – depending on where they are harvested – as an example, Sandalwood comes from Australia, Vetiver from Haiti, Tubereuse from India, Rose from France. Perfumery is a journey of the soul but also makes us travel all over physically to find these marvels.”

Rose 31, for example, features rose petals plucked by hand in Grasse, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars a kilo. Sourcing the “best ingredients on the planet” and in such significant quantities comes at a high cost to the customer. A 100ml bottle of a Le Labo fragrance will, on average, set you back £165/$260. But while these heavenly scents come at a hefty price tag, the brand has developed a small but loyal client base.

Le Labo’s own story, an inspiration in itself, is sure to motivate other ‘entrepreneurial brands’ along their journey. Fabrice Penot is quick to offer advice for other souls wanting to create and do things differently like Le Labo. “You need to be insane to start an innovative project,” he laughs. “But make sure that you are not insane enough to fit into this definition of it by Einstein: ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.”

Le Labo

Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a journalist who writes about sustainable life & style, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives: www.rosalindmedea.com


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