It was always going to difficult imagining what those left behind in the wake of Mona Di Orio’s sudden death in 2011 would do when metaphorically speaking, they had to rise and inhale the raw materials of reality. Moving the House on would be complex and fraught with emotion. Her partner and cofounder, Jeroen Oude Sogtoen had built the House around her. Together, they had created a strong blueprint of scented identity, an elegant signature written indelibly across the memories of the maison.. a house of luxury, warmth and constancy.
Mona’s legacy was of course extraordinary; her Nombres D’Or collection redefined in exquisite detail the perfections, nuances and weather of classic perfumery tenets. Each year, as we approach the anniversary of her death, electronic and breathing keepers of the flame remember her, wear her fragrances and flood social media with emotional remembrance. We honour her best of all by clothing ourselves in her precious odours and allowing ourselves to wander amid complex and distinctive fumes.
Jeroen Oude Sogtoen
Jeroen Oude Sogtoen had to deal with deep personal grief at Mona’s passing but also more prosaically address the fact that the parfumeuse du maison has gone, terribly and abruptly. Mona and presumably Jeroen had taken the decision some years before to discontinue the collection of signature Mona fragrances including Lux, Chamarré, Nuit Noire and Carnation. While the loss of these was much lamented among some perfume lovers, it was obvious that Mona’s obsession with perfection and her detailed and scrupulous training with Edmond Roudnitska had brought her to this point of clarity.
(Nuit Noire and Lux are the first two re-introductions in the Signature Collection.)
When she died we were left with the afterglow. It was almost unbearable; it still feels strange to me and I’m sure to many others how obsessive and loyal Mona’s fans were. I’m not criticising, I was (and still very much am) someone fascinated by Mona’s deeply connective way with scent and abstraction. Her scent had soul. This comes partly from natural instinct but also from the flawless and rigorous apprenticeship Mona had undertaken with the near-mythical Edmond Roudnitska. We were all profoundly shaken by the loss of light.
Jeroen has carried on with privacy and grace; maintaining a dignified silence in regard to his loss and how he was planning to develop the company. The glassy Rose Etoile d’Hollande that Mona had been working on before she died launched in 2012 to a somewhat muted reception due partly I think to a general snobbery about the hidden sensuality of roses.
Then Jeroen surprised us with the release of Violette Fumée, a parfum created especially for him by Mona, woven from distinctive elements of his life. Pipe tobacco, violet memories of childhood, the effect of cashmere on skin, the languid tones of Bryan Ferry, and these favoured things were woven into a scent of astonishing beauty and emotion.
Silver Fox artwork for Violette Fumé blog piece, August 2013
It is my favourite Mona scent, but I am aware in the wearing of it of the deeply personal resonances the scent carries. Like hearing bell chimes in fog, I shudder a little and pull metaphorical layers of thought around me to ward off the cold. Sometimes, the melancholy is overwhelming. Jeroen has gone on record saying that if Mona were alive, Violette Fumée would never had seen the light of day and would have remained as it was intended, secret and treasured. It must be strange for him imagining such intended privacy elsewhere.
Now, things are changing again, quite radically actually. The House is undergoing a complex and emotional transformation in order to pave the way for the next organic stage in the Mona di Orio story. There will be three on-going collections, Signature, Monogram and Nombres d’Or all housed in beautiful new oval flacons designed by Ateliers Dinand in Paris.
