It’s hard to give Jeffrey Dame a brief introduction, but let’s try this: Jeffrey Dame has more knowledge of the perfume industry than just about anybody you’ll ever meet—yet he’s probably the friendliest, most open “insider” you’ll ever meet, too. You name the role—selling, buying, marketing, branding, creating—and he has played it, for some of the most recognizable houses in the world.
Jeffrey’s career in perfume started in 1980 when, after a virtually perfume-free life, he found himself working at Neiman Marcus and attending a launch party alongside Oscar de la Renta. More than 30 years later, he’s grabbing attention with his own line of scents through Parfums Rétro, which launched the perfumista-lauded Grand Cuir in 2013. Here, Jeffrey tells us how he landed in perfumery, what he thinks about the self-trained perfumers popping up everywhere, and what surprised him about how Grand Cuir has been received.
Olfactif: How did a guy who wasn't interested in perfume end up with a long, successful career in perfumery?
Jeffrey Dame: My career has been all perfume since 1980. I started out at Neiman Marcus as an assistant buyer for fragrance in their executive training program, and the ‘80s were really the glamor and glory days of perfumery with designer fragrances at their height. There were no celebrity fragrances, just designer fragrances and classic French houses. And it was just glorious. Here I was, 21 years old, and it was everything you would expect.
Since then, I’ve worked with a number of brands like Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, Estee Lauder, Mark Jacobs when he was at Perry Ellis. In 2000, I formed my own company. Right now, Parfums Rétro is the creation that I most focus on and I enjoy it immensely.
Olfactif: You’ve been involved in a lot of different aspects of the business, not just as a buyer, right?
JD: I came up through marketing and training. I actually spent some time working behind the counter at Macy’s Herald Square a long time ago, and that was a blast. You learn a lot about perfume when you’re behind the counter trying to make that connection and communicate with the customer who is a foot and a half away from you.
Olfactif: Some people in perfumery make scents by focusing on what will sell. Others say, “I just want to make what I want to make.” How do you balance those two competing tensions?
JD: Well, I came of age before the entry of the big global consumer product companies—before Unilever, before Procter and Gamble. Those companies became deeply involved in the industry in the 1990s, and that’s when they brought in all the statistics and focus groups and regression analysis and testing.
I came of age when you didn’t wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go create something commercial.” You started your day thinking you were going to make something beautiful, and that’s always been my orientation. I’ve never done any focus group testing on any of the fragrances that I’ve been involved with.
For me, it’s simple: A perfume should always bring a smile to your face. I also look for complexity and a lot of movement in a perfume—something that takes you on a journey. But the main thing is that it should make you smile.
Olfactif: When you got that first job in perfume, was it already something you were interested in?
JD: No, not at all.I was a marketing major at Colorado State. Other than wearing a little Jovan Musk oil at the time, which was about all we wore back in high school, I had no exposure to perfume.
The thing that captured me was the pure marketing aspect of it—the ability to create something entirely ethereal and communicate with a person, connect with a person, about something that doesn’t really exist. Because it’s just a sensory experience, right? I don’t even like marketing today because it’s overboard and abusive. But back then, believe it or not, marketing in the 1970s was a new and different thing. It was connecting people to a thing of beauty.
Olfactif: Did you like to smell things as a kid?
JD: No. Not on my radar at all.
Olfactif: I’m glad to hear you say that. People are becoming intrigued with perfumery as a potential career, but they might think that if they weren’t surrounded by it all their lives, it won’t come naturally to them. There’s still so much mystery around the career path.
JD: We have a whole generation of people who, because of the accessibility of the materials, are mixing and matching at their table. And I am truly a believer in perfume for all. I want everybody to succeed. I want anyone who wants to get involved in perfume to do so. I love what I do and I love perfume, and the more people who have that same passion, I’m thrilled. There’s room for everybody.
Olfactif: One of our favorite perfumers, Brent Leonesio of Smell Bent, said something great: Everybody should keep their eyes on their own paper. The idea is that you should do the best work you can do, and the person next to you is going to do the best work they can do, and that’s it. Let's all stop worrying that someone else's work is somehow invalidating our own.
