This is my first real opportunity to dedicate a full post to the work of Cécile Zarokian, a perfumer whose work I admire tremendously. She is part of a group of passionate young noses whose olfactory art in recent years has seduced and dazzled me. Working within the shifting and evolving restrictions of IFRA’s annual bell-tolling pronouncements on materials, they choose to see everything as a challenge and creatively, evocatively produce work that circumnavigates the brouhaha and still meets Houses briefs or radiates individuality and sensual signature charm.
I wrote about her work when I blogged on Masque Fragranze back in December 2014. She created Tango for Riccardo and Alessandro and I love it, along with Russian Tea, it is my favourite Masque elixir; it took a few wearings to get there, like meeting someone you weren’t sure about and then you spend all your spare time dreaming about them. In my piece on Russian Tea, this is what I had to say about Tango:
‘The thing that really dazzles me with Tango is how close the formula smells to being decayed and turned. In my scented travels I sometimes come across near empty flacons with the syrupy residue of perfumes lying stickily in the base. These evaporated, reduced, concentrées have strong vintage odours of creosote, face powder and sweet stale gateau. Oddly this is what I detect in the powerful drama of Tango…. It’s a tricky balance, the suggestion of corrosion, whilst surrounding it in swathes of smouldering ambered ardour. But Zarokian knows her stuff and has produced a scent of fire and passionate generosity’.
Cécile’s versatility is becoming very apparent. She set a very high standard for herself when she created Private Label for Jovoy, still I think one of the finest scents in the House’s complex and sensual repertoire and the personal favourite of Jovoy Creative Director François Henin, who Cécile credits with sincerely helping and supporting her in the early days of her career as an independent perfumer. Patchouliful for Robert Drago’s wonderful Laboratorio Olfattivo is one of the most luxurious and sexy patchoulis in years, intimate and dangerously addictive. You want to keep on spraying until you drown in its warm, leathery embrace. The cinnamon blast at the top is genius, mingling beautifully with the frangipani Cécile walks carefully alongside the gorgeously rounded patchouli.
Now we have Cio Cio San, the second scent she has created for Claude Marchal’s rather oblique and mysterious niche house MDCI. Cécile also made Nuit Andalouse, launched in 2013, a beautifully constructed gardenia couture gown of a scent with a floating train of shimmering white holiday drenched salicylates. Underpinning this is a bodice of violet and orange flourishes that hold the construction together with grace and delicate pressure. It is a remarkable and perceptive piece of perfumery, ticking floral and holiday fantasy boxes whilst at the same time demonstrating an eccentric decorum that is both graceful and alluring.
I say mysterious as Monsieur Marchal likes to keep a low profile, no pictures of himself and few interviews, those he does do are very tightly focussed on his beloved House and the fragrances he is so passionate about. He originally has a background in aeronautics, but felt strongly drawn to a luxurious telling of scent, informed by his love of the Renaissance, the de Medici family, the Sun King and a childhood growing up surrounded by objets d’art collected by his parents on their travels.
This obsession with the beauty of classicism, a preoccupation with the luxury of aesthetics and art over the vulgarity of commerce led to the creation of MDCI (Marchal Design et Créations Indépendentes) and the launch in 2005 of Ambre Topkapi, the first MDCI perfume made by Pierre Bourdan. One of the most important tenets of MDCI is the quality of formulae, achieved, according to Claude by placing no limitations on the budgets for raw materials. This freedom of olfactory expression is honed down through the weighing, balancing and harmonising of notes as the perfumes are slowly assembled. It is true that MDCI fragrances have a certain feel, rub and fall through the fingers as it were. They have weight and texture. After all, the House contains Inavasion Barbare, perhaps one of the finest fougère fragrances ever created, a sublime mix of herbs, patchouli and vanilla. So damn sexy on skin, created by Stephanie Bakouche and truly a masterpiece. If she never does anything else again this will be her Catcher in the Rye. My favourite to date is Chypre Palatin, Bertrand Duchaufour’s oddball and subversive attempt to do a chypré without definitive amounts of oakmoss, to redefine the genre as it were. It doesn’t quite come off, but damn it’s so beautiful, plummy, warm and packed full and rosaceous balms and styrax tinted resins that hold the senses in a kind of heady trance.
Each MDCI scent has a presence and personality; they demand attention. Patricia de Nicolai, Francis Kurkdjian, Amandine Marie and Richard Ibanez have all created fragrances for Claude Marchal’s lovely house. In doing so they have endorsed Monsieur Marchal’s rather esoteric brand with some singular and off-piste work. The bottles are well known to perfume cognoscenti for their Limoge tops, modelled in classical forms of soft white bisque paste. These are ghostly pale and beautifully rendered busts of two styles of masculine and feminine heads; one roman style masculine in stern patrician mode and a much softer neo-classical feminine bust with Empress Josephine style allure.
