“The Ghost Perfumer” is the true story of a seductive clothing empire heir – Olivier Creed – who brainwashed perhaps the world’s best perfumer into becoming his secret scent-creator for decades, nicking his byline for nothing but a few custom suits and turning that fragrant output into a company sold in 2020 for about $1 billion to the world’s largest asset manager – all of it amounting perhaps to the greatest con in luxury retail history. – Gabe Oppenheim
Gabe wrote a fascinating and breathtaking true story about people of perfume, art, relationships in the perfume industry, profit, fame, love, deceit, and here is my interview with him!
Gabe Oppenheim is an NYC-based author of a couple of books and lots of articles for The Washington Post, Vice, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He covered prizefighting at the highest level before turning his attention to the perfumery scene.
He appreciates your time and attention, but don’t feed him!
I must admit that, ever since I first heard about this book, – The Ghost Perfumer, I waited impatiently for its release, grabbed my Kindle copy immediately, and read it greedily, in one sitting, during one quite cold night. And I keep returning to it, visualizing scenes, scents, people, and facial expressions. I do hope that one day we can see this story filmed for Netflix – what a great binge-watching series this would make!
I’m immensely grateful to Gabe for taking the time to answer my questions. We tried not to talk as much about the content of the book (you can find links where to buy it below the interview), but rather to talk about value systems, ethics, and his path as a published author.
Elena Cvjetkovic: When did you first realize that you wanted to write The Ghost Perfumer? What moment or insight triggered the 2 years-long processes?
Gabe Oppenheim: One of many valid answers: I’ve wanted to be a writer of one kind or another since I was about 5 years old. Nothing in particular in those kindergarten days aroused that feeling – it was just this natural conviction I had, an awareness that the conjunction of words could be so much more powerful than anyone alone and that story was at the heart of all endeavor.
Why I believed myself equal to the role of bard I don’t entirely understand. I just liked the attention. Let’s call it a genetics-derived combo of ego and logorrhea.
No matter their source (and however unsavory – showoff-y – their origin), the words kept coming to me, through university, when I tired greatly of writing a weekly school newspaper column after a year and a half and focused the next four semesters of my time there penning a nonfiction book about the gritty fighters of the city of Philadelphia.
That book was published a few years after I graduated (my royalty check last year was 50 bucks, so I ain’t in this for the dough) lending me some small credibility in the fight world and allowing me to take on freelance boxing assignments from Vice, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal. I had never planned on concentrating on bloodsport alone in my career. But writers can get pigeonholed by editors, and more problematically, by their own CVs.
The collapse of print media also meant writers couldn’t afford to veer across topics as often as the greats had (I’m thinking of A.J. Liebling and Jack McKinney and even Joyce Carol Oates, more recently).
If letting editors believe bloodsport coverage was my lone metier meant I’d always be able to haggle for a freelance gig on the regular, I was happy – for a time – to indulge that misperception.
But obviously, it was indeed a misread of my life and interests. For instance, I also love Golden Age Hollywood films (Jeanette MacDonald singing the eponymous song “San Francisco“ gives me goosebumps every time) and much besides. Funnily enough, perfume really wasn’t one of those areas that intrigued this dilettante – not in a vacuum and not initially, anyway.
Starting about 6 years ago, though, I began to travel with the boxing circus – promoters, fighters, managers, refs, ringside reporters – from one venue to the next (in LA, Vegas, Tokyo, Washington D.C.). Worried I might smell rank while training alongside Canelo Alvarez in 2006, I donned Montblanc Legend before our post-workout interview one day. Then I began packing a different scent for each sportswriting trip. These were fragrances worn for me alone – I wanted to spice up a fight calendar of sorties that might begin to feel monotonous otherwise.
How did I suddenly shift from covering Lomachenko’s right parry to Lubin’s vetiver? The same way I fell into writing in the first place. It was 2019, I’d seen far too much in the boxing world for any continuous period of time. I’d had a conversation two years earlier with the founders of Imaginary Authors – whose work marrying invented novels of the highest order with actual fragrances intrigued me enormously (in fact, I’d worn their “City on Fire” to a meeting at Roc Nation to talk boxing once).