Myrrh Casati in the new Ateliers Dinand flacons
Established in 1968 by Pierre Dinand, they refer to themselves rather wonderfully as Architecte du Parfum - perfume architects. Their design innovations include Klein’s Corbusier inflected form for Obsession, the brutalist framing of Calandre for Paco Rabanne and YLS’s inro-inspired Opium flacon. The YSL bottle, decorative and mysterious, the oriental juice held in the most fabulous flowers of fire design is a very important scent memory for me. My mother wore Opium, always from the inro bottle, the delicate ropes and tassels stained with whispers of amber, cinnamon and castoreum. I was born in the Middle East, in an RAF hospital in Muharraq, Bahrain to be more precise and those years of international flitting from Saudi to Iran, Nigeria and Benin are scent-tracked by Opium. My mother would liberally apply this most decadent of orientals before boarding aircraft. Whenever I smell the original Opium (which is pretty rare these days), I inhale hot tarmac, jet fuel and sand-heated air. She was masking the dense, tiresome boredom of long-haul flights and creating in me an obsessional desire to enhance skin and environment.
That classic Dinand inro bottle for YSL is a personal icon and it seems only fitting that Jeroen turned to this esteemed design house for the re-invention of the Mona di Orio flacon. The original Nombres d’Or bottles reflected Mona’s wine connoisseurship, housing her precious juice in clean cut square bottles, topped with black bespoke caps from the champagne House of Jacquesson and held in place with gilded muselets. The new bottles are forged in fire, each one hand-made chez Dinand in a sensual oval form reminiscent of Brancusi or Hepworth. A new Deco-infused logo and pared down aesthetic herald a more austere beauty. There will be those that lament the loss of the older plush vintage Mona style, but Jeroen knew her best and is carrying forward with what he knows in his heart is the correct thing to do.
Petrovsky & Ramone image for Myrrh Casati
A noticeable part of this re-launch is the hushed luxury of the marketing imagery by Petrovsky & Ramone. Petra and Morena are celebrated Dutch art photographers, whose high impact work combines feral gloss with a reportage style. The images created for Jeroen’s re-orchestration are absolutely perfect; very different from anything associated with the brand before, but this is intentional. Capturing the spirit of Mona’s brand is a tricky brief, but the erotically charged imagery created by the duo suggests the inherent sexuality of scent while portraying an inner complex existence of private landscape and craved skin. The necessity of creating a new visual language was important; yes, Jeroen could have continued the sanctification of Mona and used her distinctive Modigliani-esque presence to sell the brand but this would have been both uncomfortable and unnecessary. Mona is gone. Her memory lives on in the fragrances. The subtle shifts in the house signal both respect and a desire to evolve beyond olfactory mourning.
So to Myrrh Casati, the debut scent in the new Monogram Collection, created by Melanie Leroux, working according to Jeroen ‘based on the fundaments of Maison Mona di Orio… inspired by art, nature and light.’ The fragrances are collaborations with Accords et Parfums in Grasse, the atelier where Mona worked for many years.
It was always going to be difficult to follow Mona but we need to remember, that this is not the point. I have noticed some social media postings recently bemoaning the continuance of the line without her. This happens all the time with brands and we need to be careful to avoid olfactory hagiography when it comes to the memory of Mona di Orio. Retrospection is all well and good but not when it affects our emotional judgement.
The Monogram Collection will be a school of Monaesque perfume, scents exploring her trademark elements of scented chiaroscuro. Her work investigated the shifting ambiguity between light and dark and how our senses reacted to these subtle changes. As a painter displays refraction, luminosity, lux, shadow, tenebrosity and murk, Mona used olfactive effects, aromachemistry and a soulful palette of natural materials to illuminate the essence of floral life and beauty.
Portrait of Luisa Casati by Man Ray
Any fragrance dealing with the legendary Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino was going to have to take into account the eccentric and flamboyant heiress’s obsession with surface, performance, death, ritual and vacancy. Nothing was real and yet everything was real. Her life was a work of art, one that startled and appalled many. Others however found her both dazzling and sinister, alluring and eternally mesmerising.
