Five minutes with: Yves Dombrowsky

Owner and operator of the Yves Andre customised perfume bar in Auckland, talented French perfumer Yves Dombrowsky has created bespoke fragrances for jeweller Michael Hill, top designer Trelise Cooper and recently discussed the finer points of fragrance at a high profile launch of the new Venus Spa Breeze razor infused with the soothing scent of white tea.

With a knack for creating signature scents, Dombrowsky learnt some of his early craft from an expert perfumer in France who worked for Chanel, the world’s most prestigious fragrance house. With 20 years experience behind him now, he has a gift for capturing scents truly unique to your personality.

What inspired you to become a perfumer and what steps did you take to become a perfumer?

I used to work in the field of environmental microbiology and as part of this role I was exposed to the potential of essential oils and this is when I familiarised myself with their smells.

It wasn’t until I went to France as part of a project I was working on that I had my first introduction to a perfumer. Impressed by my olfactory abilities, he invited me to stay longer to perfect my basic knowledge and return to New Zealand as an agent for their company. After a few years, I set out on my own and invented my own way to design and market perfume – it is now my passion.

You must have a brilliant sense of smell?

My sense of smell does play a key role in what I do but for me the brain is more important. This is because it helps me to classify and memorise everything that I smell. It also gives me the inspiration to associate odours and imagine new fragrance combinations.

Having a scientific background and a precise way of thinking is also a great help because you need an extensive knowledge of the chemicals you work with and you have to understand the complex safety and regulations of designing perfume.

The old adage of the genius perfumer lost in an exotic island and locked in his laboratory is over but I think I have been able to recreate some of the dream with a system that allows me to concoct the perfect perfume for a person that captures the right amount of smell, colour and emotion.

Why are some people attracted to some smells and not others?

The sense of smell is quite complex and there are a number of reasons why people prefer some fragrances over others. One is that there are intricate feelings of deep emotion among people which is connected to experiences and events in their life. It can also go further than this and come down to genetics – our sense of smell has evolved in a way to help us recognise what is good and bad for us.

Can you read a person by the fragrance that they wear?

This definitely gives us information about part of a person’s personality. When we are creating a perfume for someone we delve deeper by asking personal questions about their fragrance attitudes as this helps us better understand them.

What do the different types of scents represent?

The French Society of Perfumers recognise seven main families of scents – citrus, floral, fougère (fern-like), chypre, woody, amber and leather.

Each of these is perceived differently by the individual. A citrus freshness is a mild sort of sweetness whereas floral has a kind of delicacy susceptible to lightening emotions.

Does fragrance have an effect on our psyche?

If you are in the mood to be receptive to smells, they can definitely help you dive deep into your psyche. We often react to a smell by immediately trying to categorise it and referring it back to an existing memory.

When confronted with a smell, we take our time savouring it – unconsciously we look for delicate and subtle association that create attachments to our emotions. Our psyche needs energy and variety and smells offer endless opportunities to us to fulfill those needs.

Even after almost 20 years working in perfumery, not a single day goes by that I’m not amazed and excited by a new odour.

What are your favourite notes?

I have so many favourite ones. In particular I like green and blue notes which can be explained by my attraction to the sea and forest. In recent years I have discovered that I’ve become more open to combinations involving exotic and spicy notes. They mix really well with the green and the blue bringing depth to the combination and creating something quite special.

What is the best way to distinguish whether a fragrance suits you or not?

The best way to find this out is to wear it for a while to see if it works well together with you. A perfume is like your shadow; it must accompany you in harmony, underline your style and personality, enhance the mood of yourself, and make you stand out from the crowd.

Is it true that a fragrance suits you if you cannot smell it on yourself?

Not necessarily. I think that if you are no longer able to smell a fragrance on yourself it can mean that you have just become used to it but it can also mean that it has become one with you and agrees with your personality meaning it is the right perfume for you.

Is it true that sniffing coffee beans in between smelling fragrances helps clear the nose?

I’ve heard this story many times but I personally have never found it to be true – I prefer to drink coffee than sniff the beans. When my sense of smell gets a bit blocked from an overload of too many smells, I prefer to walk outside my laboratory and this really helps to clear it.

How long does a fragrance last?

This depends on the type of perfume you have. Some perfumes such as citrus fragrances have very short life spans whereas oriental perfumes last much longer.

Perfumes release their ingredients gradually, first come the notes de têtes (top notes, or head notes in French) followed by the notes de coeur (heart notes) and the notes de fond (base notes).

A great perfume should release everything slowly enabling it to keep a constant remembrance of its initial notes even when the smell has almost gone.

Where should a woman wear perfume and how should she apply it?

Many decades ago, it used to be common practice to spray ourselves excessively before going out but now technological advances have enabled us to make higher quality perfumes so less is definitely better. A subtle spritz is more alluring than a cloud of perfume.

It’s often a good idea to patch-test perfume on your arm for a few hours when using it for the first time to make sure you don’t react to it and break out with a skin irritation or inflammation. If this happens but you still really want to wear the perfume, you can try spraying your clothes instead of directly on your skin.

And a man?

It’s also important for men to not overdo the amount of fragrance they wear – again subtlety is the key as women are more attracted to men who lure them in with their smell rather than it being too much in their face.

Tell me about your perfume bar.

