If you love Asian food and all things Pacific Rim and fusion this fragrance is perfection. I love making jasmine rice with jasmine flowers from Neal’s Yard, lime zest and coconut milk. The aromas that fill my kitchen are divine. But the moment of epiphany is having left the rice to slowly and magically transform, is lifting off the lid and inhaling (eyes closed of course… )the citrus-sweet steam billowing out with the bittersoft beauty of jasmine blooms. This physical moment of vaporous gustatory olfaction is a startling concept for a perfume and one which only Etat Libre D’Orange have the perfumed couilles to carry off.
Last year Etat Libre D’Orange announced a new fragrance to be signed off by the talented, artistic German perfumer Ralf Schwieger, a man who builds scents from seemingly opposite elements and is very steeped in the aesthetics of fragrance. It was to be called Philippine Houseboy and would be built around steam, rice, citrus and animalic accords. After a name change, we have Fils de Dieu (du riz et des agrumes), a very original composition released alongside Bijou Romantique by French perfumer Mathilde Bijouai. Schwieger has two acknowledged masterpieces under his belt, Eau des Merveilles for Hèrmes and the glorious, smudged and erotic Lipstick Rose created for the original line-up of Editions Frédérick Malle.
Eau de Merveilles (2004) is the fragrance that really put Schwieger on the olfactory map. Working with the influential Véronique Gaultier at Hèrmes, he and co-creator Nathalie Feisthauser* played with the oceanic salty skin sexiness of the sea and modern amber notes. What I like about Eau de Merveilles is the transformative nature it has on the skin; body heat flips the accords into a second layer of signals, all of them sweetly animalic and come hither sparkling. A tribute to the weirdness of real ambergris, Eau de Merveilles has a wonderful strangeness to it, a sense of being washed in the ocean and then dusted lightly in golden sugars. It has a central floral motif of lily of the valley and this is treated with reverence and beauty; laced with elemi, bergamot, pink pepper, benzoin, warm woods and of course a synthesised ambergris accord. A quite delicious and rewardingly complex skin experience and one of the best perfumes in the Hèrmes canon.(*Nathalie Feisthauser created the magnificently Sadean Putain des Palaces, also for Etat Libre D’Orange, an aldehydic floral with incredible boudoir violet notes softened by candlelight, rice powder and swathes of animalics. It is one of the most accomplished and truly finished fragrances in the range).
One of the most fascinating things about Eau de Merveilles is of course its beauty on skin but also its wearability on fabric, fur and wool. I’ve read in a couple of interviews that this was intentional. If so, bravo! I love fragrances worn on clothes; woven through the actual fibres around me, on scarves, jacket linings, pocket squares, cashmere and silk. There are differences in the molecular spread of the aroma and I like the linger, the memory of the scent embedded in cloth each time I take something from my wardrobe to wear.
Schwieger was a late starter in perfumery terms, beginning his training at the Roure School of Perfume in Grasse after training in chemistry in Berlin. His breakthrough was Lipstick Rose in 2000, one of the original fragrances for Editions Frédérick Malle, a unique and at the time, groundbreaking selection of fragrances published by Malle, whose maternal grandfather founded Les Parfums Christian Dior.
Malle had studied Art History and then joined the Roure School, studying with the legendary Jean Amic (Opium and Y). In 2000, he launched nine fragrances by nine perfumers, including Dominique Ropion, Olivia Giacobetti, Edmond Roudnitska and Jean Claude Ellena. Malle wanted perfumers to be more visible, more credible. This was rather radical from a marketing point of view. Perfumers worked behind the scenes and handed on their work; other people, the Houses themselves took the credit. True, there were some superstar noses, but generally speaking, like directors behind the cameras, they were content to let the actors or juice shine for the cameras and press. Editions Frédérick Malle changed that. Perfume lovers have since become fascinated with the world of the nose, the men and women who create the world’s vast array of mainstream, niche and avant-garde smells.
This was a seismic shift in the attitude toward the marketing and retail of fragrances. Of course small numbers of aficionados have always been interested in the names behind the notes as it were, as their personalities flicker through the perfumes like musical motifs. Talented names were often smothered in mainstream Houses, working with strict budget and marketing/brand briefs. Yet working for niche and artisan houses like Frédérick Malle, L’Artisan Parfumeur and MDCI to name a few allowed some perfumers the chance to really soar and spread extraordinary scented wings. Bigger houses such as Dior, Hermes, Bulgari and Cartier then started to recognize the value in having these olfactory artists creating more singular work alongside the standard big budget crowd pleasers. So big names like Mathilde Laurent went to Cartier, Ellena to Hermes, and Demachy to Dior. The shift and blurring of artisan and mainstream has become intriguing and to be honest a little confusing in the last decade or so. To be truly artisan now requires quite an effort.
