Young, Wild & Free

Sparked by the stimulating spirit of youth, Christine Nagel pushed olfactory boundaries to create a dream scent for the Hermès girl. By Dana Koh

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Sparked by the stimulating spirit of youth, Christine Nagel pushed olfactory boundaries to create a dream scent for the Hermès girl. By Dana Koh

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Christine Nagel noses the dessert upon its arrival. The rest of the table quickly follows suit, attempting to decipher the aromas she’s smelling from a quintet of Japanese sweets. “This one is refreshingly citrusy; and this, so delicate and rich, no?” she asks before taking a bite, heightening everyone else’s anticipation too. This is what she does—draw out the beauty of a subject beyond aesthetics, turning what is intangible, tangible.

See, Nagel is the nose behind some of the finest fragrances ever created (her portfolio includes a breadth of luxury brands), and the exclusive creator of Hermès perfumes—or “the spirit of the house”—since 2014. Besides the fact that she is a woman in a predominantly man’s world, and a Swiss in one that is mainly French, she has pushed all fronts to sit comfortably in one of the industry’s most coveted seats. Not just because she is, by training, an incredible chemist, but also because of her acute ability to capture an essence, emotion or moment, and encapsulate it in a fragrance forever. 

Following Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate, and Galop d’Hermès, her third elixir for the Maison is effervescent and passionate with ginger, tuberose and sandalwood. Nagel reveals all about the new, oh-so-feminine Twilly d’Hermès, and how bending the rules can sometimes lead to magic.

How would you describe your Hermès journey?

I’ve been in the industry for nearly 30 years and Hermès was always the dream. Now that I am here, I am so happy, you have no idea—I love it most because I’m free. Previously, I always had directives, be it a price point or colourlessness, both of which affect my ingredient selection process. Here, I don’t. There is no brief, no set price, no colour constraints, and no market test. What I have is a limitless palette, the trust of my boss, creative freedom, and the right to make mistakes. 

Tell us about the new scent for women, Twilly d’Hermès.

For me, perfumery is not a question of gender, but how I mix and build different colours to create a painting of what I see or feel for that fragrance. In this case, I have two sources of inspiration: Young women, whom you usually see in groups, but upon closer look, can each be so distinctively different; and the Hermès silk scarf, which reflects this individualism in the way it can be worn and interpreted in countless ways. When combined, they create a twist on a classic, and this concept is reflected in my choice of classic ingredients like ginger, tuberose and sandalwood, which have been used in new and more unpredictable ways to build Twilly d’Hermès. 

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How do the notes evolve?

First, you smell ginger—but it isn’t just in the top note. I used ginger as my canvas, the same way artisans use a piece of silk to create a colourful scarf. Normally in the perfume world, you have about 0.5 to 0.8 percent of ginger in a ginger fragrance, and when you go beyond that, it results in a soapy note. I researched a ginger that comes from Africa, which has particularly dry roots and fresh notes, and when I doubled the percentage used, it became warm, almost woody. Next comes the second smell of tuberose, a dramatic flower associated with sophisticates and concubines alike; which also reminds me of a baby-faced young woman, a Lolita of sorts. However, many refrain from using too much of it because of its black extract, which can turn a perfume brown. But not here at Hermès. I am free to select what and how much I want, and the lab will take it from there. And, we managed to create a more delicate fragrance after treating the flower as well. Then it ends in sandalwood—what I call the Hermès wood because it is so elegant. It is soft, almost milky, mysterious and animalic, with a seductive quality. While they are so distinctively individual, they link and flow into each other beautifully, like the young women. 

Who is the Twilly d’Hermès woman to you?

It is not just one woman, and she is not just one woman. She is filled with audacity, fantasy, purpose and irreverence, and probably also twists her experiences in different, surprising ways to design a life that she wants. She embraces her freedom too. 

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How did you then decide on the aesthetics of this olfactory vision?

Every creation is born from ideas discussed at our monthly meetings with all the directors. We went through the design team’s suggestions for the bottle, and received an idea from a young lady who actually designs scarves for the brand. She drew inspiration from our iconic cologne flacon, but decided to shrink it, like a mini skirt. We grew the caps to obtain somewhat of a little hat, then tied on a silk spaghetti Bali Barret [Artistic Director of Hermès Women’s Universe] just happened to have on her. At the end of the meeting, I remember [Creative Director] Pierre-Alexis Dumas asking if I liked it, and my response was a smile—it made me smile. 

What is fragrance to you?

Personally, it is a personal message you send to people, like an aura. You can tell a lot about someone from their choice of perfume. Yes, you might try something new and trendy, but somehow you will always be drawn back to what makes you feel good. And the ultimate compliment is when someone asks what you are wearing. I also see it as an imprint, a trace, you make on one’s memory. A man you once met might one day forget your face, but when he smells your perfume again, he is bound to remember you. That is the power of smell. 

What is your dream for this fragrance?

Everyone buys, gifts and receives perfume. One could have even gotten this at a Sephora [store]. But simply owning a bottle—perhaps their very first Hermès creation—serves as a key into the brand, and this gives me a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of power. My dream is for this young woman to stop in front of an Hermès boutique, push the door and head in; for she is a Twilly d’Hermès client, and that makes her an Hermès client. If this fragrance can create that link, I’m happy. ■

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From top: Sketches by designer Florence Manlik. Christine Nagel. Twilly d’Hermès, $221 for 85ml, Hermès