So what’s the deal with Comme des Garçons?
Most of their projects are now co-branded: the edginess of Rei Kawakubo’s house (which could, after 40 years in existence, be labelled a legacy player of the avant-garde) rubbing off on, and getting a fresh injection of energy from, other edgy players. A lifestyle magazine, Monocle. A Finnish design house, Artek. A designer/socialite/heiress, Daphne Guinness. A mad hatter, Stephen Jones. A cult Japanese fashion house, Undercover. Und so weiter.
Perhaps co-branding is a way for CdG Parfums’ artistic director Christian Astuguevieille to harness new creative forces. After all, the man has been driving the most iconoclastic and fearless perfume house in history for over 15 years. He is the one who introduced the notion of ugliness in perfume, just as CdG designer Rei Kawakubo did in fashion: or rather, he pushed back the idea of beauty by displaying non-noble smells, whether synthetic (photocopier, skai, nail polish), mundane (sticky cake, peppermint, harissa) or ambient (church incense, Alep soap) within the context of fine fragrance. Astuguevieille, an artist himself, inaugurated the idea of odeurs trouvées, just as artists had been lifting found objects from everyday life and displaying them in a “noble” context, in order to disrupt both our perception of those objects and the context (a gallery, a museum, the very idea of fine art) ever since Marcel Duchamp upended a urinal, signed it “R. Mutt” and called it “Fountain”. Fine fragrance being the context, “weird” notes being the shocker.
Astuguevieille’s concepts have been both pioneering and restricted, for the most part, to his own oeuvre – CdG, throughout collaborative work with people like Mark Buxton, Yann Vasnier, Bertrand Duchaufour, Antoine Lie, etc., can truly be said to be his brainchild – at least as far as his most overtly avant-garde concepts go. État Libre d’Orange and CB I Hate Perfume are probably the only houses that took the beautiful-ugly, noble-mundane idea and ran away with it. On the other hand, a lot of the ideas developed for CdG, notably the treatment of woody, spicy and incense notes, have trickled down into the mainstream.
It is perhaps in the order of things that once a house has established a language, however revolutionary at the outset, that language ends up stuttering, and being drowned out by the din of newer, noisier stuff (Serge Lutens being another case in point).
Is that why I am suffering from CdG fatigue? Truth be told, I did find the Undercover pair, Holygrace and Holygrapie, truly disquieting, their sweetish notes echoing the creepiness of the giant plush Cyclops assembled by Undercover designer Jun Takahashi. The scents matched the visuals perfectly, exposing the latent evil in kitsch – in this case, the Japanese idea of “cute”, expertly massacred by Takahashi.
But when I got a sample of the newest CdG, Wonderwood, I thought ok, well, woods. Or, as the press release states, “A positive overdose of woods, woody notes and synthetic wood constructions (Wood gone mad).” The list of notes does read like an international forestry convention: oud, vetiver, cedar, gaiac, cypress, patchouli, sandalwood… The end result? Well, pretty much what it says on the bottle, with an extraordinarily sticky synthetic sandalwood (24 hours on skin and counting) gradually taking over from a metallic vetiver and quite a lot of Cashmeran.
But somehow it seems that in the launch of Wonderwood, the scent is not the real point. In fact I get the feeling it was more of a springboard for the creative excitement generated by the Quay Brothers’ Wonderwood video, which has been linked all over the web and can be downloaded from the dedicated site. “Someone who loved woods more than any words could say” is an eerily beautiful plunge into the textures, hues and whorls of wood, and certainly one of the best visual essays on a perfume ever filmed.
Perhaps its very eloquence (“more than any words could say”) short-circuits the need for a review. Perhaps that’s where the creative juices flowed. After all, a fragrance launch isn’t only about the fragrance itself: there’s the campaign and the packaging, both of which usually cost a lot more than the actual smelly stuff. Perhaps that’s what is being put on display here, just as it was in Jun Takahashi’s Undercover Holygrace video.
The visual always trumps the olfactory.
Illustration: Ou by Philippe Mayaux.