I recently had the great pleasure to meet Martine Micallef and Geoffrey Nejman, the founders of M. Micallef, one of the most renowned niche perfume houses, for a live interview session on my Instagram. We talked about their favorite perfumes, both from M. Micallef and from other brands, inspiration, the future of niche, globalization and the impact of social media on the world of perfume and many more fragrance topics where Martine and Geoffrey have deep insight because of their success and experience. They have also shared some exclusive scoop on their upcoming release and plans for next year, as well as some remarkable stories that happened with their customers! Read on!
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Yana: Martine and Geoffrey, thank you so much for this virtual meeting! You have not only started M. Micallef perfume house, but also stood at the beginning the whole niche perfume segment and been successful for almost 25 years (the anniversary celebration is coming 2021). What are the market changes and trends you have observed during this time?
Geoffrey: You are right, there were about 5-6 brands when we started in 1996. Niche was indeed very niche, very small and unknown as a concept. Today, 25 years later, we are about 350 or 400 brands. The best example of the increase of this number is a look at the annual Esxence show in Milan. We participated in the first one 11 years ago. We were 10 or 12 brands in a small lobby of a Milanese hotel. And now the next one 2021 will be held in a very big exhibition center where 400-450 brands will be presenting.
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The year 2020 has been a very strange one because of COVID-19 with all international trade fairs cancelled, perfume launches postponed and shops suffering from having to stay close for weeks. Will the way people shop for perfume change forever or will we return to normal at some point?
Martine: I think it will change a lot. We already see it in our web shop, it’s growing every day. This means that a lot of customers are changing their habits. Of course, there are also a lot of customers who enjoy experimenting and are less interested in buying without experiencing the scent first.
Is online becoming the dominant sales channel or is offline just as important?
Geoffrey: We can see from the sales figures that online is becoming important. But of course I hope the business in classic offline retail will continue, because there is more human contact, dialogue and exchange of emotions and feelings. We shouldn’t forget that perfume is not a general commodity, that it is something very special, very spiritual and delicate. However, we have to live with modern times and e-commerce was increasing with or without Covid-19, the pandemic just caused a big jump in its development.
What can be the solution to this dilemma of inability to experiencing scents online? Can sample sets help?
Martine: If the brand is already well known, blind-buying is not such an issue. A lot of customers are ready to order without smelling samples. But many like to order sample sets to try a variety of different perfumes and make their selection after that.
Geoffrey: Indeed, online suffers from the lack of exchange, the vibes that can be felt between the adviser and the consumer, the fact that you need to live the experience of smelling, processing of what you are testing. This whole process is important and very difficult to replicate in digital. As for the ways to overcome this challenge, I think we have to leave this to technology. Maybe some brilliant people will one day invent a way to allow to smell the perfume through the internet by pushing a button.
Skin care and make-up segments of beauty industry are already heavily influenced by social media trends. There new limited collections and product launches almost every month to keep up and ride the trend wave. Do you think perfumery is also moving in this direction and adjusting to trends coming from the internet? Or is the perfume market so different that it will maintain a slower pace and be less dependent on short-lived trends?
Geoffrey: I think the trend of paying more attention to bloggers and influencers also applies to perfumery. That’s what we are doing right now [a live session via Instagram]. This is very interesting and attracts a lot of customers and aficionados of perfume. But there is a generation challenge, it’s not always easy to adapt. I started business when I was 18 and back then I was using a telex machine, I don’t think many people today know what it looks like. So to adapt to all this new technology we have now is challenging and at the same time a fantastic experience. We have a gift to adapt.
M. Micallef has retail locations all around the world and is sold in almost every country. Are there any national or regional differences in tastes?
Martine: There are actually fewer differences nowadays. For example, oud used to be predominantly for the Middle East and also Russian people, because it’s popular there. However, this ingredient became a trend, and now oud is appreciated all over the world. Regional characteristic in Asian countries is that customers there prefer softer fragrances.
Geoffrey: As Martine said, we have a movement of globalization in every aspect of culture.
Is globalization a good thing or is the world becoming a bit more boring?