Portrait of Luisa Casati by Augustus John
The Marchesa was born in Italy in 1881 and decided early on in life that she was to be extraordinary; she would mark the world with the sheer force of her avant-garde will. She would shock and awe. Her life needed to be witnessed to appreciate the full impact of her demi-monde pornography, the snakes and marmosets, the nudity, the flaming red hair, her deep-set kohl eyes glittering like votive fires in the night. In this way witnesses would repeat, embellish and gild the Casati legend. True eccentricity is dead. The Marchesa’s obsession with image, masks, portraiture, masques, tableaux and performances perpetuated her desire to be ambitiously remembered, varnished and embellished throughout history and time.
Tilda Swinton as Luisa Casati, lensed by Paolo Roversi for Acne Paper Sweden, January 2010
However outrageous she was – night nudity, shedding ostrich feathers across Venetian piazzas, gliding her black manservants, strutting streets with leashed cheetahs, rumours of Satanic masses – the intensely manufactured theatricality masked a sense of true shadow, of fleeing from oneself. Reading about true eccentrics like the Marchesa or say Truman Capote and Stephen Tennant there is a powerful feeling of fugitive lives, of people on the run from themselves. Many of us do it to a lesser degree; it is a form of protection from mundaneness and fear of decrepitude.
'Infinite Variety, The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati' by Scott D Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino
As someone who was in fact not particularly beautiful or indeed rarely seen without the trappings of artifice, the Marchesa was obsessed with the presentation of appearances using elaborate settings, lighting, costumes, mirrors, music and scent, even weather and live animals to achieve the effects she desired. The intensity of her basilisk gaze was much noted and was hard to ignore as her eyes were (in)famously ringed with huge amounts of kohl (Cherry Blossom shoe polish in later life apparently…!). Her tiny wraithlike form was perfectly suited to the ambiguous trends of the day and her ability to submerge her personality into a series of dangerous and lurid personages shocked and horrified everyday society and made her one of the most fascinating and in demand creatures in the rarefied world of druggy, sexed up twilight flickering worlds that flourished mid wars.
Portrait of Luisa Casati by Man Ray
I am surprised this most divisive and arresting of creatures has not inspired more fragrances before. When I wrote a blog piece earlier this year on John Galliano’s eponymous scent from 2008 I was already aware of his preoccupation with the Marchesa’s iconoclastic style and in particular the divine full length portrait of her in shades of black and violet with a greyhound by her friend Giovanni Boldini. The campaign for his debut fragrance, shot by Jean Baptiste Mondino with Guinevere Van Seenus oozed the bruised, shadowed spirit of Luisa. Even the opalescent, figurine bottle resembled a twisted silhouette of the Boldini portrait.
Marchesa Luisa Casati with greyhound by Giovanni Boldini
John Galliano fragrance ad campaign, starring Guinevere Van Seenus, lensed by Jean Baptiste Mondino (2008)
Any scented venture into the Marchesa’s word would have to be robust and strange, ethereal, unexpected, mysterious and bold. It would have to impact on the senses, leave you thinking: I will remember this and I will be remembered. It would need entrance and awe, profundity and a touch of the absurd. It’s a tall ask of a perfume. Mona’s mission in scent was to examine and distil darkness into filaments of light, allowing them to exhale her carefully wrought vision of the world onto our flesh. The match seems perfect.
'Smoke - eagle' Image by Julia Gray
The Marchesa was preoccupied with the theatricalities of darkness so what better note in perfumery could symbolise this strange and commanding woman but myrrh, balm of the dead, resin of the gods, burnt by Emperor Nero in such huge quantities on the occasion of his wife Poppea’s death that an entire year’s harvest of the sacred tears scented Rome’s skies.
Myrrh is a resinous gum, exuded by certain thorny members of the genus Commiphora. The trees are wounded repeatedly to encourage weeping of the precious resins. The waxen gum hardens and darkens; colours, striations and tone vary from species to species. The etymology of the word myrrh is biblical; from the Hebrew word mor, meaning bitter. It has a long history as a medicinal gum, used in the treatment of tooth and gum related disorders, as an analgesic and is being considered in the treatment of some cancers. It was of course one of the three gifts offered in scripture by the three kings to the infant Jesus on the occasion of his birth in Bethlehem. The symbolism of offering myrrh is often interpreted as the foreshadowing of his adult death as myrrh was traditionally used in embalming rituals.
