An interview with

Edouard Roschi

Co-Founder, Le Labo

True To Me Too: Growing up did you ever think that one day you’d run a perfume company?

Edouard Roschi: No, never. Growing up I had had no idea I was going to end up doing that.  Actually I didn’t have any idea of what I was going to do until probably after my first job (laughs).  It’s one of those things where it’s unfair to choose very young what you have to do, you choose by default, which is never a good thing.  I ended up doing classic things until I would say the end of my 20s when I realized I wanted to do something that was more entrepreneurial.

You went to school for chemical engineering, does that factor into your job now?

It does to some extent.  I chose chemistry because It’s the study of reactions and the infinite and small, it’s not visible but it explains what can be visible ,which can be fascinating for me just on the molecular level.  Again I was 17 or 18 so that was why I chose chemistry, I thought it was a cool science to study.  I was always interested by science because I’m kind of a techie or a geek.  I didn’t like physics because I didn’t have good grades in high school in physics.  I had good grades in chemistry so that sort of skewed my decision to study chemical engineering.  Doing it in university is obviously a different thing because it stays interesting but then it gives you a better outlook of what the possibilities can be, which is teaching, research, and those types of things were not that interesting for me.  When I finished that degree I decided what can I do with my chemical background that’s a bit more creative.

You got a job pretty much right out of school…

Actually after my degree I was in the army because I’m from Switzerland and it’s compulsory to do 6 months of military service.  I was looking for a job while I was doing my military service and I was interested by the perfumery business already. I applied at a company that was based in Geneva, which was my first job basically, at a company called Firmenich, I had a couple interviews and that sort of led to them making me an offer.  Then I actually went traveling for about 6 months between my military service and starting that job.  It was important for me to sort of cutoff from my college years before I started my real life working, to just sort of travel out there and take time to see the world.  So it was after a year actually if you add up the military service and my backpacking across the world that I started working for Firmenich, which is a company that hires the perfumers and the flavorists that develop the stuff that’s put into foods or perfume bottles.

You went back for an MBA later, how has that helped in your career?

That’s an interesting question because I’m not sure of the answer.  I’ve been asked this question a lot and I think that if I had met the right people and had that idea at that time I wouldn’t have gone to business school.  I think that all the people I met there are fascinating and a lot of them are still my friends and you learn a lot of interesting things, but it’s theoretical, a lot of it is just theoretical, and gaining credibility to do real things afterwards.  But had I had the idea, the connections, had I met my business partner before doing my MBA, I wouldn’t have done it straight away.  It wasn’t like oh let me do an MBA so I will know how to start a business.  I wanted to change fields, I wanted to take a year off and learn a lot of interesting things.  Going back to school was interesting for me and it was sort of a way for me to step back and think about how I could get closer to what I wanted to do, which was to be independent and do something creative.

Left: Edouard Roschi. Right: Latest Candle Laurier 62

Le Labo has a strong philosophy and identity. How long did it take you to figure out what you wanted the company to look like and to put those ideas into actions?

I met my business partner at Giorgio Armani Fragrances in Paris.  We were working for the same company and we were both doing the same thing but for different parts of the brand, he was working for Giorgio Armani Fragrances and I was working for Emporio Armani Fragrances, which is the younger sort of sub-brand.  After doing that for 3-4 years, traveling to Milan to meet Giorgio Armani and get everything approved, we became close friends and started bitching about what we were doing, bitching about people who were working with us, and we decided to stop bitching and do something.  From that moment onwards to having a clear vision of what Le Labo was going to be it probably took a year.  That entailed lots of travel cause he was based in New York and I was based out of Paris but I was travelling a lot for work, so it was a lot of back and forth. We wanted to do something which had meaning for us, which had the right intention, which corresponded to what our sensitivities were at that time, and which made a difference.

That’s what the creative impulse was initially and then the time it took to translate that impulse into a reality through all of the means of expression of the brand and the story was a year long process, which went through all types of ups and downs and reinventions and talking to friends and realizing we were going down the wrong route and backtracking.  It took awhile.  Doing simple things is probably the hardest thing to do but when you do reach that form of simplicity that we were looking for it sort of all of a sudden makes sense.  When you reach that basic driver for the aesthetics of your story all of a sudden all of the decisions become easier to make but that takes experimentation, it takes suffering before you get to that level (laughs).

How important do you think it is for a company to develop their identity before they start doing business?

