This story first appeared in the December issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
He’s the last person you might ever suspect would open a perfumery in the French Quarter.
Joseph “Jay” Caillouet is a pickup truck-driving architect from Thibodaux, Louisiana who has five grown sons and can boast a successful design career spanning decades. But what many don’t know is that he also has sweet smelling-stuff running through his veins: Caillouet is the great nephew of Madame Aucoin, the First Lady of Fragrance whose original scents and imported perfumes made her New Orleans royalty in the early 20th century.
“Madame” Mamie O. Aucoin opened her first perfume shop, the Royal Perfume Co., on Royal Street in 1910 with her husband, Mr. J.M. Aucoin. She was carrying forward her family’s legacy — Aucoin claimed to have been a fourth-generation perfumer, meaning that her shop’s slogan, “The Oldest Perfumer in the South,” was certainly well earned. After her husband’s passing, the shop was renamed “Aucoin Perfume Co.,” and it operated under that moniker for almost 70 years, by Madame Aucoin herself and later by her sister. Aucoin was known for her style, her business acumen, and her creativity — she created several signature scents, including Louisiana Magnolia, Ce Soir ou Jamais, Kus-Kus, Southern Lilac, and others. She was the person, when describing her hometown, who coined the phrase, ‘The Paris of America.’
“I know what you’re thinking when you hear the word ‘Madame,’” Caillouet said recently. “But she wasn’t that kind of Madame. She was a shop owner — that was the term used for female business owners and entrepreneurs back then.” And what a business owner she was — Aucoin, a high-powered woman in a world run by men, operated four separate locations of Aucoin Perfume Co., all on Royal Street in the Vieux Carré, over several decades.
As a 10 year-old, Caillouet would board a Greyhound bus with his brother in Thibodaux and ride it to Canal Street in New Orleans. The brothers would disembark and walk to the perfume shop on Royal Street, which by then was owned by his grandparents, who took over after Madame Aucoin died in 1962. When he was 17, his grandfather bequeathed Caillouet with original bottles of Madame Aucoin’s scents with instructions to “just hang on to them.” “I didn’t know what to do with those things, I was 17 years old,” Caillouet said laughing. But he kept them, and all these years later, he is using the bottles as inspiration as he embarks on a quest to remake his great aunt’s perfumes.
Jay Caillouet’s grandmother Mimi, who was Madame Aucoin’s sister, took over her business after Aucoin passed away in 1962, and is shown in the shop in this undated photo.
The desire to revive his great aunt’s legacy is one that surprises even him. “I didn’t know a thing about perfume,” Caillouet said. His friends would laugh at him when he started telling them he was considering leaving architecture to get into the perfume business; they couldn’t fathom that he was being serious. But serious he was, and from the time the idea to open the Madame Aucoin Perfume Company popped into his head, Caillouet began researching, planning, strategizing. Luckily for him, a number of chance meetings and incidents that can only be deemed as ‘meant to be’ also helped along the way — and now the last man that one might suspect would open a perfumery has been operating Madame Aucoin Perfume Company for four months.
Caillouet had been a successful architect for decades when he decided to take a break. He left Thibodaux and moved into a small Uptown apartment near New Orleans’ Audubon Park for a year to complete Tulane’s Master of Preservation Studies program. “After the program, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’” he said. He could go back to Thibodaux and his architecture practice, but the thought didn’t thrill him — his lifelong love of New Orleans had only grown deeper during his year at Tulane, and he regretted having to leave. But he did, and as he settled back into architecture in Thibodaux, he began thinking about his family, his youth, and Madame Aucoin. Could he, someone who knew little about perfume, possibly revive his great aunt’s once famous business, and return to the city he loved?
