I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

ExquisiteWaterGarden#5 – ‘Le Jardin De Monsieur Li’ by Hermès

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.

Li Bai (705-762)

Mediterranean swoon, Nile reverie, monsoon rain, rooftop sanctuary and contemplative pools. These five riffs on aquatic jardinière obsession are arguably the masterworks of Jean-Claude Ellena, elicited during his genre-defining tenure at Hermès. His relentless pursuit of olfactive meaning in water, reflection, light, calm, verdancy and stillness has created a quintet of odiferous canvases that continue to seduce and dazzle.

According to the scented grapevine, Jean-Claude’s time as Hermès seems to be softly drawing to an enigmatic close with Christine Nagel waiting patiently in the minimal wings. Yet he shows no signs of taking his fingers off the mouillettes just yet. He has not made any concrete statement about retirement; much of the chatter about his departure is a fiction of the press and perfume blogs. I sense a certain wistfulness and longing in his work, but this is not enough to prove pending departure.

He has been applying his sense of studied transparency to some fascinating work recently. The Jour d’Hermès collection is sublime; a lustrous portrait of imagined floral perfection, a vitreous bloom that exists in ethereal powdered glow. I blogged on Cuir d’Ange, a truly beautiful work looping back to Ellena’s native Provence and Jean Giono his favourite writer, but also exploring the essential spirit of molten leather, the lifeblood of Hermès.

Portrait of Jean-Claude Ellena 
by Richard Dumas

Jean-Claude is taking stock, referencing past work and re-working beloved themes, aromatic canvases. This is what makes him unique as a perfumer, an ability to repeat yet innovate, lay down thematics, allowing us to see them afresh each time. He will go when he goes and until then each new piece of perfumed work seems somehow imbued with melancholy and intense self-awareness.

I recently spent a wonderful couple of hours in the company of Mica at the newly refurbished Bond Street store where I felt instantly at home amid the scents, silk, leather, porcelain and enamel. The fragrances are artfully arranged, flooded with light in their sensual collections: the romans, grand classics like Hiris, Bel-Ami, 24 Faubourg, Jour D’Hermès and Calèche that tell grandiose, dense histoires. I wanted to sample the nouvelles, the short stories, sketches or watercolours that constitute the Hermessence collection. These are Jean-Claude Ellena’s portfolio of effects, references and aromatic pantones. Sampling them all again, I was really intrigued by their modernity and timelessness. They seem now like a guide to structure and simplicity. Anyone seeking to learn how to achieve the quietude of magnificence need only study the acerbic lavender tinted liquorice in Brin Réglisse, the unnerving crème patisserie thrill of Vanille Galante or the druggy adoration of Amber Narguile to realise that many of Ellena’s effects and have been echoed through other houses with mixed results.

Foxy Hermès haul.. 

The Bond Street boutique have the full fragrance range, so I sampled a couple of things outside my comfort zone, but still relevant to my writing and Ellena’s creative processes. I tried Eau de Narcisse Bleu from Les Colognes Hermès Collection. Now I’ve avoided this because in my mind it was a green hyacinth/jonquil aroma, something I would never normally wear. Mica explained it was all about creating a cologne effect with very little citrus. It went on like emerald fire, a hugely unexpected fougère-style hissing metallic note that threw me momentarily. Then the narcissus raised its creamy head, cold, aloof and seemingly washed by sea breeze on high cliff tops. The transparency of the juice is lovely; it smells high, clear and glassy. Still not for me, but it was much more interesting to sample it informed by other Hermès fragrances. 

