If you got the impression from my previous posts that Les Heures du Parfum were purely intellectual constructs, if you couldn’t figure out whether they smelled nice or not from my descriptions, if you suspected the contemporary art analogies placed them in the realm of experimental, i.e. “interesting but I’d never wear that”, perfumery, well, let me clear that up for you.
Les Heures du Parfum smell good, though in an unexpected way. They don’t set out to jar, like, say, some of the Comme des Garçons or État Libre d’Orange. But they definitely bring something new to the field, so that my first thoughts, when I discovered them, weren’t: do I like these? Would I wear them? Do they magically cause my credit card to levitate from my wallet?
It’s a legitimate approach, one often adopted by bloggers and one that is, understandably, foremost in the preoccupations of their, and my, readers: perfume aficion blended with a consumer-review approach. But they're not the only questions. The impressionistic "what feelings does this perfume awaken in me?" riff is also a perfectly legitimate approach, and an enjoyable read when the writer is talented (as is often the case). But there are objective criteria and those too need to be addressed, if perfume is to be considered in any way or form as an art rather than a consumer product/sacred mystery presided over by alchemists.
When I first started out reviewing fashion shows, I’d project myself in the outfits. At the time, I was co-writing those reviews with a much more experimented fashion journalist, and she taught me, through our discussions while writing, how to ask other questions.
Those are the questions I try to ask of a perfume, just as I did of a designer’s collection:
What intent does it set out to fulfill?
How is it situated within the context of the perfumer body of work?
Within the history of the brand?
Within the current season’s offerings?
How does it make the genre evolve?
What relationship does it bear to the history of the perfumery?
Can any light be shed on the work through other creative fields?
Of course, I can’t always answer those questions. Sometimes the perfume doesn’t ask them. Sometimes its ambitions are more limited, especially in the case of mainstream launches, which makes it all the more surprising when something that came out of a brief, rather than a perfumer’s desire, achieves a measure of originality. Conversely, a lot of what passes for niche nowadays seems like the stuttering repetition of matters previously dealt with more masterfully by other perfumers.
Clearly, this is a more intellectualized approach and doesn’t answer the “consumer-oriented” questions: “will I like this?”, or “will this go on the wanted list?”
But if at least a share of the art of perfumery is to be snatched from the claws of the marketing talibans, the art of the perfumer needs to be approached with something resembling art criticism. This isn’t the perfumers’ job though some of them are able to speak clearly and convincingly of their creative process. They create the “black box”. Critics open it, and shed some light on what’s inside.
In the case of perfume, it is perhaps a more arduous process because of the lack of formal training available to non-professionals – I learned music as a girl, I took art and film history courses in college, I have a post-graduate degree in French literature, but perfume appreciation I had to teach myself through blogs, books, encounters with perfumers and a hell of a lot of sniffing – I also owe a lot to my frequent and fruitful sessions with my friend Octavian Coifan.
It just so happens that my encounter with Les Heures du Parfum has pushed me to take an extra step into the field of criticism. My discussion with Mathilde Laurent put me in the position of a critic speaking with an artist – an awareness that had been building up through my previous encounters with perfumers such as Jacques Polge, Isabelle Doyen, Vero Kern and Cécile Ellena, as well as my email exchanges with Jean-Claude Ellena. But I feel that the critical mass, as it were, has been reached.
And so I’ll be getting back to the last three Heures du Parfum in the next post(s).
Image: Portrait of the Marchesa Casati by Man Ray (1922).