Isabelle Doyen - Camille Goutal

Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal: “For us, 100% natural is a perfumer’s challenge rather than a marketing position”

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Perfumers and creators of the new 100% natural brand Voyages imaginaires, Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal are no strangers to collaboration. They began working together in 2002 at an independent perfume laboratory in Paris, composing fragrances for brands including Goutal, the one that started it all. Isabelle Doyen is the long-time creative partner of the brand’s founder, Annick Goutal (who died in 1999), while Camille Goutal is her daughter. For this new adventure, launched in 2020, the two women have stayed true to their own distinctive style: unfailingly bold and unpretentious creativity, an intentionally poetic feel, and a shared taste for natural ingredients, which they are now taking to new heights.

You launched the Voyages imaginaires brand together in 2020. Why did you choose to go 100% natural?

Camille Goutal: Isabelle and I have wanted to create a brand for a long time, to have a field of expression that is ours, a true reflection of us. Because, despite everything, Goutal remains my mother’s world. And we realised that what unites us and what we are good at working with are natural ingredients: at Goutal, we use them in large quantities because cost has never been a barrier. I’m not saying that to pitch natural and synthetic against each other: there are fabulous synthetics, sometimes very expensive, and we’re happy to use them for other clients. But for this project, we set ourselves the challenge of using only natural products. It was a perfumer’s challenge rather than a marketing position. A guarantee that we wouldn’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for years! A sort of game. And it just so happened that between the time we decided to go 100% natural and the time the brand was launched, everyone started to go natural – a well-timed coincidence.

Isabelle Doyen: Today’s natural perfumery opens the door to lots of possibilities. New extraction techniques, new nuances, incredible things like carrot CO2 extract which give us seriously interesting facets. At the same time, we have more molecules isolated from naturals. Before, it was limited to citral, geraniol, linalool and so on, but now the palette has expanded, mainly thanks to biotechnologies. Thanks to these molecules, we can go further than simply juxtaposing natural extracts. However, it’s still very complicated. When you decide not to use things like Hedione, white musks and methyl ionones, you quickly realise how effective certain ingredients are!

Which ones do you miss the most? 

C.G.: Iso E Super and Ambroxan. I developed a passion for Ambroxan at quite a late stage. I didn’t use it for years, and one day I fell in love with it.

I.D.: Maybe it will happen to us with woody ambers! [laughs] What’s interesting is that when we miss a molecule, we realise what it brings us. The absence of Hedione in an eau fraîche can really be felt. And I personally miss Evernyl: I don’t have much else that provides that sophistication, that powdery texture, that persistence and transparency.

How many ingredients do you have in your palette? 

I.D.: If we add the genuinely interesting natural molecules to the essences and absolutes, I’d say 150. Perhaps twenty or so have appeared over the last few years.

Aside from your palette, what else changes when you formulate a 100% natural perfume?

C.G.: When we formulate a “classic” fragrance, we generally have to meet a cost imperative, but the palette allows us to do pretty much what we want. With 100% natural, we can’t do everything. The formulation options really shrink. Today, for example, it’s impossible to make a lily of the valley or a lilac. Creating a marine feel is an uphill battle. And woody notes are very difficult. But perhaps in a year’s time new naturals will have changed the game!

I.D.: The combination of natural and synthetic that we have in traditional perfumery is what allows us to be a little abstract in our approach. With 100% natural fragrances, you have to rack your brains to give shape to an idea that is even slightly abstract.

C.G.: And to give your ideas concrete form! In 100% natural perfumery, you can have a very precise idea of what you’d like and then say to yourself “Damn! How will I do it?”

What are the biggest challenges you face?

C.G.: Tenacity! It’s really hard when you stop using everything that traditionally allows you to produce it. But we’re pleased because, through various twists and turns, we’ve managed to create fragrances that linger.

I.D.: And that have a certain sophistication. Because we could very well be satisfied with sticking pure vetiver on our skin. Except that the law wouldn’t allow it! Here’s another challenge: in 100% natural perfumery, you can’t overdose. It’s impossible to use 50% rose oil, for example, because of the restrictions on methyl eugenol. And also because it would cost a fortune. In general, natural products are expensive: a natural coumarin is thirty times more expensive than a synthetic one.

C.G.: In addition to staying power and price, there’s also the challenge of the sillage. We’ve managed to make perfumes that last, but in terms of sillage, you’re never going to get close to La vie est belle! In any case, when you choose 100% natural, it’s not what you’re looking for. Our sillages are more intimate. 

What do your customers look for?

C.G.: The poetry and fantasy that our name suggests.

I.D.: We don’t put “100% natural” everywhere. For us, it’s the little extra our perfumes offer, a luxury, but not the main sales argument. 

Before Voyages imaginaires, had you ever thought of doing 100% natural?

C.G.: Yes, but more as a crazy perfumer’s whim. Like, “What if I just scented myself with rose”! That said, the palette of naturals has evolved a lot in recent years, which is perhaps why it has become a serious possibility. 

I.D.: I tried it out a few years ago for Marie-France Cohen [one of Annick Goutal’s sisters, creator of the Bonpoint brand]. She wanted an eau fraiche and she wanted it to be totally natural – it’s a bit of a Goutalian obsession! I said: “It won’t amount to much”. My formula was 70% natural, with Hedione and methyl ionones, and sure enough when I removed them it became a bit bland. Marie-France thought so too. So we left them in.

What do you think of 100% natural brands that won’t use absolutes or molecules isolated from natural ingredients? 

C.G.: If you want to be totally purist about 100% natural, you make something that’s like an 18th-century perfume. That’s not what we’re looking for. We want our ingredients to be extracted from a natural source, regardless of the method. And of course, we’re also interested in knowing that our vetiver does not deplete the soil where it grows. And in knowing where it comes from. It’s more important for us to know that our products are well sourced than to know whether or not there is a micro-trace of solvent in an absolute! Otherwise, we wouldn’t go out in the street anymore because of breathing in exhaust fumes. There’s another trend that really annoys us; the brands that say “I use a lot of naturals but also a few synthetics”: in other words, exactly what modern perfumery has always done! And you look at the list of ingredients, it’s full of synthetics, but seeing as the natural alcohol the concentrate is diluted in gets taken into account, you end up with a large proportion of naturals in the finished product. It’s such a con! Meanwhile, there are brands that go to a lot of trouble to make a real 100% natural product. And then there are the ones who arrive with their well-oiled marketing machine and who tell you that their formula is “safe”. Here again, I feel like saying: “as they all are”! All brands are subject to IFRA [International Fragrance Association] and ECD [European Cosmetics Directive] regulations. 

I.D.: Or those who say “plant-based alcohol.” No, really? In the industry, everyone knows that alcohols are always plant-based. But it’s not necessarily something the customer knows. 

How do you explain the fact that there is so much misinformation about natural perfumery?

C.G.: It’s as if all of a sudden brands that use a lot of synthetics are afraid of being demonised. This incites some people to come out with any old rubbish, whereas natural and synthetic are not in opposition, but complementary. Synthesis has a huge advantage: it allows you to create lovely formulas at a lower cost. Not everything is black and white! I don’t understand why some brands want to be labelled natural at all costs, even when it leads them to lie to their customers. It drives us crazy: when you’re honest and explain things properly, everything goes smoothly. That said, we complain, but we see that things are moving in the right direction overall. For consumers and for the planet. 

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