Written by April Long
From the vivid citrus overload of Orange Sanguine to the unforgettable espresso-tinged bouquet of Café Tuberosa, Atelier Cologne is known for creating singular scents, each built around exceptional ingredients and spun into a wildly romantic story. As an enthusiastic audience learned at Tuesday evening’s Fragrance Foundation Creatives event, where Atelier Cologne founders Sylvie Ganter and Christophe Cervasel were joined by perfumer Jerome Epinette and esteemed moderator Ann Gottlieb, the brand is an inspiring example of how a passion project can change the world.
Fragrance Foundation President Linda G. Levy kicked the proceedings off with a warm welcome, noting how the Morgan Library’s mission “to celebrate creativity and imagination” so perfectly matches the vision of the Foundation, before opening the floor to Industry icon (and 2018 Hall of Fame honoree) Ann Gottlieb—who was dressed, appropriately, in a rock-star-worthy studded leather jacket and metallic boots. On a stage bedecked with citrus trees and baskets of oranges, Gottlieb heralded Atelier Cologne as a brand that started at the forefront of the niche perfumery movement ten years ago, “intuitively understanding” that the market would respond to a compelling marriage of olfactory artistry and engaging narrative. But of course, it really started with a love story.
“My biggest contribution was to ask Sylvie to marry me,” Cervasel said with a laugh. And indeed it was the serendipitous combination of his entrepreneurial drive with Ganter’s groundbreaking vision that made Atelier Cologne a sensation when it launched in 2009. For Ganter, it began with a dream: to make a beautiful cologne, dancing with freshness and effervescence, that wasn’t fleeting. This meant, first and foremost, rethinking the shape of the formula, taking the traditional scent pyramid and fashioning it into more of an hourglass, with a heavy hit of citrus but also a lavish dose of ingredients that would hold the cologne to the skin. In doing this, they created an entirely new family—the Cologne Absolue. “There is no reason not to have a concentrated formula when creating a cologne,” Ganter said. The key was to “combine the best of the cologne world with the best of the perfume world.”
“The idea was always to start with a beautiful raw material and express it in a way that had never been done before,” Ganter said, “but always fresh, and always with a lot of transparency.” For perfumer Epinette, who had spent his career immersed in the gorgeous ingredients of Robertet, joining Atelier Cologne to make this dream come true was a pleasure—even though, he admitted (to much amusement from the crowd) he was “not a fan of citrus” before meeting Ganter. Their close collaboration is “a two-way street,” and he loves the opportunity Atelier Cologne offers him to start with a single – sometimes unusual – ingredient, such as the szechuan pepper in Jasmine Angelique, and build a composition around it that makes it shine.
There have been challenges. Cervasel initially didn’t understand the appeal of Orange Sanguine, for instance—”why would anyone want to smell like an orange?” he said—but once Ganter convinced him that it brought joy to everyone who sniffed it, they put it on shelves. Now, it has been a best-seller for nearly a decade. The origin story of Café Tuberosa, too, involved a lot of back and forth between the three of them before they landed on the idea of layering “the elegance of the tuberose on top of a warm espresso accord,” Epinette said. The result was ultimately so fantastic such that it won the 2018 Fragrance Foundation award for Perfume Extraordinaire of the Year.
As Gottlieb points out, one of the biggest key to the brand’s success has been Ganter and Cervasel’s attention to the customer. In the beginning, especially, they spent a lot of time in store, explaining the ingredients and the thought process behind the way they were used. “We love to sell, we love to interact, we love to share our passion,” Ganter said. In doing that, “you get people in the kitchen with you,” she said. “That connection has served us really well.”
So well, in fact, that Atelier Cologne were acquired in 2016 by L’Oreal, transforming a family business into a global concern. Cervasel described the relationship as being one – like so many things about Atelier Cologne – “of mutual love and respect.” The sale has meant much for the couple – who, with five children between them, put everything on the line to launch the brand – but they remain uncompromising about their involvement and commitment to authenticity. And with enormously successful stores in China and Hong Kong, plus a new flagship on Madison Avenue in New York opening in 2 days, Atelier Cologne’s continued ascent seems assured.
At the evening’s end, Levy accurately described what took place on stage as “a wow.” But not before Gottlieb asked the final question. “What does the future look like?” Ganter answered, without missing a beat: “Continuing to put a lot of love into a bottle.”