Lubin, the French Perfumer That Won the West

From Marie Antoinette to the Gold Rush and Grace Kelly, the French perfume house Lubin has gone down in history and left its mark on generations of wearers. Produced by Sonia Medina and directed by Myriam Touzé, the documentary Lubin, un parfumeur d’excellence retraces the story of the genius behind the perfumes and explores the rebirth of the brand from 2004 onwards. A journey through timeless, constantly reinvented fragrances. Interview with Myriam Touzé.
The Lubin perfumery in Paris, 1860. © Lubin

France-Améique: Why did you choose to make a documentary about Lubin?

Myriam Touzé: This house has a beautiful story behind it. When I was younger, I loved wearing L’Eau Neuve by Lubin. It suited me perfectly. The company disappeared almost overnight, and I stumbled across their boutique in Paris decades later. Its new director Gilles Thévenin told me about the history of the perfumer and his brand, and I was hooked. I loved my perfume so much that I could not have imagined telling any other story!

Is it true that it all started before the French Revolution?

Pierre-François Lubin’s father, a butcher, had a shop on one of the finest avenues in Paris just in front of the Fargeon perfumery, which was very fashionable at the time. The little boy spent so much time with his nose pressed against the boutique’s window that he ended up being hired to “make the mixtures.” He was sent to deliver perfume to Marie-Antoinette, who was locked away in the Tour du Temple, and the atmosphere of the Royal courts left a lasting impression on him. Just before the Revolution, he was sent to Grasse in Southern France, where he completed his training with an Italian master by the name of Tombarelli. Lubin was therefore taught by two of the perfume world’s greatest. His first boutique, which he opened at the age of 24, was called Le Bouquet de la Reine in homage to Marie-Antoinette.

Grisette (2015). © Lubin

Does the name Lubin mean anything outside France?

Lubin was not just a fashionable perfume designer; he was also an entrepreneur. He was the first to export his fragrances to the royal courts of Europe and to the United States. His perfumes and colognes accompanied the Gold Rush! In 1825, his American representative began distributing vials of perfume to saloon dancers, and all the towns in California slowly started wearing Lubin. He opened branches in New Orleans and St. Louis so that French plantation owners could wear cologne à la française. It was an instant hit! During the 1850s and 1860s, his sales were higher in the United States than in France. The fragrance Nuit de Longchamp, created in 1937 and renowned for its sillage (scent trail), was a favorite of the East Coast elite on the Upper East Side and in the Hamptons. Commercials were adapted and the names anglicized to become Washington Bouquet, Californian Flowers, and Upper Ten.

After a 30-year absence, Lubin was relaunched in 2004 by Gilles Thévenin, a leading figure in your documentary. What did he bring to the table?

Gilles Thévenin saved Lubin from disappearing forever. He fought to take over the brand and received the support of its inheritors. He is passionate about perfume and has done his all to keep the name alive. “I am trying to uphold an ideal that I did not create,” he likes to say. “I did not start this house, and thousands of people have gone before me over the last 220 years.” As the director, he decides on collections, finds the right perfumer, has the final say, and designs certain vials. Everything is made in France by master glassmakers and artisans. Thévenin is also a storyteller who knows the history of France like the back of his hand. He has unearthed vintage vials and also has an original notebook filled with Pierre-François Lubin’s formulas. His first creation, Idole, is based on fragrance from the 1950s. He slightly modified the composition by drawing inspiration from the spice road and merchant ships. He also travels extensively to find new ideas.

Upper Ten for Her (2016). © Lubin

What did directing the documentary teach you about perfume?

Everything! I wanted to show how fragrances are made and how Lubin’s perfumes are nothing short of art. The brand works with the Art et Parfum design studio in Grasse, which uses the finest natural and synthetic essences. I also discovered the profession of the perfumer, known as a “nose.” Their work does not involve mixing extracts as one might think, but instead they use a pencil and paper. They create formulas based on orders before carrying out tests, and each nose can remember hundreds of scents!

How would you describe Lubin today?

Lubin is a little, family-run business that is developing – and redeveloping – with a focus on creation. It only works with two or three independent perfumers and a small number of employees. Its fragrances are very niche, and are sent to “duchesses and dancers,” according to the old expression. Personally, I still love L’Eau Neuve. Once you start wearing Lubin, you never look back!

The documentary Lubin, un parfumeur d’excellence will broadcast on TV5MONDE USA on September 25, 2019, at 9:25 pm EST and on September 28, 2019, at 4:40 am EST.