You know niche fragrances are definitely the happening thing when hip design agencies get in on the game. Humiecki & Graef, who launched the intriguingly conceptual Skarb last year, is the brainchild of Tobias Müksch and Sebastian Fischenich, respectively managing director and creative director of the Bel Epok agency (offices in Zürich and Cologne). Their small German indie label was named after their grandmothers – their “emotion homelands” -- but that’s where the gemütlichkeit stops: their fragrances, straddle the gap between high concept and, well, actually wearable perfumery.
Not quite an uncharted territory since Comme des Garçons staked its claim on it over a decade ago, but one that can definitely bear more exploring. Especially when the perfumer is Christophe Laudamiel, he of the pink slicked-down Mohawk do and the “enfant terrible” of perfumery reputation, whose work spans from the ultra-commercial (Estée Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Clinique, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors) to the ultra-niche (the Thierry Mügler coffret inspired by The Perfume, along with Christoph Hornetz; S-ex and S-Perfume remix for artist Sacré Nobi’s confidential S-Perfume), as well as forays into the art world (Sacré Nobi again, but also collaborations with French self-mutator Orlan).
For the Humiecki & Graef collection, Laudamiel was given an unconventional brief based on emotions: intensity, folly, melancholia, desire and fury. He apparently decided to take the process one step further by deconstructing the traditional scent pyramid into a “star-shaped” development which enables him “to express emotional complexity and clearly distinguish different fragrance notes”.
Ok, so how does a star feel when it’s wedged up your nose?
Prickly, that’s how it feels.
Most of the H &G fragrances tickle. Spray all of them on both arms, and you’ll get a high-pitched aldehyde hiss: a blast of candle wax, hot ironing board and citrus rind. Laudamiel has ripped this classical perfumery ingredient and created the olfactory equivalent of the Farfisa organ in the B52’s 1978 Rock Lobster; a crazed mechanical jumping monkey in a beehive wig solid with hairspray.
Much as Kate Pierson’s keyboard provided the bass-less Rock Lobster with the spoke around which the vocals twirled, Laudamiel’s aldehydes, in a radical departure from their top-note role, act as the fizzy core of the fragrance (welded to a hefty dose of Iso-E Super).
What about the scents themselves? Oh, this is niche, uh-uh, no doubt about it. Niche-niche. These definitely came from Planet Claire, by way of Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang Studios. And despite being inspired by intense emotions, what springs out of them is a sense of playfulness.
Askew actually made me laugh out loud. Don’t ask me why. I’ll tell you anyway. The blurb goes “The demolition of classic men’s fragrance”, the picture on the website shows a naked male beauty wielding a porcelain lamp, and I can only envision it crashing down on Jean-Claude Ellena’s distinguished skull, because this is obviously a deconstruction of JCE’s epoch-making, and widely imitated, Cartier Déclaration. Ellena’s trademark ginger-cardamom-vetiver combo is somehow extruded into fizzy bubbles – Un Jardin après la Mousson also comes to mind. Then the cinnamom-apple embellishments of Ambre Narguilé pop up to say hello, sans amber. Leather wanders in to join the fun. And here comes a bikini whale!
Multiple Rouge, purportedly “a fragrance about extreme folly and fun”, touts “ozonic red berries” and a “frozen orange note” amongst the ingredients. Think fruit bowl gone radioactive with aldehydes, shrill as Kate Pierson’s highest C; Comme des Garçons’ Dry Clean from the Synthetic series splashed with Elsève shampoo. Fun, but a little scary.
Eau Radieuse, “a fragrance about desire”, clearly references the pop science-fiction universe (“takes you to a fantastic world on another planet”) much in the way that Thierry Mugler’s uncanny Cologne did. This is probably what X-Ray Spex envisioned wearing on The Day the World Turned Day-Glo. Mint, mandarin, lemon and rhubarb turn defiantly synthetic in the most deliciously nose-tingling candy way imaginable. March from the Posse calls is “a nasal palate-cleanser” and she’s right. This is fun, and not scary at all.
Skarb, was the first fragrance of the series (released last year): “a fragrance about melancholy… inspired by a deep Slavic soul”. Sorry, boys, I’m not gonna cry 96 tears. If this is melancholy, it’s definitely not in the Après L’Ondée/L’Heure Bleue violet-coumarin school of wistfulness. I’m getting (unlisted) juniper bays, rosemary, conifer, and the weird meaty-celeri note of lovage (which comes from “love” as it was believed to be an aphrodisiac), mixed in with (listed) absinth and barley extract. This is the least aldehydic of the bunch and somehow comes off as a strange kind of brew. If that’s what the tears of Slavic men taste like, I think I’ll go and manhandle a Russian.
Geste, “a fragrance about intensity”, goes all Colette in the blurb – “inspired by a mature woman who loves an adolescent”. I’m definitely mature (in age if not spirit) though not to the point of lurking round lycée schoolyards, but of the five, the oddly likeable Geste is the one I could most see myself wearing on a regular basis. Unlike March, I love Miller Harris L’Air de Rien, which she likens it to, though I find it at times to be a little ripe. I’m not getting much human rankness from Geste, which starts off with a blend of candied violets and dark, boozy, almost chocolate-y musk, with a metallic undercurrent that could come both from the violet and from the musk and tastes a little like blood. There’s also a sweet, balsamic undercurrent (Peru balsam, I’d venture), an unlisted leather note and a sort of minty shimmer (methyl salicylate?)… and heliotrope, definitely, always a good match for violet. Geste has got a similar weird-skin-scent vibe to Maurice Roucel’s Dans Tes Bras, without the wet earth note. This is a want. If they throw in an adolescent boy with the bottle, I’ll see what I can do (probably tell him to tidy his room).
All in all, I think the highly original Laudamiel is onto a new aesthetic school in perfumery, that plays on irony, much in the way that some contemporary artists use irony – in French, we would call this “détournement”, hijacking, ie putting a well-known sign/image/work in a different context. Which is quite different from being inspired by a fragrance from the past (L’Eau d’Hiver as a modern reworking of Après l’Ondée) or cutting/pasting an accord (just about any mainstream fragrance). But this is quite another discussion…
Image: From X Ray Spex album Germ-Free Adolescents