When Aesop launched its first perfume, Marrakech, in 2005, the company’s chemists were asked to imagine drinking clove-and-cardamom-infused chai at dusk, under a Mediterranean jasmine bush.
The team worked for months in Aesop’s Melbourne laboratory to extract the scent of the Moroccan city, blending spices and floral extracts until, at sample number 64, “The nine essential oils began to sing in unison,” says Kate Forbes, who currently oversees research and development for the skincare brand.
In 2012, Aesop decided to update the perfume to improve its longevity on the skin and better balance its aromatic profile – that is, the various scents that combine to make the fragrance smell as it does over a certain period. To develop this new iteration, Marrakech Intense, Aesop went outside its walls for help.
Cue Barnabé Fillion, a French perfumer, or so-called “nose”, and a difficult man to pin down, even by phone. In August and September he was based in various overseas locations and last I checked he was in “a remote location in Japan” and “virtually unreachable."
Fillion first met with the Aesop team (including with founder Dennis Paphitis) in Paris in 2012, where he detailed his, “vision of perfumery and proposed collaboration with the brand”. The group discussed product ideas as well as Fillion’s unconventional olfaction process and when Aesop decided to update Marrakech, they selected Fillion as their “nose”.
A model and photographer who has studied botany and phytotherapy – a practice involving the use of plant extracts for health and medicine – Fillion began composing perfumes in 2007. He’s known for creating artisanal unisex scents using natural ingredients, and is one of the few independent perfumers working in an industry dominated by big fragrance houses. Prior to Aesop, his most recent big-name client was Paul Smith.
In September 2012 Aesop supplied the existing formula for Marrakech to Fillion, as well as a range of ingredient samples. He began to experiment with ideas in his olfactory lab in Paris, a space he shares with other “noses”. (He also has a personal lab in Brussels.)
The aim was to keep the “essence” of the original fragrance, “While taking advantage of modern perfumery techniques,” Fillion says.
Through specific extraction methods and a small amount of synthetic ingredients, Fillion was able to highlight different notes in the botanicals Aesop had already been working with. He also used an alternative extraction method to isolate cardamom seed oil, boosting its role in the formula and intensifying its freshness.
I had imagined that the workspace of a perfumer contained a clutter of olfactory equipment. I envisioned bottles and glass tubes and complicated, antique apparatuses on a workbench. Fillion set me straight.
“Equipment is simple. Not much is needed apart from a weighing machine, alcohol and bottles that are stocked with each of the 5000 raw materials we’re using,” he explains. “We try and keep the lab quite sterile, so we can concentrate intimately on certain smells while we create the fragrance. The lab is a place of quietude and concentration, a white palette of ceramic tiles lends an almost clinical air.”
In Paris, Fillion prepared multiple perfume samples, highlighting different notes in each before sending his concoctions back to Melbourne. Aesop then replied with feedback on which direction to pursue. Marrakech Intense was born after 11 rounds of refinements.
A perfume is made up of three distinct parts: the head or top notes; the heart or middle notes; and the base notes. When you first spray or apply a perfume, the initial scent you’re hit with is the head. These notes swiftly wear off, but not before the middle notes begin to fill the air. Finally the base notes become potent and it’s that part of the perfume that stays on your skin for hours after.
The finished Aesop product features base notes of sandalwood and cedar, middle notes of neroli and jasmine and floral top notes of bergamot and cardamom. From start to finish it was a process that took about two years: one year of development and testing work, then another year in production and logistics planning before the amber glass bottles were shipped to stores around the world.
A few years ago, Fillion was based in Morocco and often spent time in Marrakech and his experiences and memories of certain scents there guided the creation of this fragrance.
“Scent can readily conjure emotion and memory, and connect with us on a primitive and instinctual level,” Fillion says. “For me, Marrakech is the most beautiful at dawn and dusk. Moroccans visit the markets before the midday heat, and the smell of the Medina is very particular.”