And so, as my yen for boxing slowly faded that pre-pandemic year, my almost-subconscious desire to find out more about the folks behind those spray bottles I packed each week began to materialize.
I like creators of more obscure arts (I’m down with the artistry of Jasprit Bumrah’s wicked yorker, for instance). There was no lightning strike stroke of genius – hardly. I just began wondering (at first silently but soon in conversation with industry folks): Well, I know intimately these fighters in the ring, but what about those creators responsible for how I smell? What are their daily lives like?
By the end of 2019, I’d decided I pivot from my long-time topic to this one, from covering pugs to figuring out who’d enabled me to smell damn good while watching them tear each other apart (the ethics of which bodily destruction I won’t here defend – I can’t).
Elena C: I think that we can all agree that almost everyone inside The Industry was aware of the Creed (brand and person) incongruities involving plots and twists revolving around long-dead historical figures (King George, Madonna, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Marlene Dietrich, Queen Vitoria, Michael Jackson, etc, from 18th century onwards), and also including Monsieur Olivier Creed posing as a sixth-generation master perfumer, with no proof or evidence of any formal or informal training – but no one ever spoke up publicly about it.
Why do you think this is so?
Gabe O: For one, even some very prominent perfumers of the younger generations believed Creed to be the real deal. They’d grown up with those flacons on the stores of their local boutiques or department stores. That they’d studied at ISIPCA didn’t mean they could discern which of their elders was fabricating history.
But as for those who had suspicions: I think I got tremendously lucky. I am sure many of them wanted to expose Olivier and other so-called perfumers undeserving of the title – but they simply didn’t have the full story before them, the dates and sources and testimonies.
I worked very hard (as did Jean-Claude Ellena on my behalf) to convince Pierre Bourdon to chat with me earnestly about his life. His ultimate consent meant that I’d been gifted that narrative flipside. Now, not only did I know all the bizarre Creed company claims but I had journalistic evidence of their actual geneses. It’s all well and good to say, Olivier can’t possibly make what he claims to, but it’s quite another to know exactly who did, why, and under what circumstances.
I owe my book (The Ghost Perfumer) to many people (maybe least of all me, in a sense, as I was dependent on sources) – but above all, I owe it to Bourdon who, in finally breaking his silence, confirmed all those rumors to which you alluded above and detailed how exactly they’d first been propagated despite his own work for Creed.
Elena C: Were perfumers and brands that you’ve contacted, while researching and fact-checking the story for The Ghost Perfumer- cooperative, supportive and helpful once they found out that you’re about to lift the veils of fumum surrounding Olivier Creed and the brand? When you’ve emailed them about the subject of your book – how many didn’t answer at all?
Gabe O: For better or worse, I didn’t contact any sources initially with the idea of crafting a book about the fateful intersection in life between Pierre and Olivier. What I told perfumers and their employers instead – truthfully – was that I intended to write a book that profiled perfumers, that depicted their lives both inside and outside the compounding lab.
Who the hell are these folks that create the scents at Sephora? What the heck do they do for leisure? Are any of them great cooks?
This is how I described the book to those whom I first approached, and such a volume was indeed taking shape when, suddenly in the spring of 2021, after much petitioning on my part, Pierre Bourdon’s wife, Kathy, emailed me out of the blue with a document Pierre had dictated on the story of his life.
That was just the first of our exchanges (online and in-person), but it was clear to all around me that I needed to drop the perfume book I’d already begun to pen and begin a new one (The Ghost Perfumer) about Pierre and his hitherto unknown life as Olivier’s ace ghostwriter.
But in both periods, I’d say companies were initially skeptical that some young boxing writer could pull off the feat he was announcing he’d attempt; and that deserved, the reasonable attitude of theirs required me always to be mollifying and cajoling them.
For instance, at Firmenich, I got nowhere with the kind man who ran media relations – until one day I had the idea to prove my worth by discussing Tamil Nadu, the southeastern Indian state whose jasmine is used heavily in the industry.
I told the Firmenich guy, Nobody covering this crazy industry knows Tamil Nadu the way I do – the region’s love of Superstar Rajinikanth, the brilliant films just then coming out (particularly murder-thriller “Thadam“), my fandom for IPL club the Chennai Super Kings.
