Once named ‘the world’s most elegant perfumier’, this sixth-generation Creed has brought his curiosity, passion for art and family into the business of creating fragrances, as Michael Peake finds out.
Born in the Italian-occupied city of Nice during the Second World War, it seems that from an early age, Olivier Creed has always had an insatiable curiosity that was going to either get him into or keep him out of trouble. Beyond the perimeter of his playpen lay opportunity and adventure – and the life that followed was destined to be rich with both.
‘My father always encouraged me not only to study but also to experiment,’ Olivier explains. ‘Perfumes, fabrics, paint – and it all still interests me today. I’m not someone who can stay in his lab, not going anywhere. I like to see people from different generations, different countries, and it all helps to give me ideas. It’s not good to be trapped inside four walls.’
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s the little matter of being born into the Creed family – the House Of Creed, no less – to attend to first. The Creed story is, by now, well known. The brand started life as bespoke tailors in the mid-18th century in London’s affluent area of Mayfair and almost immediately attracted royal patronage. Supplying the court of King George III, founder James Henry Creed was a pioneer among businessmen, the brains behind a novel idea that would go on to elevate his brand above his competitors.
As a special treat for discerning clients, he would sometimes add a dab of homemade fragrance to the items they bought. A pair of leather gloves infused with a tantalising aroma proved such a hit with George III that he commissioned James to create Creed’s very first fragrance: Royal English Leather.
A book could be written about the successes that followed – ‘The Queen Victoria Years’, ‘The Hapsburg Connection’ and ‘A Scent for Mr Churchill’ would likely be nestled among other intriguingly titled chapters – however, if we’re to focus exclusively on the man behind Creed as the world knows it today, then our story really begins around 1962.
With the brand at the time quietly occupied with creating bespoke scents and fine garments for a very selective client base, the hour had come for the sixth-generation Creed to take up the reins of the business. A single-minded young man with a thirst for creativity and adventure, Olivier was about to steer the company in a bold new direction. ‘I started to make fragrances when I was about 18,’ he explains.
‘My grandmother helped me a lot and even gave me a mould to make the bottles, and my father told me that if my passion was for fragrances, then I should go for it.’ By ‘go for it’, young Olivier was effectively being given the green light to focus on the fragrance side of the business – and, ultimately, push the family brand almost exclusively in that direction. ‘Although,’ he adds, eyes sparkling, ‘even if my father hadn’t have been behind the idea, I would still have done it.'
Creed had the heritage – underpinned by a dizzying collection of royal warrants – and Olivier had the vision. He also had boundless enthusiasm when it came to creating things, something he had developed while studying art and painting at the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. ‘I’ve always been passionate about painting and drawing,’ says Olivier, who still paints today.
‘A client of my father’s sold paintings, and we came to an agreement where he paid me every month to paint, and if he sold that piece then we would continue for another month. He sold my work in Montparnasse, where I had a flat, and it worked well, but then my father said to me, “You’re my only son, and I need you in the family business.”’
Art was much more than a fleeting passion for Olivier. While he owns few of the canvasses he painted as a young man, he does have some wonderful memories – such as the occasions when he painted with Georges Braque, a renowned French artist whose paintings have sold at auction for more than $15 million. ‘He was a neighbour of ours,’ Olivier explains.
The similarities between creating art and fragrances are readily evident – to be blunt, you start with an idea and materials, and then finish, God willing, with something that people will cherish.
And just like the tirelessly tenacious painter who has a canvas and brush within reach for that moment when the muse might strike, Olivier has a small lab near his bedroom in his main residence in Brussels (he also has properties in Lausanne and Paris) for when inspiration calls in the small hours. Indeed, he once pointed out that, unlike a finished painting, an already flawless fragrance can theoretically be adjusted and improved on forever.
For Olivier, one of the greatest attractions of creating new fragrances is that it offers him the chance to travel the world in search of exciting new ingredients. Dedicated to only using natural products in his fragrances, he has eagerly toured distant shores time and again to hunt down the rare flowers, delicate spices and lovingly farmed fruits that make his creations so special.
