Uncommon Scents: Acne Studios’s Jonny Johansson & Frédéric Malle On Their New Fragrance

With Acne Studios Par Frédéric Malle, two creative powerhouses tap perfumer Suzy Le Helley to capture the undefinable
Acne Studios par Frédéric Malle, image courtesy of MECCA

One handwritten note, a controversial ingredient, and an abundance of creativity went into the new Acne Studios Par Frédéric Malle fragrance. Daring, yet approachable, this dissarming blend of clean Aldehydes with earthy peach and vanilla settles into a smooth, sensual musk that feels resolutely undefined.

“It’s very secure,” notes Jonny Johansson about the scent, to which we’d have to agree.

Since founding his label Acne Studios in 1996, Johansson has evolved the fashion house from early disruptor to global phenomenon. But its commercial success and subsequent attention has not fettered the Swedish clothing brand into submission, and its enduring originality still effortlessly evades being put into a box. In fact, when it comes to Acne Studios, the only thing that can be expected is the unexpected. And after nearly three decades, there’s still nothing quite like it on the market.

So, how does this fit with fragrance, a world built on capturing moments, stories and feelings and bottling them up for our pleasure? Well, that’s where the legendary Frédéric Malle comes in.

An olfactory storyteller and independent ‘perfume publisher’, Malle has pioneered a creative model that has changed how we think about product development. Working with a handful of talented noses, the scents he has launched under his namesake label have been a breath of fresh air for the fragrance-fatigued. Just like Johansson, the entrepreneur has hewn a legacy out of a desire to shake the status quo, so it’s no wonder they’re fans of each other.

Together, with the help of perfumer Suzy Le Helley, they’ve concocted Acne Studios Par Frédéric Malle, a perfume as unpinnable and innovative as the minds behind it.

Below, GRAZIA chats to both luminaries about their latest project together.

Jonny Johansson

Acne Studios creative director Jonny Johansson, image courtesy of MECCA

GRAZIA: How did this collaboration come about, and did you ever see Acne Studios going into beauty?
JJ: So, one day, I came to work, and there was a handwritten letter on my desk from Frédéric Malle inviting me to have a cup of coffee. I very seldom get handwritten letters these days, and I find it extremely chic. I also have been wearing Frédéric Malle’s DANS TES BRAS for many years and love what he does and his concept.

Who doesn’t want to work with Frédéric?

G: Was embarking into the world of fragrance creation just as you expected? How did you find the process?
JJ: To be honest, this creative process has been very exciting. For me to go into Frédéric’s creative universe and be able to follow has been super exciting

G: What was the inspiration behind this scent, and did it take many versions to land on the final one?
JJ: I wanted to send something that was very personal to me but also very Swedish in my mind. So, I sent a film by Ingmar Bergman, Persona. If you look at the women there in that film or if you look at how it’s filmed, the nature there is very connected to what I feel that being me and being Swedish has to offer.

There was a period in Swedish design called Swedish Grace, which I was very inspired by, which was sort of like the breaking point of classicism and modernism, so this mix of these two things that was both chic and sort of like, avant-garde which was important for me in the perfume.

G: When you think of this scent, is there an outfit or attitude that comes to mind?
JJ: I think the perfume is modern, different, and very clean, like a pair of clean denim pants from the laundry. Also, like there’s somewhat a softener in there that’s a bit kitschy but at the same time it’s very secure and feels very homey, like being safe as a kid. Then, at the same time, you have something you can’t really define that’s pastel-y and light and sparkly.

G: Was your approach to scent creatively different to designing clothes?
JJ: Frédéric told me that he usually presents 2 to 3 scents for his collaborations, but this time he was very generous, introducing 14 different fragrances. Apparently, he was very inspired by the brand.

Between these perfumes, I selected four of them that Frédéric wanted to finalise, and rapidly the one developed by Suzy became obvious.

G: The Acne Studios aesthetic is one that is hard to pin down, constantly evolving and yet never incohesive. How do you think you’ve been able to maintain this purity of creativity and vision throughout the decades?
JJ: Acne Studios is always evolving. I believe design is alive, whether it’s fashion or interiors. I always put design first because that’s what creates business in the end, and that’s why it has to be protected. Design in its purest form is like inventing, even if it’s just a pair of pants with two legs.

G: What does ‘novel expression’ mean to you? And has this idea changed throughout your career?
JJ: I wanted to analyse our time, explore the future of our cultural milieu, and offer our point of view. Generally speaking, I am seeking to grasp and define exactly what ‘contemporary’ means.

Frédéric Malle

Founder Frédéric Malle and perfumer Suzy Le Helley, image courtesy of MECCA

GRAZIA: How did this collaboration come about, and what do you enjoy most about this fragrance?
FM: We have had a tradition of bringing creative people as guests at Editions de Parfums since the beginning. Pierre Hardy, Dries Van Noten, and Alber Elbaz were some of them. I enjoy these collaborations with people who have strong aesthetics but are not specialised in perfumery, as they bring a different point of view. I was looking for someone who I could collaborate with and Jonny Johansson, founder of Acne, came across as an obvious choice as I always thought that our worlds were very compatible and because we clicked when we met.

I love the perfume we created with Suzy for Acne Studios. It’s a very daring and forward-thinking reinterpretation of the classic floral aldehydic perfume structure. More than that, it’s a truly addictive perfume and, at the same time, a very different aesthetic for us.

G: When it comes to working with others, what draws you to people?
FM: The fact that they have a world of their own, and they are very strong creatively. Also, I like people who like to have a conversation and share things. So, in a way, I’m looking for a soulmate to face a new perfume development.

G: Fragrance can be so personal and subjective. How does a director like yourself balance your taste with consumer demand?
FM: I never think of consumer demand, to be honest! In this case, I was trying to illustrate the Acne Studios spirit and taste in a perfume, and I suppose that, to your point, there is a piece of me in everything I do. I can’t help it! Then we just pray that the public will like it.

G: When do you know that you’ve landed on the ‘right’ iteration of a fragrance, and do you ever have doubts?
FM: I always have doubts as we develop a perfume because I want it to be as interesting yet as finished as possible, but there is always this moment when planets align and where we reach our goal, and this moment of ending our work is always obvious.

We always agree on this moment with perfumers and co-creators; it’s never been a struggle. Then anxiety comes back again! We hope the public will like what we have done as much as we do.

G: Scent can be so psychological. Does this influence inspire your work, whether consciously or subconsciously?
FM: You are right to say that perfumes are psychological, and that’s why at Editions de Parfums, we have an array of very different scents so that people can choose something that echoes their personality and the way they want to seduce. When we make each of them, although we often have a specific character in mind, we certainly don’t try to please everyone.

G: If you could only keep one fragrance for life, what would it be?
FM: The next one that I will be making!

G: You’ve worked in luxury fragrance for decades. How do you think the industry has changed and evolved over the years?
FM: As I predicted when I launched Editions de Parfums, the market has divided itself into two categories: these “duty-free” fragrances that are, in fact, a modern version of supermarket fragrances, tailored to please everybody and are made in a cheap way so most of the money can go into advertising. These are becoming more and more boring and mundane. Now, there is more room for more artisanal perfumery, and you see the appearance of all these new brands almost to excess, so this will eventually regulate to a smaller number of brands, and only the most creative ones will survive.

Acne Studios Par Frédéric Malle is available to shop at MECCA now.


This article first appeared on GRAZIA International.


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