Glass meets Rami Mekdachi of Lola James Harper – the Parisian polymath of perfume
RAMI Mekdachi is the polymath of perfume. With over 20 years as a perfumer and working with some of the world’s most exclusive, leading and intriguing brands who (such as L’Oreal, Colette, Costes Hotel, Lacoste, Roger Vivier and Chloe), have sought out him and his talents, Paris-based and Beirut-born Mekdachi is not satisfied with these achievements. A teenage punk, he is also a photographer and musician of no little talent (he spent two years in his teen studying music in Lancaster in the north England) and is someone who thrives on creative collaboration and the exchange of ideas. This is integral to him. Life blood in a way. For him, it’s always a family affair.
Named by his children, Mekdachi has recently established Lola James Harper – a platform embracing many of his fascinations – fragrance, candles, music, furniture, coffee and even food. The candles and fragrances are also devised to conjure up the memory of different places Mekdachi has visited, for instance The TV Basement of Jonet, The Rainy Days in Lake District and The Coffee Shop of JP.
Glass had the chance to talk to the fascinating creatively driven Mekdachi who reminds us that the opportunity to meet talented and extraordinary people was why we got into journalism in the first place.
Can you tell Glass something about your background and the journey that’s led you to Lola James Harper?
The journey to Lola James Harper has been a really magical one. The project brings together the many people, places and journeys I have encountered since I was 15. I launched Lola James Harper really as a platform that brings together the creative fields and friendships that are important to me – music, photography, and perfume.
The perfume part came because I went to a good business school in France where L’Oreal approached me. They liked me as a creative person who was also a good student too! I had to pay my study fees and so I decided to accept their proposal, which was really open – they told me I could choose whatever field I wanted to. I chose perfume because, for me, perfume is an amazingly creative field, like music. Hair and make-up, on the other hand, are quite technical. So that’s how I started in perfume, 20 years ago.
So to begin with, the move into perfumery was not because of any particular passion for perfumes but because of the opportunity of a major company asking me to do creative things with them just because they liked my way of working, my creative profile and my diplomas. I began then working with designers like Corinne Cobson, a French designer and perfumer who was really well-known in the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s. I also worked with many independent, alternative 90s designers. After three years I went to LVMH to work with John Galliano.
When was this?
About 1999. However, after four years of creating consumer perfumes, I realised what I really wanted to do was find a different way of doing perfumes – like in old-school perfumery. I realised how different it was in the 1920s/30s. Back then you had amazing brands with amazing designers, such as Chanel or Lanvin, creating perfume for brand lovers. When women used to go and buy a Chanel dress, it was saying something about a women’s way of life.
And when she bought the dress, she would also buy Chanel No 5 potion, to begin to try to be that Chanel woman even more by having more than just the clothes from Chanel atelier. In this way she was embodying Chanel, following the “Chanel” lifestyle.
I think the word brand is kind of tainted in a way …
Yes exactly. So I began to understand how powerful perfume is, and what I really found was the fact that fragrance has no point by itself. What makes it so powerful, you see, is its links to a memory, a poem, or a moment. When you start to dive into this idea, you realise how powerful these potions can be for brands in creating a place where people come to believe in you. Perfume becomes a place where brands can share their ways of life, their philosophies.
This inspired me, and I realised I wanted to do it like it was done back then. Perfume like a movie – where you create concepts, philosophies, and great stories. You have actors and you have mannequins, great objects. In fact, people buy your perfme because they love you concept or poem. I really feel strongly that when you wear a fragrance, the brand is creating a space for that person to live in – a way of life for that person to follow. But when people these days buy Angel they do not embody [Thierry] Mugler; when they buy Chance, they do not embody Chanel.
So then what?
In 2000, I chose to stop that “new” way of doing perfumes and instead work with brands that have their own “universe” where people liked to go. I decided to create perfumes for those brands to sell in those places for their aficionados. I began with the Hotel Costes [hip boutique hotel in Paris], which was a place where people in Paris like to go and has a real power.
This was the where I began to do what you might call “private perfumery”. I met Ines de la Fressange and many other French fashion names who are real friends now. We worked collaboratively but my job was really to understand what their brand fans and aficionados seek in their world.
For Colette I created cologne as well as candles and cosmetics, and did the same for many other brands. My job was not to just create the perfume, but to understand what was really central to those brands. I was responsible for pinpointing those brand philosophies, poems, ways of life that people wanted to follow, and sum it up in a smell.
So where does Lola James Harper fit in to this?
Three years ago, I decided to set up Lola James Harper as a platform to gather together all the creative friendships I have made while travelling with my wife. Singers, musicians, coffee roasters, designers, wax makers, and then all the pictures I took while on the road too.
That’s what you showed me when we met at the Holborn Hotel?
Are those books for sale commercially?
No, the books you saw are brand books to be able to explain our weird stuff.
[laughs] Yes, because the project is somehow new – it’s the first time you have such a thing. Lola James Harper is not a concept store as such, because in a concept store you have an edit of different designers and different brands exhibited alongside each other. Rather, the Lola James Harper Life Stores [where all the products come together] brings together all the smells, all the pictures, and all the music that has taken 20 years to gather through my experiences.
The Life Store brings together everything from our music to our pictures and photo books, candles, coffee, fragrances, furniture, cookies, and clothing. We’re talking about the fact that I composed with different singers for over 20 years and I took pictures of those travels and concerts and now we’re showing those pictures. And my relationships with my perfumer friends, have also been for 20 years.
Whenever I come back from a nice place, I work with a friend who is a fourth generation wax-maker to create a candle that represents the memory and sums it up through bringing together the different elements of that place – the light, materials, conversations, smells, and people I encountered.
Really we are just a family going around the world playing music, creating perfumes, and sharing our philosophies and ways of life. So this perhaps is why I say weird because this is a new way of doing things!
But I realise more and more that people are absolutely ready for this. Nobody has said to me, “It’s weird that you’re doing pictures and perfume.” It’s the opposite in fact. They say to us, “I don’t understand why you don’t sell your furniture as well, or your own coffee.”
So guess what? Now we make our own furniture with Kann Design (which is a Parisian furniture design company owned by a friend I have played basketball with for five years), and have our own coffee blend created with the most celebrated coffee roaster in Paris Christophe Servell, for people to enjoy when they come to our Life Store and look at our pictures and smell the candles.”
by Caroline Simpson
The Lola James Harper candle and home fragrance range is available exclusively at Selfridges UK in store and online (Lola James Harper candle range) The candles retail at £34 (190g and burn for 50 hours).