Sylvaine Delacorte:
The perfect nose job

As Guerlain celebrates 180 sweet-scented years, we meet its first female fragrance director
By Josephine Fairley for MailOnline


Meet the boss: Sylvaine Delacorte at Guerlain's Champs Elysées HQ

Glass ceilings may be shattering into fragments across many professions, but it’s taken 180 years for a woman to waft into Guerlain and take up her place at the perfumer’s organ.

Sylvaine Delacorte – Guerlain’s fragrance creative director – wears the mantle of responsibility for the fragrance world’s most legendary heritage as lightly as a pashmina on her ever-so-slightly padded shoulders.

As jobs go, Sylvaine’s is beyond dreamy: this stylish 45-year-old mother-of-two gets to create Guerlain’s new fragrances, with bestsellers to her credit including Insolence, L’Instant de Guerlain, the light-as-air Aqua Allegoria collection. And now, a new men’s fragrance – called Guerlain Homme – inspired by, of all things, a mojito cocktail.

It’s Sylvaine who’s responsible for the Private Collection fragrances, sold only in the flagship parfumerie, which are worthy of a pilgrimage to Paris in themselves: powdery Iris Ganache; woody/leathery Bois d’Arménie (inspired by the benzoin-rich papers used by Sylvaine’s family to purify and scent their home); dewy, decadent Rose Barbare – and more.

Should you have upwards of £19,000 to spare and wish to commission a personal fragrance, Sylvaine’s also your woman.

In her swanky upstairs office at the Champs Elysées Maison de Guerlain – just off the hallway mosaic-ed with real gold tiles – is Sylvaine’s inner sanctum: a room where some of the most delicious smells you could wish to waft past your nostrils are locked away, just waiting for a princess, a Hollywood starlet or, perhaps, the former model and wife of a president who’s set her heart on a one-off scent.

The newly launched Cologne du 68 ¿ a unisex fragrance with 68 ingredients.

The newly launched Cologne du 68

‘There are two options,’ Sylvaine explains. ‘At any one time, I have five or six perfumes which are “off-the-peg” – one-offs, but just waiting for someone to fall in love with them.’

The £19,000 price of such a coup de foudre will be small change compared to the bill for having Sylvaine create one for you from scratch. During the bespoke creation process, you might get to fondle a fragment or two of fabric, look at photographs, or conjure up childhood memories.

‘I’ll sit and talk to you for an hour, maybe two,’ explains Sylvaine, who draws on her studies in psychology, neurolinguistic programming and transactional analysis to put together a picture of who you are, and create your perfect perfume.

Just like an haute couture frock, there’ll be a couple more ‘fittings’ over six months to a year. ‘Then all that remains is for you to name the fragrance,’ smiles Sylvaine. Oh, and flex your titanium Amex for around £32,000, before it’s decanted into the special Baccarat crystal bottle. The fee does include 20 60ml atomisers and three 30ml bottles. Well, that’s a relief.

Until now, fragrances have been created for women – the women in the Guerlain men’s lives – rather than by them. This autumn, Guerlain celebrates its 180th birthday: Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain set up shop at 42 Rue de Rivoli in 1828. Back then, perfume was distinctly racy; nice girls stuck to barely there floral waters.

But Pierre-François Pascal got his first big break with a commission from the novelist Balzac, and the pages of Le Journal des Elégances were scented with another Guerlain creation. In just a few years the Guerlain boutique was throbbing with crowned heads – the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria, Napoleon’s wife Empress Eugénie and the Tsar of Russia.

But it was Empress Eugénie who put Guerlain on the map: he dedicated his Eau de Cologne Impériale to her – a fresh, citrussy triumph, decanted into a curvy bottle and decorated with golden bees.

Aimé Guerlain took his father’s place at the perfume organ in 1864, by which time nice girls were definitely dabbing on perfume. His revolutionary creation was Jicky – named after a lost sweetheart – in 1889. ‘

Until now, Guerlain's fragrances have been created for women rather than by them    

Jicky is the oldest proper perfume in existence,’ says Luca Turin, author of Perfumes: The Guide and the world’s leading perfume ‘critic’. ‘It’s as good as it gets: cool on top, warm below.’ The first perfume ever to have base, heart and top notes – setting the blueprint for modern perfumery – it’s also unisex, surprisingly.

Next to inherit the Guerlain ‘nose’ was Jacques Guerlain, whose fragrant landmarks include Après L’Ondée, L’Heure Bleue, and fleetingly fashionable, exotically named perfumes such as Liu, Djedi, Vega, and Kadine – some lost, but some still sniffable at the Champs Elysées and revived by Sylvaine.

‘There are so many amazing fragrances in the Guerlain archive,’ says Sylvaine. ‘Some are fabulous. Some are not, at least not to the modern nose.’

Jacques Guerlain’s first true blockbuster was the peachy Mitsouko. (It means ‘mystery’ in Japanese). And then – literally by accident, in 1925 – came Shalimar (which means ‘temple of love’ in Sanskrit), allegedly born when Jacques Guerlain tipped an entire sample of vanillin into a bottle of Jicky, for larks. Va-va-voom! A legend was born: sweet, sexy, naughty, yet so grown-up.


Several of Jacques Guerlain’s other masterpieces are also still available today: Après l’Ondée, Vol de Nuit and luminous rose-and-jasmine Ode, co-created in 1955 with his grandson and heir, the 18-year-old Jean-Paul Guerlain, who produced perfume blockbusters such as Samsara (created for his wife – in time-honoured Guerlain tradition), Jardins de Bagatelle and Nahéma.

Men, meanwhile, have Jean-Paul to thank for Vetiver, Habit Rouge and Guerlain Héritage – as do those of us who’ve ever been in nuzzling distance. Experts insist they can identify a Guerlain creation after a single breath, perhaps because they’re all linked by a ‘special ingredient’: the mystical ‘Guerlinade’ – a blend of notes injected into virtually every Guerlain perfume, with a composition guarded like Fort Knox.


Currently, though, there are no young Guerlains with ‘golden noses’ coming up the ranks. So, sitting in her office – with its Beidermeier furniture and thick-pile cream carpet – I ask Sylvaine if she ever feels daunted by the task she’s taken on, of steering the world’s most historic fragrance house into the so-competitive 21st century.

Pas du tout!’ she says. ‘For years, I’ve lived and breathed Guerlain.’ And it’s true: Sylvaine actually started at Guerlain as a make-up artist. ‘Then I gradually moved up the ranks to run the make-up side of Guerlain,’ she explains. After immersing herself in Guerlain’s fragrance history, she was spotted, nurtured – and rose to the top creative role.

And, thanks to Sylvaine, the Paris maison is now the ultimate playground for perfume-aholics, who can take an olfactory journey through 180 years. Glass ceilings? Actually, she’s done away with the ceiling altogether on the ground floor institut, to make room for probably the biggest chandelier this side of Versailles.

‘I think I have the best job in the world,’ she insists, lifting a Shalimar-scented blotter to her nose. And really, which perfume groupie could disagree?

Fragrances to mark Guerlain’s 180th anniversary include limited-edition bottles of Shalimar, from £52, Insolence, from £41.50, and L’Instant Magic, from £52, as well as the launch of Cologne du 68, £62. The ultimate indulgence will be 250 180th anniversary cases, featuring 18 of Guerlain’s greatest creations, £2,200. For stockists, tel: 01932 233887