“To me, fragrance is not gendered,” says Christine Nagel. This statement would be less noteworthy if not for the fact that this interview is taking place in tandem with the launch of H24, the maison’s new and most significant men’s fragrance in 15 years. The last prominent one was Terre d’Hermes, a spicy-woody concoction by her predecessor, Jean-Claude Ellena.
Having joined Hermes in 2014, Nagel became the house’s head perfumer in 2016. To date, she has created such memorable fragrances as Galop d’Hermes and Twilly d’Hermes, as well as the Hermessence collection.
Elaborating on why H24 is billed as a fragrance for men, Nagel explains, “The source of my inspiration was the Hermes men’s universe. Even though this was conceived vis-a-vis the Hermes man, it could also please women.”
Indeed, those familiar with the menswear designs of Veronique Nichanian – artistic director of the Hermes men’s universe for more than three decades – will understand why Nagel came under its spell. The men’s fashion workshops are located just below the perfumer’s office in Pantin, Paris, and where Nagel called in from while sporting her trademark round glasses and speaking to us energetically in French through a translator.
Fluid with elegant ease, Nichanian’s designs merge contrasting elements to create a harmonious whole. Never trend-driven, but far from boring, the collections are elevated with doses of unexpected colour such as neon yellow and pieces are defined by subtle, luxurious touches such as lambskin- lined pockets. Notes Nagel: “The way Veronique mixes leather or cashmere with high-tech materials, without any visible stitches, is so seamless. It seems so natural that you feel like that’s how this combination occurs in nature.”
It was this perfect contradiction and ease of movement that Nagel sought to replicate when creating H24. As a botanical fragrance, the very nature of H24 is an antithesis of “80 per cent of men’s fragrances today” that fall into the woody category. But rather than having grand visions of stately trees or lush meadows stretching beyond what the eye can see, her green inspiration was a lot more visceral and earthy. “It’s like watching an accelerated version of a video recording of a green shoot as it breaks through the surface of the earth. I wanted to represent that strength, which is as fluid and dynamic as the Hermes man.”
To do so, she used four key ingredients, each with striking characteristics and an intriguing backstory: Clary sage, narcissus, rosewood and sclarene, a synthetic ingredient. Narcissus, for example, gives an “electric touch” to H24.
According to Nagel, the flower is a tricky ingredient for perfumers because of its “tough” olfactory character. Therefore, while it adds a zingy note to a fragrance, it is often used in small quantities. To use it in larger quantities, the team employed a special co-distillation technique “to make narcissus more subtle without removing its spark”.
Another key ingredient is rosewood – rarely seen in fragrances these days. For three decades, Brazil banned its export to prevent over-logging and deforestation. What makes it possible for the team to use this ingredient, which gives the fragrance a vegetal freshness, is that the rosewood is sourced from small-scale, sustainable producers in Peru. The farmers cut their trees at a specific height instead of uprooting them. This enables them to regenerate.
Adding an unusual dimension to the botanical notes is sclarene, a molecule created by Givaudan. In perfume-making, it is usually used in small amounts to give scents a boost. To Nagel’s surprise, sclarene in large quantities brought back an olfactory memory from her childhood while creating a connection to the Hermes men’s world.
Her grandmother was a tailor who made men’s trousers, and the Swiss- born perfumer remembers visiting the workshop in Geneva as a little girl. “She would iron these beautiful fabrics, such as wool, with a very hot metal iron after placing a humid cloth over the wool to protect it. Warm steam would arise. Together, the steam, metal and fabrics created a distinctive scent. I had completely forgotten that until I smelt it again in Veronique’s workshops.”
Encompassing so many emotions and possibilities in a bottle, a fragrance does not become less important just because we go out less in an age of Covid, notes Nagel. “The evocative power of fragrance is unique. As perfumers, we have a true duty to continue telling stories and to offer people the chance to travel in an immobile world by freeing up their imagination.”