Pierre Guillaume’s background in chemistry and his assiduous devotion to creating fragrances that continue to be provocative and intensely luxurious has made him one of most intriguing people working in the perfume industry today. I regularly have Musc Maori and Felanilla in my collection, both of which burn off my skin with the intensity of supernovae. The banana wood note anchored under the saffron, vanilla and iris absolutes in Felanilla is incredibly clever and never fails to make me close my eyes and dream a little when I wear it. Musc Maori is just the most sensual mix of white musks, coffee and cocoa accords. Guillaume uses cumaru wood to drip a creamy filling through the notes as the fragrance heats up. It transforms the skin into a trembling sensual canvas, awaiting the touch of fingers and lips to trace pictures and words.
This ability of Guillaume’s to add something particular and tremendous into each of his fragrances; to explore new olfactory landscapes and play with sensory story telling has made him a quietly devastating force within the fickle world of niche fragrance. For example, he uses a technique called photo-affinage, utilising ultra violet radiation to shatter, diffuse and smooth notes in his creations. This is used in two of his fragrances: Cozé and L’Eau de Circé. It is an expensive and demanding technique that seems to inject a sense of expansion and aching delirium into the notes, pushing at the edges of the spaces between the accords.
The Parfumerie Générale house style of glassy ambience and architectural beauty wrapped around meticulous and often breathtaking notes has created a unique and very exciting body of work. Parfumerie Générale perfumes are divisive. I like this polarising aspect, all good scent should be; all of us liking similar bland perfumed strands would be terribly dull. I don’t like all of Pierre Guillaume’s perfumes, but the smooth oddness that permeates his work is very addictive. When you find the right one for your skin the results can be sublime.
Parfumerie Générale fragrances smell like the work of a man obsessed by the very atomic being of scent. By considering the emotional response of the wearer and how the trousseau of notes dazzle, the fragrances bind the senses like contemporary spells. I consider myself lucky my skin loves his fragrances.
I have always been fascinated by the alchemical aspect of fragrance, where the construction of notes and accords moves past itself into something more instinctual and spiritual. Great fragrance should have the ability to move us, haunt our spaces, and draw people to us like light-struck moths. Wearing Parfumerie Générale fragrances we notice ourselves or a facet of ourselves that was not there before.
The generic world of mainstream perfumery is surprisingly still pretty rigid in its guidelines for genders. Woods, aromatics and citrus for men, floral, chyprés and gourmands for women. There are of course exceptions, but generally most big names rarely deviate from established patterns in fragrance production. This is then carried across into marketing and PR, the need to sell quickly, make money back and try and establish the scent in a volatile, fickle market. This is where niche tends to differ. The rules and lines are there but they oscillate, allowing smaller niche houses to be much more free in their choices and olfactory directions. Don’t get me wrong, some niche Houses are just as rigid, but increasingly there a number of what I think of as concept houses redefining the definitions of how we wear scent and what we consider fragrance in the first place.
Brands like Nez à Nez, Blood Concept, Etat Libre D’Orange, Huitième Art (Pierre Guillaume’s other sensual and more minimal line…), Magnetic Scents, Lez Nez, CB I Hate Perfume, Bex London, Jul et Mad, Arquiste and Tauer Perfume to name a few are redefining the way we look at the concept of fragrance. The juice itself is the sole focus of attention. It is the art. This shift towards the skin and its interaction with the complexity of aromachemistry and the perfumer’s art seems obvious; yet in recent years moneymaking and marketing have become the driving force in the perfumery industry. An increase in awareness via social networking media and consumers demanding more information and eclecticism for their dollar/euro/yen has allowed niche fragrance to flourish in the disparate cracks of the high street. Like glorious underrated wild flowers, they have slowly become increasingly important and flagrantly beautiful. Stealth perfumery and all the more beautiful for it.
You do have to work a little harder to find a scent that suits you, but surely that is part of the pleasure? Sometimes the notes are oblique, difficult, challenging, the textual settings obfuscating and tremulous. It can seem a tad pretentious and chilly, but in terms of travelling, the journey will be littered with unexpected details and ideas that maybe confound and confront the senses. The destination however will be luxurious and worthwhile, a fragrance that seems at once personal and eternal. The perfumers working in niche seem intrinsically aware of the effect of their creations and the beauty of having such unique scents on the body. Wearing something this beautiful and connective ensures osmosis of perfume, skin and soul.
Over the top? Well many of us feel somewhat raw and exposed without scent. It provides olfactory armour, comfort and sometimes weaponry. I am always searching for new skin sensations, something that will shock me, thrill me and seduce my fussy synapses. Once you have found the right connection between your skin/self and a perfume, the sensuality will unfold around you like a never-ending story.