He began mulling the notion and started researching Madame Aucoin’s life and business. Her original shop was just down the block from the Hotel Monteleone, and he soon came to realize that all four of her shops had been located in buildings owned by the Monteleone family. On trips back to New Orleans, he’d walk in the French Quarter, scoping out buildings as possible locations for his new shop. One in particular — a boarded up, vacant, four-story townhouse around the corner from the Hotel Monteleone — really appealed to him for some reason. “I’d look at it and think, ‘All I need is that bottom floor front retail space,” Caillouet said. The building was in abysmal condition, but, after working as an architect for decades, Caillouet knew how beautiful it could be if properly restored. He did a little digging and found that 608 Bienville St., built in the mid-19th century, was owned by the Monteleone family.
On New Years Eve 2014, Caillouet drove to New Orleans to celebrate the holiday with his family, and found a parking spot directly across from the townhouse. He parked and got out, and leaned against his truck for a little while, waiting for 6 p.m. to avoid having to pay for parking. “I’m standing there waiting, looking at the building, which is nasty looking and full of graffiti, thinking, ‘I’ve studied enough of these old buildings, I could draw the floor plan without even going in it,’” Caillouet said. “The next thing I know, a light turns on in the fourth floor of the building, and I said, ‘Geez, someone is in that place!’
“The front door opens up and an old man walks out, crosses the street, comes right up to me and says, “I see you’ve been stalking this building for the last hour.”” Caillouet panicked — he didn’t want to appear to be causing trouble. He sputtered an apology and explained that he was Madame Aucoin’s great nephew and was looking for a building to possibly reopen her shop. “He says, ‘Calm down, I knew Madame Aucoin,’” Caillouet said. The two started talking about Aucoin and her perfume empire, Caillouet amazed to be talking to a former neighbor of his legendary aunt. “All I want to do is rent that little front room for my perfume shop,” Caillouet told the gentleman. “He says, ‘Give me a call,’ and gives me his card,” Caillouet said. He looked down at the card, and it was blank except for two words — ‘Hotel Al’ — and a phone number.
Jay Callouet, great nephew of famed French Quarter perfumer Madame Aucoin, celebrates thye opening of Madame Aucoin Perfume Company at 608 Bienville St. with fragrance specialist Ashley Lund, who was also integral in getting the new business off the ground. His great aunt’s original perfume bottles are on display at the shop.
Despite the thrilling chance encounter, Caillouet didn’t call Hotel Al right away. He decided to wait, unsure if Al was truly the one who could help Caillouet get a meeting with the Monteleones. A month later, he was in Baton Rouge for business and announced to colleagues his new plans. “I told them, ‘I’m done with architecture, I’m going into the perfume business.’ And they all burst out laughing, not taking me seriously — except for my friend Ed. Ed calls me over and says, ‘Jay, I just want you to know that I’m personal friends with the CFO of the Hotel Monteleone. I’ll make the call for you — but you’ve gotta act.’” The CFO agreed to meet with Caillouet the following week, so Caillouet began preparing a packet with the history of Madame Aucoin’s business, her historical ties with the Monteleone family, and a pitch: Caillouet wanted to be able to rent the first floor of 608 Bienville St. to open the revived Madame Aucoin Perfume Company.
As he was preparing the packet, a question suddenly popped into his head. He knew where her four business locations had been, but where did Madame Aucoin actually live? He began to do the research, and what he found floored him.
Madame Aucoin lived in the very building that had spoken to him as the ideal new location for his new perfumery: 608 Bienville St.
Was it an incredible coincidence, or a sign of something that was meant to be? Caillouet was unsure, but the revelation left him even more determined. The CFO of the Hotel Monteleone was intrigued by Caillouet’s presentation, but warned him that he couldn’t give an answer until he spoke to the Monteleone family. “I went back to Thibodaux and waited, but nobody called,” Caillouet said. Several days later, tired of waiting and eager for an answer, he decided to just drive to New Orleans to just see who he could run into. As he pulled into Hotel Monteleone’s garage, the hotel’s CFO happened to be walking out of the garage; he spotted Caillouet and waved him down. “He told me, ‘I’m so glad to see you, Jay. I just spoke with the family, and they said they’d love to have Madame Aucoin back in the neighborhood.’”