Mind you, I’ve never traveled to the subcontinent before – but I love trying to assimilate languages and cultures new and alien to me via TV viewing and reading from the comfort of a Herman Miller chair in Chelsea (and this was before Covid).
Whether that makes me a bougie, undevoted cultural-appropriator is for Generation Z to decide (a cohort in desperate need of a lesson on the benefits of the cultural melting pot, to paraphrase Bill Maher), but incredibly, the Tamil Nadu monologue indeed did convince the Firmenich gatekeeper to permit my visiting with his perfumer colleagues.
So yes, I encountered obstacles – I did often have to prove that I belonged in the same room or Zoom as the perfumers. But I was rather jolly to just to be alive and safe and rather rested during that first year of the pandemic. I was almost happy to have such challenges presented to me. That hump was annoying but surmounting it gave me a great sense of achievement.
Elena C: Would you say that this “sees no evil, hears no evil, speaks no evil” Industry policy has changed once Olivier Creed has sold his business to BlackRock for close to USD 1 billion?
And once it became clear that everything that great Pierre Bourdon will ever receive as compensation from Olivier Creed is made-to-measure Creed suits? Was it only then all right for the Industry insiders to speak up?
Gabe O: I don’t know those at BlackRock who made the decision to acquire Creed – nor am I familiar with Javier Ferrán, the Diageo chairman who oversaw the rebuilding of Creed’s c-suite, which is now based in London.
But it’s already obvious that BlackRock’s appointed pros – including CEO Sarah Rotheram, previously the head of Penhaligon’s and Miller Harris – are attempting to be truthful without out-and-out repudiating Olivier’s outrageous earlier misstatements.
For instance, my own book traces the beginning of Olivier’s perfumery business to a trip undertaken in 1963 to a small Lille fragrance shop, where he attempted to sell a few scents he’d commissioned back home to the family enterprise (Olivier knew if he tried to sell them in far-more-metropolitan Paris, they’d be crushed by Dior and Guerlain and never gain the least bit of notice).
Obviously, this narrative directly contradicts the brand’s historical fabulism involving scent-creation dating back to the 1700s.
But remarkably – and perhaps a positive sign of what’s to come – the new Creed‘s first marketing effort of note, a thick, book-like magazine (what the Japanese call a “mook ”), dated Olivier’s first scent-selling to that very same mid-century episode in Lille, at a shop called Le Soleil d’Or.
That verity isn’t printed in bold – I guess that the c-suite would rather you peruse it without great precision or patience, that you overlook it. But even so, that does not detract from Creed’s first statement in recent memory that its fragrant tradition is a relatively short one, rooted in a tailor’s quest to hock scents in Lille and not some major Parisian operation based on a transfer of skills from father to son for 270 years.
Elena C: Would you say that Pierre Bourdon, as a protagonist in The Ghost Perfumer drama, knew exactly what he was getting into in this promise-based relationship with O. Creed – his antagonist, and still decided to dance this tango over decades – simply because he wanted his creations to live, to be produced, to reach and conquer the market and customers, thus consenting to be a ghost perfumer – simply because he believed that his creations are exceptionally good?
And to prove this point to whom you called „gatekeepers“ – those who decide which formula entries reach production, the mighty evaluators who dared to reject his submissions for Big Brands? To show ’em all what he’s capable of doing, just like with Dolce Vita/Dior?
Gabe O: No, Pierre didn’t know what he was getting into, not fully anyway – I think he did believe he’d ultimately be compensated in line with what Olivier promised him (a seven-figure sum on the day of his retirement). However, that doesn’t mean Pierre should not have known better. Both his first and second wives warned him of this man’s unguency. His current spouse, Kathy, basically said, I told you so, once Creed stiffed Piere and refused to pay him (in Bourdon’s telling).
So why did Pierre cast aside the doubts of those closest to him? Yes, I think he felt stifled by evaluators who turned him down without fully appreciating his ideas (in Pierre’s calculation anyway) and Olivier came in and, perhaps fulsomely, but still, credited Bourdon with the invention of brilliant formulas — gave Pierre the recognition more prominent evaluators weren’t worldly enough to confer.
