There are countless iconic images of Los Angeles -- David Hockney’s crystalline swimming pools and Ed Ruscha’s black-and-white Sunset Strip among them. But until now, few have felt compelled to capture (let alone bottle) the way the city smells.
Luckily, hamburger grease, spray tan and BMW exhaust weren’t among the notes the founders of Le Labo, a boutique perfume house based in New York, included in its new fragrance Musc 25 -- an esoteric imagining of L.A.'s odeur. It’s a soft, billowing fragrance, grounded in a base of white musk that induces instant nostalgia: Who didn’t wear Body Shop’s White Musk at some point in the ‘90s? But moments later, the heady note gives way to a complex flowers-in-the-dirt smell that’s strangely addictive, and distracting -- in a good way. It’s at once smutty and wide-eyed. How very L.A.
The fragrance also has notes of earthy-smelling ambergris, patchouli, rose, amber and vetiver (which lends a vaguely grassy essence). The inspiration is mainly conceptual, though the fragrance’s woodsy aspects come from “a drive on Mulholland at night,” said Le Labo’s Parisian co-owner Fabrice Penot. And the musky core grew from “the idea of L.A. being the ‘City of Angels’ in the Red Hot Chili Peppers song ‘Under the Bridge,’ ” he added.
A former fragrance expert for L’Oreal in Paris who worked closely with Giorgio Armani on the designer’s Prive cache of perfumes, Penot imagined “purity” and “angelic white wings” when he began conceiving the scent. But on his second visit here earlier this year, he tagged along with a friend of Marion Cotillard’s to Elton John’s Academy Awards party, after Cotillard’s best actress win. “We had a pretty crazy night,” said Penot, who speaks with a thick accent, “drinking a lot and being at Marion’s table, and I discovered the other side of this purity -- the sin. My friend left the party with a huge bottle of Roederer Cristal Rose Champagne that we christened the new store with the next day. Then I had this idea of doing a white ball of musk with a black, dirty center that would be the symbol of the city.”
Representing the debauchery in Musc 25 is a note you won’t find listed on the back of a Jovan White Musk box -- or anywhere else, for that matter: a synthesized representation of human semen. By itself, the note is an affront to the olfactory system, wafting bitterly through the nostrils, “but it resonates with the animal,” Penot said. “It brings a lot of sensuality. It’s the dirtiness in the perfume, the sex.”
The concoction, sold exclusively at Le Labo’s boutique on West 3rd Street starting today, doesn’t come cheap. It’s twice as much as the company’s other perfumes -- $260 for a 50-milliliter bottle and $400 for a 100-milliliter bottle. Penot says the cost of developing the fragrance and the quality of ingredients justify the price. “Sometimes our oils cost 30% more than what is normally used in a perfume.”
Penot launched Le Labo -- French for “the lab” -- with partner Eddie Roschi in 2006, out of a storefront in New York’s NoLita neighborhood. The pair, who met at L’Oreal, had become disillusioned with making mass perfumes that relied on focus groups. “I was not happy creating fragrances that were uninteresting and cheap,” Penot said. “I was in a big operation with people who didn’t understand what perfume was. They would test it on people beforehand and if everyone didn’t love it, they would not do it. But when everyone loves it, that means it’s not interesting because creation is not democratic.”
Reaction to Le Labo’s collection of uncommon fragrances was swift. “We were hoping to sell at least four bottles a day to stay afloat,” Penot said. But only months into the endeavor, they were selling 70 bottles or more each day -- and Barneys New York came knocking, tapping the company to set up in-store shops in the majority of its larger stores (Le Labo will debut a counter at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills next year).
The experience of buying a scent at Le Labo is personal, not unlike ordering a meal at a fine restaurant. The fragrance “menu” is set -- there’s no custom blending -- but perfumes are made fresh to order.
Once you’ve decided on a fragrance, a salesperson mixes the alcohol, distilled water and essential oils (which are kept in a refrigerator to protect fragile ingredients, as they do in perfume labs) from behind a lab-like countertop. An arcane-looking “press” seals the silver spray nozzle to the bottle, and an old-world, pharmacy-style custom label -- spelling out the date it was bought, the name of the person who compounded the scent and the new owner’s name -- is affixed.
Many of the company’s core fragrances -- Musc 25 and a forthcoming woodsy fragrance will bring the number to a dozen -- bear names of familiar smells. There’s Bergamote 22, Rose 31 and Patchouli 24. But the labels reveal only one of many primary notes conspiring inside each bottle -- the rest are suggested by the numbers behind the names. “It’s not a single, boring note, it’s a work of art,” Penot said.
Taking in the heady fragrances, which linger on the skin with the tenacity and lightness of a henna tattoo, it’s difficult to disagree.
Le Labo, 8385 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 782-0411.