I fell head over heels for Pierre Guillaume’s No 25 Indochine when it was released in 2011. I was drawn initially to the name; Régis Wargnier’s film, Indochine is one of my favourite films, a film I watch over and over, the languid glacial beauty of Catherine Deneuve betrayed against the backdrop of French colonial rule in Indochina from the 1930s to 1950s. Soaring, dramatic and bitterly passionate, Indochine swept me away when I first saw it in a small damp and fading Edinburgh arthouse cinema in 1992. The lushness of the rubber plantations, the vast looming scenery, magnified emotions, claustrophobic relationships and the awareness of times changing made for compelling and devastating viewing. Deneuve is always at her best when her exquisite patrician exterior masks deep caverns of seething sexuality. She is a true force of nature and flickers through the film like golden fire.
In No 25 Indochine Pierre Guillaume locates his perfume in the calm languid era of colonial ambience and stability before the troubles. The tone, opulence and sheer drawn-out beauty of the time are carefully painted into one of the most beautiful of his creations. Guillaume used a duo of sepia images from the 1920s of Mekong River pleasure cruises as his starting point. This captured moment of an era, portrayed in lacquered tones, planted seeds of spice, resins and sweetness in a perfumed brain.
Using Kampot pepper from Siam, considered the finest in the world, cardamom from Ceylon, Laotian honey, a really smooth and heavenly benzoin from Siam and that trademark PG special touch, Tanakha, a highly fragrant wood paste used in Burma, Pierre Guillaume has woven a intoxicating and cinematic portrait of his inspirations. His olfactory camera grazes across the skin with unerring sensuality and grace.
One of my keystone scents has always been Annick Ménardo’s Bulgari Black with its aromas of rubber, smoky tea and vanillic skin. I recognize a similar rubber note in Indochine; it nestles amid the lactonic fruitiness of the bronzed heart of the scent. Like a bell struck in a temple, the ripples of scent roll out through the air. I don’t think anyone really does gourmand quite like Guillaume, he finds notes and facets that seem impossible and creates melting intensity within seemingly simple structures. Notes shape-shift. Resins become coffee, grasses resemble chocolate, citrus notes bloom like the most hedonistic of tropical flowers.
So, to Cuir Venenum, one of Guillaume’s greatest fragrances, but also I think one of his least understood. I have read a lot of mixed reviews, perfumeheads bemoaning the lack of fuck-off leather, the contradiction in the name, Leather Poison. They miss the point. It is slow acting poison, gradually infecting you and consuming you to the point of madness.
Now I LOVE all manifestations of leather in my fragrances: soft, porn, whipcracks, suede, dirty, w
Cowboy, motorcycle, lipstick, sweat and floral. All are welcome. I adore the roar in the animalic night of Dzing! by Olivia Giacobetti, the woozy drifting of Michel Almairac’s gorgeous floral leather for Bottega Veneta, the piercing sluttiness of the Kelly Calèche Extrait by Jean Claude Ellena and the Dietrich-fucks-on-a-motorbike glory of Tom of Finland by Etat Libre d’Orange. I am liking the re-orchestration of Diorling just now too, it smells astonishing on my skin, all dirty green and fucked up powder. My most recent crush is the incredibly sensual new quartet of leather-soaked Mugler fragrances. The incarnation of Angel with its shudderingly sexy combo of chocolate, fruits and tanned leather is sublime and the compliments flutter to you like bees to pollen.
Leather in scent makes me feel porny. Simple really. I would like to imagine I was a highwayman in a previous life, swathed in black, a supple mask wrapped across my face as I robbed and flirted my way through swathes of regency dandies and coy powdered girls. The truth of the matter is that leather notes suit my skin and my limbic system process the smells as something intensely erotic and comforting. The echo of skin on skin, buried DNA memories of tooth and claw, the savagery tamed by whipcracks, but only just.
Cuir Venenum is a very odd perfume, an abstracted and elaborately built scent with layers that unveil with great dexterity and quiet eroticism. There is a kiss of danger to it, a dripping of tattoo studio and spilt beer. I spend so much time getting inked; the place has a very particular scent, whiffs of ink, oil from the tattoo machines, antiseptic spray, Vaseline and latex. My tattooist also has ancient leather trousers that add a certain je ne sais quoi to the general ambience.
