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Daphne Merkin

The Story of Eau

Perhaps it might help to think of it this way, all of you who are, like me, convinced that somewhere out there — in a tiny corner of a freshly sprung-up boutique in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or an overcrowded counter at Saks Fifth Avenue — is a perfume calling your name, wafting under your nostrils like a ravishing bouquet chosen just for you courtesy of Serge Lutens, say, or of Michel Roudnitska of Parfums DelRae. Back in 1924, before anyone thought to consult with image makers or trend prognosticators, there was a fragrance called, tellingly, Toujours Moi. What could be more targeted to the contemporary audience than a perfume with the name of Always Me (although, it must be admitted, the name sounds better in French)? Especially since these days everyone in the multibillion-dollar, overpopulated fragrance industry (400 new scents are introduced every year, 395 of which the brilliant perfumer Frédéric Malle insists are “very mediocre”) has an eye on making the overwhelmed consumer feel, well, special — singled out by a scent that sidles up like a shy boy at the prom instead of strutting past you like the class hottie.

To this end two 30-ish friends, Fabrice Penot and Eddie Roschi, who met while both of them were working on perfumes at L’Oréal, have opened a sliver of a shop named Le Labo, tucked away on Elizabeth Street in NoLIta. As befits a business that prides itself on being small-scale and anticorporate, according to the charmingly accented and very attractive Fabrice, the partners want their prospective customers to leave as “clients” (rather, I suppose, than mere consumers). Le Labo offers 10 perfumes that were developed over the last three years with a variety of professional noses, plus an 11th “local” scent — New York’s is Tuberose 40 — that is sold only in the city it was created for and is priced at a whopping $360. The semicustomized blending procedure that follows upon your choice of fragrance is orchestrated by an intensely focused young woman named Bo-Jade in less than five minutes at a marble counter right in front. She whisks the refrigerated raw materials that are the heart of the perfume together with alcohol and water in a series of beakers per a page of instructions she keeps checking with sidelong glances. Bo-Jade pours the solution into the plainest of glass bottles — no delicate flacons adorned with ridged or fluted stoppers or chunkier ones done up in frosted or colored glass and topped with chiseled odalisques for these boys — and places it under a crimping machine that looks like an old-fashioned levered juicer. The machine both seals the bottle and forces the nozzle to pop up, like a turtle emerging from its shell. She then makes up a label printed with a “Fresh until” date as well as your first name (or in my 17-year-old daughter’s case, her childhood nickname of Noodle, since she suddenly announced that she hated her given name). The final touch is appealingly gritty, in keeping with the counterintuitive — and more than a little gimmicky — ethos of the place...

T Magazine | December 3, 2006


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