Sophie Labbé’s first big commercial hit – the classic Givenchy Organza EDP (1996) – was no fluke. The Paris-based perfumer had already shown she was destined for great things when she graduated top of her class at perfume school in 1997.
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In her career spanning more than three decades, she has worked for big fragrance companies such as Givaudan, IFF and, most recently, Firmenich, where she holds the position of principal perfumer (she joined the Swiss firm in 2019).
Along the way, Sophie Labbé has collaborated with luminaries such as Carlos Benaïm and Sophia Grojsman. Her ingenuity has ensured she’s made her own mark with a variety of outstanding creations, including:
- Hugo Boss Boss Woman EDP (2000)
- Cacharel Promesse EDT (2005)
- Estée Lauder Pure White Linen EDP (2006)
- Guerlain Cologne du 68 EDC (2006)
- Bvlgari Jasmin Noir EDP (2008)
- Kylie Minogue Sexy Darling EDT (2008)
- Yves Saint Laurent Parisienne EDP (2009)
- Lancôme Ô d’Azur EDT (2010)
- Calvin Klein Beauty EDP (2010)
- Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina EDP (2011)
- Elie Saab Girl of Now EDP (2017)
- Floraïku The Moon and I EDP (2017)
- Memo Tamarindo EDP (2018)
- Tiffany & Co Tiffany & Love For Him EDT (2019)
- Jo Malone Cypress & Grapevine Cologne Intense (2020)
In 2021 she was part of the judging panel for the prestigious 14th François Coty Award, a recognition of her authority in the industry. She was the first woman to win the prize in 2005.
In this interview, Sophie Labbé speaks to Everfumed about her perfume style, inspiration and AI.
Who or what influenced you the most to become a perfumer?
Back then, I was naïve, and didn’t even know this profession existed. Although growing up, I’d always been aware of the scent of nature because my father produced wine in the west of France. After I moved to Paris from Charente-Maritime, I started really having a wider scope of scents.
One day I read an article on ISIPCA, a school for fragrance, and I immediately thought this profession was for me but, as I didn’t know anything about it, my wish was to meet a perfumer.
That was granted in 1985 when I met Jean Kerléo, the in-house perfumer of Jean Patou. I spent the whole afternoon with him and realised the complexity of this profession. I started to understand the process and this is what I wanted to do.
What was your debut fragrance and how has your style evolved since then?
My first fragrance was G Gigli EDT for the Italian brand Romeo Gigli in 1994. It had the scent of berries, red fruit and was very green and musky. I remember the bottle was shaped like the genie’s lamp in Aladdin.
My style has evolved. This is a profession where you learn every day. The more you do this job, the better knowledge you have on the affinity of ingredients, so you have a clearer grasp of what’s available to you. I’ve shortened my formulas.
I enjoy when the perfume is unique and the structure of the formula is distinct.
You’ve created several classics (for example, Givenchy Organza, Bvlgari Jasmin Noir). What made these fragrances such successes?
This is a difficult question. Everyone wants to know the recipe for success but there is none.
What they do have in common is memorability, a powerful signature and the emotion they bring to people.
How do you prefer to work?
I like working in my office – something I really understood during the period of Covid confinement. It’s important to have my atmosphere when I work. I want to be surrounded by my trials, my bottles of raw ingredients. Also, my blotters to check the evolution of the perfume.
Although you work alone in this job, you need to exchange and connect with other people to be inspired and to grow. I also love meeting the customers and to get words of inspiration from them.
Does inspiration come easily to you?
Inspiration is everywhere. It can come from travelling or it can be when I read a book and there is a description that makes me want to play with a specific flower or ambience.
It can also come from ingredients – naturals or molecules – that belong in our palette. This is something I enjoyed so much when I joined Firmenich – it was like a Christmas gift!
For better and for worse, perfumery is still shrouded in mystery. What would people be most surprised to know about the process of creation?
People think we dream up fragrances when, in fact, it’s a combination of intuition and rationalization.
Creating a fragrance involves a lot of modifications, countless processes of trial and error, after which we only select the best results for our customers.
What’s been the most important development in the industry since you first qualified to become a perfumer?
There have been many developments in the industry since I first started more than 30 years ago, but the one that is the most recent for me and that I was involved with was the project I did for Bvlgari Serpenti in 2021.
I had an innovative collaboration with the brand and the media artist/director Refik Anadol.
With the help of AI, I took an overwhelming number of sensations and inputs that the rainforest offers and transformed them into a fragrance that was sprayed all over the gallery, associating the olfactive notes with Refik’s art.
That was a first! I also got inspiration from observing the images selected by Refik for the exhibition.
Versace Pour Femme Dylan Turquoise EDT from 2020 is one of your recent perfumes. Anything unusual about its creation?
There was a glamorous atmosphere surrounding the project because it was with Versace and because of Donatella Versace’s guidance.
For the launch, we filmed a movie in their atelier in Milan, so I had the opportunity to be in the same place where Gianni Versace lived and where all the beautiful couture was kept. That was something unusual and special.
What project have you just completed that you can tell us about?
It’s a secret! Things are cooking in the kitchen, so to speak. We cannot say anything yet.
What perfume do you wear the most when you’re not working?
Bvlgari Patchouli Tentation is the fragrance I’m wearing at the moment. This is actually the first fragrance I created that I wear often.
Apart from perfumes, what are your other great loves?
I love to travel, gardening and reading. I read a lot more now than before. My favorite author is still Aki Shimazaki, but I also just started reading the Cazalet series of books by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
It’s set in 19th-century England, just after World War II, and it’s about a family in the business of exotic wood – maybe that’s why I like it so much.