Fashion Designer Hien Le was born in Laos but his family moved to Berlin when he was only one. Still, his designs seem to echo the natural, light palette of his native country, perfectly pairing with the refined purism of his clear cuts and silhouettes. After studying fashion design and working within the industry in many roles, Le showed his first collection at Berlin’s 2011 Fashion Week and was instantly nominated as “Best Newcomer” by Sportswear International. We met Le at his studio where we talked olfactive memories of Laos, the smells of Paris, and the first fragrance he created for his own label.
PORTRAITS: Per Zennström
1. THE BLIND TASTING
Aedes de Venustas BY Aedes de Venustas
We confronted Hien Le with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Hien on his journey into scent …
“Climbing the steps to Sacré Cœur.”
I It makes me think of Paris in the fall! That’s the season when the city of Paris most closely corresponds to the romantic image we all have of it: climbing steep steps to visit the Sacré Cœur, hanging out in cafés and watching men in casually knotted scarves rush by — and the pâtisseries, of course. I just adore the pâtisseries! There is a bitter as well as a sweet note in this perfume, like in a good fruit tart. Which is perhaps why it reminds me of Paris, because I try to find a new pâtisserie whenever I’m there. I prefer sweet, fruity pastries to the creamy sort, and I love the fact that the fruit toppings on tarts change throughout the year, in rhythm with the latest harvest.
One pâtisserie I’m particularly fond of is Liberté on rue des Vinaigriers. During fashion week, on my way to the showroom in the mornings, I see people standing in line there, along the whole street. I prefer to go by in the afternoon, when it’s not so full. That’s when I take a break, a breather.
There is nothing comparable in Berlin — real confectioners are a rarity here. In Paris, by contrast, any decent baker offers at least a small selection of excellent cakes. Berlin is my hometown — I grew up here — but Paris is the more beautiful city by far, especially in the fall when Berlin tends to get gloomy and grim.
I think whoever chooses this perfume is a person who knows what he (or she) wants, someone who has been around the block and is perhaps already in his prime. It is not the kind of perfume one finds in a chain store — it’s really rather special.
I see before me an elegant man in a suit, carrying a leather attaché case. I don’t imagine he works in a bank — suits there never sit well. His is very well cut. He is a lawyer, I think, with a well-established practice. His hair is already slightly graying at the temples. He does not live alone. He has a wife or a mistress. — Or both, since we are talking about Paris.
He chose this scent himself. He’d been on the lookout for something unique. The older one gets, the less one is taken in by ads and media hype. One comes to value quality and the particularity of things, and develops a sense of what suits one best. Anyone in his office who gets a whiff of this scent knows that the boss is around. And no one there would ever dream of wearing the same perfume as him. It is an unspoken yet iron law.
This guy never stays in the office longer than absolutely necessary, for he’s passionate about much more than work alone. He loves good wine, exhibitions, travel, and fine dining. So one’s very likely to run into him in a downtown pâtisserie, buying a favorite tart on his way home.
2. THE INTERVIEW
“Incense sticks and freshly cut grass.”
Scentury: What is the earliest scent you can recall?
HIEN LE: A freshly mown lawn. I grew up in Berlin without a garden. But our uncle in Belgium had a house with a small garden, and we often visited him. I woke up one morning and there was a very special smell, because he had just mown the lawn. I immediately asked him what it was I could smell. I still love that smell today. For me, it evokes cleanliness and tidiness — and it’s also the smell of summertime.
SC: You were born in Laos. Do you have memories of that country?
HL: I was only one year old when we moved to Germany. I have a few images in my mind’s eye but I cannot say whether they are my own memories or vestiges of ones my parents talked to me about.
SC: Have you ever been back to Laos?
HL: It really didn’t interest me until I reached a certain age — my home is here. But I finally felt a strong urge to discover the land of my birth. So some friends and I travelled to Laos in 1996.
SC: How did you feel about that?
HL: I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt quite at home because I understood the language. But on the other I felt like a tourist. When we crossed the marketplace, I’d hear people saying behind our backs: “Foreigners! The foreigners are coming!” We were much lighter-skinned than they were, and differently dressed; and we were wearing dental braces, which were unknown there at the time.
SC: Have any odors from that trip stayed with you?
HL: Food odors, above all. They are everywhere. People cook all over the place, all the time.
SC: Has your family always cooked Asian food?
HL: My Mom used to prepare nothing but Vietnamese or Laotian dishes — yet we kids always preferred spaghetti or fish fingers.
SC: And are incense sticks used in your parental home?
HL: Incense sticks, yes; but not on account of their scent. They are used on special occasions — on feast days, or at the cemetery when we commemorate the death of my grandparents, for example.
SC: What perfumes do you currently wear?
HL: I have three perfumes from Comme des Garçons: Peppermint from the Sherbet Series, Lime from the Energy C Series and Comme des Garçons 2. But of course at the moment I’m using nothing but Hien Le No.1 …
SC: … Your first very own creation?
HL: That’s right. And lots of my childhood memories and favorite scents are in there. I created the perfume in cooperation with the perfumer Mark Buxton, for the new scent label Verduu — and I am very happy with the result.
SC: We’ll be discussing that with you soon in more detail, for another special article — I’m really looking forward to that scent! You just mentioned favorite scents. Can you let us in on one of yours?
HL: I get an appetite for croissants and coffee, if I smell them in the morning, although I actually never drink coffee.
SC: So why do you imagine you want some?
HL: At home my Dad always drank a mixture of German and Vietnamese coffee — with a Viet-style lug of sweetened condensed milk and a croissant-style pastry, for dunking. And I absolutely loved those aromas. I’m still partial to a drop of condensed milk whereas most people find it revolting.
SC: Thank you, Hien!
Making of: Hien Le with SCENTURY founder Helder Suffenplan. Photo: Per Zennström.
ABOUT HIEN LE
Name: Hien Le
Occupation: Fashion Designer
ABOUT THE PERFUME
Perfume: Aedes de Venustas by Aedes de Venustas
Perfumer: Nadège Le Garlantezec