But in the end, we never make big moves – such as giving it up unique compositions for a pittance – for one reason alone. We don’t ignore our loves because of a single disagreement about a stranger’s character.
No, Pierre ultimately chose to let Olivier exploit him because Pierre’s work was nothing without an audience because Pierre’s father never credited the son’s perfumery work and instead bashed it because Olivier was a surrogate father figure in that respect (and his handsome Roger Moore-style looks struck Pierre as enviable, undeniably charming, James Bond-esque).
Sad to say, but this was partly a case in which Pierre, owing to his own diffidence, played straight into the hands of an Olivier cocky and entitled. But that doesn’t mean the former wasn’t more virtuous than the latter. In the end, while they are both compromised figures, I side with the artist, the one whose ideas animated the entire project.
I side with the Proust-reader, not the near-formula filcher. That said, I studied literature, so I’ve my own biases.
Elena C: On one hand, after reading The Ghost Perfumer, it seems to me that the Creed story is all about money and power on Creed’s side (person and brand), and not about money at all, on the perfumers’ side: if the great perfumer Bourdon (whose work and creations I respect immensely) had agreed to transfer all the perfume creation credit and glory onto the (sneaky) great evaluator Creed – being fully aware of the (artistic and commercial) value of his work, why do you think have other perfumers followed in the same manner?
Is there an element of fear, fear from being blacklisted in Big Labs and by Big Brands if you dare to break the all-present Omerta in the Industry?
Gabe O: Perfumers let themselves be taken advantage of knowingly – it’s such a cutthroat industry it’s almost required these days. Back in Pierre’s teenage years, the only school for this trade was Roure‘s, in the South of France. Now, there’s ISIPCA, too. And this addition has meant the schools now graduate more students for perfumer roles than there our available pro spots.
But not every arrangement is one-sided. Julien Rasquinet, a Bourdon student, had no background or training in the industry besides that apprenticeship. After being taught by Bourdon, he still had no direct way of joining a major firm. So he began working out of Dubai, alone, with Middle Eastern clients.
That Creed asked him to do Royal Oud and the Acqua Originale line was a major boon to him – he wasn’t yet in the habit of receiving major assignments. Sure enough, he did an excellent job putting forth was Creed desired and his ultimate industry reward is the spot he now occupies at IFF.
Herault, the creator of Aventus, also benefitted from a decidedly unfair deal. He created Creed’s best-selling frag ever for not much in return. But that he received the assignment at all meant he was taking one step closer to the major F&F firms he desired to join. And so, he, too, now works at IFF (though a colleague didn’t know of his Aventus composition early on in their relationship and asked Herault to make an Aventus dupe for a client, funnily enough)
Elena C: Your (The Ghost Perfumer )list of acknowledgments to members of the Industry is quite impressive: perfumers, chemists, corporate executives, and critics.
There are so many wonderful perfumers and people you’ve cooperated with on this book – could you please share who impressed you as being the most open and helpful? How did you exactly enter the Industry’s inner castle so swiftly?
(“The Ghost Perfumer” was listed as The Mirabelle Plum Awards 2021 winner / the best book of the year.)
Gabe O: This is a very kind remark – I don’t know that I was very impressive in landing interviews. For every great one I snagged, there were others I missed out on. I never pressed LVMH on landing an interview with Cavallier via Bvlgari – though such an entreaty is in the offing if I do indeed continue writing about fragrance (more on that in a moment).
Francis Kurkdjian, rather than replying to my request for a chat – he could’ve just said, No, thanks — forwarded the note to his internal communications officer, who replied, “I had the opportunity to discuss your project internally but unfortunately we are not going to give it a favorable response.“
You get emails like that some mornings and it’s deflating. But then, there were the incredibly generous folks on the other side of the aisle: Nathalie Feisthauer, with whom I corresponded about my health and well-being, who kept me sane through the pandemic, who barbecued for me on her Montmartre rooftop; Shyamala Maisondieu, who advocated for my cause within Givaudan, whose enthusiasm for my writing was matched only by my excitement for her scents in development (how good is Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Forever?) and with whom I watched the French Open on TV (we saw Tsitsipas meltdown against Djoker in five sets).