Geoffrey: Without criticizing big brands, when we travel (and Martine and I travel a lot) we notice that when Louis Vuitton, Hermes or Chanel do a window, it’s the same window on the whole planet. Of course, these window decorations are beautiful and very attractive, but it takes away the element of surprise and creativity when you go from one country to another. Generally speaking, I still think that Asian region definitely has its own taste because people there prefer light floral perfumes. As for oud — it has become very international.
And you were among the first European brands who used oud, right?
Geoffrey: Yes, that’s a fact. We discovered oud oils when we were visiting Dubai in late 1990s — early 2000s. And we were so surprised and intrigued by this smell that we took some samples and brought them back to our lab in Grasse. I remember the shock of my senior nose when I came into the lab with these oils. I said to him that we needed to do something with this scent, because it is something very special. And I suggested mixing it into European formulations. That’s what we tried and succeeded at. Later, we reintroduced these first fragrances that were a mix of two cultures into Arabian countries. They became a huge success for us.
Did you expect them to be successful or not really?
Geoffrey: We were quite optimistic about it, because from day one we only brought to market what impressed us and what we loved ourselves. We never did market studies or tried fragrances with focus groups of hundreds of people. This was never our way. We always went for what we were excited about. So we were quite optimistic, but we didn’t expect the success that we then had.
Is this first oud perfume still available?
Geoffrey: I want to tell all our fans that even though in the course of the years we had to scale down our collection, you can always order any fragrance that we ever sold. It is our privilege to serve the clients this way. The fragrance might not always come in the original bottle, but one can always order the original scent. We keep all the formulas in our “parfumotheque“ in our office, so any fragrance can still be supplied.
Have there been other ingredients or styles that have excited you as much as oud did when you discovered it? Something that you have also successfully incorporated into your perfume?
Martine: Of course, that’s DesirToxic. It has an ingredient that we don’t talk about too much — the cannabis note inside it gives perfume a special spicy character. It might seem aggressive at the first spray, but after just two seconds it settles down and one sees the addictive quality of it.
I have to agree. If I didn’t know it was cannabis, I wouldn’t necessarily think of it. DesirToxic does not smell of the fumes of someone smoking, it has a very refined scent. To me it reminds a deep dark fairy tale forest where you get lost in mystical wonders as you move further.
Martine: Yes, it is really well-balanced, all the ingredients inside are well blended. It creates this mysterious vibe, smoky and spicy. Very interesting, it’s fresh and warm at the same time.
Let’s talk about this year’s new release from the Art Collection, The Perfume of Colors, that you did with Ruh Zadeh (Ruhulla Hasanzade). It’s limited to 2000 numbered bottles, and I am honored to have one. An amazing fragrance — leathery, at the same time herby, spicy, oriental and yet also a very European composition. And of course, the artwork on the bottle! How did you know you wanted to work with Ruh? Did it click when you met him? Or was it a longer process to decide on a collaboration?
Martine: As you know, I do a collaboration with an artist every year. Last year I met Ruh in Baku, Azerbaijan, during an art exhibition. There were several young artists there, but when I met Ruh it clicked, because I really enjoyed his artwork, his abstract painting with a lot of color. And I had a feeling that we could work together well and do this collaboration. So I made this suggestion to him and asked him if he wanted to partner with me, and he was happy to agree. He is a very humble and nice person, more of an introvert, so there wasn’t an outburst of emotion and a dance to celebrate, but he was happy to work with me. Unfortunately, because of corona he couldn’t come over to paint the bottles with me in Grasse. So in these difficult times I painted the bottles according to his designs and ideas. We were regularly in touch on the phone, and I was showing him the work. It was a different style of collaboration this time because of the pandemic, so I had to paint the bottles myself. I hope that at the end of 2020 or in the beginning of 2021 Ruh and I can do an exhibition together.
Did Ruh also get involved in the creation of the fragrance or was he more on the design side of the project?
Martine: He worked more on the artwork. But we sent him different scent samples to get his feedback and understand what kind of perfume he would prefer to wear himself. We have settled on the final version together, but it was Geoffrey at the lab who made the perfume.
