If you’re in need of a new perfume, you can stop by a department store for an off-the-shelf olfactory hit. But when true scent obsessives need a signature fragrance, they head directly to Le Labo, a brand whose made-to-order perfumes are beloved by iconoclasts and tastemakers. There’s nothing staid or frilly about the line, which offers earthy fragrances composed of natural elements like leather, cardamom and violets. Its founders say they were “inspired by Mike Mills’ declaration about ‘fighting the rising tide of conformity,’ ” and they built their vegan and cruelty-free empire on the notion that perfumes should give the wearer a “sensory shock.” There are Le Labo (which, fittingly, means “the lab”) boutiques in several international cities, butfx all use the same process for their fragrances: customers have their perfumes “compounded” (mixed) while they wait. Luckily for visitors to the brand’s latest shop in Venice, which opened on Abbot Kinney in February 2012, the store’s pressed-tin walls, blackand- white photo booth, and cream-colored wood ceiling beams make it a very inviting space to while away some time.
Le Labo prides itself on the quality of its ingredients, and no expense is spared to develop a new frangrance—a process that can take as long as two years. After a customer buys a bottle, one of Le Labo’s perfumers stamps it with the wearer’s name and a use-by date, emphasizing the fact that scents do, in fact, have a shelf life. The Venice boutique’s manager, Cameron Pagett, points out that this process also sets Le Labo apart from ordinary perfumers. “We choose to make our products fresh, because we feel that people should get their perfume at the moment of conception, at the moment they ask for it. It never sits on a shelf. You’ll never find perfume of this caliber so accessible. I think these fragrances are incredibly unique.”
Pagett explains Le Labo’s scents also differ from that of most perfume lines. “They don’t smell ‘expensive’ in a traditional, super-clean sort of way. They’re more fresh—they’re like when someone gives you a warm hug, but doesn’t hold on for too long. They hold on just long enough for you to know that they love you and care about you, but not too much to where you want to say, ‘OK, can you let go now?’ ” He says that the scents are also, much like Le Labo’s whole ethos, untraditional. “They always have something that’s going to throw you off the path. Especially with our patchouli: People come in and say, ‘Ew, I don’t like patchouli,’ just based on what they’ve already smelled. And I always make them try it; even if it’s not their favorite, they have to admit that they’ve never smelled a patchouli like that.”
Le Labo’s Venice location has a spartan-yet-romantic aesthetic: swing-arm wall lamps illuminate vintage furniture and scientific implements. It’s as if the world’s chicest European chemist opened his laboratory to the public. Pagett describes it as “an urban cathedral of scents.” He continues: “There’s a very industrial, clean part, which obviously is the laboratory, but it’s also very cozy. You have the whitewashed ceilings, and a sort of Parisian, 1920s antique-store motif. It almost looks like a secret spot where you could sip alcohol and listen to Fitzgerald talk about literature. But it’s also very cozy. You’re surrounded by things that look better the longer they’re there, which makes every day feel a little bit better.”
While the store’s beauty is undeniable, Pagett says fragrance is something that’s often taken for granted in our culture. “Before I worked for Le Labo, I think that I was less cognizant of the fact that scent ties in with lots of the things we romanticize in our lives. Fragrance brings a certain level of beauty. It’s kind of like music—each scent has its own rhythms and rhymes and notes. Introducing a new scent in your day is the next step in interweaving beauty into your life.”
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