Like an eccentric friend who always rocks up and does the unexpected, Cuir Venenum delights and throws up surprises each time I wear it. This is what good scent is about: difference. Difference from the general scented pack but also difference on a more finite level, the everyday interaction of skin and senses. I love scents that smell different each time I wear them. Be it mood, attitude, heat, season, whim, carnality or sheer bloody mindedness it is always interesting to perceive the shifts in quality scent; the roll and tumble of the notes, the sudden appearance of an impression not noticed before.
I was wearing Cuir Venenum for a couple of sumptuous days when I kept thinking of a booth in a favourite bar years ago when I was still drinking. The seats were leather, the walls dark wood and the smoking ban was still in the future. I went so often with a friend, our drinks magically appeared without us saying anything. My favourite barman was a beautiful redheaded boy with amazing translucent skin and a way of making you feel private, eroticised and cared for. I had a passion for raspberry beer; the kind that came wrapped in paper. The taste was weirdly brown, tannic and fizzy with a delicious hoppy aroma. It was addictively sticky and all my memories of laughing and bitching and occasionally crying in that aromatic booth came flooding back as Cuir Venenum dropped onto my skin and exuded its soft beery leather whimsy.
As is usual with anything created by Pierre Guillaume, the notes assembled to create Cuir Venenum are of the very highest quality and read like a roll call of desire. If recited softly over my skin as I lie tied to a bed; I would chew through my restraints with desire.
The head notes have a bubbling citrus accord, orange flowers absolutes mixed with hawthorn; a very odd note that always reminds of my summer garden as a sullen unpredictable teen. An unruly hawthorn tree hung its head over a wall at the top of the garden and the thick, bitter scent was intoxicating, awash with foraging bees. My mother always told me it was bad luck to bring hawthorn (or May blossom as it sometimes known) into the house. The tisane is very popular in France, exuding a yeasty, sillage aroma as the water hits the herbs. I can really smell it in the top of the scent, it is quite distinctive. Interesting fact: trimethylamine, a natural chemical present in hawthorn blossom is one of the first chemicals given off as animal tissue starts to decay. This explains the sometimes off-putting bouquet that drops from hawthorn as it starts to turn on the branch. It can be suffocating.
The heart is where the leather sits, soft and a little tear-stained, cocooned in a quite lovely note of coconut sugar alcohol. This polyalcohol has been very subtly combined with musks and adds background and sweetness to the structure in much the same way Gomme adds sweetness to cocktails. The most unusual note in the perfume is Tamanol. This is actually a rosin-modified phenolic resin and goes a long way to explaining the hops and fruits beer effect I love so much. This is an odour of Edinburgh skies; the city’s breweries leak a hoppy damp, mulchy aroma into the air and it carries through the air across the rooftops and trees, permeating swathes of the capital. I have always known this smell. Ever since I was a student here many moons ago, this smell links me shockingly to this, my city. When you pull into Waverley Station on the train sometimes, peering up at the formidable drop of the castle rock, the smell of hops leaks in through the windows mingling with diesel and the smell of wet stone. This is Edinburgh.
The base of Cuir Venenum has an unexpected honeyed note, soft and cleverly executed, it drips over the musks and potentially harrowing myrrh note to delicious and breakfasty effect. It is the overall harmony and polished eccentricity of Parfumerie Générale fragrances that I love so much. I never tire of their inventiveness and élan. Their ability or intention to provoke an emotional response is often cited in articles and in interviews with Pierre Guillaume himself. He is a rarity in perfumery, a genuine sensualist. One with a vision of a million skins, all of them radiating his unique elixirs.
I find his oeuvre quite intoxicating. The ones I have worn have stayed alive in my memory and I can accurately recall how they developed and haunted the skin. I don’t like everything, but this is to be expected. He is pushing at and twisting the rules of established perfumery. He is sometimes criticised for being too clever and producing work that is cold and overly artistic. But if this is coldness, I will happily freeze in its embrace.
I find a tantalizing darkness in Cuir Venenum, almost just beyond my reach. It starts out all fizzy and sharp with its lick of orange blossom and citrus top notes really buzzing the senses. Then it begins to unsettle me for reason I find hard to really explain. The fruity beer heart spills over leather and perhaps burns a little round the edges; a whiff of phenolic sulphur mingling with the coconut and musks. There is a turning, a fermentation on the skin. Then a falling, a descent into resinous exhaustion. The sweetness lingers, but it is dirty now and worn to the nub. It is a scent of residues and traces. I feel I should be collapsed on a mussed bed, wrists chaffing from soft restraints, loved to utter lassitude.
I muster the energy to walk into a night exuding the worn remnants of leather and bar room exhalations. It is at once liberating and crushingly sad.
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