Since there is only a limited number of bottles, do you sell it in all the retail locations or only in some selected shops?
Martine: Indeed, it is a capsule collection, so when it’s sold out, it’s finished. We have made it available in different countries, but we have tried to distribute it evenly and not send too many bottles to any single place, so customers everywhere get a chance to purchase one.
Talking about next year, it’s going to be big for you with the celebration of the 25-year anniversary of M. Micallef. If it’s not a secret, can you talk a little about what you have planned?
Martine: We can give you the name of the perfume which we will launch next year to celebrate — EdenFalls, like the garden of Eden.
Geoffrey: It’s going to be a major launch which we hope will happen in spring next year, probably in May. Because of the pandemic we now have a very sad situation, it’s hard to tell how to organize celebrations next year, if it’s going to be possible. But we hope to invite all our distributors and agents to a seminar in Grasse to celebrate our anniversary and the long-established relationship that we have with all our partners.
Martine: Maybe we have all already become next generation, doing everything digitally and with social media now.
Geoffrey: Yeah, maybe it’s going to be a digital cocktail party 😉 But seriously, we hope that next year traveling and events are going to be possible again. We wish it to everybody who is watching and reading this. We wish everybody to stay healthy and not lose faith in success and future. Keep positive!
If somebody doesn’t know anything about M. Micallef at all (although there are probably not too many people like that), what are the five fragrances you think they should try first?
Martine: I’ll talk about the feminine selection, and Geoffrey about the masculine scents. Ananda is definitely one of the top five scents in sales. We also have Pure Extreme that is selling very well. Also very popular are Ylang in Gold and Spiritual from Secrets of Love Collection. Royal Muska is going to be the fifth in the list. These five are the most successful feminine perfumes from M. Micallef.
Geoffrey: I have three top choices. Worldwide that would be Royal Vintage, Jewel for Him and Osaito. These three are very well-received perfumes that are appreciated by the customers, because they have a lot of personality. Royal Vintage is a classic, you can wear it forever and never get tired of it. I never get tired of it.
I have recently found out that you have created a line, Dentelles, for Delfi Parfümerie in Berlin. I have one of the perfumes, Nuit, here. Love it, it reminds me of fruity aspects of red wine. Can you tell a little more about Dentelles?
Geoffrey: I would like to send very warm greetings to Berlin’s Delfi Parfümerie. We did it together with Irina (owner of the perfumery) and her husband and I must make both of them a compliment, because they were very much involved. Design of the bottle was purely their idea. Martine translated it into this beautiful Dentelles design. They also participated a lot in making the fragrance. They were very demanding, and they were right to be so, because Dentelles perfumes are a big success now.
Martine: They now have three different fragrances. The first one (Dentelles in the pink box) was a huge success. You know how it is — when the first one is so successful, one is afraid to make a second one. What if the next one will have a smaller turnover? That’s the reason why Irina and her husband wanted to work very closely with us and visited us in the lab. When I had my shop in Cannes, a lot of customers who came in wanted to have Dentelles. But we don’t sell it, because it is exclusive to Irina’s Delfi Parfümerie and can only be bought directly there (or in Delfi’s exclusive online retail partner’s store here). In the third Dentelles perfume (Nuit) that you have we used a lot of peony with musk. The result is very charming and sensual. Several days ago I saw beautiful picture Irina made with the perfume on her Instagram, it’s amazing what she can do. I’ll also use the photo, because I like it a lot.
When you create fragrances, do you think of a particular person or a type of person who will wear it, or do you find your inspiration in other sources, not necessarily always imagining the end user?
Martine: It’s an ensemble of sources of inspiration. When you work on a niche perfume, you want to create something special and unique, so that people can find and identify with the distinctive vibe of the fragrance. And as Geoffrey said before, we don’t do market studies. We do it the creative way. Creativity is a big part of the DNA of our brand.
Is there a current celebrity, a historic, literary or film figure who you would like to create a perfume for? Anyone who you would love to see wear your fragrances?
