Meet your Maker with Karine Chevallier

Meet your Maker with Karine Chevallier

Karine Chevallier is the perfumer behind March's Easy Does it fragrance, Istanbul by Gallivant. We sat down with her to discuss her training, career and inspirations. 

You studied perfumery at ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l'aromatique alimentaire). Are you able to share with us a bit about the curriculum you studied there? I think for many people, us included, a school for specifically learning perfumery sounds really fascinating. What sort of things are you taught there? Do you feel that the curriculum has changed much since you attended there?

The most important part in any studies of perfumery is first of all to learn to smell and remember the raw materials. At ISIPCA this course was taught by Isabelle Doyen, and it's usually the one we prefer with the teacher we prefer! It was very austere and always the same protocol. She would dip the smelling strips, and then in a deep silence, without knowing what you were smelling for around two or three minutes, everybody would write down their first impressions about the new smell so that your memory is better trained and can grab that unique and personal emotion attached to each raw material. It was magical!

The best courses were the one about perfumery, of course - how to formulate and also the history of perfumery. But, at that time, the teaching of global perfumery was really poor at ISIPCA, and I must admit I understood what was really a perfume (the mix of the product), afterwards, when I graduated from a Master of Luxury goods at university.

I taught at the Ecole Superieure du Parfum how to create perfumes for five years until 2019. The pupils study for five years all the aspects of the industry really deeply, and that makes for really professional people who fit perfectly to the business. I always used to say to my pupils when I came out of ISIPCA I was still very immature about the Industry, but not them.

[Editor’s note: Isabelle Doyen has been the head perfumer at Annick Goutal for decades.]

Edmond Roudnitska is a legend in the world of perfumery. You trained with Jean-François Blayn who trained with Roudnitska. Can you share with us a bit about what that was like? Are there any defining features particular to Roudnitska’s style that really resonated with you?

Jean-François Blayn was the teacher of how to create perfumes at ISIPCA. He managed to explain to us Roudnitska's theory of “la forme dans la forme” which is not so easy to understand and practice.

He was a real artist with all his doubts, his emotions. During my first month at ISIPCA I actually wanted to leave. I had been offered an opportunity to enter Givaudan's school. I had a ciggy in the garden with Jean-François and he asked me to stay, saying that I had the skills to become a perfumer and that he would teach me. So I stayed, but unfortunately one year later he passed away.

Roudnitska's theories are really deep and I must say quite hard to penetrate, and that's what resonated with me the most: it's an everyday practice. You should try and learn every day. Be humble, and like a sportsman train, train and train.

What are some of your favourite materials to work with? And what are your least favourite?

I'm a woody perfumer! Especially vetiver, of course, which is not that easy to use actually. Patchouli is amazing! I can't stand sugary perfumes. I like to be discrete, subtle. 

What aspects of perfumery do you enjoy the most? Are there any types of projects you prefer more to others, and how would you say the briefs for perfumes from clients have changed throughout the course of your career?

I really enjoy making what I call 'travelling' perfumes. Telling a story with a perfume is great. That's why I enjoy working with Gallivant. We exchange a lot with Nick about photography, music, video clips, and we try putting all of that inspiration in the perfume. Working on Los Angeles was great. We had that feeling of a bubbling tar because of the heat there. And streets full of bushes which smell like eucalyptus. Of course this idea of a tuberose because of the Mexican roots of LA and then came this clip from Donna Summer and the idea of neon that I worked with a touch of strawberry. We ended the trip drinking a pina colada which explains the pineapple top note. 

And what's amazing in the story is that I've never been to LA, but people who have, they all say that's exactly what it smells like! That's what is fascinating about making perfume: you can tell a story. I like that very 'cerebral' part of my job!

Do you have a proud moment in your career that you wish to share?

Since attending ISIPCA, I have always wanted to link perfumery with all kinds of Arts. So I'm very proud that in the late 90's I was one of the first perfumers to put a smell in a fashion show. 

I also made an exhibition of my own pictures about the desert that was perfumed with some candles. Later in my career I had the chance to visit the Chauvet cavern and create a perfume based on its anamorphosis to be used in its scenography.

After that I worked with Enki Bilal for one of its exhibitions. I had to create the smell of war. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time and so full of emotions! I made the perfume and cried because it felt 'real' - the smell of blood, rain and fear. I showed the perfume to Enki Bilal and he said it was so true we can't show this in an exhibition! So we decided to re-work and sketch the smell of chaos!

These moments were very full of emotion in my career, and I'm really proud of that.

Are there any female perfumers - historic or present day - whose work you really admire and which of their perfumes would you suggest we try?

I have a passion for Germaine Cellier, who was not only a good perfumer, she was also a woman I admire for her freedom. That's why I'm an independent perfumer. I need this freedom and this kind of independence to work. So have a try of Vent Vert and tell me about it!

What do you feel are the challenges faced by women in the business, and what would you like to see change?

It's been a long time since I've been in the big companies where I started such as Symrise, IFF or Quest. I really have no idea of what's going on there. I just know that when I started, the well known perfumers I met or worked with seemed to me like they were from another century: women were tolerated, but we had to be quiet. It was really hard to learn tips about perfumery, which is a shame. Perfumery is very secretive. Nobody wants to share their knowledge so you always feel that you don't know how to do it. 

That's exactly why I was really proud to teach perfumery and share the few things I learned because if you don't transmit then the knowledge can disappear. We should be confident that in sharing we are not robbing ourselves, quite the contrary. 

I had the chance to have really smart pupils, a lot of them are being trained by Firmenich to become perfumers, I bet they'll become more well known than I am, and I'm really proud of that!