This post was written after an exchange with my friend Helg from The Perfume Shrine. Click to read her take on the matter!
The other day, one of the readers who responded to my Serge Noire post, Billy D. (hi Billy!), asked me if I thought the fragrance was original.
The comment gave me pause. Was Serge Noire original? If you’d never smelled a Serge Lutens, you might think so. But in the absolute? No. Not because the Lutens-Sheldrake team has slacked off, but because, in many ways, they’ve written a great big chunk of the book on originality in niche perfumery, spawned schools of followers and raised the bar for themselves to such a level that I doubt they could really come out with a shocker. Or feel the need to.
At first, they said the Serge Lutens were bases, not perfumes
In the world of abstract accords that dominated haute perfumery until the early 90s, Lutens and Sheldrake were among the pioneers who simplified the process by focusing on the particular characteristics of materials and shedding a new light on them, by exacerbating a facet (the mint-camphor opening of Tubéreuse Criminelle, the animalic pungency of Muscs Koublaï Khan, the richness of Ambre Sultan), unveiling the beauty of an accord (the violet and cedar of Bois de Violette, the orange blossom and cumin of Fleurs d’Oranger, the myrrh and aldehydes of La Myrrhe), or setting it off with their trademark spicy-woody base (Cuir Mauresque, Vétiver Oriental).
When the Palais-Royal line came out, it was said that these were bases, the mini-perfumes classic French perfumery uses as a springboard to compose abstract scents, rather than full-fledged compositions.
Now, using the beauty of a given material as a springboard to create a fragrance is so well accepted -- just look at the entire Hermessence or Armani Privé lines – that it has almost become a cliché.
Could l'Artisan Mûre et Musc be the matrix of the minimalist style?
L’Artisan Parfumeur also pioneered an original, quirky approach, starting in the late Seventies with “soliflores” (Vanilia, Patchouli, L’Eau d’Ambre) that were a more refined take on the headshop scents of the preceding decade, before stumbling on the brilliantly simple blackberry-musk accord of Mûre et Musc (1978). In a way, Mûre et Musc contained in a kernel the principle of the minimalist Hermessence line (Osmanthus + green tea, vetiver + tonka bean, lavender + licorice).
L’Artisan went on to produce fragrances based on settings and journeys (La Haie Fleurie du Hameau, L’Eau du Navigateur)… And what is the Hermès Jardins series if not an extension of that idea?
Olivia Giacobetti recently resurrected IUNX took the idea one step further with truly unusual potions – unusual in their accords, but especially their ethereal, misty textures. It is interesting to note that both Ellena and Giacobetti worked for L’Artisan, whose ground-breaking approach sometimes tends to be overlooked in the avalanche of nouveau-niches.
But how far can you go before you stumble into the unwearable?
The Comme des Garçons fragrance line matched the conceptual rigour of Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde collections with wan and minimalist, obviously synthetic abstract compositions such as Odeur 53 and 71 that defied you to like them (and didn’t seem to care if you didn’t). Their series – such as Red, Incense, Sherbet and Synthetic – blur the boundaries between natural and synthetic, photorealist representation and composition. The latter series, featuring scents like Tar, Garage and Skaï, which are not necessarily displeasing in themselves, question the limits of what we are ready to put on our skin.
The latest line to raise the originality stakes is L’État Libre d’Orange, with its novel accords of incense and bubblegum, jasmine and cigarettes, rose and blood and, most challengingly, Sécrétions Magnifiques. You’ve got to give it to them: it did surprise. But a buzz-creating scent like Sécrétions Magnifiques pretty much marks the limit of originality in fragrance: a deafening shout in an overcrowded market, unwearable to all but a squadron of fans (they do exist, and come back for more).
The bottom line is that a fragrance has to be wearable to at least a few thousand people – perhaps less for an über-niche indie perfumer mixing in his/her home – to be produced. Even uncompromising aesthetes like Lutens, or editors like Frédéric Malle who give a free rein to their perfumers, want to achieve a pleasing effect. With the possible exception of someone like Christopher Brosius, whose CB I Hate Perfume compositions sometimes seem to be little olfactory memory capsules rather than scents meant to be worn, a perfumer pretty much wants his stuff to be dabbed, sprayed and loved until the last drop.
Originality hasn’t always been the particular domain of niche.
From Chanel N°5 on to Mitsouko, Bandit, Eau Sauvage, Opium, Angel, L’Eau d’Issey, L’Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert or Bulgari Black, historically, it was often the big brands that came up with the radical innovations, if only because they had the money to pay for the perfumer’s time in researching for them.
Of course, we’ve all been complaining these last couple of years of the fruity-floral tsunami, the ubiquitousness of overdone accords and notes (pink pepper, patchouli and rose, clean musks) born of the marketing pressure to please the maximum number of consumers with Kleenex launches that were never intended to last. We’ve turned to niche brands for unusual, uncompromising visions, olfactory surprises, high-quality ingredients.
But now we’re being niche-tsunamied too: new lines seem to pop up like watered Gremlins after midnight, so fast that even the most dedicated sniffer doesn’t have enough time or skin real estate to keep up. Some are nice, some are meh, some are derivative, some are breathtakingly beautiful, but original?
Vero Kern’s Onda, the last niche scent to make me gasp in wonder, reminds me of Djedi – even Vero agrees that there are striking similarities, though she says she didn’t find them until a customer sent her a sample of the mythical Guerlain. She may have stumbled on the similar solution than Jacques Guerlain while working on vetiver and leather. Vero Kern is aware of perfume history: the same cannot be said of all perfumers, even in the big labs – as a matter of fact, perfumistas, or indies like Vero, are probably more versed in it than many professionals. I would surmise that she’s plumbing her soul and vials for beauty rather than trying to stun by unusual accords. Originality may not be the operational word here…
Will new synthetics revolutionize perfumery?
At this point, I’m wondering if you need to be a trained perfumer or someone with the chemical training and encyclopaedic knowledge of Luca Turin, to be really surprised by the structure of a new composition: “Hey, they’ve set off di-mexyl-octane-stinkalate with supercritical CO2 extracted Osmanthus!” Will chemical tour-de-forces and unheard-of molecules advance the art of perfumery? According to Luca, the biggest challenge now is to create synthetics with the same properties as banned/restricted natural substances.
What would really surprise me today is to get Mitsouko back the way it was. But that’s not going to happen.
P.S. My "comments" function was accidentally disabled for this post and I can't seem to re-establish it. Any comments? Please leave them on the post above this one... Many apologies for the inconvenience.
Image: The Man in the White Suit by Alexander Mckendrick (1951).