Geza Schoen, who rather than hide from questions of gravity, answered them with disarming candor and in so doing, made me weepy – we talk about loves lost and gained, about how late in life one should really wait if he wants kids, about mortality and achievement; Harry Fremont, who hosted me for a week on his California wine country property (we spent the mornings touring his garden, where he taught me how various plants and roots find their way into formulas).
Had Pierre never revealed what he’d done for Creed, I would have still had ample material for a fascinating book (the problem would be figuring out a structure or overarching principle; could I have landed on one and executed it? I dunno).
As for the storming of the Bastille: If I was allowed in rapidly, I think it’s because I was indeed a visitor from another land. I had a journalistic record of taking hardworking folks whose livelihoods depend on their bodies very seriously. Perhaps perfumers thought, This isn’t an influencer manqué looking for handouts but someone who cares a great deal about the rise and fall of always-training, highly-disciplined doers.
Of those whose every competition requires their all, lest the tragedy occurs. So perhaps perfumers thought I’d bring a seriousness of purpose here – that I wouldn’t mess about while chatting because I’d reported on a segment of society that doesn’t have the luxury to fuck around and doesn’t tolerate hangers-on without purpose either.
Elena C: How do you feel about the initiative Master Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel started a couple of years ago, the Perfumery Code of Ethics? Is truth the scent of this century, and are „fragheads“ (if not all fine perfume-buying customers in general) getting more and more informed and critical of brands that behave unethically or play with transparency?
Gabe O: I agree with Christophe, though I am not sure the best way to effect change is to do it from the outside, which has been his MO since leaving IFF. That said, who has ever managed to remake an industry from within? The Outsider doesn’t always win the concessions he seeks – but he often does set the stage for someone internally to get that job finished.
I think Fragrantica has made frag heads more aware of the identities behind their scents. I was happy to see that site finally added Herault’s name as the Aventus creator. But what is Erwin doing on the page still?
And the unfortunate counter-trend to this increase in revelations of perfumers’ identities is the rise of niche perfumes that amount to nothing more than dupes of far cheaper scents already on the market. Honestly, I look at all the so-called inspired expressions of Tiziana Terenzi – Kirke, Orion, Spirito Fiorentino. Hundreds of dollars for high-quality dupes? That price itself makes the whole offering opaque – because who’d suspect such handed-over moolah would yield merely a dupe?
The internet is a double-edged sword. We fans are learning more, but the sites we study are advertising-supported often and their content reflects that.
But this is a bigger question than merely a perfume query: Does our society actually care about attribution and payment for IP or do we all want to access any internet niche we want, whenever we want, for free, no matter who made it?
Elena C: „Perfume is a lover always in the process of leaving.“ you wrote in The Ghost Perfumer, confessing to favor leather-based scents. Which leather perfumes are in your current rotation?
Gabe O: Hermes Bel-Ami, and By Kilian Royal Leather,
Elena C: Do you wear Aventus or any other pineapple-note-based perfume?
Gabe O: I do wear Aventus rather frequently these days – it’s the only scent I wear that my girlfriend actually enjoys. Which is an amazing testament to the quality of the composition even if it’s also somewhat dispiriting to me given the breadth of my collection.
Elena C: What is a question about The Ghost Perfumer that no one has asked you yet and you’d love to answer?
Gabe O: No one has asked me which book most inspired me while I was writing this, and the answer – and it’s quite pretentious, I know – is Henry James’ “Washington Square.” He does such a brilliant job of describing a character’s state of mind without ever really resolving which side of the person is at that moment the dominant one.
His characters are finely drawn ciphers. In a way, that helped me understand how I could write about Olivier Creed, whose mendacity remains mysterious to me – why invent such mythology when you’re a truly great frag evaluator – but whose overall personality we can see glimpses of through his actions over the years.
Thanks so much for giving me this platform to discuss my work. A writer ain’t one without readers, and I’m sincerely thankful for all in the fragcomm who’ve supported me during the “Ghost Perfumer” creation and launch.
The Plum Girl
Photos: Gabe Oppenheim
I purchased my own copy of The Ghost Perfumer.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the person interviewed. They do not explicitly or necessarily reflect, nor represent The Plum Girl editor’s/owner’s policy or views.
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