Martine: My dream was to create a perfume for Salvador Dali. When I started to paint and to study art I was a big fan of him. Unfortunately, he passed away. I like his extravagance. It would have been interesting to try to understand his personality a little, and I really mean a little. I like complex people. I don’t enjoy being with people who don’t have a strong character.
Over the years you have interacted with hundreds of customers. Do you remember some stories when the feedback that you got really surprised you in some way?
Martine: Yes, of course! Over 25 years we have met a lot of charming and special people. I can tell you one such story, and Geoffrey another one. It was during an exhibition where I was visiting to make a perfume for a customer. So in front of me was a man with this beautiful mobile phone decorated with lots of diamonds, a very special brand. And he tells me: “Are you Micallef?“ I say that I am. And he goes on: “You know, your perfume is a part of my life“. I said it was a beautiful compliment, but didn’t take it too seriously, thought he was just joking a bit. He noticed that I didn’t really believe him. So he opened his phone and the home screen image on his mobile was a bottle of Micallef perfume! That beautiful phone had our perfume as its main screen. That was nice.
Geoffrey: It was when we had just introduced the European ouds in the Middle East, about 20 years ago. We were very careful about how to present the line in European perfumeries. Once we were invited to an event in Düsseldorf, to the famous perfumery of Mr. Schnitzler. Martine was painting and signing bottles, and I was presenting perfumes and talking to people. We took the first Micallef oud that we developed in case somebody wanted to smell it and placed it in a corner, because I wanted to be very careful about showing it. A good customer of Mr. Schnitzler comes in, sees that bottle and asks what that was. I told him that it was something very special based on oud, explained a bit about the origins of oud, and suggested he should try it. So he sprays it on his wrist, sniffs and walks away to speak to Mr. Schnitzler. I discreetly follow him around the store and hear him say to Mr. Schnitzler: “I hope you will never sell stinking perfume like that in your shop“. Then 10-15 minutes later he comes back to us while still smelling his wrist and says in German: “Dieser Duft lässt mich nicht in Ruhe“ (I can’t stop thinking about this smell). So I explained to him that that was the point of that perfume — the more one smells it, the better one understands that it’s something truly special. Half an hour later he brought Mr. Schnitzler to talk to us and declared: “Look, this is the most magnificent perfume I have ever smelled in my life! Mr. Schnitzler, please, book three bottles of it for me right away!“ And I think that’s a very great story — it starts with a very “nice“ compliment about how stinky a perfume is and ends with him buying three bottles.
Do you smell perfumes from other brands? Do you have fragrance favorites that are not M. Micallef?
Martine: Yes, Geoffrey has one favorite bottle that is not Micallef. Its Eau Sauvage [from Dior].
Geoffrey: Yes, I must be honest, I love Eau Sauvage. I think the formulation is just perfection. And I would not dare to try to create something similar by tweaking the original. It’s unique and deserves the compliments. That’s my favorite outside of M. Micallef even though they are our big competitors.
Martine: As for me, I don’t really have other favorites. Of course, I try a lot, especially from my friends’ brands — I can try other perfumes for a day or two. But you know, I am very lucky, because Geoffrey creates a lot of perfumes just for me. In this sense I am a very lucky woman and love wearing these fragrances the most.
I imagine that creating perfumes is a dream job. But is there anything about it that you don’t like?
Martine: I am very happy when I create, when I’m painting. I enjoy my garden, like being close to my flowers. I like to learn everything from A to Z. As autodidacts we work and create using our inspiration and emotions, but we still have a lot to learn. I think, you have to learn something interesting every day. I also love to meet people. I’m lucky to have met a lot of interesting and deep, spiritual individuals whose company I enjoy in my life. What I don’t like is to be disturbed by some headache causing details of daily routine. I don’t enjoy superficial interactions, I like to be able to concentrate. The many messages one receives every day from the media can disrupt inspiration.
Geoffrey: In my first life I was a banker. And in banking we say that money has no smell. And I think that’s why I left banking, because I love smells and scents. So I changed my life 180 degrees about 27-28 years ago and since then it’s real passion. Of course, every morning one wakes up to new problems, or at least one problem. But there is always also a solution. So it’s sometimes very challenging, but if you are lucky in your life to do work with passion, then it’s not work anymore. It’s an experience full of joy and at the end of the day you forget all the little problems and troubles.