Released in 2000 Schwieger’s Lipstick Rose captures that delightful creamy soft boudoir scent of classic lipstick, a mixture of fatty rose, smudged violet, vanillic skin and talcum. A woman in a haze of retro beauty, applying make-up in blooming mirrors in a childs’s rose-tinted memory. But there is a ruthless and animalic streak of modernity ruining through Lipstick Rose, a lick of pole dancer. A naughty raspberry note sparkles at the top as the scent opens and this develops down like a trickle of forbidden liquor through the scent as it warms through on skin. The rose/violet theme is a classical fragrance accord that echoes down through decades of perfumery. I love L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Drôle de Rose for its cranberry-coloured interpretation of nostalgic dressing up and scented nights out. But Lipstick Rose undercuts any melancholy and sentimentality with the sexuality and danger of aldehydes and a deep, plush kiss of throaty vanilla.
Etat Libre D’Orange was started by the iconoclastic South African Etienne de Swardt. After creating a totally bonkers scent Oh my Dog! with Laurent Jugeau, he set up Etat Libre D’Orange in Paris, with the tag line….Le parfum est mort. Vive le parfum! (Perfume is dead. Long live perfume!). The portfolio of fragrances is witty and vivacious. The blurb and over-sexualised marketing can be a little tiresome. Although the recently revamped website is a huge improvement on the old one. But at the end of the day a brand lives and dies by its fragrances. I have blogged previously about my beloved Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection, a gorgeous sensual, dark bloody rose. Tom of Finland is a remarkable porny leather. Charogne and Rien are the two other Etat fragrances I like to have in my collection.
So I was very excited last year when news surfaced that Schwieger was creating a fragrance for ELdO. At the time the name bandied about was Philippine Houseboy and some rather dodgy looking ethnic publicity images appeared, masks and totems etc, with references to South Pacific eroticism. Thankfully the name changed to Fils de Dieu (du riz et des agrumes) and was launched alongside Bijou Romantique, a sensual rich oriental style scent, inspired by jewels, decadence and lavish loves. Bijou is not the most original fragrance. I love a ravishing velvety oriental, but there is something lacking in Bijou. Bite I think, teeth behind the lipstick. A strange void of real animalics, which is odd considering ELdO usually drench their fragrances in every animalic under the sun.
Fils de Dieu is unquestionably a totally original scent experience. I have never smelt anything quite like it. The harmomising of the notes and accords is masterly. Essentially a simmering steamed twist on a classic oriental theme; Fils de Dieu plays with (and subverts) animalic, citric and vanillic accords to create an updated slant on Guerlain’s Jicky, with elements of Mitsouko and Shalimar prowling around the edges of the scented fire. I caught warped twists of Guerlain’s fabled guerlinade in the dance of rose, jasmine, amber, tonka and the heightened hesperdiric aspect of the ginger.
As a gourmand lover though, it is the beautiful handling of the milky rice notes and the little dashes of coconut that make this fragrance so beautiful to inhale and wear. It opens with that glorious, lifting-the-lid-off-jasmine-rice scent I mentioned at the beginning of this piece and then unfurls layers of greenness, with shiso leaf and rubbed green coriander, then delicate soft floral notes as if the petals were themselves steamed on the rice or floating on a broth of sweetened coconut milk. Then wonderful and I mean truly wonderful clean musks. The castoreum is superb, inviting, and just a little bit fuckable. All of this is woven through with cinnamon and that mouthwatering ginger accent. I have never really liked ginger in my fragrances, it is always far too bath-timey, or dry-spicy and dull. But Schwieger has really highlighted the beauteous wetness of the lemongrass quality of this fabulous rhizome. It just sings out of the composition.
Interestingly De Swardt asked Schwieger to watch two films as inspiration, the hothouse histrionics of Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Masseur by Brilliante Mendoza. I first saw John Huston’s Reflections when I was 14 and obsessed with all things Carson McCullers (she wrote the source novel). It is an extraordinary febrile work with simmering themes of adultery, latent homosexuality, sadism, voyeurism and self-mutilation. Quite a brew. The film over does the melodrama by throwing Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor into the mix but it still packs quite a punch, even now. Brando’s creepy stalking of a lovesick soldier on a army base. Taylor’s wanton blowsy sexuality and sexual demeaning of her husband Brando. In one scene she slashes his face with a riding crop. Her current lover’s wife is so depressed she cuts her nipples off with garden shears after the death of her baby. I kid you not. Her only solace is the overweening attentions of her effeminate Philippine houseboy Anacleto. The film is preposterous in many ways, but the Southern pent up atmosphere and the dreaminess of some of the scenes are very striking and no one does aggressive sexual violence quite like Taylor in full flow. There is cruelty and delight in her humiliation of her husband. Brando glowers and sneers and Huston directs with unblinking surreal eyes. Glass and mirrors reflect and distort. Nature consumes. A very strange film indeed.
