Sébastien Cresp: A Perfumer for the Next Generation

2024 . 07 . 11 | written by Karen Marin

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During the festivities surrounding Esxence back in March I happened to be attending an event at which I met Sébastien Cresp – yes, that Cresp. His father is of course the master perfumer Olivier Cresp, the nose behind Thierry Mugler’s Angel and Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue pour femme among others, and his grandfather dealt in raw materials. With the passion for perfume running through several generations we can say “Tel père, tel fils” as they say in French, or “like father like son”. While we were chatting I wondered, what would it be like to grow up in this environment? Would there be pressure to follow in the family footsteps? I caught up with Sébastien by Zoom to get the rest of the story.

You come from a family who has been in the world of perfumery for several generations. What was your childhood like, growing up around noses and raw materials?

You could say I was introduced to raw materials at a very young age. I was born in Cannes and my grandparents lived in Grasse, so my childhood was spent in the heart of the French fragrance industry. My grandfather was a broker who bought and sold expensive ingredients like bergamot, sandalwood, rose, and jasmine. When I was a child my father would bring home ingredients that I could smell. Some were natural, some were molecules. He encouraged me to say which ones I liked and why. So I started my childhood not only smelling very good high quality ingredients but also learning to appreciate them.

The family is a very important part of the French culture, and so is spending time at the table. I remember many family lunches and dinners at which we spoke about perfumery, about the gossip about people in the industry. (laughs) We also had friends and other people in the business who came to the house. It was very nice as I grew up in this environment.

Grasse, the Old Town
Grasse, Place aux Aires
Harvesting Rose

What was the first fragrance that you wore and how old were you?

I think I was thirteen and I was wearing Lolita Lempicka for Men. The flacon looked like part of a tree, and the anise-like, licorice wood note was predominant in this fragrance.

Did you always want to go into this field or had you wanted to do something different?

As a teenager I wanted to be different, I didn’t want to follow the same path as my father and grandfather. I wanted to become a chef! I had many stages (apprenticeships), and I did a cooking school. I found this profession to be a very demanding job that takes a lot of time, and I realized that the commitment it required would make it hard to have a family. I still like to cook even now, but it has become a pleasure rather than a career.

After that I wanted to become a flavorist but then I realized it wasn’t very creative. You can’t really create something new in this sector, something that isn’t in nature – with a few exceptions like Coca Cola or Red Bull. I realized that perfumers have much more flexibility to use their imagination.

So then in 2009 I went to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP). This was a very intense one year program – with no holidays. The focus was on ingredients, chemistry, marketing, the language of perfumery, creating accords. After that I joined Firmenich where I really learned the craft of perfumery. I had to do many exercises. The focus was on ingredients, molecules and naturals. In the beginning, the first two or three years, I wasn’t working alone, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work on projects.

You have been mentored by many top perfumers. What are some of the most important things you have learned from your mentors?

I studied under almost ten perfumers, some who were master perfumers and some who weren’t. Sometimes I worked with a mentor who guided me. Some things they taught me may seem obvious: I learned that when you create the fragrance you have to smell it on the scent strip, and then smell the same strip one day later when you have the dry down. It’s also important to smell the scent on skin because it can be different from the strip. I also learned to do some short formulas because when the formula is short it’s easier to understand the perfume, to make changes, and it’s even easier for the consumer to understand.

I learned that perfumers are very patient people. I remember in my first years, I was not happy when I had negative feedback, I thought the critique was uncalled for, but the more you get the more you are able to deal with it. And in general, we perfumers are very humble.

Your father is Olivier Cresp, a master perfumer. What is it like working with him?

He’s demanding for the right reasons. He wants me to create the best perfumes, he gives his advice, and he is very direct. If we think about a perfume, he will suggest certain ingredients I should consider using. He wants me to be successful, he pushes me to do better and to be the best perfumer I can be.

Sébastien and Olivier Cresp

I see you worked with your father on Kayali’s Yum Pistachio Gelato which has been an incredible success, fueling the rise in pistachio scents. Tell us the story behind the fragrance and what it was like working with your father.

The whole experience was very cool. The project took about one year to complete so it went fairly quickly. We went to Dubai to meet Mona Kattan, the brand founder. We went to her house, which is beautiful. We made some videos together. The idea of the pistachio came from her, and for me it was the first time I had ever worked with this ingredient.

