Dubbed the cult scent, we look into the evolution of this New York-based perfumer as told in The Essence
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi are the creatives behind the seminal fragrance Santal 33, which opened up the world of unisex and niche fragrance to an entirely new generation. Despite the fame and fortune, these wunderkinder of the perfume industry have kept their creative vision going strong for over a decade.
When Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi founded Le Labo in 2006 with nothing more than their own savings and a dream of creating a high-quality perfume, little did they know that they were creating one of niche perfumery’s biggest success stories. They gained so much worldwide adoration that estée Lauder acquired the company in 2014. “It is always great for creators to feel their vision validated by other people—it took time, as no one believed in it when we launched—but eventually the integrity of our work and our unwillingness to compromise resonated with clients,” Penot comments. “We never tried to convince anyone of what we were doing. We just kept showing up every day, over and over, and tried to make people happy.”
Despite the acquisition and immense growth, Penot and Roschi have managed to uphold Le Labo’s creative ethos. “We’ve always been about blurring the line—and we still are despite our success. It is not about being mass or being niche, it is about making people feel special, making their lives more beautiful. As long as we succeed in doing that, we will be a success, whatever our top line is,” he explains. Although the brand’s offerings have expanded to 18 fragrances (that’s excluding their 13 city exclusive scents), 11 candles, grooming products, and a plant-based range of body, skin, and hair care, every launch is an organic extension of their vision.
An excerpt from Le Labo’s manifesto reads: “We believe that there are too many bottles of perfume and not enough soulful fragrances.” One such example is Santal 33 (a blend of sandalwood, papyrus, cedar, and leather created by perfumer Frank Voelkel), which went on to have an immensely profound impact on the industry when it launched in 2006, spawning a cult following and headlines galore. “Santal 33 is kind of a miracle—it has this universality to it; it is transgender, transgenerational, and transcultural. It seems that we have touched a chord with it that moves us all for the same reason. What perfume works on your mom and on your boyfriend with the same magic? That’s pretty amazing.”
It isn’t just their fragrances or chic, modern apothecary-style aesthetic that appeals to consumers, but also Le Labo’s retail concept. After settling on a scent of choice, a customer’s fragrance is created for them on the spot, with a bespoke label listing the location, date, and client name. While the fragrance composition itself has already been created, it is this act of customization in the final step that truly resonates with those who are seeking a perfume all their own. however, Penot is quick to stress that what’s inside the bottle still remains the most vital element. “As far as individuality and customization, I think it is a part of our success, but a very small part. At the end of the day, it is about the quality of the liquid in the bottle,” he states.
Given Le Labo’s status in the fragrance industry (with 56 stand-alone boutiques worldwide and counting), it is only natural to wonder where Penot and Roschi see themselves sitting on the niche/mass-market divide. “Now it is so busy that it feels like a niche is a new mass, for sure. But there is still a head start given to the ones who know what they are doing,” he explains. It is this unwavering dedication to their original purpose, regardless of industry speculations or specific trends, that have kept their brand on top. “The truth is, for the last 13 years, we have been focused on our craft, on making the most beautiful perfumes we can, sold in a quiet and interesting environment, resisting the confusion of comparing ourselves and positioning ourselves in a market that we don’t know anymore,” Penot says. “We have our little planet and we are determined to keep doing what we do without being bothered by the ‘cool of the day,’ even when there is our name on it.”