I have always been a devout follower of Comme des Garçons fragrances and worshipped at their altar of experimental oddity and explosions of skin beauty. They have consistently expanded the olfactory vocabulary of molecules and indeed the language, packaging and marketing of contemporary fragrance. In an embattled landscape awash with big bucks, desperate celebrities and ailing Maisons de Parfums, this is no mean feat.
I wore Odeur 53 for years like a second cyborg skin, revelling in its uncanny abstractions: sand dunes, oxygen, freshly mowed grasses and pure mountain air. I enjoyed informing people somewhat pompously I was wearing flaming rock mixed with a flash of metal and a whoosh of nail polish. I sniffed Odeur 53 the other day and memories of striding through university library stacks and the smell of new French current affairs magazines came flooding back. Weirdly I always see Le Nouvel Observateur when I smell 53, feel the paper between my fingers as I turn the pages. Imprinting is strange psychology.
I moved on to Odeur 71 for a while, loving its photocopier ink and dry electrical hum on the skin. CdG fragrances always made me feel like an anxious android painting myself into smells for the day. Like I had just emerged from a box, squeaky with bubble wrap and polystyrene with a sniff of metallic and strangely comforting electrics.
The popular CDG 2 was too generic for me, I wanted to like the woody cumin & cade sweatiness and sweet animalics but oddly it was all a little too cold on my skin. Technically it was beautiful and looking back, it launched a raft of so many wood, incense and body chemistry drenched scents. This armpitty trend is still echoing through so much male perfumery like D-Squared’s recent Potion, the Paco Rabanne XS series and the inexplicably popular One Million and Jacob’s vile Bang. Many of the Tom Ford Private Blend masculines owe a debt of thanks to the aromachemistry and artistry of No. 2.
The Comme des Garçons Series 3 collection of incense fragrances is quite rightly celebrated. It is a rich and complex exploration of geo-emotive incense notes in a range of smoky atmospheric facets, reflecting the five main spiritual teachings: Shinto & Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity. They include the dazzling and celestial Kyoto by Bertrand Duchaufour (Shintoism….) and Zagorsk (Orthodox Christianity) by Evelyne Boulanger which uses white incense, pimento, iris and violet, shadowed with hinoki, birch and pinewood. Suggestive of the melancholy damp and neglected interiors of Russian monasteries, Zagorsk is my personal favourite of Series 3 and one of the best interpretations of incense in fragrance. It is chilly and achingly sad.
It is common knowledge that Rei Kawakubo and House Creative Director Christian Astuguevieille of CdG are anti-convention and rail against the normalcy of traditional bottled or ‘captured’ flowers when it comes to fragrance. Their interpretation of beauty is about disassembly and stripping bare the components that create our conceptions of so-called appearances. Everything has value. ‘Who has the right to say what should be rejected?’ is a quote from the press release for the new fragrance. There are a few floral facets scattered throughout in the CdG oeuvre, but done very much the CdG way. These include the pungent rubber sanctity of Champaca, the leaves and floral meanderings of Leaves Series 1, abstract floral accords and elements of Daphne, the fragrance collaboratively created with the alien Ms Guinness. This is more of an anomaly as the floral notes are more than balanced out by the downright weirdness of encapsulating her peripatetic upbringing.
So now we have an industrial floral, a fragrance according to CdG ‘that couldn’t exist in a bottle that shouldn’t exist’. Presented in a bubbled, globular bottle that resembles glassblowing seconds, this genre-defying Eau de Parfum looks beautifully ugly. Housed in a simple white box, the bottle lies down, unable to stand. However, in the hand it feels amazingly warm and tactile, like something handcrafted and unique to you. It has heft, a talismanic quality. I found it hard to put down.
Reading about Eau de Parfum in magazines and reviews, I imagined the scent as a fabulous corsage constructed from brown gummed tape and glazed in glue, stitched together with pieces of roughly cut leather, holding the loops of tape in place. In the centre, a delicate floral shape cut from masking tape, with lace fretwork. Everything in muted tones of white, putty, bandage and faded paper.
With notes including aldehydes, Safraleine (a Givaudan molecule, lending woody saffron aspects….) hawthorn, lilac flower oxides, industrial glue, brown sticky tape, musk and styrax it was never going to be anything short of totally bizarre.
I love the Safraleine molecule; it defines one of my favourite fragrances, the sensual leather Tom of Finland scent by Etat Libre D’Orange. The leather note is more urban, more Russian mafia luxury car than 70s backroom. The more traditional Cuir de Russie style of leather has been softened and rubbed to a high shine. The bitterness of hawthorn and lilac oxides has tremendous affinity with the atmospheric weirdness of glue and tape. I used to drink homemade hawthorn or aubépine tisane on visits to Brittany. The smell is uniquely pungent and redolent of adhesives and burnt metal.
