lundi 2 mai 2011

“The mechanics of internal fluids is beauty in its purest state”: Antoine Lie speaks up on Sécrétions Magnifiques

In the folklore of Perfumeland, a handful of scents have achieved such iconic status that they can only be smelled through the filter of accumulated layers of discourse, so that their perception is inevitably skewed. Mitsouko, for instance, is the masterpiece you feel almost guilty about not “getting”. Muscs Koublai Khan is the epitome of all things feral. And Antoine Lie’s Sécrétions Magnifiques for État Libre d’Orange is the benchmark against which everything gag-worthy is gauged.

Why do perfume aficionados who pride themselves on having overcome human-cumin-phobia and gloat at indole overdoses reach for sandpaper if a molecule of Sécrétions Magnifiques brushes their skin? All the notes it contains are notes they contain – many of which they’ve actually swallowed.  
True, Sécrétions Magnifiques is disconcerting with its odd metallic and iodic notes, but not quite as literal as what the visual lets on. To be perfectly frank, I don't find it particularly revolting. In fact, its drydown is appealingly sweet and powdery. Could it be that identifying its notes as blood, sperm, maternal milk and so forth, rather than saying “metallic”, “marine” or “creamy” is what triggers such exaggerated reactions even in seasoned perfume lovers? In a recent post, the British blogger Persolaise describes a visit to the London niche perfume shop Les Senteurs in which the wonderful James Craven donned a latex glove to spray a blotter with the scent, as though it literally contained the bodily fluids listed in the notes and therefore presented a medical hazard. You’d think the smell of latex would be more of an olfactory contamination in a perfume shop… Can you blame Persolaise’s friend, who was discovering the fragrance, for being put off? Of course, inducing sacred terror was part of État Libre d’Orange’s marketing agenda from the outset. Mission accomplished.

It’s been five years now since the launch of Sécrétions Magnifiques broke the boundaries between the liquids we squirt on and the ones we squirt out, and the path blazed by Antoine Lie and État Libre d’Orange seems to have been getting a tad crowded of late. The artist Jammie Nicholas did a scent based on his own shit. The designer Marc Atlan put out an extravagantly priced distillation of female orgasmic juices, a concept I find rather heavy-handedly literal, especially since Mr. Atlan stated that he culled a “template” for Bertrand Duchaufour to work on. I’ve had my more sexually experimental years, but the thought of being thrust cold between some unknown woman’s legs doesn’t appeal, and besides, I possess a free, quasi-unlimited source of those magnificent secretions. The new niche brand Blood Concept has been hyping its blood-type-based products: from this distance, I can smell no more than a gimmick. Even Coty is getting in on the act, as the scent it is putting out for Lady Gaga purportedly contains blood and semen notes (Lady Gaga is nothing if not a conceptual magpie: google Jana Sterbak’s “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” to see the Canadian artist’s original of the infamous meat dress, produced in 1987).
So it seemed relevant to speak to the man who got there first: Antoine Lie.

Though the tall guy with a mess of blond corkscrew curls and a leather jacket could conceivably be cast as a cool streetwise cop in an existentialist French détective movie – he does exude the kind of slightly scruffy, just-jumped-out-of-bed sexiness Frenchmen know how to pull off – Antoine Lie actually holds quite a senior position at Givaudan: his card reads “Parfumeur Senior Vice-President”. As such, he spends most of his working hours honing formulas that must “test well” with the consumer panels – amongst his mainstream products, Burberry Brit Gold, Armani Code for Men, Paul Smith London for Men. But it is by experimenting on new accords or composing fragrances to showcase Givaudan’s stellar raw materials – both the naturals they source directly from plantations to ensure quality and sustainability, and the captive molecules developed by their R&D scientists – that he gets to flex his creative muscles.
Unlike some perfumers who draw their inspiration purely from the form of aromatic materials, Lie says he needs to start from a story. And when he gets the chance to tell that story straight, he tends to go for the hardcore stuff: perfumes that engage the wearer in a love/hate relationship, as an antidote to the innocuousness of mainstream releases. Hence his collaboration with two brands which not only give him creative liberty, but want that liberty a little messed up: Comme des Garçons Parfums[i] and État Libre d’Orange[ii].