Epice Marine (Hermessence Series)

In the end I fell hard for Epice Marine from the Hermessence series, a guttural and sexy collaboration between Jean-Claude Ellena and Breton chef Olivier Roellinger. Roellinger is one of a growing number of top French chefs who have turned in their Michelin stars to work in less rarefied, more intimate surroundings, exploring a more personal side of their passion for cuisine. For Roellinger, this is linked to spices and the trade that once connected his native Brittany to the international spice routes. He has formulated a series of evocatively named spice blends for use in his cuisine that are now available to buy. Names like Poudre Grande Caravane with cardamom, cinnamon, fenugreek, sesame and niora, a fiery Moroccan pepper. Trésor Oublié is a mix of Kombu, nori (seaweed), nutmeg, Sichuan pepper, and sesame. My favourite name is Poudre d’Ombre (Shadow Powder), a condiment for mushrooms and sauces and chicken made with Pu Er tea, mace, pepper and cinnamon. So you can see why this collaboration made perfect culinary and olfactive sense, with both Olivier and Jean-Claude preoccupied with combining a minimal palette of carefully selected flavours.

Epice Marine

Smelling Epice Marine’s aqua/animalic spice-porn in the rarefied Hermès space and sniffing my cumin-dosed saline skin amid such decorum made me realise how much I needed this dirty pirate scent in my collection. The mix of Sichuan spice, Algenone, hints of Bruichladdich whisky and roasted cumin is salivating and compulsive. The scent bridges sky, sea and land, pulling our senses in profound directions for a something as seemingly simple as scent. I just wondered why is had taken me so long to fall for it. Wrapped, ribboned, orange-boxed and into the trademark Hermès bag it went. I was topped up liberally all over before I left by the dapper fin de siècle Mica and I trailed Epice Marine through Bond Street and Mayfair, enjoying the wonderful tonal shifts and peeks of prickly booze, algae and curated dry spices. 

There is undeniably a signature to Jean-Claude’s work, a sensuous, creamy aquatic yearning, scattered with baie rose, cumin, glassy rose, hesperidic tones of bitter orange and grapefruit, his palette awash in the lambent glow of Iso-E Super. His works move like watercolours, wet on the paper of skin, flowing and mixing, the perfumed chromatics bleeding and washing into one another creating more complex effects and messages. He focuses on scented details, pursues themes, using repetition and echoes of notes, chasing their development through different scents.

Les Jardins I, II, III & IV

Artists, writers, musicians; all have signature motifs and fetish themes. Jean-Claude is no different. This series of garden-themed works started in 2003 (before he was officially the brand nose) with Un Jardin en Méditerranée, inspired in part by the Tunisian garden of Leïla Menchari, Director of Displays for Hermès. Ostensibly a fig scent, Jean-Claude Ellena has however avoided the generic figgy tropes of milky coconutty ambience by allowing us to experience a much drier, sharper fig tree, cut with orange blossom and the slightly off-putting blowsiness of white oleander. As with all the Jardin series, the trademark aquatic breeze blows though the composition with elegance and holiday insouciance. Cedar, cypress and juniper are subtle additions suggesting a dry phantom orchard tonality to the background, working beautifully with the figgy citric prelude. Ellena’s use of delicate heat-haze woods and citrus fruits is very striking and I prefer this treatment of fig to the more lactonic approach of say Diptyque and L’Artisan Parfumeur.

There is movement and vitality in Un Jardin en Méditerranée, a delicious lift and inhalation of sun-kissed calm from a huge overdose of hedione, an addictive derivative of jasmine. Revisiting it this time round for this piece, it smelled a little different to my nose; it may be reformulation or just my memory, but the juice smells less sweet, the fig effect less complex. The lush vegetal facet that often translates in the Jardin series as wet celery or cucumber seems to be almost entirely absent. No matter, the overall concept is still robust enough to survive a little tweaking.

The second volume, Un Jardin sur le Nil launched in 2005, a decidedly odd scent, inspired by an actual visit to the Nile garden islands at Assouan in Egypt. This was then re-imagined as only Jean-Claude can with an enormous cloudburst of tart green mango that lingers throughout the fragrance’s stay, mellowing a little but really settling in with wafts of cold incense, wet woods and calamus which smells like green algae-tinted water. The lotus note that a lot of people talk about is chalky, bitter and works like an antidote to the powerful mango presence. I hear Goldfrapp when I smell it; I saw them live in Glasgow years ago and my friend Catherine sat next to me in damp clouds of Un Jardin Sur le Nil, so the two things have fused in my memory, Alison Goldfrapp singing A&E plaintively on a half-lit stage and the sweetly corrosive scent of blue mango dream.    

