I am not sure how sexual and graphic I will end up being in this piece, but it’s a long time since I have smelt perfumes this visceral and erotic. With me, perfume is a skin thing. Juice on skin. Ink on skin. Flesh as canvas. The body beautiful bores me. The body painted, anointed, dipped, carved, oozing smoke, indoles, musks, sweat, vanilla, hot petals, tears and leather. Now that’s interesting.
The incomparable Vero Kern is inseparable from her wanton and compelling fragrances. Once worn, they own and haunt.
Her Onda was the subversive and palpable hit of my poetry and perfume event at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens on a late May evening of sun and sensuality. Séville à L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur and Gorilla’s The Smell of Weather Turning also caused considerable ripples. But it was Onda as it name suggests that caused the biggest wave. I chose it as my scent of the evening to wear. I knew I would as soon as I smelt it in Bloom Perfumery in London moths ago. My flesh and garments were doused in the bitter-sexy tarantella of ylang, bergamot, honey, passion fruit, musk and woods. This was just the eau de parfum. I then anointed my pulse points and laced my throat with Vero’s skeletal extrait Onda companion. Pared down it may be - mace, vetiver, ginger and coriander – but it packs quite a salacious punch.
So on the night I radiated Onda with the subtlety of an erotic dirty bomb and smelt bloody gorgeous. Everyone I greeted wanted to know what I was wearing, leaning in like olfactory vampires to inhale, tempted in several cases to even lick me.
What I’m calling the sensual reek of Onda is something mainstream perfumery has been fleeing from for years. Skin, real skin, flushed and handled, lit with libido and longing, a blush of coition or just the promise of all the above to come. The French have always embraced this reek, the skank beneath the vanillic bouquet. Exploring in classical delicious formulae, the hint of something unsavoury yet intensely moreish lurking under jasmine, roses, iris, lavender and exotic balms. Animalic notes bringing the skin to the edge of disrepute.
Sadly the rise of clean scents, white musks and the weird crossover of detergent and towel notes into mainstream perfumery have caused a massive backlash against reek and skank. The world of ozonic and deadly locker room sport scents have laid waste to the decadent beauties that once sashayed their lascivious wares through international perfumery. The US mainstream market is obsessed with these clean smelling scents and the stickier neon end of the gourmand trade. (Although some fascinating small niche houses like DS & Durga, Slumberhouse and Kerosene are doing innovative and fascinating olfactory things in the US). Far Eastern tastes are generally more floral, the weather and cultural desires dictate a more feminine and accessible approach to scent. Another huge market is Brazil, where it is all about the fruit, in everything, shower gels, home scents, detergents and of course fragrance. The humidity and weather patterns often mean multiple showering, cleansing and therefore Brazilians love love love their fruit. It’s a tough market to break. No coconut, papaya, banana, kiwi, passion fruit, local specialties, it ain’t gonna happen.
I think however a secret yearning for reek and skank explains the ubiquitous rise in the use of Oud (agarwood) by nearly every major player, mainstream or artisan across the global market in recent years. Few have resisted its sweaty allure. Essentially Oud wood is the infected heartwood of Aquilaria or Gyrings trees. A form of mould, it parasitises the heart of its host and the result is both prohibitively expensive and well nigh on irresistible.
There is no denying the underlying armpitty and unwashed corporeal headiness that Oud brings to scent. But it requires quality and the right aromatic partners to reveal its true beauty. I love it with rose and iris, sometimes a dusting of chocolate. L’Artisan Parfumeur's Al Oudh is my favourite, followed closely by Francis Kurkdjian’s original Oud (which just burns out my synapses…), the fabulously foul Musc Koublai Khan by Serge Lutens and then Amber Oud by By Kilian which I am reluctant to like because as a brand they so blatantly signal all the exotic clichés of Oud I have come to hate. But hey ho, the skin likes what it likes.
Like many of us I would imagine, my first real introduction to mainstream Oud was through Tom Ford’s hirsute M7 for YSL in 2007. It was quite a revelation, created by the power pairing of Alberto Morillas and Jacques Cavallier, it really shook up the world and had so many people asking: what is agarwood? The rebooted 2011 version M7 Oud Absolu however is ghastly, a namby pamby pretender to the Burt Reynolds Cosmo Centrefold original. I liked the coldly burnished way M7 vibrated off the skin like varnished cello notes. It was oddly medicinal too, feral in its search for purpose.