Claude Marchal has gone on record a number of times reiterating his strong feelings about perfumery, that it should be considered more of an art than an industry and that the relentless focus on commercialism is withering away the beauty of his chosen craft. I would agree, but let us not forget that a balance needs to be struck, one side needs the other, art ultimately always has need of some form of commerce, it is the way of things. There are many perfumers in the burgeoning niche world I would consider olfactory artists, creating scents that dazzle and manipulate our senses while still reflecting a pure and deeply personal interpretation of the creator’s vision. But I respect Claude Marchal’s relative silence and semi-invisibility in terms of MDCI. His fragrances speak for him.
He manages somehow to entice or encourage exceptional work out of his collaborative perfumers. Cio Cio San is no exception. It is heartbreakingly lovely, a scent of petal-thrown lightless and thought-provoking introspection. There is giddy joy and rainbow light whilst the settling brings a shadow of sadness, a portend of anguish.
Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most well known operas in the world, the tragic story of Cio Cio San (Little Butterfly) a beautiful (very) young Geisha in 1904 Nagasaki forsaken by a callous US naval officer. The standard 1904 version is in three acts. It is many ways an appalling tale of deception and xenophobia but for some odd reason our attention is held by the all consuming idealism and rather naïve near obsessional devotion of the eighteen year old Butterfly.
She has become a geisha in order to provide for her family who have fallen on hard times. She marries Pinkerton when she is only 15, secretly converting to Christianity, which horrifies her family. Pinkerton always knows he will be leaving but tells her:
‘Oh Butterfly my little wife, I shall return with the roses, when the earth is full of joy and the robin makes his nest’.
She waits. And waits, convinced of his love for her; that he will return and live with her and the doubters around her will be proven wrong. I used to find to find this devotion irksome and weird, but oddly now I find it rather shattering; it’s hard to tell from a psychological viewpoint how much Cio Cio San believes her own myth-making and whether she genuinely imagines Pinkerton will return to her and her blond son Dolore (which translates roughly as pain). I suppose if she ever let go of her dream, let slip the mask of hope, she would fall to the tatami and shatter into a cloud of cherry blossom, white makeup and kimono silk.
Madama Butterfly (Scottish Opera, Hye-Youn Lee as Cio Cio San)
When Pinkerton does return, it is with his American wife Katie. They intend to adopt Butterfly’s baby and return to the US. It is a dark move, cast into more shadow by Cio Cio San’s delirious excitement that her husband has returned to her..’The house must be filled with flowers. Everywhere, as the night is full of stars.’
The soundtrack in my head as I write this is oddly not quite the purity of Puccini’s opera but Malcolm Mclaren’s beautiful and ageless Fans album from 1984, fusing 80’s R&B with opera pieces. It was and is still one of my favourite albums; the Butterfly track with Betty-Ann White as Cio Cio San and Debbie Cole as the contemporary Cho-Cho is the standout piece, hypnotic and incredibly moving. Oddly, McClaren chose to shoot the video in a light-drenched Turkish Hammam with splendidly sullen models of the days, heavily made up, lounging, bathing and sleeping as they wait for a mysterious summons. It is a mesmerising video, sulphurous, overtly sexual and soaked in longing.
Malcolm McClaren 'Fans'
(Silver Fox own collection)
Today's the day when I see clear
A tiny thread of smoke appears
Where blue skies fall upon the ocean
And shake this staid emotion
All the while I sing this song
I see a dot on the horizon
Growing bigger every second
Gleaming white in my direction
Who on earth can it be
Coming up the path for me?
What on earth will he say?
Shall I run to him or run away?
Freaking out he's come to get me
My feet are stuck but just won't let me
Run to him do I dare?
Madam Butterfly don't blow it
Calling Butterfly, Madam Butterfly
That's the name he used to give me
He's my man till the day I die
Oh sweet Butterfly, so sweet Butterfly
She's waiting , He'll be back,
I have faith in this love track
Malcolm McClaren – Madam Butterfly, (1984)
Butterfly clings to love and illusion that Pinkerton has returned to her, filling the house and her heart with cherry blossom and various blooms, despite evidence to the contrary - words from her faithful maid Suzuki and the shadowed appearance of Pinkerton’s wife in her garden. The shock of realising who this woman is finally tears her world apart. She realises the truth that her love is a mirage, fracturing in front of her weary eyes. The tragedy is terrible to behold. I have always found the bargaining over her child abhorrent, the conquering of her spirit and shattering of her heart is terrible. The stuff of grand operatic tragedy perhaps but painful to behold nonetheless.
Butterfly reluctantly agrees to allow them to take her child only if Pinkerton come to her himself. After seeing the lengths she has gone to and the love she still bears him, his cowardice overwhelms him. Cio Cio San’s final terrible act is to blindfold her son, place an American flag in his hands and cut her own throat with her father’s ceremonial dagger upon which are engraved the words "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor." She dies. Pinkerton rushes in to find her lifeless on the floor.
As with so much classical opera, the ending is tragic, the heroine is dead having suffered love and misunderstanding. And yes it would have been easy to have done full blown drama in olfactory terms, but Cécile Zarokian is way much too subtle and talented a perfumer to take that that rather obvious route, instead she has chosen to do something more subversive: happiness as augur, a presage of things to come. It is perfection. It would have been impossible for Cécile to have been unmoved by the terrible pain of Cio Cio San and her movement towards death in her flower-filled house. The sudden symbolic shift from the scattering and decorative use of welcoming evocative bloom to sombre funereal offering is both perceptible and dreaded.
