Prada's latest perfume, Infusion d'Iris, is a heady, unorthodox scent built around the most precious ingredient on earth. Susannah Frankel meets its maker
Of all the ingredients used in perfumery, the butter extracted from the root of the iris is the most precious. "A complex mixture of irones is what gives iris-root butter its magnificent, melancholy smell," writes Luca Turin, author of The Secret of Scent, estimating the price of the raw material as more than €70,000 (£50,000) a kilo. "Good iris notes in fragrance are correspondingly rare, but, when properly executed, exude a frosty luxury that everyone falls in love with, sooner or later."
Small wonder, then, that iris is the principle component of the Prada Group's biggest fragrance launch to date, Infusion d'Iris. "The project had been decided upon, the bottle already designed, but Miuccia Prada always knew that iris would be the key note," says Daniela Andrier, the perfumer behind it. Andrier also created the first Prada fragrance for men and the Prada Parfums Collection, a line of single-note scents available exclusively in Prada stores that include Cuir, Ambre, Oeillet, Fleur d'Oranger and, not insignificantly, Iris. "Just for her, I had done a fresh version of that Iris," Andrier continues, "and that's actually Infusion d'Iris. We reworked it, but it's basically that smell."
Andrier is one of a growing number of female "noses" (who, perhaps unsurprisingly, now prefer to be known by the rather more elegant term "perfumer") gaining increased prominence in what was hitherto a closed, almost entirely male world. She studied philosophy before entering the Givaudan's Ecole de Parfumerie in Grasse in 1989 - she still works for that company. Her love affair with scent goes back much further, however, to her youth when she remembers mixing her mother's favourite fragrances - Yves Saint Laurent's Rive Gauche, Hermès's Calèche and Chanel No 19 - which is iris-based, incidentally - among them.
"I would go to a concert, for example, and if I was bored I'd pass the time trying to recognise the fragrances around me," she says. "I thought everyone did it. I never wondered where any of the smells came from. They were just part of a world that I took for granted, in much the same way as one might Coca-Cola. When I found out that it was possible to make a profession out of creating smells, I knew it was for me."
Andrier says that her sense of smell is no more acute than anyone else's. "We all have noses, and most function normally, but some people are very sensitive to smell, and their way of communicating to the world is through fragrances. My perception of the outside world and of emotions is very much alive through smell.
"I think also that our sense of smell reassures us that we have a past, gives depth to our past. Of course we have memories, we have photographs, but the older we become, the more things are confused. Through smell one really gets back there. Smell is very strong for human beings because it gives them some power over the past, and that's something I really , really love."
In the 14th century, the iris root was highly sought-after for its use in perfumed water for washing hands during meals, and also for scenting clothing and bed linen. And Prada's Infusion d'Iris is, on first impression at least, a fresh and clean scent, an aspect that is heightened by the inclusion of orange blossom and mandarin. Earthy galbanum from Iran and lentisc from the Mediterranean adds a green contrast and ensures that freshness - often the first element to disappear - endures. Benzoin and incense evoke a sensual, provocative quality, and vetiver and cedarwood introduce a more masculine side.
At the heart of the fragrance, though, is the iris note, which is achieved using modern technology to recreate the ancient process of infusion, whereby the precious iris root would be steeped in alcohol for months, sometimes even years.
Infusion d'Iris contains both natural and synthetic notes of iris, however, and that is because, intriguingly, the actual flower of the iris has only a faint aroma. Some blooms - jasmine and rose to name just two - extract beautifully. Others - freesia, lily of the valley and violet, for example - are more elusive and must therefore be recreated in a lab. While the iris root is fragrant, the scent of the flower must be imagined by the individual perfumer, which goes some way towards explaining the great difference between iris-based fragrances such as, say, Dior Homme and the aforementioned Chanel No 19.
"The iris note is very 'faceted'. I've been working on it for years," Andrier says. "It's very difficult if you work with iris not to be overly rooty, not to overdo an earthy feeling or get too powdery. Like when you look at an Impressionist painting, it's about how you contrast the shadows and the light so that something appears more airy and more delightful than it otherwise might.
"What I will say is that this fragrance is composed of traditional ingredients of a high-end quality, yet the result is something innovative, something that wasn't there before."
And this makes it the perfect match with the brand it was created to represent. Andrier takes this idea to the point where she actually compares Infusion d'Iris to the current Prada women's collection, which springs from its designer's fascination with the morphing of one very traditional fabric into another, and the creation of something entirely surprising and modern as a result.
"In the collection there are some fabrics that start out as wool and, I believe, finish as silk," she says. "They start off grey and become green. So that although you are familiar with silk and wool, what appears in the middle of the coat is like a new material. I think Infusion d'Iris has that quality, that it takes elements of traditional perfumery and yet the overall result is lightness. It's a very emotional fragrance and one that is very different from anything else that's out there."
It is true that the overcrowded women's fragrance market tends to rely more today upon targeting a specific customer than the creation of anything truly remarkable. Aiming their products squarely at various feminine stereotypes - the intelligent working woman, say, the seductress, the bright young thing - the big brands turn out green fragrances, oriental fragrances, fruity fragrances, floral fragrances, accordingly. Miuccia Prada was intent on resisting such a reductive viewpoint, however, encouraging Andrier to take just the same unorthodox approach with Infusion d'Iris as she might with her own work.
"You can be any kind of woman and wear this fragrance," says Andrier. "And yet it has a lot of character. In some ways, Infusion d'Iris is a very simple fragrance. The central note of iris, however, is not simple at all."
www.prada.com; 020-7499 4420