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

Thursday 12 June 2014

Duality & Frozen Turmoil – ‘Wisteria Hysteria’ by Stephen Jones X Comme des Garçons

‘Millinery, I think is closer to fragrance than fashion. A hat, like a perfume, is an evocation of something nebulous, ephemeral, other-worldly’.

Stephen Jones

This revealing quote from Stephen Jones, one of the most skilled and irreverent milliners of our time demonstrates the often-neglected abstractions of hats and scent. Both are frequently perceived as frivolous and unnecessary adornment, but to those that obsess over them they are the lace, plume, felt, tweed, lacquer, gold leaf, juice, Perspex and je ne sais quoi that completes an ensemble. While a hat is more visual and obvious in its intent, fragrance adorns and subconsciously manipulates just as much in its own passionate and purposeful way.

Stephen’s influence on the world of couture is far-reaching. You can see the influence of his eccentric attention to detail and radial deconstruction of conventional form in things as varied as spectacles patisserie, the adornment of shoes and book design. He has landscaped the head. The asymmetry, elegant whooshes, skeletal construct and use of masking have filtered into countless high street department store millinery departments. Even the fluttering froufrou touches at the necks of so many perfume flacons echo the singular eccentricity of his hat making. 

Sadly, we have fallen out of the way of wearing hats. Arguably as our lives have become less formal, there are fewer opportunities to showcase proper millinery. It has become something associated with Lambrini-swilling race goers, the faded aristocracy, red carpet soap stars and the feather and lace-exploded horror of fascinators decorating staggering hens on the drunken mean streets of our late night city centres. I love hats, they gild and mask, augment and mystify. I’m admit I’m not the best hat wearer, I prefer to bleach or silver my hair and beard instead, twirl my moustache. But I admire those that rock headgear and I mean really serious millinery, not just nasty beanies and hipster fedoras or cheap tiaras and scraps of feathers.

There are hat wearers out there, elegant everyday warriors of millinery; the man I see on Sundays with his hatted family, all in marvellous bowler adaptations, looking vaguely Amish and bonkers. I see subversive and sexy denizens of the fetish scene, burlesque performers, and sexual Vikings, marrying underground style with the need for veiled and perched magnificence. I see the most amazing creature on my way to work every day walking though my neighbourhood, elaborately coiffured, painted and pierced, her black and blue licquorice hair wrapped around her like armour. And so many hats.. tilted mini-tops and stovepipes, cascading in waterfalls of lace, circles of darkness pinned carefully to one side, allowing hair and mauve ribbon to fall like rain. Occasionally she has her beau in tow, tall and daunting, a silver-topped cane swinging from one arm, his gothic mistress on the other. He too will be hatted, usually a vintage black top hat, tipped forward, a band of blood red velvet tied around the brim and dropped down his back. Together, they look like they could consume the world.

Stephen Jones has been creating some of the world’s most fascinating and subversive millinery since setting up his first store in Endell Street, Covent Garden in 1980 with the backing of Visage singer and Blitz Club owner Steve Strange. His friendship and collaborations with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons stretches back over thirty influential and mutually admiring years. Rei is arguably one of the most important art and design soothsayers of our time; her undone influences have become a signature for the dispossessed and threatening hinterlands of our culture. Atomic shreds, bag ladies, asymmetry, body modification, smeared battered chic, voluminous parachute fantasy…. All these things and more have been woven through our fashion lives by Rei Kawakubo’s unerring ability to see beyond us and the opacity of unstoppable lives. 

Six years ago Stephen released his debut fragrance, a collaboration with Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons’ fragrance wing run by House Creative Director Christian Astuguevieille. The scent was signed off by Antoine Maisondieu, who also created Noel au Balcon for Etat Libre d’Orange and Rose Velours for Van Cleef and Arpels’ Collection Extraordinaire. Stephen’s eponymous fragrance was described as a violet hit by a meteorite. Notes included magma and meteorite smashed with violet, rose, jasmine, guaiac wood, black cumin and amber. It sounds heavy and overwrought but is in fact immensely delicate, a nebulous smoky violet, with grace and an erotic metallic charge. Like one of Stephen’s magical millinery creations; it feels so much more than mere adornment, it endows majesty on the wearer, an indefinable aura that turns heads.

