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Values & Vision: Inside the Luxury Fragrance Fantasy of Marc-Antoine Barrois

Published May 14, 2024
Published May 14, 2024
Marc-Antoine Barrois

For a man one part couturier, one part fragrance brand founder, it would be easy to draw parallels between the worlds of haute couture and high-end perfumery: both representative of craftsmanship, luxury, and quality, items built to last by only the most qualified of hands, an exercise in precision and artisanal prowess.

For Marc-Antoine Barrois, it was also an approach that could find life in fragrance, but his creative mind operates differently from the status quo of seeing perfume as an extension (and the cash cow) of a fashion empire. Barrois is not a man of half-lengths, committing fully to his creative vision and the collaborators who help them come to life all the more fully.

His love of the finer details in life came naturally. The Barrois family has a long lineage of work in textiles, spanning back four centuries. “It's really something deep in our DNA, though when I asked my parents if I could study fashion at textile school they were a bit scared. For them, textile meant something that was not growing anymore. They were clever enough to suggest I go to a textile engineering school,” he recalls. The opportunity to meet Dominique Sirop, former assistant for Hubert de Givenchy, had him working in the couture world at the tender age of 19. What followed were stints at Jean Paul Gaultier, Jean-Claude Jitrois, and Giambattisa Valli, before he decided to set up his own label.

“I love the real haute couture, where you take time and start with a blank page of paper, you draw a dress for a woman who is going to wear it on the red carpet. In the meantime, my strong ecological values, going back 20 years, were to do something different,” he says. Instead of adding another brand to the generously populated women’s market, he worked on men’s clothing, especially coats and tuxedos, built to last. “I explain to my clients that it's better to buy less but better,” he adds. Thanks to the growing demand for his meticulously crafted garments, Barrois later expanded to womenswear.

The fragrance house of Marc-Antoine Barrois came several years later, when upon meeting Quentin Bisch, Barrois found his fragrance counterpart. “It was like meeting a twin brother, just a wonderful meeting,” he recalls fondly of his first encounter with Bisch, the nose behind bestsellers across niche and designer categories like Carolina Herrera Good Girl, Ex Nihilo Fleur Narcotique, Jean Paul Gaultier La Belle and Parfums de Marly Delina.There was no capacity to work on a fragrance together at their time of meeting, but soon Barrois' calender cleared up. Following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, Barrois’ international couture business quieted down. Despite traveling for international fittings to New York, London, and Singapore, the new orders grew smaller. Never one to rest on his creative laurels, Barrois called up Bisch to start their perfume creation process.

“It's a question of communication to create a perfume. My vocabulary is couture, his vocabulary is perfume. We have so much in common that we like, so we started off making our favorite perfume,” he explains. “We respect each other so much and have a huge trust in each other. The thing that kills perfumery is when you are creating a fragrance and everyone is giving their opinions, trying to please everyone. Quentin knows exactly what he is doing and I trust him and his decisions.”

That perfect perfume turned out to be B683, named after the planet in cult classic novel The Little Prince, and also represents Barrois’ birthday. The composition blasts off with a spicy dose of black pepper and chili, but finds earthly green grounding in violet leaf and patchouli. When a stylist friend of Barrois’ introduced him to Robbie Williams for couture fittings, his wife, Ayda Field Williams, caught a whiff of B683 (then still in its developmental stages) and started a tidal wave of retail opportunities, getting the brand on the radar of Colette, Harrods, and Anna Wintour. Barrois updated the logo and brand positioning to a more unisex approach. “I don't want to say it's for men or for women because it's not my right to decide if my customers are men or women. I want things to be fair in terms of  gender, I don't want my kids to say pink is feminine, blue is masculine. I don't want that in our society,” he says.

The sophomore success was Ganymede, a mandarin- and immortelle-laced creation, mineral yet woody spicy scent, which grabbed the Fragrance Foundation Awards prize for best niche perfume. “The idea for it came very fast: let's try to do something that is the fantasy of ideal beauty. When I discovered that Ganymede in the Greek mythology is the most beautiful man on earth—not very masculine, not very feminine—at the same time being a satellite planet of Jupiter, it mixed everything in my creative imagination together. I did not expect to have such big success,” he says.

Ganymede has firmly secured its standing as a modern classic in a short period of time. Today it has secured itself the top-selling spot at fragrance boutiques like Les Senteurs, followed closely by Encelade, a green leather with rhubarb and vetiver, the third release by the brand. But for Barrois, it’s not about the fame and glory, but rather the love and pride of creation.