By using the classical sweet ostensibly pretty motif of cherry blossom or sakura, Cécile also lays down more apt meaning for Butterfly’s plight. Cherry blossom in Japan, is hugely significant, a national symbol of artistic nationhood, adorning porcelain, kimonos, lacquer, armour and ukiyo-e, the classical genre painting style popular during the Edo period of Japanese history from 17th to the 19th centuries. The cherry blossom season is still celebrated throughout the country with reports of blossom-bloom times being closely monitored and reported so people everywhere can enjoy Hanami, a centuries old tradition of picnicking under the trees as the petals fall like snow.
Silver Fox & Sakura, Edinburgh 2010
In Edinburgh the Meadows as they are known have the most divine interlocking avenues of cherry blossom trees and their blooming is one of my most favourite times of the city’s year. The surrounding green parks are awash in eddies of whirling white and candyfloss pink petals. As the trees bloom so beautifully en masse, sakura has come to symbolise clouds and in turn the ephemeral, transient nature of life. Used in scent it is synthesised but suggests a frothy, faraway candy-floss stained delicacy we seem to be to quite capable of interpreting on some stereotypical cultural level.
Cio Cio San is in many ways a classic fruit drenched floral scent, but this would be doing it a huge disservice. It has immense subtlety and a shimmering vibrancy I found developed into a potent longevity. The opening delivers a potent, bright shot of light from a sweet lime note and yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit that has a protected national status and only harvested at specific times. The oil yielded through expression is deliciously floral and rounded in tone. Its cost is prohibitive and few houses use it, preferring to cut costs with cheaper synthetic alternatives. The ginger facet is a palette cleansing addition of gari it seems to me, the thin slices of young ginger, pickled in salt sugar and rice vinegar, traditionally served with sushi. Un-dyed, it can be a lovely washed pale pink colour, similar to that of faded cherry blossom. The smell is a piquant meld of sharp, saline and sweetly spiced; something I can really detect against the limey opening salvo of Cio Cio San.
It is the entwining of peony and lychee, two symbolically far Eastern style notes that form the heart of this lush formulation. Both accords will be synthetic, but again, created with great care and attention to the delicate fluttering harmony of the overall composition. Lychee, pineapple, cherry, coconut, strawberry etc, these have been for many years the domain of the neon gaudy celebuscent, to add tropical zing and pina colada come hitherness to generic shelf fillers. But occasionally they sidle into rather beautiful scents if used with purpose, intelligence and charm. I was a huge fan of the sadly now discontinued Badgely Mischka original scent by Richard Herpin, a heady delight of oozing red berries and peach that reeked of strawberries and caramel. And Juliette Has A Gun’s Miss Charming has a lovely lychee note mingled with the house’s trademark rose.
Lychee is a very odd fruit, such a powerfully recognisable scent, encased in its sandpaper casing, wrapped around it’s overtly large glossy seed. There are rosy, aquatic rubbered tones to the smell and sometimes, depending on ripeness, a phenolic, burned facet that some people really hate. Cécile has built a lovely lychee in Cio Cio San, airy, nuanced and blushing with juice, marrying well with the ephemeral oolong tea she has coolly trickled around the floral fruity mix at the heart of the scent. Oolong teas are incredibly varied and dependent on the drying process and amount of oxidisation the raw leaves are subjected to. In Cio Cio San, it seems to impart a whisper of floral smoke.
Under the lychee, the peony has the feel of smudged make-up, a little post-party, still pretty, but in need of repair. All these floral touches have elegant gradations of chromatic olfaction, edges bleeding into one another with sweet grace. The woods and musks are less interesting but still slow down the dispersion rates of the overall composition imparting Cio Cio San with some serious longevity. I really love it, the mix of fruity floral exuberance and blatant plasticity I find just so compelling on my skin. I can’t stop spraying it. At times the lychee emotes like freshly unwrapped white plastic vending machine cups.
It is the very giddy nature of Cio Cio San’s florality that makes it so tragic; it is the moment when Butterfly defies her own sense of inner logic and the warning signs around her and fills her Nagasaki home with flowers, love and joy. Her beloved, long-awaited Pinkerton is back for her and their son. It is an intriguing moment to capture; generally it is her tragic suicide that demands attention and terrible though it is, it is after all inevitable, foreshadowed by her father’s seppuku dagger in Act 1. There is almost unbearable poignancy in the bright, piercing happiness of Butterfly’s bloom-laden bower. Despite the ecstasy, the shadows to fall are terrible indeed.
Cécile Zarokian’s masterful, sympathetic and let’s not forget, feminine handling of darkening luminescence and obsessive devotion is divinely executed and demonstrates once again why she must be considered one of the most versatile and imaginative perfumers working today.
20 June 2015
Disclosure – Bottle of Cio Cio San kindly sent by MDCI, opinions my own.
To find out more about MDCI, please click on the link below: