I met Shalini Kumar for the first time in September 2018. We messaged each other for about a year before meeting and Shalini had sent me samples of Shalini Parfum and Jardin Nocturne, two perfumes she created with master perfumer Maurice Roucel. It was by chance that we were both in Cannes at the same time so we arranged to meet.
It can be a strange experience meeting someone for the first time after knowing them only through email and Instagram conversations but Shalini is a remarkable woman. After beginning her education in architecture, she followed her call to fashion, later graduating from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York. This led to work with fashion houses such as Valentino, Joseph Abboud and Isaac Mizrahi before Shalini opened a couture house under her own name.
We met for a drink at the Carlton Hotel bar overlooking the Boulevard de la Croisette. The iconic hotel has been associated with celebrity jet setters and the Cannes Film Festival since the 1930s. It might have been the location working its mythical charm but I could have listened to Shalini talk all night. Her accent revealed her Eastern heritage but there was also an air of British aristocracy in the way she spoke and the occasional vowel gave away her New York residence. I appreciated how when I talked; she was fully present. It’s a necessary skill for a couturier, whose success depends on her or his ability to connect with clientele in a deep way, to question them and understand them through the things they say or don’t say.
Shalini introduced me to her latest perfume, Amorem Rose. Since our meeting, Amorem Rose has been nominated for a Fragrance Foundation Award, and I am not surprised. It’s a stellar perfume about rose and warm ambery woods with hints of smoke and leather. I can be nervous when I am offered samples of new fragrances, particularly from small brands like Shalini when someone poured their entire soul into the creation. How do you tell them it's rubbish in the most constructive way? There was added pressure because Shalini was sitting next to me and I have a bad poker face. That said I was quietly confident. Her first two perfumes were masterpieces and she had again worked with Maurice Roucel, a unicorn as far as perfumers go. I doubted that the creator of perfumes like Hermes 24 Faubourg, Gucci Envy and Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur would suddenly turn out a lemon. As soon as I smelled Amorem Rose my mind settled. The compliments ran quick and easy. Amorem Rose was stunning, opulent and meticulously constructed. The quality (and cost) of the raw materials that had been used was evident.
"She wanted a rose with fire. So Smoke on the Water became the my codename for the perfume" - Maurice Roucel
I am always curious about the relationship creators have with their perfumers. I find every relationship is unique. Some are more formal partnerships and others form close friendships. I sensed Shalini and Maurice had the latter. Maurice Roucel belongs to an older generation of perfumers who were all well established before perfume blogs and the social media phenomenon. These perfumers are not always easily accessible to the media and bloggers so I saw my meeting with Shalini as an opportunity to ask if she thought I could interview Maurice. She was fully supportive and after some emails back and forth, I was back in Australia speaking on the phone with Maurice Roucel who was in Paris fresh off the plane from a work trip to Russia.
C: Maurice, how did this work with Shalini begin?
Maurice Roucel: I was in New York and I met Shalini because she was looking for an apartment. My broker told her that maybe I can help her so she came to meet me. I was happy to see a designer and we were talking. One day I proposed to make her a perfume. It was only for her. It was not supposed to be on the market. I remember it was a Saturday afternoon. I made it in 1-2 hours maximum. I was asking her what do you like? She is from India, so for sure, sandalwood and musk. She loves rose, and tuberose. It was very easy because I didn’t have someone in front of me saying, can you make me something a bit more green or more on that thing and so on, and it was not a question of money. Generally when I am working, even for a big name, they have a cost price. In this case I had no cost price. I was totally free. When I am totally free I can make a perfume in an hour, that’s not a problem. But I need someone in front of me who can be some kind of muse, who understands me and has passion. A lot of people liked her perfume and were asking where they can buy it. She finally had the idea to put it in a nice bottle and put it on the market. That‘s how it started.
C: Tell me more about the creation of Amorem Rose. Shalini told me about the working title you gave the fragrance, which I thought was cool reference to 1970s British rock music.
Maurice Roucel: One day she gave me a call. She wanted a rose with fire. I don’t remember the word exactly but for me it was easy. Rose for me is easy, and fire is easy. So “Smoke on the Water” became my code name for the perfume.
C: Amorem Rose, like everything you have created for Shalini smells expensive, like a lot of investment has gone into the formula’s ingredients.
