Interview: A Sensorial Approach with Thibaud Crivelli

Maison Crivelli is one of the most exciting new brands in niche. They have a clean, but bold aesthetic, and with their fragrances, they seek to subvert expectations, but also embolden customers to talk about and experience perfume in a new way. I’ve pegged it as a brand to watch and with so many gimmicky, cynical niche brands on the market, Maison Crivelli feels like it comes from a place of aunthentiticy. So yes, I’m excited by what they have on offer.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with the Maison’s founder, Thibaud Crivelli over Zoom. During our chat we talked about Thibaud’s origins in perfumery, how we works closely with perfumers to execute his vision, and how he believes in a very sensorial approach. We also touched on how the pandemic may impact the industry and how the industry can seek to be more sustainable. It was fascinating and insightful, and you can read it all below!

TCPB: How important was scent to you growing up?

TC: I was always connected to perfume because I grew up in the countryside, in La Roche Posay. It’s a very small city which is strongly connected with nature. I spent all my summers in the French riviera and then of course urban environments when I started to study, and I lived in Paris. Then I moved to Asia. I would say that I’ve always been connected with perfume but not always in a professional way. I knew one day that I would launch a cosmetic brand, either skincare or perfume, because I grew up connected with the ingredients. I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to become a perfumer, but I’ve always been inspired by perfume ingredients. I realise now that I got to discover, little by little, many different aspects of perfume but never from a technical perspective, always with a more sensorial approach. I grew up surrounded by scents, like spring gardens with all the flowers, like roses, peonies, honeysuckle and wisteria, and then I spent my weekends in the forests, so of course, the scent of wet forest in autumn. These are all parts of my childhood memories. Summer would be aromatic notes like lavender and thyme, and rosemary and pine trees. It’s been a combination of all that and when I travelled to Asia, I got to discover tea plantations, patchouli plantations, vetiver and spices, and so on. It all came gradually.

How did that impact your view of perfumery?

What’s very specific for me is the way I was educated and how I grew up. My family is French, but they had been living overseas for three generations. For example, my mother was born in Morocco, her mother was raised in Vietnam, and her father in Lebanon. On the other side they were in Australia and the Indian Ocean. We have a French education and French taste, but we have this open mindedness and curiosity, and we mix our senses – we combine food and we have a very eclectic taste in music. We combined all of these different things, so from a very young age I started to stir up all of my senses. I understood the importance of my senses – to capture all that’s around you and basically be like a sponge. It made me discover perfume differently because I’ve approached scent from the perspective of associating it with colours, textures and people I have met. Of course, when I started to work on the brand, I really wanted it to be different, innovative and surprising. The idea was to work with the unexpected and with contrasts. I didn’t want it to be focused on myself, because there is so much ego in this business. I wanted it to be focused on people, so it was more about sharing and starting from moments that are anchored in something real and authentic. I started to realise that my knowledge of perfume was different from the knowledge of perfumers and was complimentary, so I decided to capitalise on this, because this was where I had legitimacy. I can’t formulate, I’m not a perfumer. If I start to formulate tomorrow, I would be doing something for which I have no legitimacy, but I do have this knowledge of perfume that is different and complimentary to the knowledge of the perfumers. What was more difficult at the beginning was to find the right words to speak with them, because we had to translate what I felt into something they could understand. The step for me was to professionalise my speech and learn how to evaluate better – just to find the right connection with them.

Is that language different with every perfumer you work with?

Not really, no, because I’ve always kept the same approach to brief them with pictures, sounds and colours. It has inspired them a lot. I decided to use very broad briefs – we are all human beings, some can be very sensitive to words, other to colours or an ambience. So I kept the brief very broad. Everything is basically interconnected, you know? I kept this approach. I briefed ten perfumers for the first eight perfumes and some of them didn’t really get what I was trying to do, because they will be self-centred. There were a few where I doubt that what they proposed was created from scratch. If I feel that I am smelling something which is not connected to my brief and if I don’t have the trust that they’ve started from a blank page, for me, it was a total no, it has to be a super, super high level of trust. I realise now that actually the most interesting perfumes happened when I really had a good connection with the perfumers.