Next up was the sudden shock of battered Indian gardens, earth smashed by hot, heavy rain, leaves ripped, petals thrashed and tossed wildly to the ground. Un Jardin Après La Mousson in 2008 celebrated the moment the sun chased away the rainy violence and gardens seethed, oozed and radiated mulchy floral spice. A scent of earth restored, it is perhaps the trickiest of the Jardin series, a love/hate composition of aromatic Keralan pepper, ginger, cardamom, coriander and a dense mulchy vetiver notes. The mix reeks of stained water, swollen skies and smashed fruit mixed with wet, loamy soil. I get a scent of bitter gourd and overripe melon as it explodes across skin. It smells both lush and acerbic, a perfume for those who want some contradiction and unexpected scented violence in their lives. I initially found Le Jardin Après La Mousson a hard scent to love, slamming into that saline brackish decay. But revisiting it again in the Hermès store and sampled in context, this time it ravished me with its deluge of effects and the sheer beauty of the picture painted by Jean-Claude Ellena of arid ravaged ground and aching flora, revived by humid craved rain.

Jardin Sur Le Toit (Foxy Collection)

Jardin#4 was very different in style, inspired by somewhere secretive and fairy-tale… the lush, orchard-tinted garden above the Hermès headquarters at Rue 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris where Charles-Emile Hermès began the saddlery story that is now the global empire of Hermès. The private garden is an arcadia of calm and aromatic flora for the Hermès family and of course for Jean-Claude Ellena.

So… Un Jardin Sur Le Toit, a garden on the roof, scented with apple and pear trees, magnolia, hibiscus, hawthorn, roses and sage… the perfect inspiration for a perfumer. Launched in 2011, the scent is dominated by the luscious marriage of gourmandise and fertile compost. Sweet blushed apples, ripe pears and the billowing waxen sensuality of magnolia are mingled breezily with grassy herbs, air and a distinctive underpinning of crumbled mulch. Un Jardin Sur Le Toit smells seriously frivolous, the rose note in the centre of the composition almost crystalline in its translucency. I never really took heed of the loveliness of the rose note much before, it is only now I notice how sublime it is actually is, nestled in the scent like an abandoned lipstick rolling in emerald grass.

Jean-Claude Ellena’s trademark aquatic vibe is less obvious is this scent, more juicy perhaps, the idea of weather, less important, more distant and more controlled in such an intensely private space. It is a fragrance of tremulous delicacy, the notes floating overhead as if you are lying in grass, staring up though leaves and gently dishevelled branches. I am late to Un Jardin Sur Le Toit; I’m not sure why, but I kinda missed it first time round, perhaps, a little less than impressed by the crisp, eau de vie style apple effect. But now, owning and wearing the entire Jardin series, I realise how uniquely made it is, crafted to aloof green perfection with just the correct amount of coercion and frivolous corporate aesthetic.

Let us take a moment to contemplate these works; imagine them in a contemporary gallery setting, a collection of whited-out concrete rooms lit with natural light, careful windows gazing out onto grass, trees and woven flora. The rooms contains large-scale digital installations of Jardins I, II, III, IV & V, electronic tapestries of abstraction, memories, textures, sounds and line scrolling and flowing over screens with tints of white, grey, azure and green. The spaces would echo with gentle sounds of water, storm, rivers, weather and waves, overlaid with leaves shimmering in summer wind, cicadas, temple bells and perhaps the hazy sound of aircraft buzzing a distant sky.

Text from Hermès press release 
(with arranged bamboo and willow install by Foxy)

The final piece in the final room might be the most melancholy and contemplative of all. Almost still, images barely moving, ripples moving at super slowed down time, a stick drawing gradual patterns in precisely raked sand. Moist air grazing sad and thoughtful skin. Ink placed on wet paper, languidly bleeding out into shades and nuances of grey, slate, dove and ash. You might hear the faintest break of water as a branch touched a limpid surface. This is the rarefied ambiance of Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, Jean-Claude Ellena’s fifth and perhaps most reflective entry into the Jardin series. 