“It's not a competition. I'm just trying to make beautiful, exceptional products, sincere and respectful,” Barrois enthuses. “I do things with my heart and because I've always been concerned about ecology, as soon as I could do it I brought all the production to France, including the packaging. Everything is recyclable and there are no UV filters, no indocrine disruptes, no preservatives. We're doing a beautiful product, but what can we do better?”

The pouches for the brand’s 30mls are created by Amitie Partage Association, which helps women overcome difficult life situations through employment. Roubaix, the city where he was born, is also the home of this organization, emphasizing a local approach close to Barrois’s heart. Their transport crates and boxes are sourced through ESAT (short for Établissement et Service d’Aide par le Travail translating to Help through Work Establishment and Service), which supports Les Amis de Germenoy, an initiative that offers work to adults with disabilities. Instead of cellophane wrapping, a self-adhesive label that also guarantees product authenticity is added. The entire packaging is reusable and recyclable.

Riffing off the concept of permaculture (the agricultural practice of respecting the soil and resources), Barrrois states, “I believe in the perma-enterprise: the enterprise that takes care of its resources. Those resources are as much my employees, to which we distribute 30% of our income, as our warehouse. I don’t want my logistics to be taken care of by someone else because we know what we do and how we do it. As an enterprise, we need to not be blind to all the suffering around us. We’re so lucky, not only to have a job, but have a job that we like to do.”

Some picking up a bottle of Encelade or Ganymede may not even be aware of all these philanthropically foundations, but it is something they will discover with time. “I don't believe people are buying a perfume because it's sustainable, they are buying a perfume because it's good perfume and they like it, but they become very proud of the perfume when they know everything we do behind [it],” he reflects.

With the quick influx of buzz surrounding his brand, Barrois has had to scale and adapt his brand vision accordingly, being mindful of not succumbing to the pressures of being everywhere all at once, or releasing product after product. “It's always trying to find a way to to be proud of what I do. I had a big shift a few years ago. I asked myself if Marc-Antoine Barrois was destined to be a niche fragrance brand, a ‘garage’ brand, or did I want to create a brand that my kids would be happy to continue, that carries my vision of luxury of something very sleek and very elegant,” he explains. He went with the latter, opening the brand’s first boutique in Paris in 2020 at 13 Galerie Véro-Dodat, followed by a presence on the prestigious Rue Saint-Honoré three years later, nestled between Hermès and Gucci. Its newest location opened in London’s Piccadilly Arcade.

Barrois explains, “If I get these addresses, once again, it's because of my values. I've always valued the fact that you can get much more by being nice to people than by being rude to them. You can go to the supplier and say, ‘If you don't want to do this, then I'm not paying. If you don't want to do that, then I'm going to see someone else.’ No, you go to someone and say, “Let's do our best together. Let's be partners, if you need to be paid earlier because you have issues, we can pay you earlier.'"

That kind of approach has also led to an ongoing partnership with Antoine Bouillot, a former art director for Issey Miyake and Tenzo Takada, who helped create the fantastical storefronts of each boutique. “I need to have an expert beside me, and working with someone who is an artist and architect, it helps us to understand each other. He’s never judged my ideas, saying 'that is madness,' but is always trying to find solutions instead. That’s a partnership as I like it and I’m very proud of that,” Barrois adds. The Véro-Dodat residence has mushroom decorations crawling up its walls, the Rue Saint-Honoré store an abstract mirrored sculpture, the Piccadilly Arcade space a giant inflatable blue bunny in an inverted suspension from the ceiling.

“We have three stores that carry the same value of retail of saying we want people to dream when the come visit. I always dreamed of having beautiful, surrealistic boutiques. I want people to come in my store, leave the rational mind behind and get back into the emotional, where they would fall in love with the perfume,” Barrois explains. “Even though someone else could offer them a perfume from another brand, they would remember the experience that was so different in my store. Where do they want to go? They want to go back to my store. Even if one perfume is not exactly what they want, they would come try another.”

“The thing that kills perfumery is when you are creating a fragrance and everyone is giving their opinions, trying to please everyone.”
By Marc-Antoine Barrois, founder, Marc-Antoine Barrois

As careful and considered as Barrois is about his own retail experience, so too is his approach to stockists: one of value alignment. “We try to find only perfumeries that are good ambassadors to explain the perfumes. In the beginning, I was always looking them up on Google Maps to see what the perfumery will look like and if we can expect good service there. Now that our strategy and marketing has evolved, we’re thinking globally. We ask our new perfumeries to personalize the space in the store and ask them to be a real partner in the image of the perfume,” he adds. Barrois has his eye on Harrods to complement the brand’s current roster of luxury stockists like Bergdorf Goodman. “We are trying to bring our perfumes to places where people go as a temple of luxury, where they leave the 21st century to come into a world where there is no time,” he adds. 