So on a visit to Liberty recently I stopped by the CdG perfumes to revisit old favourites and try the new Eau de Parfum. I had forgotten how many fragrances there were, nearly sixty in total. Some have passed me by as exercises in whimsy and pretension. The Monocle collaborations are dull and uninspired. But many still retain the power to shock, surprise and hold me in suspended olfactory space for a while as I sample the notes on my skin and translate their complex effects in my brain.
I love the eccentric Stephen Jones take on violet, with its nonsense mineral listings. Magma and meteorite smashed with violet, rose, jasmine, guaiac wood, black cumin and amber. Despite its over the top notes, it is a very deicately wrought and nebulous violet, a hard note to balance in the modern age. Often over-sweetened or too powdered. But this is like one of Stephen’s magical millinery creations; more than mere adornment, it bestows majesty on the wearer, an indefinable aura that turns heads.
I had to sample the Daphne scent again. I tried it on in Dover Street Market when it was released and was a tad underwhelmed. I think my expectations were too high mind you. As someone who worships at the altar of the skeletal coutured one I expected something shattering. But I very hot and bothered that day and my skin was fed up. Her eponymous scent had mixed reactions, much like the polarizing aristo herself. I know many people who loathe the idea of her, viewing her as a self-serving sybarite who can only do what she does because of her name, lineage and money. I would argue this is entirely her point. She is a very English eccentric, prickly, damning and otherworldly. She has a fuck off wardrobe and probably hasn’t eaten since 1983.
I was taken aback at how differently I remembered it. It smelt really good on my skin. Ritualistic and densely atmospheric. Created from a tapestry (black and silver I’m guessing) of churches, gardens, country houses, and the wild imaginings of a gothic-minded society girl. La Guinness has gone on record about blending oils on her skin to create the effects she wants. I think I was always expecting her fragrance to be swirling in drama and heady indolics, to be wreathed in tomblike atmospherics, conjuring up veils and stone effigies. But Daphne is rather a bower of aromatic floral notes: jasmine, tuberose and iris (so, yes to the indolics….) wrapped in a warm metallic skein of saffron, orange, amber and smudged with a delightful smoke note that just billows through the composition as the notes lay down on the skin. What I liked however was an off vanillic note that smells like burnt pirates as the juice faded down onto the skin.
I was surprised at how much my skin liked Daphne. It is not a particularly original scent. But the warm and meandering exploration of olfactory memories lived in fabled memory places is elegantly portrayed and in the end as impenetrable as the woman herself.
But original is certainly something you would shout about the new experimental Eau de Parfum. As concepts it is abstraction encased in enigma. This bizarre elixir gobsmacked me. No other word for it. A lot of reviews have mentioned conceptual art; you admire, you muse, you touch perhaps, breathe, listen. But ultimately the meaning is lost somewhere on a higher plane, buried in an artist’s memory, a single word, a touch or a frozen glance. So I was expecting oddity and borderline pretension, but spraying it on to my skin was an almost shocking experience. The utterly bizarre combination of industrial aromas and expansive adhesives was both repellant and sublime.
I paint and stretch my own paper on battered old boards I’ve had for years. One of my favourite smells is the gummy, slippy slick of gumstrip sealing tape. On my fingers and tongue as I fine-tune the positioning of the soaked cartridge paper on the boards. This smell hurls itself out of the bottle when you spray. Quite extraordinary. It reminds you that scented beauty is once again to be found in the most random of places. It connected me back to my passion for paper and glue, sticky tape, PVA and cow gum, wax and inks. All these things have poignancy and tremendous beauty. Perhaps not the conventional facets of roses, jasmine and orris, the drama of benzoin and the rounded sensualities of amber. But we are defined by the smells that touch us as we move through life. The sometimes strange, the irreverent. One man’s creosote is another man’s incense.
So I stood in Liberty on a wet and windy day, wondering how on earth this unorthodox formula would develop. The flower oxides add a metallic shimmer across the composition that vibrates over the skin. It develops like foxing, the discolouration that blooms in old books. The lovely styrax note, always a welcome guest on my skin, anchors the industrial shock of the synthetics, lending the drydown a whiff of distant dimmed factory fire. In the midst of this sweet plastic inferno, celluloid film curls in the heat to reveal Bakelite flowers edged in metal oozing glue-pollen for space-age bees.
It is hard to ignore the off-world fabulousness of Eau de Parfum. It is quite an astounding fragrance, if indeed that is what it is. It feels and smells to me like a coating, a laminate, something to be worn by beautiful drones on assembly lines of the future. It is a pleasure to be disrupted and pleasured by such a remarkable scent this late in the fragrance game. Isolating and capturing oddness, sterility and silence are the height of perfumed pretention. But CdG have never played by any set rules. Their olfactory portfolio includes tar, incense, sherbet, ozone, inks, rhubarb, rusted metal, sea notes and a unique perspective on traditional notes of woods, leaves, petals and musks. And while some of the fragrances sometimes feel more like doodles, some are fully rounded works of art, passionate and demand your olfactory attention.
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