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

Sunday 24 June 2012

Thai me Up, Thai me Down: ‘Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes’ by Etat Libre D’Orange

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.

Friday 8 June 2012

Glue Sniffing: ‘Eau de Parfum’ by Comme des Garçons

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.