Now we have the second collaboration; Wisteria Hysteria, again a unique artistic process involving Jones and CdG but this time with the talented and quirky Nathalie Feisthauer (at Symrise), co-creator of Eau des Merveilles for Hermes (with Ralf Schwieger) and the gloriously porny Putain des Palaces for Etat Libre d’Orange. Housed in a mini hatbox and nestling in milliner’s lace, the opaque grey-mauve bottle is stunning. I lifted my bottle out and watched the lace uncurl like white skeletal leaves. The attention to detail as always with CdG is immaculate, but Stephen’s feel for something different, an awareness of impact if you like, makes a world of scented difference. I hadn’t even tried the scent on properly and was already lost.

Stephen’s outré headwork is perfectly in keeping with Rei’s armouring and decorating of the body. Unnecessary adornment suddenly seems vital, an extension of personality. In many ways this of course applies to scent when created with wit, care and subterfuge. The panoply of CdG fragrances is incredibly diverse with its inventive treatment of leaves, grasses, pigment, incense, religion, glue, tar, water, ozone, ink, paper, metals and dust. The abstract capture of such esoteric and arrogant facets seems madness, but the CdG way has always been to subvert, surprise and ultimately to seduce. I have been wearing their fragrances for so long, they seem like old friends, the leftfield chemical and industrial signatures that seem alien and suspect to some are to me like a series of eternal rooms simply furnished with sparse, key memories.

I have always loved the oddity of CdG scent, the Bladerunner, cyborg artificiality that hums though the aromachemical presentations and musings. Yet as with all of Rei Kawakubo’s work, there is humanity and distorted formality below carefully presented surfaces. You have to work at wearing them, searching through the twisted strands of aromachemical DNA in order to understand the complexities of the formulae. This may sound horribly arch, but to love CdG is to love plastics and concrete, the antiseptic ink of a freshly minted page, the buzzing scent of overworked photocopiers, waves against glass, frozen blooms, vast smoke filled cathedral spaces or the intimacy of a folded sleeve.

I have a huge passion for the more abstract edges of the CdG oeuvre. Odeur 53 and Odeur 71 are remarkable pieces of olfactive art. Presumptive, bleak and gorgeously abstract. I remember thinking I can’t believe my skin smells like polystyrene and hot light bulbs… Antoine Lie’s 8 88 is a hyper-vibrant rendering of gold, shimmering with huge doses of Safraleine, molten amber and woods. It smells like golden samurai armour looks in the dying sunlight of an autumn day. Lie’s biographical perfume Daphne for the skeletal, alien socialite on the surface seems like a conventional blend of heady musks, incense and indolic funereal blooms. But it’s a macabre scent, redolent with death and empty rooms; a portrait of a life well-lived but also a desolate and conflicted one. My favourite is Eau de Parfum in the blob bottle, a glue and Sellotape floral, gummed tape, lilac and rose oxides producing a glorious corsage for a replicant ball. It smells like science, sexy metallic science.

Even the more mainstream offerings – Wonderwood, CDG2 Man, Amazing Green and more recently the rumbling potent Black are still pretty weird, just a little less so than normal. They have elements or facets that click with a wider fragrance buying audience, allowing them to cross over onto department store shelves alongside Prada, Creed and Aqua di Parma. Black smells very niche, with its heavy burn of birch tar, liquorice and aromatic Somalian incense. Yet it manages somehow to echo other successful elements of CdG scents of the years while showing the high street heavy hitters such as One Million, Le Male and YSL Homme that strength and power can be suggested in the subtle application of exceptional and exquisitely crafted materials. Black may suggest high street, but the street is paved in obsidian and the pavements are flint and fire. 

Wisteria Hysteria is a cascade of enigmatic effects that hangs like frozen turmoil from still white walls. It is a dense insidious scent, full of oddity and whimsy, but laying itself down on skin with arctic force and exotic difference. Ostensibly, as the name implies the scent is a portrait, albeit an abstracted and illusory one, of the highly decorative climbing plants of the Fabaceae family. The distinctive hanging bunched blooms that come in shades of white, violet, pink and vibrant purple. According to Stephen Jones in an interview he did with Dazed Digital, the hysteria part of the name was inspired by the feverish, high-octane edge of fashion shows:

If you’re a hatmaker you live permanently in this world of hysteria. It’s like the fashion business turns up to eleven. You’re always there at the last moment. Hats are the most visible thing and the most potent and extreme. It’s a hysterical world.’

