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Reinventing a Beloved Fragrance Is Risky Business

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The year is 1953. A 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II is crowned. The Oscars are broadcast on television for the first time. And a bath oil called Youth-Dew is brought to market by a budding beauty entrepreneur named Estée Lauder.

The rest of the story goes a little something like this: While most women only wore perfume on special occasions, they started going through bottles and bottles of the jasmine- and patchouli-spiked bath oil because they loved its lingering scent. This sparked a shift in consumer behavior, and soon enough, a spritz of perfume was considered part of a woman’s everyday beauty routine. Following the success of Youth-Dew (which eventually spawned a fragrance spray by the same name), Lauder went on to create 11 more scents during her lifetime, catapulting her namesake cosmetics business to multimillion-dollar success.

Lauder, who passed away in 2004, was not a “nose” — that is to say, she did not study the art of fragrance in Grasse — but she was really good at putting her finger on what women want in a perfume. The same can be said of Frédéric Malle, the self-proclaimed fragrance “publisher” who has worked hand-in-hand with perfumers to create some of the most highly-regarded scents of the past two decades, including Carnal Flower (a Best of Beauty winner packed with tuberose) and Portrait of a Lady (with rose and sandalwood).

Serendipitously, in 2015, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle was acquired by the Estée Lauder Companies. “The minute I sold my company to Estée Lauder, I said that I wanted to do this,” says Malle. The “this” he’s referring to is the reinvention of five of the scents originally developed by the woman herself — and the reason why I recently found myself inside Estée’s meticulously-preserved office at company headquarters in New York City.

“This is where she tortured perfumers,” Malle says with a laugh, gesturing around the ornately-decorated, jewel box-like space. (The view of Central Park is so breathtaking, one has to wonder if visitors ever found it distracting during meetings.) Malle is, of course, not being literal, but referring to Lauder’s famously high standards for fragrance. For example, Beautiful, a blend of orange flower, mandarin, and rose that launched in 1985 and went on to become one of the brand’s bestsellers, was the result of “many, many months” of Lauder mixing iterations at the very same desk that sits in the corner of her office today, says Malle.

Still a sales success almost four decades later, Beautiful remains — for now at least — only how Lauder intended it. The Legacy Collection, available beginning February 1st, includes Malle’s take on five scents that fragrance lovers might be less familiar with, at least in recent years: White Linen (a blend of jasmine and rose that originally launched in 1978), Private Collection (a mix of “green” notes like basil and galbanum from 1973), Knowing (a combination of raspberry and smoky patchouli that debuted in 1988), Azurée (from 1969; with spicy cumin and clove), and Estée (a musky floral created in 1968). “We just re-tuned them, but they are still themselves,” says Malle of the fragrances. (His new “Legacy” versions will replace the original formulas, which are still in circulation.)

Estée Lauder Estée Legacy

$280.00, Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder Azurée Legacy

$280.00, Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder Knowing Legacy

$280.00, Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder White Linen Legacy

$280.00, Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder Private Collection Legacy

$280.00, Estée Lauder

But to “re-tune” a scent while staying true to its original spirit is far more complex than swapping one note for another. Like a game of Jenga, plucking out one note can cause the whole formula to fall flat, says Malle. For instance, he discovered through trial and error that without the honey note in its original formula, the ylang ylang-scented Estée lacked warmth and richness. So he kept it in — and enhanced the effect with notes of amber.

“I see [these fragrances] as museum pieces that can be brought back to life through a little work with talented perfumers,” says Malle. “It's anything but nostalgic. It's [about] showing that what Mrs. Lauder has done could stand the test of time. It just needed a little bit of dusting.”

For his own brand, too, Malle strives to create fragrances that won’t show their age: “The ones that are slightly dated are the ones that have a big dose — probably disproportionate to what it should have been — of the material which was in fashion at the time.”

This begs the question: Is there a fragrance trend that’s “in fashion” today that Malle thinks will feel dated in the near future? “Sweetness,” he says. “Alber Elbaz [the late creative director of Lanvin] used to say one thing he hated were those gourmand perfumes. He would say, ‘The less women are allowed to eat sweets, the more they want to cover themselves with chocolate cake.’” (It feels sacrilegious to say the word “Ozempic” in the confines of these storied, floral-lined walls, but the link certainly crosses my mind.)

When my time in Mrs. Lauder’s museum-like office was over, I walked out onto Fifth Avenue feeling both exhilarated about the future of fragrance and like I’d just popped out of a time capsule from 1985. But if I learned anything from Malle, it’s that there’s beauty to be found in both.

The Estée Lauder Legacy Collection fragrances retail for $280 each and are available at esteelauder.com beginning February 1st.


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Originally Appeared on Allure