The campaign reeked of sex too, shot as a full frontal of French martial arts champion Samuel Le Clubber; the guy was as hairy as hell and had his bits out. Not everywhere mind, some countries (well most actually) panicked and cropped him. The image was composed as an echo of the Yves Saint Laurent’s daring bespectacled nude campaign for Homme, his first men’s fragrance in 1971, taken by Jeanloup Sieff.
But anyone who has ever worn Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, launched in 1981, will know that YSL is no strangers to skank. Kouros still divides, despite signs of obvious tinkering. The graphic civetty bathroom odour of aldehydes, wormwood, musks and lemon blended so outrageously with carnation, orris, leather and jasmine tipped a fougère into a piss-stained, backroom work of art.
Other great reek and skank perfumes I would mention include Schiaparelli’s gussety Shocking, the original Jicky by Guerlain, Germaine Cellier’s original knife-wielding Bandit and Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, which must have been achingly beautiful before being gutted of its animalic roar and gossipy sexuality. I consider all of these prime examples of fragrances that once allowed us to truly explore the concept of the brothel beneath the skin. We all have a hankering for carnality; only some of us choose to embrace it as the blue hour approaches.
And so I return to Vero. This remarkable alchemist of sensuality embraces this with every fibre in her roguish and energetic body. There is knowingness, erudition and a healthy dose of humour amid the sensually charged homage, the nods and winks to her potent idols, but her oeuvre is very much her own.
Vero started atypically; there a few indicators of things to come, an aromatologist by training for many years she changed tack and deepened her passion for oils, odours and skin by embarking on a Zurich-Paris commute to attend perfume courses. Many people do this, however, very few have the imagination and forethought Of Vero Kern. I wonder how people who encountered who then realised what a groundbreaking yet respectful perfumer she would become.
She announced herself in 2007 at the age of 67 with three extraits: Rubj, Kiki and Onda, prepared lovingly in her two bedroom, hand-painted Zurich apartment. In an exclusive interview with Dimitri at Sorcery of Scent, she said, "Creating perfume - the use of aromatic materials - to me is similar to cooking".
These tiny jewel-like extraits are meticulously prepared with all the care and attention of a witch doctor or ancient pharmacist preparing illicit philtres d’amours for exclusive lovestruck clients. The extraits are brutally simple and therein lays their complexity and power.
Rubj (pronounced Ruby) is Moroccan orange blossom, musk and Egyptian jasmine. Kiki is lavender, caramel, musks and fruits. Onda a potent quartet of vetiver, ginger, mace and coriander.
Each has its influences. Kiki is a homage to Paris and the artist’s muse Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, who modeled for some of the greatest artists of the day including most notably Man Ray but also Cocteau, Joujita, Picabia and Chaim Soutine. She embodied the decadence and free spirited vibe that we almost expect now with every film, mémoire and publication on 20s Paris, but Kiki was the real deal, dying of alcohol complications and buried with appropriate boho pomp in the Cimitière de Montparnasse.
Rubj is apparently inspired by Sheikh Nefzawi’s ‘The Perfumed Garden’ a rare Arab discourse on the act of physical sex, a graphic and poetic treatise of female sexuality, translated most famously by the scholar, orientalist, sexual explorer, spy, diplomat and roué, Sir Richard Burton. It is an explicit work, written approximately 600 years ago. But reading it now, it is intensely sensual and strange in the light of current Islamic hardline views on sexuality.
This wonderful quote is from the Burton translation and chapter 5 entitled – Relating to The Act of Generation.
‘Woman is like a fruit, which will not yield its sweetness until you rub it between your hands. Look at the basil plant; if you do not rub it warm with your fingers it will not emit any scent. Do you not know that the amber, unless it be handled and warmed, keeps hidden within its pores the aroma contained in it? It is the same with woman. If you do not animate her with your toying, intermixed with Kissing, nibbling and touching, you will not obtain from her what you are wishing; you will feel no enjoyment when you share her couch, and you will waken in her heart neither inclination nor affection, nor love for you; all her qualities will remain hidden.’
Oh, so true of skin and scent alike.
