What do textures smell like? Can one translate the sense of coarsely woven fabric held between the fingers, or the feel of cashmere next to skin, into an olfactory experience? That was the task Christine Nagel, the nose at Hermès, gave herself when she set about creating the new men’s fragrance for the house – the most significant “masculine” launch in 15 years – which is landing on counters this month.
“When I create a perfume, I need to physically give it volume or texture,” says Nagel, wearing her signature round frames. “I love it when people say it’s soft like velvet or silk.” The Swiss-born perfumer worked with Hermès menswear creative director Véronique Nichanian to create the scent, named H24, which is inspired by Nichanian’s ready-to-wear collections. “When you look at Véronique’s fashion shows, you can touch the textures with your eyes,” she adds. “You can see just how soft the leathers and wools are. There are a lot of similarities in the way we work.”
The house’s last hit fragrance for men was the award-winning Terre d’Hermès, created in 2006 by the acclaimed Jean-Claude Ellena. “I had a monument in my heritage,” says Nagel, who arrived at Hermès in 2014 and took over as head perfumer in 2016. “It still has a following and it still recruits customers.” The pressure to produce another success is considerable, but Nagel is well versed in making a bestseller: she co-created the powdery hit Narciso Rodriguez for Her, masterminded the sugary Miss Dior Chérie and signed the succulently fruity Armani Si, among others. “It’s not a competition, but I wanted to make a perfume that could exist alongside Terre d’Hermès but be different. It was a big challenge that I took up with great pleasure.”
Nagel took Terre d’Hermès apart to see how it was structured. “I wanted to approach it like a watchmaker – to understand a good mechanism, sometimes they need to dismantle the watch.” She then went off in a completely different direction, seeking out unconventional ingredients – like clary sage, a botanical with a distinctly woody quality, which became the backbone of the scent. “Many men’s fragrances today are illustrated by woody notes – dry, oriental, fresh woody, spicy woody, whatever. But for me the botanical was obvious, because in the vegetal there is the sap, which is the source and vivacity of life.”
Secondly, she added a jolt via narcissus absolute, a strong and rigid note derived from the daffodil, and one that needs to be used sparingly. “I did a co-distillation with a secret material that softens the narcissus to remove that nervous side,” says Nagel. She likens the punchy addition to the electric touches of colour in Nichanian’s collections – a bubblegum-pink jacket or a Ferrari-red neckerchief in a sea of palatable neutrals.
Next came rosewood essence, a fragrance that was forbidden in perfume-making for many decades because harvesting it resulted in the deforestation of the Amazon. Nagel has found a few small-scale producers of the South American tree in Peru, who grow them sustainably: “I am very happy to be using a material that was completely forgotten for so many years.”
The final note is a synthetic molecule – sclarene – which came to Nagel after she visited the tailoring workshops of Hermès. She recalls watching the artisans applying damp cloths onto wool suits before pressing them with a heavy metal iron. “The smell that comes from there, it’s a warm metallic steam. Sclarene, which captures this essence, is very unusual and not widely used in perfumery,” says Nagel. “I remember the day I made Véronique smell it, she said, ‘Yes! This is the smell from our workshops.’ She was really attracted to it, because it’s also the sensuality of that which is well made.”
Together, Nagel and Nichanian are creating a new sensory identity for today’s Hermès man, drawing on the house’s history while constantly modernising and adapting. “I’ve chosen the botanical, this power of the sap, because it fits our times – it’s different and innovative,” says Nagel. “When you see the young men in Véronique’s fashion shows, you feel the vitality, you feel that they are urban men but who are rooted in their own heritage. I hope that feeling is the same with H24.”
H24 is available from 24 February, hermes.com
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