‘When I started to pursue the perfume side of the business, it took time, because I wanted to create fragrances I really liked,’ he says. ‘And, back then, very few of the ingredients I wanted to include were readily available.’ Since then, there have been journeys to Florence to find the finest irises, to Calabria for zesty bergamot, and to Mysore in India for rare sandalwood. The world’s most fragrant lemons, Olivier will tell you, are to be found in Sicily.
The raw ingredients are only half of the story, of course – the actual creation of Creed’s scents is equally as meticulous and takes place in a lab at Ury near Fontainebleau, just south of Paris.
The French capital has been home to the company since 1854, and you would discover – if you were lucky enough to take a peek behind the curtains – that the approach taken at Creed’s lab is markedly different to that of a more run-of-the-mill fragrance house. Everything is done in a diligent fashion and on an intimate scale – something not lost on the legions of fragrance journalists who have waxed lyrical about master perfumer Olivier’s creative process over the years.
Describing the hand-pressing of Creed’s ingredients that have been immersed in oils for months, one wrote: ‘If you think of peasant girls dancing on grapes to make wine, but with fingers instead of feet, you’re not too far off.’
Olivier is assisted by a team of 50 in this unhurried hive of olfactory activity. This team includes his son Erwin, Creed’s brand director. It was always the dream, says Olivier, for his family to be part of the business. ‘I enjoy having them around me,’ he says, ‘and they are really good at what they do. If they weren’t,’ he adds, smiling mischievously, ‘they wouldn’t work for me.'
I started to make fragrances when I was 18. My grandmother helped me a lot and even gave me a mould to make the bottles, and my father told me that if my passion was for fragrances, then I should go for it.
One of many things that father and son have in common is a love of sports – Erwin admits that he delayed joining the family business longer than he might have because of the distractions of fast horses and motorsports. Olivier loves horses, too – more of which in a moment – as well as tennis and golf.
But it was skiing that had him hooked when, as a teenager, he took to the slopes in Megève in the French Alps. Olivier was an excellent skier in his day, generally preferring the buzz of competitions over skiing just for fun. Today, he can transport himself back to the Alps any time the mood takes him simply by removing the stopper from a bottle of Creed’s Silver Mountain Water, which was inspired by his passion for the snowy slopes.
But it’s a love of horses that has been, perhaps, the greatest sporting constant in his life. ‘I started riding when I was a teenager,’ he says, ‘first polo and then later dressage. At my home near Brussels, we have a stable of dressage horses, one of which is among the best in the world.’
Olivier doesn’t see any great similarities between the worlds of sport and business, and has generally kept his two interests separate – although he agrees that they each come with a degree of risk. ‘I’ve had accidents when competing, such as the time I broke my tibia, but that’s just sport,’ he says. ‘In business, though, there is always a risk when launching something new, in terms of ‘will it work, or won’t it?’ But we have to take risks or we won’t get anywhere.’
It’s a mindset he’s sure to pass on to son Erwin, who is quietly being primed to take over the House of Creed when Olivier eventually retires. Erwin is nothing if not a safe pair of hands: before joining the family firm, he trained at one of the large fragrance houses and, in the ensuing years, has developed a rock-solid understanding of how to run a business.
‘He will always be an excellent perfumer,’ says Olivier, (his son did, after all, have a hand in creating Creed’s Love in White, among other fragrances), ‘but he chose to follow sales, marketing and distribution – and that’s very important; it’s half the work of a well-managed business.’ It all augurs well for the future.
And there is little doubt that Olivier feels there are many chapters of Creed’s story still to be written. As for what happens next, he believes almost anything is possible. 'My dream is that the Creed brand will develop new fragrances – that’s easy – but that we will also explore niche markets, as we once did before – things like fabrics, maybe suits, we could do that,’ he says. ‘Creed could become the next Hermès. It’s a challenge, but it’s feasible – and that’s what I keep in mind when I create, this idea of the things that we could do.’
For a man who lives in Belgium, works in Paris, speaks mostly French and carries a UK passport (a reminder whenever he travels of Creed’s quintessentially British roots), Olivier is, perhaps, living proof that some people in this world were born to rip up the rulebook – even in the genteel world of fragrances. He’s been lucky, he says, because he has always been able to do exactly what he loved. ‘But to be lucky, you still have to work hard,’
Olivier insists. ‘There are no such things as miracles.’