Essential Macau | Scents of memories

Vilhelm Parfumerie is a niche perfume brand from New York, whose founder is Jan Ahlgren, a Swedish former male model. Memory and imagination are the creative source of an olfactory universe, created alongside the nez Jérôme Epinette, as Essential Macau discovered

By César Brigante

With a physical presence that is expected from someone who spent most of his working life as a high fashion male model, Jan Ahlgren is a charming man with a laid-back and jovial air. It is a style, he tells us, that extends to the business that he has run practically on his own. “To be honest, I’m not the most organised person in the world. I consider myself creative. I think that is what I’m best at. Fortunately, I now have help in the day-to-day running of the business, in both the sales and management side and the production side, because that isn’t my strength. Because I’m not from a wealthy family, I got used to doing everything from a young age. I’d never felt as worn out as when I started the business,” he admits with a chuckle.

It is hard to believe, considering the success the brand has achieved in the niche market and the ease in which it has penetrated such important sales points as the Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores in New York, Liberty in London and the since closed Colette in Paris, for which he even created a fragrance.

Just shy of his 40s, Jan was born in Sweden, the son of a Swedish father and American mother. As he explains, he didn’t have big childhood dreams, much less related to perfume. “This is a recent passion (…) At that time, like all children in Sweden, what I really wanted to be was a tennis player like Björn Borg,” he says. And like most, tennis fell by the wayside. “It wasn’t that I didn’t try, I just wasn’t very good, pure and simple.”

He may not have played in a Grand Slam but, despite it all, life presented him with another profession that many dream of but few have access to – a career as a high fashion male model that allowed him to travel the world.

With an intense lifestyle, split between the world’s biggest capitals, he settled in New York around seven years ago. At the twilight of a profession with an expiration date, he decided to broaden his range of options, from which he chose design, another of his great passions. “I began as an interior designer, but I ended up quitting. Then I went into fashion, but I still couldn’t achieve what I wanted. Finally, it was the leather accessories, and well… let’s say that through the design, I didn’t get very far. I think there are people who are much better than me,” he says with a frankness that he quickly accustomed us to.

Either way, it was this last chapter of his life that opened the doors to perfumery. “I had the idea to fragrance the leather wallets I was producing so that they would have their own scent. It was common practice applied to ladies’ gloves in 17th and 18th-century Paris that I decided to bring back. That’s how I met Jérôme Epinette.”

Jérôme is a renowned French nez, living in New York for more than a decade and a half, who is regularly sought after by various brands of different degrees of notoriety. He gained prominence in large part due to the work he developed for Byredo, the brand created by Jan’s fellow countryman Ben Gorham, and another niche brand, Atelier Cologne, for which he has conceived around a dozen fragrances.

The meeting with the person who is now more than the brand’s perfumer – he considers Jérôme a friend – opened the doors to a world that fascinated Jan from day one. “My direct link to perfumery is almost nil, or rather I had the connection that we all have. From time to time, I’d buy a cologne I liked, but without knowing the reality of what was behind it. In short, what most of us do. We don’t think about it in everyday life.”

However, smell has always played a very important role for him. “I have always kept memories of smells. I associate them vividly to the best moments of my childhood, and it was only after meeting Jérôme and being introduced to his art that I realised how important smell was to me. In truth, I felt that it awakened something in me that had always been there, dormant, just waiting to be revealed. Everything I have learnt from Jérôme allows me to see things from a new perspective,” he explains expressively.

He started by dealing with those memories. Soon after the fortuitous meeting, he decided to launch a perfume brand. The name Vilhelm is a tribute to his grandfather. An elegant man, given to hedonistic pleasures, he was one of Jan’s biggest companions and influences. It is an homage to the man, but also to the times in which he lived. “Right from the start, I wanted to give Vilhelm Parfumerie a chic touch, of 1920s luxury that my grandfather experienced and which is an important reference for me. I search for those memories, for that luxury of yesteryear that I combine with modernity to create a very particular aesthetic that has become our trademark.”

The bright yellow packaging, covered in graphic motifs that remind us of hieroglyphs – “I went further here, more specifically to Egypt where the perfumes as we know today were born” –, unarguably fulfils the purpose for which it was created: to draw attention without losing its elegance. The circular bottle, shorter than the usual and with a furrowed surface, also evokes the Belle Époque from which Jan drew inspiration. “I wanted the bottle to have a classic touch and that would convey some comfort. I even wanted to find a way for the magnetic lid to close with a single touch, like when you close the door of a Bentley, but there are things that are more difficult. Even so, we got close. After all, it is these details that help us define a product as being luxury.”

In Jérôme Epinette’s creations, a collection that started with six fragrances in May 2015 and which is already at 21 (considered by some to be an exaggerated number for a niche brand just starting out), Jan Ahlgren found a prolific form of expression that he never imagined until recently. With more obvious names that make reference to the ingredients or the style, such as Oud Affair or Black Citrus, or the more poetic and enigmatic, like Morning Chess, Stockholm 78 and Room Service, or the latest and most ambiguous Poets of Berlin, Jan tells us aromatic stories that are buried in his memory or imagination, if not both. Such is the case of Morning Chess, one of his more masculine perfumes, although he is adamant when affirming that his fragrances are genderless. He translates Morning Chess as an expression of the long, sunny summer mornings spent at his grandfather’s house in Falkenberg, on the west coast of Sweden, where, after cutting the grass, the men would play endless games of chess in the verdant surroundings. With Black Citrus, as the name suggests, the fragrance has a citrus personality distorted by vetiver, patchouli and wood that lend it an earthy and enigmatic touch. This best-seller among men was inspired by the legendary Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, explains Jan. “This is one of those cases that appears from nowhere. I was in London when I happened to watch a documentary about Nureyev, which was the starting point for the creation of this fragrance. The citrus that is usually associated to sport fits well with Nureyev’s athletic and strapping figure, but from what I can gather, it was also a figure with a more controversial side, more unusual. It was this duality that I tried to convey to Jérôme, and he reproduced exactly what I had in mind.”

This is the ‘creative director’ hat that Jan wants to take on more and more, now that he is preparing to enter a new phase with the opening of a boutique in Paris, a huge challenge that doesn’t scare him in terms of competition. “Of course I could have opted for another city to open this boutique, but after all, Paris is the centre of the world when it comes to this craft, and so there wasn’t a better place to be than there. But also, after all these years, I’m starting to miss Europe.”

When we ask him the fatal question to end the interview about his plans for the future, he is quick to answer: to continue to work as he has until now, with no rush and no pressures that will interfere with his creative freedom, because he has found what he truly loves and, for that reason, he wants to preserve it.