For us I wouldn’t imagine doing it in any other way.  If you want your story to stick and last, I mean I don’t know how to do it the other way, unless you’re in commodities or satellite technology and even then I’m not sure.  You still need the passion, drive, and focus.  You need to be sort of insensitive to what other people tell you about what’s viable or not.  You need to be obsessive and that comes with the passion you will put into what you’re going to be doing.  That passion will find it’s fuel only in the fact that it’s important for you as a person, if it’s not than that passion, that fuel, will quickly dry up and fade away and then it just becomes a job and it becomes business decisions.  We like to say we focus on creation and hope for business.  We haven’t found a better model than capitalism for now, ideally the idea generates enough money for us to develop and have more people interact with it and connect with it and pay the bills and help us do other things we want to do.  But initially the driving force is not the business aspect of it, it’s just telling a story that you hope people will connect with.  That’s critical, you go through so many hard things and hard moments that if you don’t have that intangible and irrational drive you will never come out of it with something that’s meaningful and fulfilling.

What are some of the things that helped inspire the brand?

Doing what we do and that being an extension of who we are, obviously we’re influenced by what we like in other fields and other aesthetics, philosophies, and products.  One of the things that my partner Fabrice Penot and I were sensitive to having been to Japan quite a few times  was the Wabi Sabi philosophy, driven from the tea ceremonies and the 15th and 16th century.  Basically it’s finding beauty in the art of eternal movement or the art of imperfection, in everything that is linked to nature and beauty in nature and authenticity, that type of approach.  So when we’re doing what we’re doing even emotionally that was important for us and what made us make the right decision was our sensitivity that type of aesthetic approach and it doesn’t mean that we have a type of Japanese style when you walk in the lab but definitely all of the authentic and vintage and lived in and soulful objects are there for meaning . . . and that meaning is that they speak to us (laughs).

You guys started in 2005?

Ya we launched our first store in 2006 but we started working on the project in 2005.

You opened your first location in New York, how did you settle on that location and what was the first year of business like?

We decided on opening in New York because we didn’t have any money (laughs) or very little money.  The company today is 100% ours so we put all of our savings into it and it’s contradictory to say this because New York is probably one of the most expensive cities to have a business in but we wanted it to work or fail quickly.  We wanted to give it a two year stint and if that worked great and if it didn’t we would be able to sort of rise from the ashes and do something else.  We wanted to avoid being in a situation where we lingered on for 5 years and raised money and got into debt and things like that.  We wanted the quickness of what New York is all about and also the aesthetics and the aptitude to embrace novelty, which New York is associated with and is actually a reality there.  That was important for us as well, we felt that what we had to say and how we wanted to say it was more adequate to be done in New York.  We like to say we were born in Grasse and raised in New York.

What role did Grasse play in the formation of Le Labo?

Grasse is the perfume capital of the world even though today it’s less important in terms of the ingredients that come out of Grasse.  Because of the price of real estate there the flower growers have been pushed out of the region by the wine growers and just the real estate values of people who want to build holiday homes.  What it represents is craftsmanship, a passion for origin, nature and the development and culture of flower growing and ingredient growing.  That’s important for us because when you see how a flower is actually harvested and then transported to an essential oil is fascinating and it reminds you that there is so much human interaction and love for what these people do.  We wanted to make sure that whatever we did in perfume and the story we wanted to tell would remind everyone that there is so much life behind a spray of perfume that you pay $200 and it makes you more beautiful or whatever else.  So it’s important and we like to associate it with New York because it creates that gap where it doesn’t have to be traditional and old, it can be authentic and soulful yet with an apropos meaning and a contemporary meaning, which New York is associated with.

When it comes to finding a good perfumers or nose what do you look for and what is required in terms of education and background?

We work with probably the biggest perfumers.  That doesn’t mean we only work with big perfumers.  How we chose the perfumers we work with is probably linked to the infinities we have with them, simply because there is so much emotion that is put into it.  There is so much creative understanding of what we want to do and what they’re capable of doing that there needs to be a connection in terms of creative intention.  So there needs to be a personality connection as well or else it can become difficult because it’s a tedious process, it’s a lot of trial and error. We like to work with perfumers who have a creative style that corresponds to our vision and who are fun to work with simply because we spend so much time developing scents that you might as well have fun doing it and that means not approaching it as a project but approaching it as an emotion that you’re trying to put in a bottle.  What makes a good perfumer is his or her talent to associate their creativity with something that is very technical, which is the mastery of chemical ingredients, it’s something very technical, very precise, that needs to be servicing the role of a creative story or an emotion and a good perfumer is someone who is able to fill in that gap.  To put in very creative ideas and concepts and intentions into a bottle by mastering a very technical science, which is the art of blending ingredients.