It is a strange and singular resin, with a very distinctive ghostly smoked mournful aroma. Smelling a wonderful cut down decant of myrrh absolute Mr E. gave me, I can detect desert rain and honeyed clove. It is an arresting, loamy and contained scent, like that of vintage trunks and luggage. Funereal perhaps, an odd choice perhaps to launch a signature Mona di Orio school of olfactory effect, but the balm is sweet and elusively strange enough in Melanie Leroux’s reverential and nearly perfect mix. I have a few issues with the overall composition; Mona’s trademark chiaroscuro is a little muddied and blurred in the central section of Myrrh Casati, the notes not quite as bright and clearly defined as they might be. Where there should be shadow and a true sense of darkness, there is perhaps a fleeting scamper of claw and whiff of veil.
It is easy to say Mona would have done things differently, but this is futile speculation. Many Houses survive the disappearance of a muse or creatrix and successfully evolve. The trick is innovation, bravery and imagination and while this homage to one of perfumery’s most bizarre and beautiful unguents may not be the dazzling showstopper some had hoped for, it is in fact something else entirely, a hypnotic flame, steady with allure and flickering supple ritual, casting an aromatic spell as a candle unerringly throws shade on night walls.
There is a complex list of quality notes as befitting any Mona formulation. From baie rose and Guatemalan cardamom, a strong dose of saffron and licquorice drifts slowly down through a Demerara-ish benzoin into the enormous aircraft hanger of myrrh. This is a really big note that does threaten to dominate the composition; it takes a little while for the scented weather to settle before moving on. The base of Myrrh Casati is quite odd, it reads heavy – incense, patchouli, cipriol and guaiac wood – all robust, hot notes with potentially dramatic effects on the final resonance of a scent. However, Leroux, thinking in a Monaesque way, has almost polished all of this heavier, weightier notes to near transparency, thus allowing them to veil over the other materials like a series of filters, altering the translucency, light, shadow and definition of the myrrh’s personality.
In terms of Casati herself the perfume intrigues and perplexes. The Marchesa was an elaborate confection of artifice and effect, but nonetheless arrogantly real for all her theatrics. The fragrance opens with a bang of huge effect, the door is flung open, curtains, drop, lights burn. MYRHH!!! It’s a huge note, hurling itself at your senses. The lifetime of illusory smoke and mirrors that Casati tried to perfect, losing herself in ever increasingly convoluted settings and psychodramas is reflected in the cold wraithlike smoke that wreathes the central part of Myrrh Casati as it settles in, the saffron seems to become gaseous and flows like cold air over the voluminous balm. The key to Luisa Casati’s charm and appeal was the balance between mystery and intent, artificiality and the true sadness of light and shadow.
It is a strong scent; skin adores it, stretching out the exquisitely rendered notes for much longer than I anticipated. The marriage of earthy, rooty saffron and the muted, ancient hymn of myrrh are elegantly staged against a fumy tapestry of shadowed tribute.
Ultimately though for me, like the woman herself, there is an odd sense of emptiness at the heart of Myrrh Casati, a void of blurred, smudged darkness, where the colours and tonal scents have failed to convince. Strangely this might not be a bad thing; perfection can be a dull attraction and the conception and execution by Melanie Leroux of this challenging and expectant brief is as good as we could have hoped for. Like Casati, it demands an audience. I leave the choice of audience to you.
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Disclosure - Thank you to Jeroen Oude Sogtoen for kindly sending me samples of Myrrh Casati, Lux and Nuit Noire. Writing on Mona, Jeroen and the fascinating and emotional story of the Maison Mona di Orio has always brought me immense pleasure and a little sadness as a writer. I wish Jeroen and his team every success with the future of this beautiful, precious house.