This sense of histrionics is an interesting riposte to a bloom I have always considered to be exceedingly aloof and chilled. Yet wisteria is a tenacious and hardy plant, living for many years, the vines and branches can grow to wrist and arm width, crushing weak trellises and strangling trees. On houses they may look spectacular, flooding brickwork and stone with undulating parures of eye-catching hues; but beneath the beauty, the walls are being undermined, mortar choked and bricks smothered.

This dichotomy is played out ominously in Henry Pincus’ fabulous short film for Wisteria Hysteria, a slow corrupted fairy-tale where the beautifully strange model Charlotte Tomas comes face to face with a malevolent night version of herself. Dressed in delicious fitted monochrome couture by the late L’Wren Scott, the two sides circle and assess one another searching for flaws, fighting attraction. Tearing veils and bodies they kiss and devour themselves. The icy Anime mood and wash of gorgeous narcissism serve only to enhance the enigmatic desirability of the perfume.

Taking the bottle out of its white hatbox and watching the white lace uncurl around the opalescent flacon is a constant joy. The bottle is lovely in the hand, a Borgia flask, swirling with moon juice. The top of the scent is lit with a fizzy blast of mate, clove/carnation. The clove note must be handled with caution as too much eugenol will utterly drown a composition, flooding the notes with a rinse of dental surgery or chew of Dentyne gum. It is the peppery facet of a white carnation, dewy and shockingly fresh that Nathalie Feisthauer has captured. We have become immune to cellophane-wrapped garage forecourt carnations; never has a bloom been more slaughtered by ubiquity. Yet, the true spicy narcotic aroma of deeply scented carnations is quite shocking and arrestingly beautiful. Our immunity to this maligned bloom has removed a large floral reference from our olfactory lexicon. Although this is not a carnation scent per se, the ghost of these maligned drifts through Wisteria Hysteria like a bone white omen.

I love the glacial daunt of Wisteria Hysteria; it chills the air as it flees the bottle. I have been wearing it obsessively, mesmerised by the delicacy of spun sugar underpinning the mantle of vegetal dust that installs itself on the skin as the scent begins to settle. The wisteria note has echoes of a clean peppery lilac and the phantom carnation, all brutally white like geisha maquillage. The trademark CdG transparent woods provide support for the wisteria, a framework if you like for support and climbing. The mate note in the top of the scent adds a drip of sap and serves to emphasise the sugared legume characteristics of the composition that float and thrum throughout the evolution of the scent. The sillage is luminous, the skin trailing white light and frozen dust. One does feel veiled and coated. It’s a very odd sensation. 

As with many of my favourite CdG fragrances, Wisteria Hysteria has that indefinable cyborg skin effect, a certain plasticised finish. There is a sense of handling skin and wondering if it is real or not and the frisson of furtive and forbidden sexual desire. Here the question is one of floral holography; how real is the wisteria? If you come too close, does the illusion pixilate and fall apart? In the end, this is surely all part of the CdG ambiance and does it really matter when the skin smells this austere and astonishing?

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  1. Even if your review wasn't already reeling me in with its evocation of a perfume that is at once chillingly aloof yet compelling, I would want to try anything with such a felicitous name as Wisteria Hysteria. Am a sucker for assonance and alliteration in all its manifestations, and feel I may have been a tabloid headline writer in a former life.

    1. Hi Vanessa! your comment made me LOL… this is great scent though, so strange. I also bought the new CdG scent made for the Serpentine Gallery, it has really lovely artwork by Tracey Emin (never thought id write that) and smells of breezy park air and asphalt. Most odd, i am liking it, despite a fleeting & creepy car seat thing that happens half through… hahaha. I realise i forgot to respond to your Lys Fumé question in your comment on my le Labo Post… i tired it again the other day and kinda like the plushness of it, the mauve slide into indoles and soft smoke. It just does not last terribly long. I fell in love today with the 'Precious Oud' from the Collection Extraordinaire by Van Cleef & Arpels, a sweet tuberose drenched oud. Fascinating.. & very unexpected. So much to write about..

    2. "lovely artwork by Tracey Emin" = oxymoron, no? And I am intrigued now by your reference to a 'creepy car seat thing', not least because from a technical point of view - I am an industrial market researcher by profession - the risk of the (PU foam in the) car seats *themselves* actually 'creeping' is a real issue for designers...;)