How do you decide on a final formula?

It takes years, sometimes a couple of years because we spend a lot of time working on things that will never be launched simply because it’s an idea that doesn’t translate into something that’s worthwhile to launch because it doesn’t add to the equation.  It’s like an 80/20 rule, we probably will share with clients 10% of what we work on.  It takes a lot of time to get through all that creation and then once you do have something that creates something that you feel is unique it takes time to finalize it and make it technically better.  How we decide to finish that process is either it strikes an emotional cord in you know that it’s right and that’s what it should be or you continue developing it and you realize that all of that extra development is not yielding something better so you go back to the initial emotion that you thought was the best one.  Sometimes you feel that you’ve gone to far and you need to backtrack through a couple of months of work and decide that that was the sample that we need to launch.  It’s a lot of trial and error, it’s a lot of discussion with the perfumer that requires technical language and fine tuning and a mix of creative emotional impact and technical performance.  You can have great smells or great olfactive stories that don’t stick for a lot of technical reasons and those are not worth sharing with the public.

How did you approach these high profile perfumers when you were starting out?

I worked for Firmenich for 4 years and I met a few of them there.  Fabrice worked for Symrise after Giorgio Armani, which is another similar company to Firmenich, and he got to meet a lot of perfumers as well.  Working for Armani I was involved with a lot of the development of smells, which put me in situations where I was working with perfumers as well.  When we started evaluating the possibility of launching Le Labo we asked them if they were willing to help us develop some initial perfumes and they were all very excited because we gave them a lot of costs.  A perfumer has access to 1500-2000 ingredients and if you come from a consumer company such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, you put them in a cost constraint because you don’t allow them to use a lot of the more expensive ingredients, simply because if you did then those companies wouldn’t be able to afford the oil that’s put into those bottles.

We don’t give them that constraint. We don’t give them a price constraint because we want them to have access to any ingredient that would be responsible for the translation of that emotional shock we want to generate and capture in a bottle.  So when you say to a perfumer “listen we don’t put any cost constraints on the oil development” obviously everyone tends to be interested because from a creative perspective it opens up their creative pallet.  That is important for them to get them excited, they don’t always do creative stuff everyday, a lot of them spend time doing stuff that’s over marketed, over consumer researched, so it’s like a bowl of fresh air for them.  Obviously another reason being that they knew us, we had the right connections, and they trusted us.

Le Labo doesn’t buy into market segmented gender roles of male specific or female specific scents so when you’re developing do you just try to make the best possible product and whoever responds to it responds to it?

That’s it.  I wish I could give you a more expansive answer but we just do what we love to wear and we hope that people have the same taste that we do.  We don’t think about demographics or market segmentations.  The only thing that we think about is having offerings in all of the main olfactive factories, like floral, citrus, wood, because if we just did what we loved we’d always have the same style of perfumery, which would cut us away from a lot of people who prefer other families.

You also don’t really advertise and when you do discover Le Labo it stands out a lot more.

Actually we did one advertisement in a Scandinavian magazine but it was more provocation.  The advert was just a sentence and that sentence was “success is like a fart, only your own smells nice” we did that one advertisement and that was it.  Basically it was sort of a way to say that if you’re passionate about your story and your serious about what you’re doing there are people who are going to agree with you and you just have to be patient and continue to do what you enjoy doing.  Pretty much what you would do with a friendship basically, see it evolve, accept that sometimes you need to learn from mistakes and evolve from those, focus on what you find to be your zone of comfort, and continue adding an interesting twist to the story you’re telling.  Then people will just agree with you and word of mouth will just play out, you don’t need to manipulate someone into telling them that wearing a scent will make you look like Charlize Theron or whatever.

You’ve been able to expand and grow while staying in control.  You said you wanted to succeed or fail quickly so did you ever imagine you’d get to be this big? Had you planned for it? What are some of the challenges of growing so fast?