Le Jardin de Monsiuer Li 

Jean-Claude Ellena’s journey as a perfumer has essentially been one of disassembly and restriction, a careful and deliberate honing of his olfactory palette from a full arsenal of aromatic effects to a much more intensified placing of materials in the same manner in which an artist very deliberately places a brush or pigment upon a bone white page sheet of thick cartridge paper at the commencement of a piece. Sniffing early work such as First for Van Cleef & Arpels or Déclaration for Cartier comes as quite a dense, impasto shock now in comparison to the more translucent oeuvre we are used to from his residency at Hermès. The gradual erosion of excess is almost celebratory.

Artwork for Monsieur Li packaging by Li Xin

The emballage design for Monsieur Li is inspired by a set of specially commissioned paintings in swirling patterns of mournful grey ink by contemporary Chinese artist Li Xin. They echo water, river, pool, sand, cloud, thoughts and of course the mist of scent into air. The lovely interplay of ink, paper and water also resembles strata; landscape form and the diffusive sweet bleed of Monsieur Li’s jasmine, soaking gently into skin. The contrast tone Hermès have chosen to play against this is a knocked back Imperial Yellow, the colour that blazes off dazzling dragons. Here it is more subdued and introverted. Nonetheless it is still a potent tonal block of strident acidity.

Li Xan artwork from Hermès press release

The scent itself is charismatically lush, an ambiguous jasmine androgyne, wandering tenderly in Monsieur Li’s glimmering garden. The Hermès theme for 2015 is flanerie, a particularly French term that is virtually impossible to translate with any real exactitude. I suppose if I had to try and define it, I’d say the flaneur is a wanderer and stroller of streets, seemingly footloose and idle, but in fact a keen and connected thinker, observing surroundings, looking for inspiration and cerebral adventure. Flanerie implies a seemingly aimless wayfaring, but one with aesthetic gravitas and intent.

Jean-Claude Ellena in China

Jean-Claude Ellena travelled to China for indulge his Hermès flanerie. He is a rare perfume artist in that he absorbs so much external olfactory experience and extrapolates the skeletal elements that click for him and then quietly sets the rest back in place. His gaze is strong and pure; longevity at his level in the fragrance game has taught him how to silently survive in an increasingly gauche and strident world of clamouring scented demands. His gentlemanly asceticism has always seemed refreshing and oddly out of time.

View from the Chinese Garden 
in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

In China the garden is a powerful repository of mind, beauty, spirit and mortality, a place to contemplate and mediate upon the ambivalence of life, the shadows of death and life beyond. Gardens are spiritual shelters, often created as poetic essays in landscaping, allowing a closer communing with nature and the purity of leaf, flower, bud, water droplet, stream and root. Everything is chosen for a reason: symbolism and harmony, beauty and decorum, as demonstration of aesthetic awareness or quiet meditation.    

Water is an important feature in Chinese garden landscaping, reflecting the ever-changing sky above and working in harmony with rocks and trees to represent seas and mountains. Water can be both a still mirror of contemplation or a busy rush of shifting colours, texture and thrashing animalic movements. Pools are portals, windows and eyes.

Jean-Claude Ellena mused on these elements, considering how he might translate a moment of transitional, inward calm into a modern aromatic idiom. The concept also had to be commercial, chic and flow seamlessly in and out of the other four aquatic garden-inspired fragrances he had already created for Hermès. Le Jardin de Monsieur Li is an imagined verdant space of Jean-Claude’s imagining, not a generic garden per se but one of fundamental elements alchemised together in harmony of nature, mind and drifting affective aroma.

