So synonymous is Diptyque with fragrance, it may come as a surprise to learn of the brand’s true origins, as one of the world’s first concept stores: a treasure trove of delights where elegance mingled with eccentricity.
A visitor in the early days – the first store opened in Paris in 1961, so this year marks its 60th birthday – might encounter any of the following: Hindu masks, Pre-Raphaelite engravings, Welsh bedspreads, haute couture dresses by Jeanne Lanvin, and even the earliest creations of one Laura Ashley.
In amongst this medley of objects – a potpourri, one might say, since this was one of the first things the store sold – were the beginnings of a fragrance empire: rare incenses and eaux de toilette by British house Penhaligon’s.
Such originality was the guiding spirit of Diptyque’s founders, Christiane Montadre- Gautrot, Desmond Knox-Leet and Yves Coueslant. These three friends shared an artistic outlook, a passion for travel and the bohemian’s disregard for convention. When they went into business together, it was with a vision that now seems natural but was then quixotic: to follow their intuition, to sell only what they loved, and to tell stories.
‘Diptyque’s creations have never been driven by fashion, but by a desire to arouse the imagination,’ says Laurence Semichon, senior vice president of perfume and beauty. ‘We’re inspired by yesterday to invent today; not futuristic, but not vintage either. The years go by and our spirit remains the same – inventive, free and collaborative.’
Each founder brought their own special skills to bear. Montadre-Gautrot loved fashion and was responsible for Diptyque’s early fabric designs, among them ‘Prétorien’, whose Roman-inspired shield motif is repeated in the house logo. Knox-Leet, a British painter, is said to have worked at Bletchley Park during WWII, decoding enemy messages; he was also behind the deconstructed or ‘dancing’ alphabet on Diptyque’s perfume labels – and the brand’s first nose, Coueslant, was a theatre designer who’d decorated an apartment for Jean Cocteau.
Diptyque owes something of its theatricality – its wish to inject magic into everyday living – to Coueslant. Almost as soon as the boutique at 34 Boulevard Saint-Germain opened, a French journal dubbed its owners ‘marchands de rien’: sellers of nothing, purveyors of trifles. It only served to highlight how groundbreaking they were.
Even the shop itself was unique. Its angular façade resembled a diptych, the kind of Old Master painting that folds out into two panels; hence the company name. There was soon a cult following, lured not just by the ever-changing displays and ballet or rock background music, but by the aromas that Knox-Leet began concocting in the back room.
Perfume became another Diptyque innovation. The first candles (‘Thé’, ‘Cannelle’ and ‘Aubépine’), debuted in 1963, were pioneering in their use of perfume-quality wax, while Knox-Leet’s first skin fragrance, ‘L’ Eau’, was a genderless formula long before such notions became fashionable. A trailblazer for spice notes in perfumery, it appeared in 1968, as the spirit of protest and rebellion flooded Paris.
‘Desmond composed scents as one would use colours in a painting,’ Semichon explains. ‘He assembled unexpected accords out of resins, powders and crushed flowers. We still work this way – each creation arises from an artistic approach. Nature, travel, mythology, memories... we thrive on multiple inspirations.’
Today, as Diptyque celebrates its 60th anniversary, it’s returning to its roots as a craft bazaar with a growing homeware range, including indoor-outdoor candles in weatherproof stoneware vessels, made by the heritage Virebent pottery in Puy-l’Évêque, and the new ‘Decoration’ collection of tableware, desk kit and bathroom accessories.
Here are companions for all the places you might enjoy scent: think geometric plates based on the iconic ‘Basile’ fabric, crafted by porcelain specialist Non Sans Raison, and sculptural bronze candleholders by Italian artist Osanna Visconti di Modrone, made using the lost-wax casting technique.
‘The collection is a renewal of the founders’ passion for decorative arts,’ says Myriam Badault, senior vice president of decoration and lifestyle. ‘It’s about working with craftsmen to elevate everyday objects into works of art that can be enjoyed time and again. The “Basile” ceramics, for example, transform the dining table into a theatre of wonders.’
Art is a strong presence in the new fragrance launches, too. Knox-Leet’s intricate illustrations for the perfumes have their modern match in a limited-edition range by British artist Luke Edward Hall. He’s adorned the ‘Ilio’ summer perfume and a lemongrass-scented candle – both inspired by the Mediterranean landscapes beloved of Diptyque’s founders – with romantic drawings depicting their key notes.
What lies ahead for this creative powerhouse? Its first exhibition– physical and digital – is coming later this year and, elsewhere, five major artists have been given carte blanche to create a ‘perfumed work of art’. For 2022, a wallpaper collection is promised. The magical story continues... diptyqueparis.com