The Extraordinary Life Of Fine Fragrance Perfumer Philippine Courtiere

BY Elaine Lloyd-Jones / Jan 10 2018 / 18:43 PM

The famous French perfumer talks us through her childhood in the inner circles of the House of Dior, her approach to fashion and passion for scent

The Extraordinary Life Of Fine Fragrance Perfumer Philippine Courtiere
Greg Adamski
Philippine wears: Jacket and wallet, Vintage Christian Dior, her own. Skirt, Dhs3,415, Elisabetta Franchi. Bloomingville Rose Elegant Chair, Dhs1,795, available at Apartment 51 Furniture

I was born and grew up in the most beautiful city in the world, in the iconic area of the Champ de Mars” Philippine Courtiere muses, before telling us the Eiffel Tower gardens served as her childhood playground. The 31-year-old is the granddaughter of Jacques Rouët, one of Christian Dior’s founding business partners, but she knows him fondly as “Papy Jacques”. She’s tall (5ft 10) and there’s no mistaking her Parisian roots, she has that elusive French allure.

Philippine moved to Dubai in January 2014 with the Swiss company Firmenich, the world’s largest privately-owned fragrance company, “I loved it from the first day,” she tells Bazaar.

She currently holds the title of fine fragrance perfumer and develops and creates fragrances, specifically for Arabic brands, and international brands looking for more oriental influences.

Needless to say, her nose for luxury scents, and style, was embedded at an early age. “I remember smelling the perfume samples my parents were bringing home to evaluate, as both were working for perfume brands,” she says.  At the time, “I didn’t realise the chance I had to grow in such a creative environment, between haute couture and haute perfumery. My dad was the president of Givenchy Couture and Perfumes for many years and my mum was developing perfumes for Escada.”

Despite achieving a masters in French and Spanish Law from the prestigious Nanterre University in Paris, the magnetism of her upbringing proved too hard to resist, and Philippine’s head and heart quickly turned back to fragrance, ultimately she “wanted to create perfumes for brands.”

Philippine, Dior

Philippine wears: Blazer, skirt and wallet, vintage Christian Dior, her own. Hat, Dhs2,975, Elisabetta Franchi. Shoes, Dhs2,740, Christian Louboutin

After internships in the laboratories of Robertet and Takasago perfume houses, Philippine joined Firmenich – which offered internal training with a senior mentor – and began honing her nose. “It’s a transmission of knowledge,”she begins. “First you learn the raw materials you need to create, then you start creating small accords, then finished fragrances.” She trained for three years in Geneva, six months in New York and just over a year in Paris before the opportunity arose in Dubai. Philippine took little convincing after discovering “the richness of the region”. Since her arrival four years ago, she’s been specialising in oriental fragrances, creating the scents and responsibly sourcing all the necessary raw materials. Oriental fragrances use “stronger woods” and “more spices”, Philippine tells us. Typical ingredients include the likes of Indian Oud, amber, damask rose and sandalwood.

While Philippine’s parents unconsciously seduced her into the world of fine fragrances, her grandfather’s role at the house of Dior also had a profound influence on her life. Jacques Rouët joined Dior in 1946, at the very beginning. “There was Marcel Boussac, the investor, Christian Dior, the designer, and my grandfather, who was the commercial director,” she recalls. Ultimately it was the dynamic between these men that spawned the success of Dior. And in their heyday, Dior and Rouët pioneered lucrative license agreements for the likes of fur, stockings and perfume, which fuelled the brand’s ascension to become a household name. Rouët eventually became chairman and after Dior’s death in 1957 (aged 52), it was Rouët who promoted a young Yves Saint Laurent to artistic director, and subsequently in 1960, the designer Marc Bohan; steering Dior from humble beginnings on Avenue Montaigne to global conglomerate.

“Dior, for me, was perceived always like a family business, which grew so much in no time,” Philippine recalls. Her grandfather was also known in the industry as being genteel and deferential, and famous for knowing the name of every employee in Dior’s atelier.

“I never knew my grandfather working,” Philippine begins. “When I was born in 1986 he was retired already, I think he was a much more relaxed man at that time. I can tell without hesitation that he was absolutely passionate about his work.” She found his passion and dedication contagious, and credits him for teaching her about loyalty. “He also had a very good instinct, and sense of business,” she says. Philippine remembers her Papy often referring to Dior as “la maison.” It caused confusion, “when he was setting meetings with people, many of them were knocking at his apartment door,” she laughs.

Philippine, Dior

Philippine wears: Jacket and dress, vintage Christian Dior, her own. Necklace, Dhs2,015; shoes, Dhs4,565, both Elisabetta Franchi

Despite growing up in the inner sanctum of one of the greatest fashion houses of all time, with a grandfather whose role was one of the grandest, Philippine enjoyed a charmed French upbringing. She recalls “smelling the fresh baguettes and croissants in the mornings” on her way to school, and says, “as clichéd as it sounds” for her this is one of “the most memorable” scents of growing up in Paris. If only she could bottle it.

