There are countless secret gardens in Paris. Behind all those old, imposing doors exist courtyards of impeccably trimmed boxwood and fragrant flowering trees that rival any of their rural counterparts. Until recently, though, few knew that there was a private garden on the roof of Hermès' flagship store at 24 Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Well, the secret is now out: Jean-Claude Ellena, the in-house perfumer for the luxury chain, chose this precious oasis on which to base his newest - and possibly freshest - scent.
Like a traveller who has crisscrossed the world only to realize how much beauty there is in his own backyard, Ellena has turned his back on such exotic locales as Egypt and India, the inspiration for his previous garden-themed creations, to create Un Jardin Sur Le Toit (A Garden on the Roof). Where the other scents made magic out of figs, mangoes and melons, this fragrance, which launched in early spring, riffs on pears, apples, magnolia and, to a lesser extent, roses. These trees and blooms are exactly what grows on the Hermès rooftop, which I visited a few weeks ago. While it is neither big nor grand, it is perfectly precious and thoughtfully restrained.
During the Second World War, the roof provided a place to grow potatoes and lettuce when vegetables were in short supply. Decades later, Jean-Louis Dumas, the late chairman of Hermès, envisioned a verdant refuge in white and green. Just as a craftsman's hands touch, shape and create every silk scarf and every Birkin bag at the house, Yasmina the gardener attends to the plants every day.
"The garden is in a city, so it is more organized than if you were in the wide country [and]maybe the smell is more organized as a perfume than the others," Ellena told me during my visit. Truthfully, the garden smelled fresh - and free of the odours at street level - but not bountifully fragrant. Still, Ellena insists that the fragrance was a breeze to create, at least in relation to some of his other scents. "Some [perfume]concepts are abstract and I need to transform that into a smell," he says, citing the blockbuster Terre d'Hermès as an example. "Here, it's not; it's the pear, apple, magnolia. It's order. The line is very clear."
Ellena points out that a fragrance designed to evoke a rooftop garden in Paris is not the same as a scent that evokes Paris. "I don't think people want to smell gasoline," he jokes. "The other thing is, if you are in this garden, you forget that you're in Paris. You can be in city and forget the city at the same time."
Although Toit may be Ellena's least complex creation, it certainly bears his signature, providing a much lighter, fresher scent that nonetheless remains true to Hermès' ethos of refinement. Released in 2008, Le Jardin Après Le Mousson (Garden after the Monsoon) was supposed to mark the end of the garden trilogy, but a scent exploration that culminates on the store's rooftop feels like a more fitting close. Ellen doesn't foresee a fifth scent. Having come home, after all, where would he go from here?
When I ask Ellena to sum up the series as a whole, he says: "I believe they are all light, luminous and - this is important - very clear. [They are]simple and sophisticated at the same time. This is my way of doing things."
Interestingly, Ellena says that former chairman Dumas always viewed the Faubourg store as an upside-down tree, with the roots -founder Emile Hermès' original office, the craftsmen's workshops - located on the upper floors and the fruits of their labour on the main floor. It's a lovely, evocative analogy and, perhaps, a key to the secret of the company's evergreen success.