Nathalie Feisthauer (Absinthe Boréale), for example, with her at the beginning, it was quite difficult to find the right speech, and she has such like a crazy personality. When it comes to formulating she’s super strict, but she is so energetic. I messaged her every week, so she’s been the closest of all the perfumers I’ve worked with. I go to her place, I smell, and I have a cat on my knees. So it’s kind of like being at home. One of the challenges was how to work on one brand signature, but at the same time work with different perfumers. It was my intention to have a collection of perfumes which are very different from the market, but also very different from each other. So working with different perfumers helps me to take different directions. I mean, the briefs were very different, like a volcanic eruption or the northern lights, for example. You know it’s quite incredible how when you brief different perfumers for the same brief, you can get totally different results, and so I really had to feel that there was this connection with them. But I was super strict with myself that I always always kept the same way of briefing them. Because that’s the DNA of the maison, for example, with Nathalie, if tomorrow I send her a brief, and I don’t send her all the elements, she would be lost because that’s how we’ve always worked.

That’s one thing I want to really pick up on because you talk about briefing in colours and images, and in that manner, but that’s also something that you do when you’re talking about the fragrances with the consumers. This is a very visual brand and I know we live in a visual age, Instagram is the way that we communicate now as brands, but do you think there is an element of trying to speak to the consumer in a different way about perfume?

Yes, because actually, the starting point for me was to spend time in the stores of brands like Dior and Guerlain, but I also visited brands like Byredo, Le Labo and Malle, and so on. Then I went to Esxence to experience what very small niche players could propose. Actually, I realised one thing, which is that wherever you go today, what people feel when they discover a perfume is always very intimate and personal. You could buy a perfume because it has sillage and you know, it creates your image, but at the end of the day, you like it for an intimate reason. This changes a lot from one person to another, it’s super personal. At the same time, most clients still cannot really explain or understand their perfume. They use the wrong words and they don’t have the confidence to talk about it, so when they come into a store, they have this mindset, this feeling. But on the other side, the historical brands will talk a lot about the brand history, and the niche players focus on raw materials, which is a very automatic way to talk about perfumes. The worst experience I had was with Harrods, I’m sorry to say. You just enter the black room, and honestly, people jump on you and say “smell this”, and then you smell and not even within three seconds, they just tell you, “oh, the top note is that, that and that, and the heart note is this and this”. I just think, look just let me breathe, give me time to cool down and just appreciate. You want to absorb, you want to feel. On one side you have a very automatic speech, and on the other side you have clients who feel something they cannot explain. I thought, look, when all the brands are focusing on personalising the packaging, which is very gimmicky, why don’t you focus on personalising the service. If people cannot understand the perfume correctly, then help them to do so, and to do so using visual supports, because that’s how it goes today, especially with social media. As our inspiration is very visual and sensorial with sounds, colours and textures, and as we have briefed the perfumers with that, then we should use the same content to speak to people. There’s French saying which is “I wanted to help people to put words and images into what they feel”. So it’s a way to better feel and better visualise a sense, because it’s intangible. So I’m trying to make it a bit more tangible.

Thinking about notes. When we talk about notes, I suppose most people know what a rose smells like, but then you start to talk about other materials like vetiver, and then aroma chemicals and people are completely lost. I means nothing to most consumers.

Last week I was visiting the south of France. There was a lady who entered the store and the sales advisor asked her, which for me is not the right question, she asked her “what do you like?” The lady answered “I love fresh perfumes, I love bergamot, I love patchouli, I love ylang ylang, I love sandalwood” Honestly you can’t define patchouli as fresh. Many brands are trying to categorise people. They ask people “which colour do you like?”, “which ambience do you like?” Then they propose them a perfume. To me it is totally irrelevant – just because you like to wear purple or you have purple hair, it doesn’t mean that you will like a lavender perfume. I think, let me surprise you – I will let you experience something you’ve never experienced before. Just have this curiosity to smell different perfumes, let yourself be surprised and if you like one perfume, then we will guide you into understanding how you have felt it. If you’re a couple with mother and child, or friends together, you might also like the same perfume for different reasons, because you feel different facets of it.

Also there’s no right or wrong. I think when you have a sales assistant who says “this is what you should be smelling” then you have an instant barrier, because if someone says “I smell apple” in a fragrance, but there’s no apple note, that’s not wrong. If they smell it, it’s there – it’s an impression they’re getting,

Yes, and for example, looking at Rose Salitfolia (Stephanie Backouche), it’s pretty incredible, because people really enter through the rose, or through the the salty facet of seaweed, or through the zesty facet of blood orange. It’s like there are different doors that people take and they don’t take all the same door at the same time, or maybe some people don’t smell any of those facets at all, and it’s fine.

