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Acne Studios Reveals First Perfume, Created With Frédéric Malle

PARIS — Acne Studios’ first perfume, created with Frédéric Malle, was a meeting of minds — and aesthetics. Its tale unfurls like a love story.

“I got a handwritten letter from Frédéric, saying if ever I had time he would love to have a coffee with me in Paris,” said Jonny Johansson, creative director of Acne Studios. “I seldomly get handwritten letters like that.”

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Acne had been on Malle’s radar for ages, as a quiet fashion force.

“It has this positioning which is neither trying to replicate more or less always the same thing and just making boring commercial clothes, nor going completely off the chart and not making garments anymore,” Malle said. “They have this almost traditional — and this is where we really on the same wavelength — this idea of creating timeless objects that are very innovative, breakthrough but wearable.”

Malle noted Johannson often twists classical approaches, like giving clothing a conventional sartorial cut with an unforeseen proportion, fabric or color. “It’s always unexpected,” Malle said. “But there is this link to a certain tradition.

“I see a very strong parallel between the way we work and the way he is working,” continued Malle. “Because we often use classical shapes, and then we twist and change them, and make things move forward. So there was this attraction, and this sense that there could be a conversation, because we had these similar views.”

Thus the letter. “It was basically a proposal,” Malle said.

Jonny Johansson and Frédéric Malle
Jonny Johansson and Frédéric Malle

“I responded and went quickly to Paris to meet him for a coffee,” said Johansson, who has long understood the importance of perfume in fashion. (About a decade ago, he began buying books on fragrance.)

Still, Acne Studios had no plans for a scent prior to Malle’s letter. “I was like — oh, exciting, because I have been wearing a perfume from him, named Dans Tes Bras, for many, many years. I don’t wear anything else,” Johansson said.

He often visited the Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle stores in New York and Paris. “I was reading about the noses on the wall. I thought that was such a modern concept. It also has this [classic] foundation in the way he makes his work,” Johansson said. “I am also drawn to that.” He likes Malle as a person, too. But now we are skipping ahead in the story.

Their rendezvous took place at the Café de Flore, where the conversation was wide-ranging. The only scent mentioned was Dans Tes Bras, which Johannson said “has that undefinable futuristic classicism.”

Then the designer returned to Stockholm. “I was like: I think I dare to send him a package,” said Johansson, who put together a mood board of local items dear to him, including Swedish Grace flatwear, Axel Einar Hjorth pine furniture, the folk song “Dear Old Stockholm” and Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona.”

Johannson’s references chimed with Malle’s. “We connected extremely naturally,” said Malle, who visited Stockholm with a few basic fragrance ideas.

“We looked at them. I got a lesson in perfume — or two,” Johannson said with a laugh. “He took me through that, which was very, very good for me.”

More backs-and-forths ensued, with 14 ideas considered in all. “I was trying to see what he was vibing on,” Johannson said. “I have to learn.

“There was one period when we were talking a lot about these white nights that we have in Sweden through the summer,” he continued. “That’s not yellow light, it’s white light. We never have darkness. It’s also quite interesting for perfume to cling on to that light, that freshness and our color, which is pastel pink.”

Johansson had an obsession. “I like to call it ‘metallic transparency,’ or something that is modern and maybe a bit futuristic, but then not too conceptual,” he said.

Rising Symrise perfumer Suzy Le Helley was signed on to create the Acne Studios fragrance with Malle, using as the visual starting point the brand’s iconic pink scarf.

Symrise perfumer Suzy Le Helley
Symrise perfumer Suzy Le Helley

Olfactively, for the core of the scent, she took the classical structure of clothing detergent and elevated that into the fine-fragrance realm.

“The idea was to accompany it with a much more qualitative floral bouquet, [make it] powderier, to look again at the somewhat classic structure of the big floral powdery aldehydes that we’ve known ever since the Twenties, with Chanel No.5,” Le Helley said. “But what I like is to use much more contemporary raw materials.”

To make the scent a little bit gourmand, the perfumer added a dash of vanilla.

There were some challenges. “I find some florals really suffocating,” Johansson said. “I don’t really like floral if it doesn’t feel chemical or sparkly in some way. I wanted it to be related to clothing also. At one point, we had talked about softener — being the most disgusting smell, but also the most comforting. I felt that was a bit kitschy, which I liked.”

Le Helley characterized the new fragrance as powerful and long-lasting, with a slightly neo-classical side. “I really wanted it to appeal to the new generation,” she said.

The perfume “has that undefinable futuristic classicism,” Johannson said. “You recognize it, but you don’t recognize it at all. You know it’s a perfume, and you’re not shocked — you’re just curious.”

Like the Acne scarf, “the idea was to have a perfume that was very comfortable, that we wanted to wrap ourselves in,” Le Helley explained.

Malle sought to create a portrait, an echo of Johhansson’s work and personality. “It forces you to get out of your own way [of creating],” said Malle, of working with artists and designers, like him as well as Dries Van Noten and the late Alber Elbaz in the past. “We remain who we are, but we enrich our process.”

Malle sensed in the Acne scent a pearlessence, with hues of pink, blue and yellow — “a little bit like a pearl,” said Malle, who opted to work with photographer Carlijn Jacobs on the fragrance imagery with a Surreal take. There’s one shot of an ear with a pearl in it.

“I love the idea of using an ear, but not knowing if it’s an ear, if it’s an oyster, if it’s skin — not skin,” Malle said. “It’s a bit troubling when you see that image, which I like, but yet it’s incredibly intimate.

“It’s a world when you see it,” he explained. In another shot are two models.

“You don’t really know their sex,” Malle said. “Which I think is important today. It’s quite fluid, like the perfume.”

Malle redesigned his house’s perfume flacon to have a tinge of Acne’s pink. “It was very much like a meeting of our two aesthetics,” he said.

The perfume will be sold starting April 17 in Acne freestanding stores and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle boutiques and corners, as well as through their digital platforms. The 50-ml. bottle is to go for $295 and the 100-ml. version for $470.

The Acne-Frédéric Malle collaboration will be celebrated in a pop-up at The Grove in Los Angeles from April 22 to May 20. Acne’s pink is to predominate at the store, which will sell the new perfume as well as Portrait of a Lady, Musc Ravageur, Carnal Flower and Vetiver Extraordinaire from Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, which is part of the Estée Lauder Cos.

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