It was official — Caillouet could open his perfume shop in the very building where Madame Aucoin once lived. But the building itself presented a problem.
608 Bienville St. had been vacant for over a decade, with the exception of the fourth floor, where Hotel Al lived. Caillouet and the hotel’s CFO toured it and found that virtually every aspect of the building needed attention. “We walked in and all the ceilings were collapsed, there was mold…it was a lot of work,” Caillouet said. “But I do this for a living” — ‘I got this,’ Caillouet assured the CFO.
Caillouet soon moved into the dilapidated structure and began its restoration. He worked tirelessly for a year, replacing and reconstructing virtually every element of the first floor, transforming the front into a small but chic perfume shop, and the back into a small apartment for himself. He lived and worked in that building for an entire year without air conditioning, electricity provided by way of extension cords.
After a year of work, the shop was complete and ready to open, and Caillouet’s adjoining apartment was also done. “One day I got a knock on the door and it was David Monteleone,” Caillouet said. “And he said, ‘Jay, I want you to know that you did such a fantastic job renovating this first floor and making it look so nice, we’re going to restore the second, third and fourth floors, plus the total front façade and the back courtyard.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much, but I’ve got to get into commerce!’” Caillouet said. It took another 10 months for the rest of the building improvements to be complete before Caillouet could open the Madame Aucoin Perfume Company.
608 Bienville St. had been vacant for over a decade when Caillouet began renovating the first floor. The Monteleone family, who owns the building, restored the rest of the structure after Caillouet’s work was complete. The photo on the left is the way the building looked when Caillouet began work; to the right is the building as it looks today.
While he waited, another person came knocking at his door: a woman named Ashley Lund. Caillouet had met Lund one afternoon while in the French Quarter, back when opening a perfume shop was still but a dream. Lund was working at a perfume shop, and Caillouet stepped in to check out what a working perfume shop looked like. He introduced himself to Lund and told her about Madame Aucoin. She already knew of his great aunt, having read about her in Making New Orleans, a book edited by Philip Collier. The conversation, over a year before, had ended in pleasantries.
Now, as Caillouet answered the door, Lund exclaimed, “Jay, I finally found you!” The perfume retail expert had come to offer her services. Caillouet was excited to enlist her, and when renovations on the building were finally complete and it was time to open the shop, Lund officially came aboard as staff. Her background in perfume quickly proved to be indispensable: She helped Caillouet reach out to specialty perfumers, and successfully forged relationships that have allowed the Madame Aucoin Perfume Company to be the exclusive Louisiana seller of several fine fragrance brands. She also spearheaded more technical tasks, such as creating barcodes for the shop’s products, setting up a website for the business and curating social media accounts.
Today she’s Caillouet’s right-hand (wo)man, and shares his dream of some day soon recreating Madame Aucoin’s signature, original fragrances. But for now, it is selling other companies’ perfumes that will allow Caillouet to be able to finance recreating those that his great aunt made famous.The Madame Aucoin Perfume Company celebrated its grand opening in late August to great fanfare — many people came to 608 Bienville to support Caillouet and to shop, with some fragrances even selling out. “I’m cautiously optimistic, because of the things that have taken place… and it just feels good,” Caillouet said.
Caillouet’s work to reopen Madame Aucoin’s perfumery is significant for many reasons, but two in particular humble Jay, an accomplished architect: “I not only restored a building, but I restored a business.”
The shop is small, but it feels at once warm and sophisticated: Caillouet and Lund enlisted interior designer Tanya Winstead to capture a French feel with the décor. On a shelf behind the cash register, Caillouet’s collection of antique Madame Aucoin bottles sits proudly on display. “One thing I learned,” he said, “is that if you’re going to be in the perfume business, you’ve got to have a story.” Caillouet’s Madame Aucoin Perfume Company has a story that is already unparalleled — and it’s surely just beginning.
The shop’s cozy interior was curated by Calliouet’s right-hand woman, Ashley Lund, who worked closely with interior designer Tanya Winstead.
Photos by Liz Jurey.