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Fast Talk: Sylvie Chantecaille

Sylvie Chantecaille, founder and president of Chantecaille Beauté, her line of fragrances, cosmetics, and skin-care products, travels "something crazy like 280 days out of the year," visiting Chantecaille counters and finding creative inspiration in the far-flung corners of the world. The former senior vice president and creative director of Prescriptives launched Chantecaille Beauté in 1997, turning to her family for their professional and moral support: her daughter, Olivia, serves as the company's creative director; her husband, Olivier, is its chief financial officer. "When you start a company," Chantecaille says, "you put in so much time that it's important to be involved with people you care about. Otherwise it would get quite lonely." We caught up with Chantecaille on one of her rare days off, two months before the debut of her latest perfume, Le Jasmin. Here, she shares her secrets for staying optimistic on the road, confesses which city makes her hold her nose, and explains why creating a perfume is like teaching a blind pianist to play a concerto.

1. Where are you right now, and why?Anyplace you'd rather be?
I'm in my house in East Hampton, New York. It's the most cheerful house in the world. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. A heron has made his home in my backyard and I've been watching him for three days.

2. Do you usually travel for business or for pleasure?
Well, business is a pleasure for me. I travel so often that if I started to think of travel as business, I would probably shoot myself. So I try to think positively: "Oh, yeah! I'm going to London!" or "Oh, yeah! I'm going to Hong Kong!" I think about the great delights that can come with the trip. And then it's all about finding great places to stay.

3. What do you think makes a great hotel?
For me, a good hotel feels like a tiny little club—a chic setting filled with a select group of interesting people. I also need a place that's visually satisfying and exciting, a place that looks as if someone with a great eye has attended to all the details. Right now my favorite hotel is the Lancaster, in Paris. As soon as you walk in, you realize: "This is a very chic place." In the lobby there are two black wood benches, with dark-green cashmere throws. Very elegant, very simple. And of course the service must be impeccable.

4. Do you have a favorite destination?
I've spent much of my life in very frantic cities. Now I'm attracted only to places with great energy, places that take away the sharpness of the world. In Mexico and India, for example, I feel strong and renewed and completely myself. I also love the southwest of France, the mountains above the Riviera. I grew up in Paris and spent every summer on the island of Porquerolles. I had friends who lived in the mountains above Cannes, in Grasse. Thirty years ago it wasn't touristy, and there were these markets where you could buy amazing honey, white matelassé throws for your bed, and the most incredible macaroons.

5. What distinguishes Chantecaille from other companies?
We're completely fanatical about creating honest products, with the highest quality organic materials. We do not skimp on cost. You'll never hear us say "That's too expensive for us." We say "That's the best, we want it." We put our money into our products, not advertising. We gain most of our customers through editorial coverage and word of mouth.

6. What Chantecaille products are good for frequent travelers?
Our Jet Set travel kit is fabulous for people who spend a lot of time on airplanes: it contains travel-sized bottles of the core elements in our Aromacologie line, including Pure Rosewater (which I spray all around me on the plane, to kill germs and hydrate the air) and our Jasmine and Lily Healing Mask (perfect for tired, dry skin). We also have beautiful makeup palettes-slim silver cases containing some of our favorite eye and cheek colors.

7. Can you name a particularly good-smelling destination?A particularly bad-smelling destination?
In Scottsdale, Arizona, all the streets are bordered with orange trees, and if you arrive when they're in full bloom, it's just incredible. I was shocked. Bangkok, on the other hand, has absolutely no laws against pollution, so the city can be rather smelly. But at the same time, you can enter a courtyard and, quite unexpectedly, it will be full of extraordinary-smelling jasmine flowers.

8. Some people say that our sense of smell is the most far-reaching and vivid connection to our memories. Do you think that this is true?How does this play into your professional life?
That's exactly right. It's the limbic brain, our dinosaur brain: instant memory. Before you have time to process a thought, you're five years old and back in your mother's kitchen. My fragrances are all based on my memories of travel. Frangipane was inspired by a trip my husband and I took to Udaipur, India. We stayed at a palace hotel and went swimming one night in the courtyard's marble pool. There was a frangipani tree next to the pool, and I'll always remember the way that smelled, and the way it felt to be there. I created the perfume to preserve that moment—and to share it with others.

9. How can you be sure that you're actually communicating what you're feeling and visualizing to those who are helping you make a new perfume?
It's like writing a symphony or concerto; you just have to put the notes in the ear. Except your piano player is blind. How will you communicate your music to him? Sometimes the only way I can think of to express what I'm imagining is to say it's very turquoise, with an overlay of purple. It sounds like this, it feels like this. As I've learned more about essential oils, I've been able to be more specific in my communication. But it takes a long time. For some perfumes, three years. For others, five.

10. Anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
Listen to your dreams and act upon them immediately. I think that sometimes we know what we want to do, but we wait because we feel we owe somebody something. You need to follow your instincts, and not discuss why and when and how. If you have a strong pull toward something, just go with it: it's the right thing for you.

Interviewed by Jaime Gross

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