My unique perfume bar enables me to help individuals create their own signature scents. There are 179 notes represented on the bar, each illustrated with photos and explanations about them, and each one has a bottle of the scent situated behind it. The bar is then broken down into 18 classes which are each distinguished by a different colour and within each class, there are more sub classes broken down which move up from sharp to more heavy notes.

When someone visits me wanting to create their own perfume, I start by asking them to point out their favourite colour as this helps determine the type of fragrance that works well for them.

On the bar, we have another three levels which indicate top notes, middle notes and base notes. Using this progression system, people are invited to select three to nine of their favourite perfumes.

We then load them into our specially created computer system which finds the best way to blend them based on their intricate perfume direction and intensity. Each analysis designs a new brand of perfume and these blends are presented to the individual and then we work together to finetune their final blend.

This process has worked so well that I am now asked to conduct live perfume presentations at events such as the launch of the new scented Venus Spa Breeze. Infused with the exotic smell of white tea, I was able to talk about the luxurious soothing qualities of this scent before creating a special perfume for each guest to take home.

With a little imagination, perfumery has no limit!

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Chanel No. 5: The Film

Audrey Tautou seduces with her gaze in the latest Chanel N°5 film, her third collaboration with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. (Tautou starred in Jeunet’s Amélie, 2001, and A Very Long Engagement, 2004.) Set on a night train, the two-minute film is a tale of chance encounters, seduction, mystery and love that embodies the essence of the timeless, mesmerising fragrance.


How does it feel to be the face of 
Chanel N°5?

I think it all goes beyond my image and my character. I feel more like I’ve become involved in the story of the perfume and the story of filmmaking with Jean-Pierre rather than becoming the image or face of the fragrance. For me, Chanel N°5 
is a legend. You can wear it, offer it as 
a gift and share it, but it transcends all 
the women who have embodied the fragrance before me.

Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet 
and Nicole Kidman are former faces of Chanel N°5. How do you feel about belonging to such a dynasty?

It’s not bad, is it? I even wonder what I’m doing here! I don’t compare myself to those great actresses. I don’t see myself 
as part of their lineage.

You’re too modest.

No, I’m happy. It may seem pretentious, but I think I was a good choice [for the advertising film]. The fragrance is very French. While I’m not a chauvinist, there is something refined, elegant and delicate [about French women]. And no, I’m not describing myself, but it’s often what people tell me they associate with French women, or at least it’s the image that foreigners have of French women, or the cliché of the French or Parisian woman. I’m happy that woman is me.

You play Coco Chanel (1883–1971), the creator of Chanel N°5, in the feature film Coco Avant Chanel to be released this year. Did that inspire you for your role 
in the advertisement?

The feature film enabled me to 
learn a lot more about Coco Chanel. 
She was avant-garde, ahead of her era. 
When you think about her childhood [in an orphanage], no one could have imagined that her destiny would be so incredible, so huge. The fact that she created a fragrance in the 1920s that could just as easily have been created yesterday reflects the standard of excellence that applied to everything she did in her life. Coco Chanel contributed greatly to the liberation of women. 
She is not the only woman to have done so, but she was really very different from the other women of her time. The image of this fragrance is the image of the personality of its creator: unusual and exceptional. By playing Coco Chanel 
and getting to know her [character], 
I understood even more just how unique Chanel N°5 really is.

You hadn’t appeared in an advertisement before. What made you say yes to this one?

I have always refused to appear in advertisements and to be the face of 
a fragrance – until now – because, first, 
I wanted to establish myself as an actress and, second, I wanted to be able to say “yes” with sincerity. I needed to have 
a sincere and real relationship with the product if I was going to be the face of the product. I could never have been the face of a fragrance I didn’t like and 
I turned down offers for that very reason. There was also the combination of 
Jean-Pierre, the House of Chanel and its truly exceptional fragrance. I have to admit it was a tantalising cocktail.

Could you love a man who doesn’t love your perfume?

I could only love a man who has taste. 
So no, I couldn’t love a man who doesn’t love my perfume; it would be hopeless.


How did you come to direct the 
Chanel N°5 advertisement?

I believe in destiny. I was supposed to direct a feature film, when an actor changed his mind at the last minute and was replaced, which set my schedule back by four months. The day we decided to postpone shooting I received the offer to direct the Chanel N°5 advertisement.

Why did you feel that Audrey Tautou should be the face of Chanel N°5?

For an actor to take on this role where there is no dialogue, there has to be a real intensity in her eyes. I knew [Audrey] would be good. It is difficult to get across emotions and intentions through nothing but the look in people’s eyes and in a 
very short space of time. I haven’t worked on advertisements much. It’s a very different approach to making feature films. A character’s gaze has to be much stronger and more intense.

How did you bring about Audrey’s involvement in the advertisement?

The idea of Audrey came to me right away. It seemed so obvious to me that we needed a very expressive actress in very short shots, someone who could act with her eyes alone, and, God knows, I know Audrey’s eyes well. I knew she would be absolutely perfect for this so I recommended her 
to Chanel. Audrey and I were delighted to work together again.

Were you surprised to learn of Audrey’s lead role in the film Coco Avant Chanel?

If someone should play Coco Chanel, it should definitely be Audrey. I read a little about “Mademoiselle” just before making the advertisement, and if I were directing the story of Coco Chanel, I would have chosen Audrey for the lead role, too.

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