We had not planned for it.  All of the expansion is self funded, we are still owners of the company.  We were masters of the marketing plan and now we don’t have a marketing plan.  It’s more encounters and opportunities, people that call us who we connect with and who want us to do something in a specific country.  For example we’re not in Germany simply because I haven’t been to Germany and I don’t know anyone in Germany. Germany is a huge market but we’re not there yet because we haven’t connected with someone who shares our vision.  The trust we put into people has replaced the marketing plan.  Also the product launches are not done in a very rational way, we don’t launch products every 6 months to get PR attention and things like that, we launch products when we think there is an interesting thing to say and it deserves to be launched. We like to feel like we’re at the helm of what we do and we don’t want to do political reporting and do things which we used to do a lot of.  Those were probably the main reasons we decided to do something independent, that’s very important.

Big is relative, we’re probably the smallest of the field that we’re in.  Were we planning to become this big versus just having a store in New York? Probably not.  Were we planning to stay this small versus competitors? Yes we were, that was something we were planning (laughs) because we want to know everyone, we travel to all of our stores, we know everyone in all of our stores and we’re very involved in the finding the stores, the build out, the management, it’s so much of what we do during the day that it would be a pity not to enjoy it.

The hurdles, to answer the last part of your question, is it takes discipline to stay focused on things that are important for us, which is story telling, creation, product development, and interaction with people rather than the operation hurdles that come with size like integration, processes, things like that.  Those are hurdles but when you do spend time resolving those you know that you’re doing it for the other part of the equation, which is that part that gives us satisfaction.

I imagine you guys are approached a lot with offers or opportunities, how you’re able to resist these offers and stay on course with your vision?

I would say that’s the advantage of being two.  It makes us sit down and share our ideas and thoughts.  We’re blessed in having the same way of looking at things, in some instances we don’t, but we will always take major decisions if we are both in agreement so it sort of evens out the decisions and is a safety net for avoiding being opportunistic, not because we want to be opportunistic but because we are not able to see that a certain decision would have been opportunistic.  Then I would say the easy thing is to listen to your intuition, what it would add in terms of storytelling and intention, what the brand is and who we are as people who manage the brand.  Obviously there are a lot of commercial opportunities and we say no to 99% of them.  Sometimes we say yes because even though it’s commercial it adds a lot to what the brand has to say and it helps expose our way of putting craftsmanship above and beyond everything to people who are not sensitive to that thread.

What makes a good business partner?

The business school approach answer is that we should be complementary and things like that but we’re not that complementary, Fabrice and I, even though there are some aspects of our work that are complementary.  I think that at the end of the day it’s the respect that we have for each others input and trust, it’s the feeling of freedom that comes with respect because you know that you can basically say anything, you don’t need to prove yourself anymore to the other person because that person trusts you and respects what you’ve done for the development of the brand.  That’s critical because when you do get into hurdles and different points of opinion then you know it can be sorted out because you know the main thread and the bottom line is that if that person is disagreeing for some reason then he might have a point.  It’s also easier to change your mind and backtrack and not get stuck in an ego trip or stuck in places where you don’t want to change your mind simply because it’s not good to change your mind because that might show that you don’t know what you want.  Basically it’s trust and respect for the other person.

You recently launched two new fragrances, what was the development process like and why did you decide to release both at the same time?

We never launch perfumes.  We launched two perfumes in 7 years of existence and now we’ve launched two at a time so it’s very contradictory.  We wanted to develop a floral and in the development process and sort of in the funnelling process of working with a lot of ideas and eliminating most of them to sort of focus on just the one we couldn’t focus on one and we got stuck with two great ideas.  We worked those parallel and we couldn’t decide which one to launch.  We decided they had a lot of things in common which was the white floral aspect of them and that they both deserved to be launched so we gave birth to twins as we say, imperfect twins.  Both having the same sort of themes because they are both centred on solar white flowers, ylang and gardenia, one is a more solar white floral punch, more of a sunny interpretation of nearly all of the flowers that have that aspect in their olfactive descriptions.  Ylang 49 is more of a dressed up elegant, darker, and sensual version of the white floral blend, it’s got a very solar floral heart that’s masked around woods such as patchouli, vetiver, and cedar.  They’re really imperfect twins, if you have a daughter and a son, one sort of has a gothic style and the other one is white t-shirts and no socks all the time.

I came across a story that someone had proposed to their girlfriend by customizing a label on one of your perfumes, how does it feel knowing that your creation has come to play a role in such important parts of peoples lives?