JD: If it gives you pleasure and you’ve got a customer who enjoys what you’re doing, is there really any more that’s needed?
Olfactif: What was the concept behind Parfums Rétro?
JD: Hugh Spencer, the perfumer, and I decided to bring forth some of the formulations and approaches to perfumery from the 1950s, ‘60s, and even ‘70s and reinterpret them for a modern perfume user.
With Grand Cuir, it was a fairly simple objective: to have a fabulous leather fragrance. In the course of smelling things, I knew there were a number of leather fragrances on the market. But I was stunned and shocked that, to me, none of them were leathers. Everything I was smelling was what they call “sueded leather.” Really, they were soft orientals. Floral orientals. There was no leather smell.
Now, leather doesn’t exist as an ingredient. It’s all a fantasy, an illusion, created by other ingredients. So when I was playing with the leathers out on the market, many were quite beautiful but none were what a true leather scent should be: something with a little bite and body and character.
The Grand Cuir leather accord has that leather soul with birch tar, clary sage, and cistus labdanum. Those three ingredients together create a pillar of leather character that goes all the way through it. To me, that’s what a true leather should smell like.
Olfactif: What we found fascinating about Grand Cuir was how it smelled different at different times. Not just at different stages throughout the composition, but on different days, depending on frame of mind.
JD: Yes. It’s been created as a unisex eau de parfum, and one of the things that I’ve distinctly noticed is that women smell this fragrance differently than men. I’ve never actually come across that before. In both cases, you have that leather core. And it has a gorgeous multidimensional floral heart, with orange flower, geranium, lavender, carnation, rose, and violet leaf. The women who smell it on themselves pick up the leather heart, and then immediately go to the floral body. They get the bouquet, and then it settles down into a rich, warm base with musk, sandalwood, patchouli, all the typically warm elements.
Conversely, when men wear it, again they pick up the leather soul, but then they go right to the herbaceous, crisp, barbershop notes. They pick up the clary sage, geranium, and tarragon. The floral notes haven’t changed, but men pick up the clean, fresh, macho, barbershop aspect. Same fragrance, two interpretations.
Olfactif: No matter how you smell it, the composition has twists and turns like a Russian novel.
JD: Yes! I like a fragrance that moves all the time, something that’s always just a little bit out of your grasp. Every time you go back to it, you think, “Wow, I forgot about that part.” Hugh knows how to do that.
Olfactif: How do you sample a perfume? What do you do? And for how long?
JD: If I’m serious about looking at a fragrance, it will always be on skin. I’ll dedicate a day where I’ll wear only that fragrance and reapply it throughout the day. I put it on first thing in the morning after the shower and reapply it through the day. I tend to put a big two or three sprays all over, including on the back of my hands. Then I check it at 15- or 20-minute intervals.
Olfactif: You give it plenty of time and space.
JD: Absolutely. I’ll give it at least two 10-hour cycles to really concentrate.
Olfactif: How did you and Hugh Spencer connect?
JD: Hugh is a very talented perfumer who has been in the industry his whole life. When we were young, we worked together on a number of fragrances. He was a perfumer and I was a young marketing pup. We’ve worked together for so long that we can finish each other’s sentences. And I think it’s one of those circumstances where we make each other better.
Olfactif: What’s next for Parfums Rétro?
JD: We have a sandalwood, Santal Superbe, coming in Spring 2014 and a mossy fragrance on the way. In 2015, we’ll be doing some more overtly feminine fragrances.
Olfactif: Finally, what do you want people to feel about Grand Cuir?
JD: What I hope would happen if you wear Grand Cuir is you will get complimented in the checkout line at the grocery store. Nothing could send me through the moon more than standing at the checkout line and having the person next to me say, “Wow, you smell great!”
Olfactif: Yes! Why is that so fun?
JD: I couldn’t tell you why that excites me. I have no idea. The idea of being complimented on a scent by a total stranger is perfect. But it doesn’t have to be a stranger. I still get a charge when my wife compliments me on a fragrance. Connecting with another person over a fragrance is just fabulous.