Each of the fragrances are inspired by an encounter with a raw material. The procees starts with the raw material, but you’re trying to tell that story in an unexpected way to smell it in a way that we’ve not smelled it before. Why was it important for you to subvert expectations in that way?

First of all, it’s needed, because if you don’t propose something new, it’s not even meant to be proposed. I hate when things are done in a gimmicky way. I like things to have a meaning. If I tell you I’m going to surprise people, then of course, the scents have to be surprising with a unique mix. But we also worked on the idea of the blotters (Crivelli blotters reveal a macro image of a raw material when sprayed) because I wanted to bring the proof that my intention is real. Some brands use this technology, but there it is used to carry a written message for Christmas or Mother’s Day, but I wanted to have a correlation between the technology and the brand philosophy. As I want people to discover a passion for an individual from a different angle, I thought of the microscope, so what we show is a raw material of the perfume seen under a microscope. It is an example of the extra care to the meaning of things that I give.

How do you think the pandemic will impact the industry?

It’s about buying better, but less and buying creations, even objects, experiences that we believe in. I really believe that the people will continue to go to the stores to visit the stores if we give them a good reason to go. I think it’s the first time people are slowing down their rhythm – they’re paying more attention to what’s around them and they have to find happiness. I think people will definitely look for brands which have a depth – a mission, a purpose. I wondering if people will be buying scents which are cleaner. Someone told me that in the 80s, when there was a big wave of AIDS coming, people started to be super worried and it was the years when there were some mind blowing perfume like Opium – these very strong perfumes. Then came the wave of cleaner scents, because people wanted the image that they were clean. So they started to release perfumes, which were a bit less rich and strong. So will people look for scents, which are cleaner, or will people look for scents, which are stronger, because when people wear masks they still want to receive compliments? It’s hard to say.

I wanted to ask you about sustainability, because that’s becoming much more prominent in our industry. A lot of it is quite confusing, because there’s lots of talk about eco/clean beauty, which is not necessarily true, accurate or right. I know sustainability is an important thing, because we are thinking more about the long-term impact on the environment. On your website you talk a bit about the subject. How important is that to you as a brand, but also, how do you think as an industry, we can move forward and be more sustainable?

It’s super important to me. Given this, we have unfortunate constraints, which are real. If we want to create juices which are 100% percent natural, we expose the brand to any lFRA changes, which may mean the formulas have to disappear, because it makes it impossible to reformulate. Refillable options can be an possibility, it’s a good one, but you need the space and today, the stores never give you the space. If we have to refill eight perfumes, we need the space to do it and we don’t have it. I think people are lost today, for example, everyone is buying smaller sizes, 10 ml 15 ml, which is not sustainable at all. It’s a tricky question. We did as much as we could for now. Of course, it can be better, I’m not going to say the contrary, but we removed the artificial colourings in the formulas, we removed phthalates as well, and our boxes don’t have any plastic. So there’s no plastic insert or foam inserts in the boxes, even the outer wrap is made out of wood so it is biodegradable. What we can do in the future is work on the refillable offering, where maybe you buy a base, which is say 200ml and then you can plug in a 10ml, which could be indefinitely refillable. Instead, the base should be using components which can be biodegradable as well. So no plastic, maybe only glass. Until the big players radically change their measures and force the suppliers to work on new options, it’s very difficult at our level to push through change. It starts from the suppliers and the big players.

So my last question is very open: what’s next for Maison Crivelli?

In the short term, it’s more openings. We’re about to open with Skin Cosmetics in South Africa. We just confirmed that we’re opening with the creme de la creme in the Baltic countries before Christmas. We just opened in the Czech Republic with Ingredients – a beautiful store in Prague. On the way is Saudi Arabia and Japan. In the future: Hong Kong, South Korea and Russia, New Zealand as well. So quite a lot of things happening. We just opened at Galeries Lafayette, Champs-Élysées in September. There will be a new perfume with Stephanie Bakouche launching in February.

A massive thank you to Thibaud for the conversation – I for one, cannot wait to see what the future holds for Maison Crivelli.


Images via Maison Crivelli.