Martine: We are lucky because we travel a lot for our work. This way we can discover many beautiful places. Not only luxurious spots. We like nature, it is close to our hearts, and we enjoy simple things. We love to eat good food, have a good dinner.
What are your favorite foods?
Geoffrey: How much time do we have? Martine has to go first, because my list is quite long.
Martine: I prefer vegetables and like fish more than meat. I’m not into sugary things. When I travel, I like to eat local specialties. We are real gourmets.
And what are your favorite smells? Not perfumes or ingredients, but overall favorite smells in life.
Martine: I don’t eat sugar, but I love the smell of the cake — a comforting smell that brings back childhood memories. I also like the smell of trees, of freshly cut grass.
Do you think that the place where you live, Grasse, influences the way you create perfumes? Would your perfumes smell differently if you lived in London, Tokyo or somewhere else, or is your inspiration universal and not dependent on a particular place?
Martine: I think we are attracted to Grasse. You feel differently, things on your mind are different when you see sunshine every day like we do here. We have a lot of sunny days and a lot of flowers blossoming in Grasse, it influences you. The olfactive landscape of the city of Grasse, the atmosphere of old stones of the buildings, it all creates a distinctive vibe. I think if you live in a place with lots of rain and gray days you might like it or might get used to it, but you will have different instincts.
Geoffrey: Oh yes, I love South of France. I was born here before moving to Belgium for a long time, but my sentimental roots are in the South of France. I enjoy the region — the weather, the culture, the food, the sea. And I love swimming and the Mediterranean Sea.
Martine: We are Mediterranean people.
How about some practical perfume topics. This question comes up every holiday season: is perfume a good gift? What do you think?
Geoffrey: I think it’s a very nice, but difficult gift to make. It can be difficult to make the right choice, one needs to know the person who will receive it very well.
Do you have any advice on gifting perfumes for all those who are unsure what fragrance to choose?
Martine: It’s possible to choose the right fragrance if you know the situation. Who is it for? What does this person like? What is their clothing style, hair color? What is their character, outgoing or shy? If you know the answers to these and some other questions, the assistant can guide you to the right fragrance. At M. Micallef we have some perfumes that are almost always a perfect fit. If you gift Ananda, Pure Extreme or Mon Parfum to a lady knowing some of the details mentioned above it is very rare that the person would want to exchange the fragrance for another one. These three perfumes are always popular and appreciated.
Walking into a niche perfumery with the thousands different bottles can be quite overwhelming when one is just starting to learn more about fragrances. Do you have some advice for a person who is curious to dip their toes into the world of niche about how best to approach it?
Martine: If we are talking about M. Micallef then the first thing that attracts attention is, of course, the bottle. Our artistic concept separates us from other perfumes. Niche brands need to have huge identity. They need to have a concept and strong story behind them. Without these elements no niche brand can be successful in the long term.
Geoffrey: This is a very important question. I consider the team of assistants in the shop to be our partners. They are very important for any brand and especially for us, because without them nothing happens. I think the talent of the beauty adviser is something unique. The beauty assistant is the first seducing party to bring the customer to the perfume. Therefore, I give my 100% support to the relationship to the beauty advisers in stores. When they make recommendations to clients they know what they are talking about and can guide the consumer in the right direction. We are putting a lot of effort and money into training and making sure they know our story, our life story. It’s a matter of transferring our passion to the store advisers, because they are really essential to the success of the business.
Some concluding words to our readers?
Martine and Geoffrey: From our hearts we wish everybody best of health, best of happiness! I hope that teamwork of all of us will finally kill the bloody (COVID-19) virus and bring us back to a comfortable, enjoyable and fun life. This is our most sincere wish.
Yana: I would like to thank you, Martine and Geoffrey, for this opportunity to talk to you joined by our followers, subscribers and fans! And congratulations to the wedding anniversary! Thank you and hope to see you soon in Grasse!