“Is perfume something you wear or something you contemplate?”
The question popped up during the deliberations of the jury of the Fragrance Foundation France’s Specialists’ Awards. The beauty editor who asked it seemed to be a niche newbie: earlier on, she’d wondered whether what we were judging was masculine or feminine…
But the product that triggered the question was a new one on most jurors. Who’d put Byredo M/MINK on his/her shortlist out of all the niche/exclusive launches of 2010?
Blotters were passed around the table and you could’ve chartered their progression with your eyes closed: a succession of gasps, yelps and giggles. The jurors loved it. The evaluators, who get paid to see that kind of stuff never makes it past the perfumers’ offices, must have felt a little vicarious thrill on their behalf. They usually get bopped on the nose with a folded newspaper when they drop that kind of a bomb.
M/MINK found staunch supporters and when we eliminated it, a couple of jurors suggested there could be an award next year for originality. That it managed to raise the vexing and fundamental “wearable vs. stand-alone work of art” question amongst a group of specialists who’ve pretty much smelled it all is a tribute to its splendid oddity.
Byredo's shocker is based on a visual brief by M/M, aka Michaël Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak. The achingly hip art/design duo has worked with just the kind of people or brands Byredo’s 30-something, Colette-shopping hipster clientele would be drawn to, from Björk to Balenciaga and Vogue France to Purple Magazine.
M/M gave out “a block of solid ink purchased in Asia, a photograph showing a Japanese master practising his daily calligraphy, and a large utopian formula that Mathias drew on Korean traditional paper” to Byredo’s Ben Gorham. He handed the bundle over to Robertet’s Jérôme Épinette, who has signed most of his line-up. What came back was a juice as icy as M/M is cool, that seems to go straight from mineral to animal, bypassing the vegetal, and smells like licking honey off a frozen penny.
The brief was ink, and that’s what M/MINK smells of. That it also smells pretty beastly may be an allusion to the hair of the calligrapher’s brush, or the result of a graphic collision: “m + ink = mink”, as in the furry critter, with a wink to PETA: there's blood on that fur.
Another possible interpretation: with its bare-bones aldehyde/animal structure, M/MINK is the disembowelment of a classic perfume, for instance the original Visa by Piguet.
But M/MINK might well have had its own, olfactory agenda: you could also read it as a provocative statement on the “clean laundry” school of perfumery.
The perfume opens with a protracted, marine/aldehydic screech that could probably rip a hole into the ozone layer if aimed correctly. This is due to an overdose of Adoxal, the Byredo website informs us. Adoxal is a molecule that manages to conjure metal, lily of the valley, meringue and clean laundry: it is, in fact, widely used in detergents. It’s as though Jérôme Épinette had taken the idea of “clean” so prevalent in mainstream perfumery and boosted it until it reached the shrillness of ultrasound, then contrasted it viciously with its polar opposite, a honeyed ambery animalic bass note (not a typo), welding the two effects with the mineral/blood facets of incense. An olfactory oxymoron, executed with the economy of strokes of Chinese ink calligraphy.
As a result, M/MINK feels unfinished but also exhilaratingly fun – at least, a perfumer’s idea of fun when he’s allowed to let loose and experiment (Dr. Épinette coming out as Mr. Mink-hide). It demonstrates that you can let a monster shamble out of the lab and come up with a real statement on perfumery, something the hipster Byredo had failed up to then to achieve. This is the kind of perfume Maison Martin Margiela should have put out instead of an outtake on the Prada series (which I think is very good on its own, but not up to Margiela’s conceptual standards).
In the same line, I wish Francis Kurkdjian would bottle the smell of banknotes he created for Sophie Calle’s “L’Argent” exhibition in 2003 at the Fondation Cartier, which similarly played on the mineral/animal contrast.
Now, a question: which perfume would you place alongside M/MINK in a gallery?
Illustration: M/M's "utopian formula" for M/MINK