The Masseur is a more straightforward drama about a young man working in a Manila sex parlour. The main character is mainly silent throughout as he experiences the challenging realities of the sex trade. It is a static film, claustrophobic and oddly compelling. The flesh on show glistening in cubicles, kissed and kneaded by the boys is contrasted with the main character’s rural home life. It has a documentary feel and very different in tone of course from the steamy melodrama of Reflections and La Taylor who at one utters the immortal line: ‘…Have you ever been collared, dragged outside and thrashed by a naked woman?’ Fabulous.
Seeing both these films in the light of fragrance development is a bizarre experience. But the images float across the scent; southern gothic, hothouse melodrama, sensual desires, transgression, lingerie fondling and the unraveling of Elizabeth Taylor’s Hair.
But there is an innocence to the fragrance, a gentle heart. In Reflections… the houseboy Anacleteo ministers kindness and dreams of love. He almost hovers in the fragrance, as a softy sweet fruity tropical note….
Fils de Dieu is a constant delight as it unfolds on the skin, the collection of ingredients moving from arranged details to a beautiful cascade of delicately harmonised flavours and sensations. One of the most distinctive aspects of Asian cuisine is the aroma of clashing and complimentary flavouring blended together in harmony to produce the balance of sweet, sour, salt, spice etc. Schwieger pulls this off with aplomb, taking green succulents, spices, the spicy musks of sexual liaisons, gourmand notes of cooking and the vanillic and amber echoes of classic oriental fragrances. All this is warmed through by a gorgeous inhalation of the steam infused rice and jasmine accord that makes Fils de Dieu so humid and addictive on the skin.
It is very much a fragrance setting standards and new perceptions of how we perceive ingredients. We are now long used to kitchen notes in our perfumes. But they are often clumsily executed with little thought as to how they might actually come off the skin and interact with our senses. Many modern scents, niche or otherwise often have a somewhat desperate air of shock value about them, eager to draw us in with blood notes, semen, milk, concrete, fur etc. Now, while some of these are undeniable striking and some even smell rather beautiful, many are the perfumed equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a parade of scented transparency that will never stand the test of time. I am still amazed that people still fall for the Iso-e-Super nonsense swirling around Molecule 01, the concept it works with your own skin and adapts etc…. In fact you just reek of Iso-E-Super and you know what, it’s a nasty thin rusty scent that does no one any favours. What I love about Fils de Dieu is the Michelin star level of attention to culinary detail and complimentary aspects of cinematic sexual surrealism, the filters laid over the notes to achieve the final melding of contrasting layers.
It does take a few wearings to appreciate its beauty and strangeness. I get a lot of complements when I wear it, people leaning in to inhale me, sometimes a little too close….. It does have oddness and compulsion and needs the heat of the skin to open up the gorgeous rice/jasmine accord. It is the unexpected that makes it so desirable, the oscillation between genders, a blurring of the lines. This is something I really like in the work of Schwieger. He knows how to throw a scented curveball. He often cites Pina Bausch as a huge passion and influence. Sadly she died in June 2009, but the Tanztheater Wuppertal she founded in 1972 still tours the world with her repertoire. Her work is preoccupied with the often stormy interactions between the sexes, the struggles to love and hate and live alongside one another.
This weird clashing and contrasting sinuous harmony is a feature of Schwieger’s perfumery. Eau des Merveilles, Lipstick Rose, Womanity for Mugler, his fragrances for Sylive Gantier at Atelier Cologne all have a sense of conflict running through them, elements that seem ill at ease with their fragranced companions. The unsettling salty caviar aspect of Womanity, the futuristic oceanic amber of Eau des Merveilles and in Fils de Dieu it is the slide and kiss of rice, aromatics and musky animalics that really stops you in your tracks.
But Schwieger is a master of opposites and stylistic surrealism. His trademark is the unexpected, the little eye-catching detail, the glittering crystal animal left behind at a crime scene. He keeps a firm but delightfully free hand on his compositions. His blending is inspired and his structuring beautiful. Oh and his drydowns are just gorgeous. Fils de Dieu is one of the original and striking fragrances I have worn in years. Every time I wear it I am struck again by the metallic, sexual drop of the notes onto my skin. It has pungency and great jungle beauty, rich with steamy filmic atmospherics. I am nearly through my first bottle already, it is so moreish. I love a scent you can inhale and almost eat off your skin.
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