The key is transparency; a sheer gauziness of effect that at times seems barely there, yet trembles with beauty at the edge of our sensory awareness. It is incredibly diaphanous and addictive. For now, I’m hooked, liberally wearing and losing myself in the reverie of pale, ghostly jasmine, water-soaked and haunted, stripped of indoles to a moist dewy cling. In fact the jasmine is almost vapourous, so carefully reserved is its presence, petals rendered in watercolour, edges seeping off into the expansive white musks and ozonic swell in the main body of the scent. There is a kumquat effect in the top apparently, those odd little olive-sized oranges. It translates freshly as you might expect, but also with a burst of woody sweetness often associated with the fruit. Mixed with a herbal mintiness and Jean-Claude’s trademark mineral echo, the citric element flows gently on a drifting wind of discernable sap effects, setting finally into a whisper of faded bloom. You can almost smell wet stones touched by morning mist as feet leave imprints in chilled glittering grass.

This is perhaps the most ephemeral to date of the Jardin series, a phantom meander through a garden of abstracted memory. The materials themselves seems distant and out of reach, the kumquat for example resembles an blurred image of itself, a pearl of orange ink dropped onto wet cartridge paper, spreading into an aura of tonal dispersion. Each time I wear Monsieur Li I detect tiny anomalies of pattern; swirls and line in the assembly of materials and effect. There is lushness, melonic moisture, and then sometimes I smell sweet candied peel, a mix of angelica and green rhubarb. Last night I inhaled freshly cut guava as I sprayed liberally over damp post-shower skin. The woodiness is spectral, hidden behind musks and clouds of iso-e-super or something similar. The jasmine is not at all indolic, in fact the note resembles more closely the aqueous cut-grass jazziness of cis-jasmone, perhaps using clove bud oil and pink peppercorn to imbue a gentle bite of creamy spice. As it settles I do smell a familiar ozonic, be it hedione or the metal marine rush of algenone.

Wearing Le Jardin de Monsieur Li is a mediation on the series as a whole, you can’t help but be drawn back through the Jardin series, revisiting rains, rivers, root-tops and storms, listening to nature inform our busy existences. Jean-Claude has used these scents to demonstrate a delicacy and stripped back aesthetic rare in luxury scent. The finesse and attention to detail is that of a true artist and composer of moods.

Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, despite its contemplative landscape and dreamy drifting is a scent with serious intent. The mix of notes and expansive presence on skin (clothes love it too…) ensure the skin holds a pale melonic linger as the main jasmine theme rises and falls. It has a melancholy, cool air about, a little distracted. This is something I have noticed in Jean-Claude’s work since he created Voyage in 2012.

These Jardin perfumes have been created to delight and intrigue us, lead us through sensations, move and silence us. We visit sun-drenched iodic beaches, chilled Nile oases, storm ravaged gardens, stand aloof in rooftop verdant eyries and find ourselves momentarily at rest in the garden of our imagined host Monsieur Li, calm and lost in reflective flanerie, musing life and love as our skin radiates exquisite sweet luminescence.

I will always wear these scents, their dewy, humid and aerial atmospherics adore me and I adore back. Le Jardin de Monsieur Li is a fragile and reflective addiction to Jean-Claude Ellena’s on-going preoccupation with hazy mineralised aquatics and imagined gardens. Like so much mist and rain, rumours of his retiring and departure swirl, but still there is mystery. This is how is should be. It is the way of Hermès.

©The Silver Fox

07 April 2015

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing such beautiful writing. I devoured your words as I too had fallen in love with Monsieur Li. Utterly poetic and graceful, it is an emotional abstract piece. And isn't that what art does? In Ellena's words, "to create an illusion stronger than reality"?

    You can imagine my disappointment when I read its less than positive reviews on WWD's Smell Test. I so wanted to let Mr Ellena know how stunning this perfume is. It reminded me of his Angelique sous la Pluie. Completely different subject, but you can tell they share the same author and sensibility.

    Chandler Burr on Scent Notes had dismissed Ellena's attempt to reinvent the Calone theme through Après la Mousson. I feel Ellena is resolved to attempt the water theme one more time, with his graceful strokes in Monsieur Li.

    I believe it was composed with a momentous intent. As you mentioned so perceptively, his self-awareness is so present. The significance of this final chapter is not lost on him. Which is why, its melancholic tune is so heartbreakingly beautiful.

    A dignified bow, for one of the greatest artists of our times.