Philippine lived in a “lively” and “modern” house in the Seventh arrondissement with her younger sister, Eglantine Courtiere (now 29), mother Sophie Rouët Courtiere, and father Jean Courtiere. They also had a black and white Shit-zu called Pomme Flore. Wednesday afternoons were ruled by the tradition of spending time with her grandfather, or grandmother, Renee Rouët Roy, who they called “Manet.” The family would “go to the circus, to the zoo, or to theme parks like Foire du Trône. “My grandfather was a fan, he used to take my grandmother to the same places before they were married,” she tells us.

Rouët would also take Philippine to the Baby Dior boutique, “From an early age, he showed me the quality of well-tailored dresses. He wanted me to understand that it is important to dress up for special occasions. I remember wearing a smocked dress gifted to me by my grandfather for my seventh birthday,” she tells Bazaar. Her parents took her to see the La Bayadère ballet at the Palais Garnier. “I felt so proud and adult that evening,” she tells us. She also nonchalantly drops in that Christian Dior was her mother’s godfather, and often created baby clothes for her, although the first Baby Dior store opened sometime later, in 1967, under Bohan’s reign.

The family spent weekends in their country house, in Saint-Denis-le-Ferment, Normandy, the area where Philippine’s grandfather was born and is now his resting place. “He had his house there, next door to my parents. I have a lot of amazing memories with him over there; we would spend our Christmases there, fish in the river,” she recalls. “His house was covered with fragranced purple wisteria in spring and there was a massive blue cedar tree in the garden,” which is where the house got its name, Le Cedre Bleu.

Fashion has also been filtered through the generations and Philippine’s enviable air of French insouciance is only amplified when she says she doesn’t care much for shopping. She describes her style as “quite French”, and likes simple things with luxury accessories. “I like to mix and match,” she says. “I don’t like miniskirts or tight trousers, and I usually accentuate my waist. For me you shouldn’t have to show too much to express your femininity – elegance and decency are the key. I try to always dress according to the situation, a work meeting with local clients, a casual brunch with friends, I will adapt.”

She insists she’s not loyal to any brands – aside from Dior – but she believes in investing in good shoes and bags. She also admits that while living in the Middle East has encouraged her to be a little less colour shy, her grandparents instilled in her not to “show off” too much and not to wear “any logos”.

Philippine, Dior

Philippine wears: Blazer, skirt and wallet, vintage Christian Dior, her own. Hat, Dhs2,975, Elisabetta Franchi. Shoes, Dhs2,740, Christian Louboutin

Philippine married her German/Syrian husband Saher Khattab (a Dubai-based marketing agency owner) on November 4, 2017 in a civil ceremony in Paris, and she chose to wear a prêt-à-porter dress designed by John Galliano for Dior. It was pencil cut, with a rose belt, a smocked front and transparent lace sleeves. “The dress was borrowed from a kind friend of my mum’s, Sylvie Rousseau, who is the manager of the Paris boutique on Avenue Montaigne.”

Philippine was following in the family footsteps of the generations of women before her. Her mother, Sophie, wore a Dior wedding dress by Marc Bohan – it was two pieces made up of a long skirt and a jacket with round collar. Her grandmother wore a dress designed by Christian Dior himself. She was married in Paris on November 28, 1949, at the Saint Rock church. The dress was a simple long satin gown, very heavy, with a belt at the waist, a v-neck and long sleeves. Today, the dress is held at Christian Dior’s Granville museum. “The majority of the haute couture dresses that she wore during her life with my grandfather were borrowed from catwalk collections,” Philippine says, describing how her grandmother’s slender frame was a perfect fit for the Dior samples.

Whilst many of the vintage pieces belonging to her mother and grandmother are under safe-keeping at the Granville museum, Philippine describes a few of the vintage gems still in her wardrobe. They include a black broderie dress from 1969, “It’s short-sleeved and straight to the knee – if I wore it today no one could tell me it’s 30 years old,” she smiles. Also, a black skirt with layers of fringing that falls just below the knee. “It’s from the ’60s and it’s amazing because it was worn by my mother and my grandmother,” she enthuses. She also pulls out a tan wool tweed double-breasted jacket from 1971, which she pairs with the skirt for Bazaar’s shoot.

Although Philippine has had a completely unique and privileged insight into one of the most famous couture houses in the world and most exclusive industries, her ‘Papy’ counseled her wisely, advising, “The key to success is to find your passion, believe in yourself, and the rest will come.” As lucky as she was to grow up surrounded by such rich influences of the fashion world, a fine-tuned nose for perfumery means her affection for couture fragrance is undoubtedly where her future lies.

Fashion Editor: Gemma Deeks. Fashion Assistants: Palak Thapar and Madhu Dhanapal. Hair and Make-up: Blowout & Go. with thanks to BLISS Flowers

From the January issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia