’Tis the house of dreams, Hermès, led by dreamers, thinkers and exceptionally spirited minds who are truly creative. They have long set the standard for incredible leather goods: since the beginning of (fashionable) time. And they lead the way with perfume, too.
It’s the nest and most pure perfume. And spending any amount of time with the in-house perfumer, Christine Nagel, the exceptional painter of scents, is honestly intoxicating for all the most fabulous reasons. We meet in a hotel room overlooking Sydney Harbour at the wharf at Woolloomooloo. She landed this morning from Paris and has already enjoyed a private tour of the Royal Botanic Garden. Her happy place.
Nagel’s catalogue of olfactory creation is extensive: most recently, she has created Twilly d’Hermès Eau Poivrée, the naughty sister to the youthful Twilly. “This is for the daughters subverting the [Hermès] scarf! Most perfumes [for the younger market] are very sugary or caramelised and are market tested, but I chose to work with ginger – an enormous quantity of ginger, so we had to extract it differently. We used fresh roots and it’s quite explosive,” she says, raising her eyebrows. It is indeed spicy and heady, with a complex drydown of patchouli in the mix.
Nagel has created memorable fragrances for Hermès since she joined as perfume creator in 2014, succeeding the legendary Jean-Claude Ellena two years later as the house’s chief nez. The rich red Eau de rhubarbe écarlate is our favourite, because it just is rhubarb and we like rhubarb. We are drenched in the freshness of it even as we write. Nagel is the most eloquent of perfumers and her knowledge of fauna, ora and storytelling, the serendipity of creation, is quite something. Following her visit to Australia, Hermès made a financial donation to the Royal Botanic Garden to directly help support the digitisation of many native plants and, therefore, ingredients. Nagel is in awe of our natural abundance, and helping to preserve and understand our fauna is vital to her.
“Australia, it’s always a dream, and dreaming is very important to your culture. When I arrived [at Hermès just over] five years ago, it was a dream for me. There are only 500 perfume creators in the world – we are less than the number of astronauts! And there are only six of us in-house.” She pauses. “Hermès is the only house that puts complete trust in its creators.” And so we talk about the trust that has delivered so many stories and scents. “When I was a child I used to pick up wet pebbles on the beach, but they would dry out, so… When you lick them, this was part of the inspiration for Eau des merveilles and all that blueness,” she explains, of the salty fusion of sea and sky.
Galop d’Hermès was inspired, she tells me, by a tour of the Hermès leather cellars. “It’s like Fort Knox. I had to wear gloves, give my passport, and I spent an hour touching leather, untouched [pieces], and it gave me goosebumps. Some were so fragile, this was the leather that was used for gloves, interiors of the bags – Marlene Dietrich had it used for dresses, too. And I love roses, too, so to use both – I had this idea, the leather and the rose together.” Galop d’Hermès is a kiss of strength, freedom, and somehow, if you could bottle empowerment, it would be this. Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès, said, “Wow! I feel emotion, this perfume is going to live!” And it does – as Nagel says, “as a dance – between the rose and leather”.
Nagel is an incredible craftswoman. She spends a lot of time in the archive, where she came across a broken bottle dating back to 1929. She shared it with the artisans at Hermès, who came up with a new version; they said it was hard to do, that there were 14 hand-polished pieces. But Dumas said, “No compromises, it is aesthetics at Hermès. It’s an expression of what we can do when we are free.” For Terre d’Hermès (originally created in 2006 by Ellena), she says: “The man, I took him apart, and then I took Terre apart, then put it back together. I changed the bergamot to green bergamot, which is harvested before it is mature, I added Szechuan pepper and also a green cedar note at the end, and added vetiver to make it more subtle and fluid.” The result: Terre d’Hermès Eau Intense Vétiver.
In Italy, she says, “I discovered a secret garden, created by Frederic Eden over 100 years ago. He created a dream garden in Venice, and I visited it and fell in love with it. I tried to capture the magnolia, the sea breeze and the salty smell of samphire… ” From this, Un Jardin sur la Lagune was born and we are transported to a Mediterranean utopia every time. And so it goes with Nagel. She is a sorceress of scents, ideas and emotion. She is exceptional, an intuitive time bomb, and her intuition revolves around so much – art, colour, plants, pebbles, the sea, the sky. The patina of life is so rich that it is just natural that Hermès simply allow her to bottle dreams.
Text by Alison Veness
Collage by Stephanie Yazbek @88spacecadets88
From Issue 15 of 10 Magazine Australia ‘BEST FOOT FORWARD’ on newsstands now.