That approach is paying off, with the fragrance house launching in-store at the prestigious British retailer this July. As a young brand, Marc-Antoine Barrois has achieved phenomenal growth in a short period of time. Two years ago sales grew by 300% and last year by 107%. “It’s a dream scenario, but it’s also challenging. First you think, I can do whatever I want. I always thought starting a company with not a lot of money is a good thing. As you grow and do things with greater scale, it’s very easy to lose your values, so I always remind people of those. The big challenge it to remain yourself,” he states. That includes being mindful of budget even as revenue streams in, and being intentional of press activations. Instead of a lavish launch party to commemorate the launch of his latest boutique, Barrois invited journalists to a one-on-one breakfast. “It’s accepting linking with less people, but having a true link with the people we enjoy time with,” he notes.

Barrois believes in the signature scent and has witnessed firsthand the difference the right fragrance can make in someone’s life. “I've always said that people who change perfume all the time, it's just because they never found their perfume. I'm not saying that everyone should be wearing my perfume but we should invite everyone to go in perfumeries and try until they find the right one. I get so many people who write me messages saying ‘We are so lucky. Thank you very much for creating this fragrance. Now my life is different from before,’” he adds.

The inspirations for his fragrances, much like his fashion house, it is all an intuitive process. “When you have your own brand, you create your own DNA. I act like a sponge, taking in inspiration from all over. I don't want to do something seasonable. I want to do something that is current and expressing my vision of the moment,” he says. Those visions include subtle elegance (B683), the fantasy of perfect beauty (Ganymede), and a joyful, sensual creation beginning with one single note, galbanum (Encelade). The brand’s candles are inspired by a store and its city of location. VI was named after the company’s first store; XIII for its Véro-Dodat residence; IV for its London location. Rather than being straightforward odes to a metropolis, there is a creative edge hiding underneath. IV, for example, builds on the blue rabbit installed in the middle of the store, elaborating on the creative thread of blue carrots that said rabbit would consume, and incorporates British stories like Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins. “It's much more literal to create a home fragrance because it's linked to a city and some images. To create a perfume for the body, we don’t know where we will go from the beginning,” he explains.

His newest release, Tilia, appears to have converted even more to the Marc-Antoine Barrois world of fragrance. “Three of my very close friends who do not wear perfume were mad about this one,” he states. Lovers of leather, Barrois and Bisch have created three eau de parfums and two extraits to date, united by a safraleine component. For their latest release, Tilia, they decided to take a wholly different approach. “It would have been easy for me to say let's do an extrait of Encelade. But me and Quentin are two men who like challenge. The idea was to show people that we don't only do leather perfumes because in all of our current creations, there's always safraleine, saffron and leather, in the middle. We decided to go for florals and very far away from leather and roses,” he recalls.

Amidst the backdrop of the Ukrainian war erupting, the need for a lightful counterpart became all the more crucial. “I was enjoying my summer time with the kids in the garden and thinking, ‘This world is going crazy. It's more and more violence, what we just need is happiness.’ I called Quentin and said we need to have a perufme that would embody happiness,” he states. From that idea came Bisch’s idea of working with linden tree, broom, heliotrope, and jasmine sambac to create “a very simple flower, the happiness of summers that never end, Call Me By Your Name but in the French or British countryside where everything is green, the sky is blue and you're in the shade of a tree with your friend,” as Barrois puts it.

Whereas the previous collection had been around imaginary planets, the new collection is about imaginary stars. To mark this new chapter, the brand’s signature gold bottle now has a vibrant red bottleneck component. The combination of red, the color of passion, and gold, a hue of luxury, present the perfect visual reminder for the brand’s future.

“Our target today is to become an independent reference in the perfume market, not to become huge. The growth is hard to manage with no investors, which I systematically refuse to do. I have offers all the time but I want my kids to be free to do whatever they want, not having someone telling them you should do plus x percent this year. Our big distributors and financial companies want to invest in the company and we say no. This part of my DNA, to remain this little independent one,” he concludes. Independent, but oh so mighty—just like The Little Prince.


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