This was also my first trip to Dubai and I quite liked it. It’s a very hot climate. Fragrance is very much a part of the culture there from morning to night. We visited an old market, a souk where we saw ingredients and spices. I also saw many beautiful cars, and we ate very well. (laughs)

When we were working on the fragrance, my father and I smelled many trials together, on skin, on blotters. We discussed the different modifications, sometimes he had a better idea than me and sometimes mine was better. We are very happy with the way the fragrance turned out.

Mona Kattan
Pistachio tree
Spice Market in Dubai

Tell me about your creative approach when working with clients – let’s say one client gives you a brief and the other gives you carte blanche. Is the creative process different?

I think it depends. Of course, I prefer to have carte blanche and even more so if there is no limit with the budget. But sometimes when the client is unsure of what they want, it’s not easy. However, if I have a very precise brief which calls for ingredients I don’t like, that can be a challenge. This really narrows the palette but sometimes it’s good.

That makes me wonder – which ingredients do you not like and which do you prefer?

In the past I didn’t like lavender – and I didn’t want projects where I had to use it. I don’t know if this stemmed from my childhood but I know with time our tastes change. And then I had many wins with this ingredient. Well, now I like it!

I really like wood notes in general such as sandalwood and vetiver. I like the way they smell but it’s also a matter of the effect these notes give in a fragrance: sometimes rich and deep and sometimes very earthy. When it comes to molecules, I like cashmeran.

Vetiver Grass, Fresh and Dried

You work for Atelier Fragranze Milano which prides itself on upholding fine Italian standards of heritage, craftsmanship and artisanal values – yet you are French. What similarities and differences do you see between the two cultures?

I think the two cultures are quite similar. French culture also places a lot of importance on exceptional quality, the finest ingredients, tradition and savoir-faire. We are both Latin after all. With regards to perfumes, I think French perfumes are a bit more faceted and Italian perfumes are perhaps stronger, and straight to the point.

I joined Atelier Fragranze Milano in February after spending fifteen years at Firmenich. I was living in Paris before but now I have relocated back to Cannes, which is home for me. One of the big differences at my new company is that it’s a small group, so I have a lot of interaction with my colleagues – it’s almost like a family environment. I have a level of independence that I didn’t have before and I can really develop my creativity. Luca Maffei is the founder and CEO and of course you know he is also a perfumer.

Tell us about a project you are working on now.

I have a couple of interesting projects as I’m working to develop fragrances for two different singers: one, a woman in Brazil, and one, a man in Mexico. One person is very particular and specific while the other is unsure, so I have to dig down deep into the personality to determine the persons’ likes and dislikes to get to the heart before creating anything. I’m collaborating with Luca on these. Both singers are very well-known in their home countries but not so much elsewhere.

The ingredients specified are well known – not specific to their countries. And lavender is not part of the brief (laughs!)

Which of your creations are you most proud of and why?

I would have to say From the Garden by Martin Margiela which is another fragrance I worked on with my father. It was a very challenging project that came out in 2023. At the beginning the client specified that they wanted the fragrance to smell like a sunny afternoon in the garden. They wanted us to include the note of the tomato leaf, but they were open to our creativity. It was quite tough, especially at the end of the project. It took about a year to develop and we did many, many revisions. We found a way to make the tomato leaf very sophisticated and very faceted because it can be floral, citrusy, and very green as well. When the fragrance was launched I was very proud, very happy. The name of the fragrance is very figurative and it’s easy for the consumer to understand.

Tomato Leaf

Fragrance is experiencing tremendous worldwide growth, new markets who show interest in artistic perfumery are opening, new ingredients are coming from eco-friendly sourcing and scientific innovations. As a young perfumer, what excites you the most about the future of perfumery?

I think the most exciting thing is Artificial Intelligence but it can also be dangerous. It can help the perfumer to create better perfumes, we can use it for testing preferences in certain countries, it can help us to create something more long lasting, a fragrance with a better sillage. But who knows what will happen in 10 or 20 years? This is scary. I tested a software where you can choose the fragrance families you want and then it will generate a formula in 30 seconds. I tried it just to understand it, and I have to say, it was quite well done. I’m afraid one day it won’t need us. But will consumers want something that is created by a machine? Now people are curious, but how will it evolve over time? Will the machine do the job instead of the perfumer? Will the robot replace us one day? I heard that in 2045 machines will have a conscience, but for now it’s the perfumer who adds the emotions.

May Sébastien continue to add emotion, heart and soul to his fragrance creations!