The Fragrance Philosopher: Part one of a two-part conversation with Véronique Gabai

If anyone understands the powerful and primal connection between scent, memory and emotion, it’s Véronique Gabai. A renowned global authority in the fragrance industry, she has cultivated her expertise as an executive for beauty giants like Estée Lauder, Vera Wang and Guerlain (LVMH) where she helped to develop Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria collection, Armani’s Aqua di Gio for men and Donna Karan’s DKNY Be Delicious. Armed with a vision and a passionate interest in product development, she launched her own fragrance brand, Véronique Gabai in 2019.

More recently, her expertise has guided the creation of the Grace de Monaco fragrance collection. Véronique’s love and reverence for Princess Grace and the French Riviera made her the natural choice to voice the “Making of Promenade Sur Le Rocher” video.

How did you get your start in fragrance?

VG: Fragrance has been a part of my entire life. I was born in the south of France, in a little town called Antibes, about 5 miles from Grasse. I didn’t really know what perfumery was, from a professional standpoint. I did not come from a family of perfumers. But, you know, scent was always an extraordinary thing for me because I had a very strong sense of smell. As a child, some smells would really enchant me and others would literally make me sick. My sense of smell was extraordinarily developed, but again, I didn’t know that perfumery would be a path for me. It wasn’t until I was working as a marketing manager in the makeup division of L’Oréal that management approached me to join their luxury fragrance division. They felt that my creativity would be well-suited to fragrance. This was the real “aha” moment. Suddenly, everything that happened in my youth made sense and I knew this was what I needed to be doing. I fell so in love with this new category, that at night, I trained myself in product development. So my entire career was really between business management and the creative development of scents. I was lucky that very early on in my career, I developed a few fragrances that truly resonated with the public and knew remarkable success. This really propelled my career. I started working on projects for Estée Lauder, which ultimately led to me becoming the Global President in charge of their fragrance lines portfolio. I helped to restructure their profile and to acquire niche brands like Le Labo, Kilian and Frederic Malle.

It was at the height of her corporate career at Estée Lauder that she decided to take on a different role - that of creator of her own brand. It was important to her to explore and develop her passion for creating and connecting to people. Véronique wanted to make sure that her eponymous line of fragrances connected people to nature, specifically the South of France. Through her products, she shares the stories, sensations and natural ingredients of her birthplace to enable her customers to express their personality. It’s this connection to the South of France that made the relationship with Grace de Monaco so fluid and organic.

VG: My parents and grand parents loved Monaco, so we went there regularly when I was growing up. I also had school outings where I had the opportunity to meet Princess Grace. Now, I have family residing close to Monaco, so that bond to the city remains strong and very close to my heart.

What was your very first fragrance?

VG: The first fragrance I wore as a young woman, I was maybe 14. It was actually given to me by a friend of my sister’s. She gave me Youth Dew by Estée Lauder. That was the very first fragrance I wore for myself, which was a very gutsy fragrance, very grown up.

However, the very first emotion I felt with fragrance was with my mother’s fragrance. My mother was a “Guerlain lady” and she would wear Jicky and Shalimar. She would also wear a perfume that’s a little less known, called Nahema. Nahema was for me the door opening to the mystery, the sophistication at the bounty of scent. It’s funny because my first emotional connection to perfumes were with Guerlain and Estée Lauder scents and I went on to work at both companies.

As I moved on, my taste was always centered around rose like in Guerlain’s Nahema, amber like in Shalimar and Jicky, and wood like in Youth Dew. In my line, you will always find citrus and bergamot because I love that smell, and a touch of rose. Always. It’s part of my psyche, I guess.

How does perfume make you feel? What is your relationship to it?

VG: I cannot live without scent. I cannot. It goes beyond what it makes me feel like. It’s a part of who I am. The sense of smell, perfume creation is my way of expressing myself. It would be the same thing as asking a painter how they function without colors, you know? I can’t imagine my life without it. During the pandemic, before the vaccine was available, I was extraordinarily careful because the idea of potentially losing my sense of smell was horrible. It’s a very big part of my emotional system.

I work a lot with natural ingredients because I have a passion for it. I know everything in perfumery, but at this point I would say that my attraction to naturals is because of their olfactive beauty, the connection to nature they provide and for the benefit they procure. In my own line, I’ve gone very far in the usage of natural ingredients and I even developed a line of perfumes that are at the crossroads between aromatherapy and perfumery. Perfumes that truly give you benefits.

Perfume for me is an act of creation, but it’s also a way to give well-being to people, a way to give them joy, a way to give them energy, to provide self-confidence, to provide the sensation that someone can be more seductive. That joy and that beauty is what I call “sunshine for the senses and the soul.” Scent is my sunshine. In the morning I say hello to the sun and then I smell something. Then I can be very curious in using things that I have not used in the past or expressing a sensation and idea and image and moment, in a very specific way. That’s the work that we’ve done with Grace de Monaco. How do you encapsulate what Grace de Monaco represents? Because it’s not about her necessarily, but it’s about what she means to people. How do you capture that aura and put it in a bottle?