Friday, 5 August 2011
Requiem for Snow: ‘Eau de Cologne’ by Helmut Lang
I sleep. I dream. In the dream it’s snowing. A cityscape softened by layer upon falling layer of crystals. I walk in silence, air gently swirling around me, eddies of snow lifted and swept past my feet as I move through the peaceful streets. There is no cold, no chill in my bones. The snow falls like powder, with a lightness that seems to say I am covering this pallid ground and when I am done, it will be something different, something better, something beautiful.
I come across a park, stretched out before me are trees bowed in white prayer. There is a frozen lake staring up at an alabaster sky. I breathe in the ethereal silence; a scent of vanilla and orange tinted lavender rising from beneath the snow. I am wearing white, shades of milk and silver, canescent in the reflective glow of the muffled landscape. All moisture has been stripped out of the air and the flakes dance like diamond dust. I gaze up at shapes in the sky, distant mountains perhaps. Whiteness drops silently around me like ash from a thousand volcanoes. Such huge expanses of white seem cruel and barren, but I find them immensely beautiful and soothing.
Swans have frozen over on the lake, their longboat forms moulded by snow. A horse stands still under a tree, bone white and shimmering in the low glinting light. I hold out my hands and let the snow fall, watching the crystals flutter and quake. They don’t seem to melt. Instead they disintegrate like the softest dust when I rub my fingers together. I smell jasmine, almonds, roses, the most delicate whisper of woods; all wrapped in crumbling musks the colour of bruises. My skin smells beautiful, soft and blurred; the texture of pearlescent mohair. I wake, pressing my nose into the warm crook of my arm. Traces of the scent still linger. If I close my eyes, snow falls in my room across sheets and skin. I am slowly covered like a lost citizen of Pompeii.
A preoccupation with deconstruction and minimalism made Helmut Lang one of the most influential designers ever to work with cloth. His work was bare, uncompromising and difficult. In amongst the savage attention to detail was tremendous beauty and moments of radiant softness. Austerity and opulence. Pain and laughter. Sorrow and sex. Metal played with fur, wool tangled with rubber, butterfly wings and fetish masks. I have owned pieces over the years and worn them to death; weird and wonderful shirts, torn and reworked, a sweater with creepy fur trim and outsize sleeves. I had a ring, simple silver, twisted subtly, so plain it had to be Helmut Lang. Impetuously given to a friend, mournfully regretted ever since. Always a muted palette, shades of Hades, whispers and shadows in corridors. Greys and blacks, smudged whites and ashen charcoals.
His star has dimmed. New artistic directors now continue the vision at Helmut Lang. The echoes are there, but the voice is far away and barely discernable. Like Margiela, the lifting of the hand from the paper has marked the beginning of a slow decline.
His clothes and manifesto were dazzling. So I always wondered - how would Helmut Lang smell? An answer appeared in the year 2000 courtesy of Maurice Roucel, the eclectic nose behind such diverse fragrances as 24 Faubourg for Hermès, L for Lolita Lempicka, Jasmine 17 for Le Labo, Musc Ravageur for Editions Frédérick Malle and Insolence for Guerlain.
The deceptively simple title, Eau de Cologne, was chosen for Helmut Lang’s debut scent. The box was white with the trademark Helmut Lang est. 1986 lettering on it. The bottle was rectangular, white label, black top. Classic and pure. Nothing wasted. It looked medicinal, industrial. Like a sample, a trial bottle, a prototype. Its beauty of course lay in its utter sublime simplicity.
And the juice itself? I was hooked as soon as I opened and sprayed my first bottle. All my dreams of powder, sweet snow, white silence and beauty came true in one fragrance. It felt like a true rendition of perfect skin; smooth, sensual, muskily addictive and just enough sugared pornography to turn one’s mind to carnivorous wonderings. The haunting floral vanillic tones shifted across the skin like lost souls, chased by beautifully balanced notes of bitter orange, the softest touch of lavender, sweet rose, heliotrope and creamy sandalwood. I have a weakness for heliotrope, the slow dissolution into almond and cherry on the skin, the deep sensation of comfort and sensuality that rises up. And I adore nitromusks. I even love the word. Like something you drink at night to give you special powers. Skin tones, sex and heat. White and shimmering. Glittering in the dark. They are incandescent things and rarely appreciated in their own right. Helmut Lang would go on to release Velviona in a limited edition of about 500 bottles only, complete with medicinal eye dropper. It was composed almost entirely of powdery macrocyclic musks. It was extraordinary and felt incendiary on the skin. As if any moment you might simply ignite with desire.
I found a soft naughtiness dredged through Eau de Cologne. It was clean, tactile, sweet and so seductive. It was this poignant ashen powder, this sensual ambiguity that made wearing the fragrance such a compelling and enjoyable experience. I bought bottle after bottle. Over the years I’ve realised I crave these bone white scents. Nitromusks and macrocyclic musks are used in laundry care as well. This crossing over into the world of starch, washing, ironing and tumble drying intrigues me. They are smells I love. Not so much the sickly soft floral thing, but the hissing iron, metallic, white starch, billowing sheet and steam thing. Spraying starch onto wet shirt collars and then pressing them with a hot iron produces a gasp of explosive clarified air and vaporous shirt. I love the exhalation of a hot tumble dryer as the door is pulled open. I use special soft soap flakes to handwash cashmere. The smell is luxurious as they crumble and melt into the water, a marriage of vintage Lux and guava, with a touch of orange peel and cold metal.
All of these oddities echo through Eau de Cologne. Such an anomalous name for a scent which is nothing like the colognes of old. Anyone expecting a bracing concoction of citrus and spices will be very disappointed. Instead it was a project of vaulted ambitions. A stylish and ambitious attempt to produce a unique take on androgyny. This is Bowie and Tilda. The twins who fell to earth. True gender blurring, generations apart, but redefining beauty and challenging our perceptions of attraction and gender. Pale and astutely beautiful. Genre defying and beyond a real sense of classification. Look at Tilda now, everything she does is to enhance her own outlook on life, enhance her experiences, and shape her own unique world. But you get the impression it is done very much on her terms. Eau de Cologne had that singularity, an ambition outside of its notes, its marketing, and its concept. It was to be worn with desire, slipped on like a second skin, irrespective of gender. Inhaled off others, adored and desired. Quite simply it smelt astonishing. In my winter dream it is percolating in the sky around me, in every particle of falling snow. The silence is my wonder and my desire.
Then suddenly it was gone, discontinued. Like someone leaving in the middle of the night with no forwarding address. I rolled over in the powdered bed and I was alone. It seemed to disappear very fast. I bought eight bottles in a sale, hoarded and indulged myself like a guilty drug addict falling off the wagon time and time again. The boxes and empty bottle bottles still smell divine, thickly sweet and soft like angora. I have no more. I know there are bottles floating around the web, but I think I’m done now with the reality of it. I have the dream, the silent elegance, the falling ash, and the footprints in the powder to remind me how sublime it was.