Obviously it’s very touching.  We get a lot of emails that people take the time to send us and that’s even more touching.  Sitting down in front of your email and writing two paragraphs to two guys who founded a perfume brand simply because what you’ve done has moved them and made their lives better in a very large sense of the word, even though we like to say that perfumes make the lives of our clients more beautiful, it’s the larger extent of the word beautiful.  It’s so rewarding, basically that’s invaluable.  It sounds cheesy to say but it’s such a great feeling to actually have people take the time to share those emotions with us and thank us for it.

When people aren’t happy they also share that with us and share those emotions and send us emails, luckily in very rare cases, to tell us they’re dissatisfied with one of the perfumes they’ve purchased, which is ultimately a good thing because it creates a reaction and they take the time to share that negative reaction with us and that creates a dialog and we always answer and try to understand why that reaction was generated.  Ultimately all of these interactions is what make this adventure worthwhile.  There’s real people behind the screens and we get to meet a lot of them in the stores, which is critical for us, and they’re the best ambassadors of the story we’re trying to tell.  We spend a lot of time answering all of our clients questions and helping them understand why we do things the way we do and putting back the soulfulness and the hand of man into any type of production.

What are some perks of the job? Do you travel a lot?

We don’t travel business class so long trips are a hassle more than anything.  The good thing is we’re always able to go to places we enjoy, it’s not like we have to sell roller bearings in Siberia, even though I’m sure Siberia has very interesting people, it’s always a pleasure.  We love it.  We get to meet people who do things that are similar to ours and they help us in developing our brand.  We travel for the passion of traveling.  Traveling is so important simply because it broadens your mind and your way of thinking about things.  Fabrice is like that, I started traveling very early and I still do it, even though I’m not doing it for work I still travel just for the pleasure of going to locations that enable me to do what I’m passionate about, which is not always only perfume.

What are you working on ?

We’re working on so many things, not just in terms of smell but the way we can defuse them.  We’re working at opening new locations because we’ve met interesting people that want to spread our story in places that we’re not.  We’re excited about our new Laurie 62 candle that just launched.  We are working on another concrete candle, it’s extra large so that’s a novelty, it’s incredibly beautiful and we’re excited about launching that and sharing it with our clients.  There’s so many things that are in my head right now I can’t really organize them (laughs).

You’ve been in the industry for a long time have you come across any jobs that are important to the industry that maybe the average person might not know about?

The industry is very big.  To simplify I would split it into the back office and the front office.  There’s people that focus on developing smells and flavours and that’s a business in itself.  Then there’s people that focus harvesting and going and finding ingredients and that’s another business.  Then there’s the front side and that’s people who focus on developing the product and marketing it, the advertising, and selling that into the distribution.  Then there’s the distribution part of the business. In every one of these sectors, which if you add them up pretty much make the beauty business, there’s interesting and less interesting things to do.

One of the interesting things that is probably lesser known but for me is fascinating is ingredient purchasing part of the business, which is people who actually spend time traveling into remote locations to source ingredients that will constitute the perfumers creative pallet.  They negotiate with producers and harvesters and buy their production and insure the quality of the production.  That’s a fascinating job because you need to have a good nose, a good sense of detail, good business skills, and it exposes you to so many different cultures and styles.  It’s a very important part of the business that’s probably found more in the back office portion, which is companies like Firmenich and Symrise.

I will say that all and all if you have a chemistry background it helps, if you have a passion for storytelling it helps get into the business, if you want to make things differently it helps as well, if you want to approach it from a different angle it helps.  It’s such a big question and there’s so many ways of trying to get into the business that there isn’t a definite answer.  The buyers fascinate us and we spend time with these people and they know so much about the real stuff like they’ve seen the flowers, they’ve seen the natural ingredients in nature, they’ve seen the guys who harvest it.

Do you ever regret leaving your corporate position?

No (laughs).  It’s been a lot of fun.  We’ve been learning a lot. Fun is great but if it enables you to become a better person it’s even better.  We’re still improving and challenging ourselves to try to do things different.  We’re happy to be here 7 years later.  There’s ups and downs and that’s the advantage of being two, if someone is more weathered down he can take time off and the other one will step in, it’s good having two.  I speak to Fabrice every day and we’re still talking about passionate things and fascinating things.

Date: January 9, 2014 • Category:
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