Onda is more difficult to pin down. Vero has used the phrase jolie laide to describe Onda. This is a complex term for Brits, Americans and aspirational Asians whose concepts of beauty are increasingly being warped and destroyed by the unstoppable rise of plasticised, so called ‘beauty’. This is not beauty. True beauty is earned, lived in, a reflection of the soul and life’s experience. The ravages of cosmetic procedures on the worlds acting profession is just terrifying. (Yes Burt Reynolds, Milla Jovovich, Melanie Griffith to name a few, we mean you). South Korean women (and some guys) are undergoing very painful jaw-breaking surgical procedures and eyelifts to give them western eyes. It seems we have gone crazy. Very few true stylish people glitter around us anymore. Style, not beauty is in the (unaltered) eye of the beholder.
Jolie laide is Simone Signoret, Romy Scheider, the wildfire Beatrice Dalle, oddly Adjani as she sheds her frozen years, my beloved Charlotte Gainbourg and her demi-sibling Lou Doillon, the divinely silvered Kristen Macmanamy, feral Vincent Cassell, the weirdly horse-sexy Benedict Cumberbatch, Diana Vreeland, Peggy Guggenheim and Le Tourbillon, Jeanne Moreau, one of the most alluring creatures ever to grace the screen. What they have is a unique mélange of curious tugging sexuality and a veiled suggestion of rivers running deep. Charms and dangers that lie in wait to reward the daring. Gainsbourg’s screen performances for Lars von Trier (including the eagerly awaited Nymphomaniac) arguably contain some of the most visceral and revealing scenes of female sexuality in recent years. Always divisive but forever fascinating.
This too is Onda, a recoil and drag back to the skin, to inhale deeply and then wonder what the hell you are experiencing, processing the elements, wondering if it’s real. I adore the contradiction of this, the idea you are wearing something that needs to be approached with a certain amount of caution.
After the extraits came the eaux des parfums. Vero bravely shattered the original compositions and re-orchestrated them with a Fauvist attention to detail, vibrancy and texture. She took the original notes and embellished them with dashes of wild Henri le Douanier brilliance. It is this touch of naïveté enfantine and studied eroticism that makes the work of Vero Kern so momentous and compelling.
Mito, an astringent and creamy essay in verdancy and mulch was added to the collection last year, ostensibly only as an eau de parfum for now (although the extrait is imminent). Awash with gorgeous magnolia and cypress, counterpointed with a very Vero citrus note at the top which whiffs of oddly glittering lemon, glistening as if built from facets of vivid hand-blown glass. Inspired directly by the famed gardens of the Renaissance Villa D’Este in Tivoli near Rome, Mito uses the classical perfumery paring of hyacinth and galbanum to create a leafy littered base for the majesty of Mito to shade and sparkle over. There is freshness echoing the hundreds of fountains in the Villa’s legendary gardens and subtle formality to the sparkling chypré structure reflecting the elegant and precise design of the villa itself.
Mito has rightly been lauded and awarded prizes. It is very different in tone from the other three fragrances and is perhaps the most accessible of Vero’s scents for the more cautious. Oddly, not for me however. I normally loathe and I mean really loathe hyacinth in fragrances. It’s a bloom that can me make me screaming from houses and gardens if I smell them. The sickly sliding bulby odour makes me very unwell and can often trigger migraines. But this is Vero’s take on hyacinth and Vero’s unique interpretation of the chypré canon. I will persevere.
There is an undeniable zing and sense of effervescent emerald strolling as Mito develops, but this being Vero I cant help imagining an assignation in mind, an Hermès scarf crushed under a hand as bodies kiss under the shade of snowy magnolia blossom. This is the scent for Tilda’s Emma Recchi in I am Love, Luca Guadagnino’s sweeping epic about the infiltration of the Italian bourgeoisie by the truthfulness of love and desire. It is one of the most devastating portrayals of found love and conventions abandoned I have seen. It actually shocked me on first viewing, the emotions tore me apart. I defy anyone to watch the final fifteen minutes and not weep until they drown. The more I wear Mito, I have a feeling it will bring me my own I am Love moment. And that is both worrying and ridiculously exciting.
But it is Onda that pulls me repeatedly into its powerful orbit.