Maurice Roucel: Yes it is quite a lot of money but I’m here for making perfume not money so when I can, especially with Shalini and some others, use raw materials like real rose, sandalwood and tuberose, the cost price is very expensive. Sandalwood is like $2000, tuberose is $12,000 or even more and so on. With Shalini I can use what I want. She does not care about the price. Her reality is to make something, which is appealing, smelling good and different. And with a certain amount of money you are sure to be different from the other perfumes on the market.
C: Amorem Rose smells beautifully complex and sensual.
Maurice Roucel: A perfume always has to be sensual so in the dry down you have soft ambery raw materials, musk and sandalwood because she loves sandalwood. She wanted to have something that smells like fire or something burnt. So there is some leather inside and smoky guaiac wood. For the rose that’s easy. It’s real rose. That’s it. And there is a little bit of thyme inside. Because thyme oil for me is, I would like to say not smelling burned but there is something smelling a little bit like leather or like when you have a wood fire.
C: How did you become a perfumer? I know you are unique compared to some of your colleagues in that you didn’t come from a Grassois family of perfumers. You were self-taught, which is rare.
Maurice Roucel: I entered Chanel in 1973 after becoming a chemist. The chief perfumer of Chanel at that time was Mr Henri Robert. He was looking for someone to do gas chromatography analysis and I stayed there for six years. I was passionate about chemistry and little by little, after six years, I trained myself by smelling. I was not a perfumer at Chanel. Then I was asked by IFF to become a perfumer because Mr Henri Robert was happy with me and he had been speaking about me. I made a transfer from a passion for chemistry to a passion for perfumery.
C: It must have been a challenge to learn this way.
Maurice Roucel: It’s a long process. I learned by myself. I was making a lot of analysis. When I arrived in the world of perfumery, I didn’t know anything about perfumery. Little by little I learned by making imitations, duplications. That’s how I learned to make a perfume. This was my training period. At IFF I was obliged to make some creations. The first perfume I created was in 1979 or 1980, something like that. Then I moved to a small company and this company merged with a Dutch company that came under the name Quest. You have certainly heard of the name Quest. So I stayed in this company for 12 years. After that I moved to Dragoco that became Symrise where I have now been for 22 years.
C: And is the way you work with Shalini the same way you work with other clients? Or does every project require a different approach?
Maurice Roucel: I would like to say that it is different every time but what is always the same is the technique. You cannot create if you don’t have the technical background. This you can learn but you also need to have ideas and this you cannot learn. There is no school for that. What you can learn is the technique, how to make it. If you have ideas and you have the technique, that’s good. If you have no ideas and the technique, it’s not good and if you have good ideas but no technique, that’s the same.
C: Would you say that you have a signature style that is recognisable as a perfumer?
Maurice Roucel: I have no real answer for this. Maybe I have a style. I know there are some bloggers that are very smart and I am seeing some comments from them. They are recognising when I am making a perfume and sometimes they can say, that is a great Maurice Roucel perfume. If you are looking at the signature of some famous perfumers, it is usually around the same theme. I am not like that. For me it’s boring. I like to change but I am always putting the best of me in each perfume. Maybe that is where they can see the soul of Maurice Roucel.
C: And what role does nature or the raw materials play in how you build an idea? Are they a source of inspiration or are they simply the tools you use to bring your idea into being?
Maurice Roucel: It depends on the concept of the perfume you are obliged to create. I will give you an example. Be Delicious. The idea was New York because it’s Donna Karan – DKNY. What’s the name of New York? It’s the Big Apple. So the idea was to make some kind of apple and to make something creative, different and strong because I think New York is a very strong city, as well as Donna Karan. Americans love fruitiness, the French much less. When you are looking at the market you have a lot of fruity perfumes. The idea was to make a fruity perfume but in a French way if I can say. I wanted to make something much more elegant. To be a little bit more refined.
C: Can you turn down projects or clients? How do you choose who you work with? I imagine there aren’t a lot of Shalinis out there.
Maurice Roucel: You know, my company pays me and so I have to make money for the company. So sure, if you want to make money it’s better to work on a big name for the big companies but my real pleasure is to work on something creative. Nowadays I have more fun to work on niche perfumes but all niche is not the same. Some niche is interesting but even in niche you have a lot of shitty things. What I like is to work with somebody. I like to share. You know to make a perfume for me is to share with somebody, to exchange. It’s like playing tennis. You need to have somebody in front of you who is at the right level and you can have fun and you can exchange ideas and so on. When I was working with Guerlain for example, I had somebody who was able to play with me like in tennis. I love that. We have to share passion. I think I like to work with people who have passion and not motivated by money.