Not all appointments are planned in advance. This is the first in a series of posts about appointments that made a surprise splash in my schedule.
Appointment with: Frédéric Malle, founder of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle
Meeting place: Café de Flore, Paris
Date: April 30th, 2009
On the menu: Coffee and Dalloyau Croissants
Purpose: Interview for Monocle magazine
Last month my editor at Monocle called to see if I’d be free to do a last-minute interview with fragrance maestro Frédéric Malle for a rubric in the mag called My Last Meal. The concept of the column is brilliant: each month a non-food professional is asked to describe their proverbial last meal (where they’d have it, with whom they share it and what, of course, would be on the menu).
Back in my early days as a beauty editor at Dutch magazine I did a brief interview with Malle at the opening of his first boutique, a salon-style shop where customers are invited to “experience” his perfumes by sticking their faces into giant smelling columns that look like they walked off the set of a 1930s sci-fi flick. Since then he’s opened a smattering of intimate outposts elsewhere in the city and around the word (if you can’t make it to the flagship, Barneys New York also has the cool sniffing towers I’m told).
Malle now lives in New York and comes back to Paris only occasionally. Almost ten years since our last meeting, I’m psyched to see him again and get to know him through a different lens. Instead of fragrance—top notes, base notes, inspiration, bottle design, blah, blah, blah—we get to talk about, um, well, death, not in a creepy way, but as the final celebratory frame of his life.
For the setting of his final meal Malle chose the Café de Flore, one of Paris’s most touristy Left Bank cafés. I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed. Why would someone choose a place that serves mediocre, overpriced children’s food for their last chowfest? What was the deal? Was it the lure of the café’s famous past patrons? Was he the owner? Had he met his first love there? Were his kids conceived in the bathroom?
Within seconds of his arrival it all started making sense. Malle, an icon of St Germain elegance in a light grey gabardine suit, shiny brown loafers and slicked back salt-n-pepper hair, walked in greeting every waiter by their first name. After he caught up with Marie Hélène at the till and said hello to the early-morning regulars, he settled into his favorite seat on the corner of the terrace with a perfect sidewalk view. This image of Paris, the warm welcome, the beautiful setting, the elegance and poise.…ah, the atmosphere was almost cinematic.
Raised nearby, Malle has been coming to the Flore all his life. For him it was only natural to end where it all began.
“I like the simplicity of having breakfast and having just a very, very good croissant and having my last day as if it were a beginning,” explains Malle, while enjoying a simple pot de café and a rich, eggy Dalloyau croissant.
From this familiar perch, Malle is simulating a scene from his life as plain as it is profound. The routine, etched in his DNA, is about the pleasure of the familiar, the perfection of simplicity, and the peacefulness of home. There’s something about the whole thing, admits Malle, that reminds him of a scene that took place here in Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within), his favorite of his uncle’s films.
“Whose you’re uncle?” I ask, never thinking for it instant it was, no…could it be…OMG Louis Malle!! “Yes,” he says shyly, “I hardly ever talk about him, many people don’t make the connection.”
Once I get my wits about me, Malle goes on to explain the film’s narrative. It’s about a troubled man who lives in St Germain in the 60s (“a central figure in the neighborhood”) and the things he does on the day that will turn out to be his last. “Wow,” I say, with wild eyes, “does the character know he’s going to die?” (Aka dude, do you see the similarities here, is there something I should be aware of?)
“I don’t know if he wakes up in the morning thinking he’s going to kill himself but it’s quite likely,” says Malle, reassuring me that he’s not at all in that frame of mind, but that he’s always had a strong connection to the film, it’s setting (the Paris of his youth) and the struggles the character faces. “There is a certain attitude and look about this St Germain Left Bank world. I think that in a modest way this is really where I come from. You don’t really escape that.”
For the complete interview, pick up a copy of Monocle’s June issue.