Kiki is apparently Vero’s favourite and my number two. I have a secret fetish for lavender I think. It’s tricky to use in fresh and modern ways. For so many people it is pillow mist, old lady sachets, essential oil for insomnia and fluffy pots by the door. In the alchemical hands of a genuine perfume talent lavender can be moulded into something epicurean and compulsive. Fragrances like Caron’s ancient Pour un Homme, Kurkdjian’s Eau Noire for Dior and Shay & Blue’s smoky Suffolk Lavender are all intriguing examples of the erotic subtexts of lavender. If I had to pick my favourite use of lavender in recent years it would be the way Betrand Duchaufour wove it into the fabric of Séville à L’Aube to help self-confessed perfume slut Denyse Beaulieu turn an erotic memory into a intoxicating set of dirty and soft thoughts painted with beeswax, orange blossom, incense and the late inclusion into the formula of Luisieri lavender, a species native to Séville with less flower matter on the stalk. The oil extracted is darker in tone, more bitter and animalic than the more familiar brighter mauve-mood scent consumers might be used too. Séville à L’Aube is profoundly inviting and an untold pleasure to wear, creating scent waves of haunting waxen dirtiness that seems to effortlessly draw people in. He had to really push Denyse Beaulieu on the addition of lavender to the formula, as it was a note she generally dislikes in scent. However the olfactory arguing was worth it. The lavender sweetens the composition and compliments the beeswax and orange blossom magnificently.
Rubj is bordello majesty. Lush and dirty, skin lolling on faded red ottomans, orchids on tables filling the air with their white druggy odours. Girls come and go, masks and stockings, bow ties and barely fastened corsets move up and down flower-festooned stairs. The air is forever Rubj. It is the carnivorous triptych of tuberose, cumin and orange blossom that radiates out of this scent with such amimalic force. One can almost imagine petals with teeth nuzzling your cheek before tasting blood.
Image from L'Apollinade, Souvenirs de la Maison Close
The use of passion fruit, a fetish Vero note is very clever. (Trivia - Passion fruit get their name from the Latin genus name passiflora because many of the species’ flowers reminded early Christian missionaries of the Crown of Thorns Christ wore on the cross). They are an odd fruit, more a collection of seeds in brightly scented amniotic goo. Nothing smells quite like passion fruit, sherbetty, acidic, ripe and vaguely sexual, a little down there. I love them, ranked with guava and papaya in my tropical fruit top three. Added to the indolic whammy of tuberose and orange blossom, things can get very carnal.
The addition of oakmoss and bergamot throw a chypré curveball through the mix, echoing Mitsouko in its original civet-reeking heyday. Sexy sexy scent making. I do feel you need a huge staircase to slowly descend and a room full of impossibly attractive men waiting at the bottom to do it justice. It is a statement scent. Saying that however, the best I have I have smelt it so far is on my friend Mr E. he smells utterly debauched in it. Under whiffs of his trademark Sobranies, Rubj smells stretched out and dangerously come-hither, like a glittering indole-strewn road to hell.
Vero is currently working with roses for a perfume to appear next year. Part of the joy of loving her work is the wait and the imagining. I adore roses and cannot wait to inhale her unique and iconoclastic take on the folded, secretive velveteen rose.
For what is a relatively capsule collection of fragrances, Vero Kern has made an almighty impact on the senses. Her work is not just that of a perfumer although she has in many ways re-defined a way of working with precious materials that punctures the molecular aridity of modern perfumery. She has also managed to avoid the pitfalls of some niche perfumers creating ‘by hand’ as it were. That weird olfactive sensation of notes sitting next to one another, yes there is an overall effect, but there is not harmony, no smoothness of line. It’s what I think of sometimes as cottage industry perfumery, it has its place and can sometimes produce beautiful work, but it lacks finesse and mellifluousness.
Vero is very much part of her work too, a woman bursting with life and style, passionate and private, with a unique and generous outlook on life. I think it is in this homogenous day and age rare to encounter perfume and creators like Vero Kern. So many people like to think they are eccentric and out there blurring boundaries in the artistic hinterlands. The truth is more mundane; they are repeating an age-old cycle of hipster boho existence that owes more to television, old movies and arch posturing than it does to real talent. You have to have existed to create. Life is shockingly wasted on the young.
Vero’s perfumes remind us of demi-monde days and nights, she allows us to re-imagine ourselves cast in the skin of others, reveling in our senses, drawing others to us like glittering flames in distant hypnotic windows. This is art. Bravo Vero - Sorcière, sirène et force lumineuse des arts parfumés.
For more information on Vero and her work and joie de vivre! please click on the link below...