A few days before my appointment with Lie in Givaudan’s Parisian offices near the Arc de Triomphe, Catholic fundamentalists destroyed two of Andres Serrano’s pieces at the Fondation Lambert in Avignon, one of which was Piss Christ, famously used by the ultra-conservative US senator Jesse Helms back in 1987 to challenge the National Endowment for the Arts program. So I kick off the conversation with a parallel between Piss Christ and Sécrétions Magnifiques, which seems appropriate for a Holy Tuesday, as a way of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…
When he’d heard the news about the vandalism, Lie had indeed drawn his own parallel between Sécrétions Magnifiques, the first scent he worked on for État Libre d’Orange, and Piss Christ, a piece he finds quite compelling because it draws attention to the physical ordeal Jesus underwent on the cross.

“It isn’t that shocking when you have the explanation”, he says. “It’s a bit the same thing with Sécrétions Magnifiques. Étienne de Swardt wanted to make a provocative, unconventional perfume which would break the codes, and that might only please five people in the world… But we didn’t have the same interpretation of the story. He focused everything on intercourse and its finality, orgasm. I didn’t quite agree. I was much more interested in what was happening inside: on the story of the internal fluids that provoke desire. I tried to give a smell to each major fluid in the human body. Whether adrenaline, blood, maternal milk, sweat, saliva or semen…”
Adrenaline, of course, is a personal interpretation but it is this imaginary accord that gives its axis to the others:
“I focused on the saline, mineral aspect, which acts as a conductor body where all the other substances can soak”, Lie explains. “Étienne wanted something much more sperm-like, much more animalic. I was fighting for it to be based on these saline, milky and metallic/blood effects. He ended up saying: “It’s your perfume, do as you like, you’re the artist.”
The perfumer thus got the final cut on his formula, something he says almost never happens in the industry: “With Sécrétions Magnifiques, I put on the shelf a product I considered acomplished.”

Lie only recently became aware, he says, of the flaming his most famous perfume has undergone on the internet, mentioning a Youtube video where someone smells it live, obviously referring to Katie Puckrick Smells who went for a hilarious perfumistic version of MTV's Jackass...
“I even read that someone like me should be locked up in an asylum… People say it’s disgusting, but for me, the mechanics of internal fluids represents beauty in its purest state. Because in fact, that’s what’s true. When you feel an emotion, it’s triggered inside, hormones circulate, blood pulses, you sweat, you get goose bumps… That’s what I wanted to express: that what happens inside smells like that. That’s not disgusting. It seems disgusting to you, but it’s something true: you don’t cheat.”

Though there is a muguet/orange blossom at the core of the scent, Antoine says it’s there for technical reasons rather than as a note: it doesn’t play a role in the story, though it does have the infamous nitrile Luca Turin gushed about as the first new stinker since indole and skatole in his NZZ Folio 08 review.
I mention that there is a gender divide in the perception of Sécrétions Magnifiques: men find it much less disgusting than women. In fact, I’ve seen men with my own eyes who’d come to purchase a new bottle of it at the État Libre d’Orange shop in the Marais.
“Yes, some people are crazy about it. It’s become a best-seller even though Étienne and I thought it would only be an oddity. We managed to pull off something that’s wonderful in perfumery, a “love/hate”. We’re not there to do something consensual, an innocuous scent that pleases lots of people but that’s immediately forgotten.”

Lie’s perfumes for État Libre d’Orange are indeed amongst the most hardcore in the collection, with a penchant for provocative notes, such as the blood accord drawn by the rose thorns in Rossy de Palma’s Eau de Protection or the Animalis base he used in Vierges et Toreros – another one that starts with a distinctive blood effect, though this time, along with the costus note, the blood is on matted, greasy hair -- both co-authored with Antoine Maisondieu. The latter fragrance, Lie says, sprung from a project he and Maisondieu had: to make a tuberose for men.
“How do you break up the femininity of tuberose? We made a very violent accord, essentially animalic, woody, spicy, leathery notes. But if I removed those, you’d practically smell Fracas.”
And Vierges et Toreros, when you think of it, does smell like the Spain-bound offspring of Bandit and Fracas – Lie has always confessed his admiration for their author Germaine Cellier. But though the name conveys its gender-bending accords, it wasn’t what guided the development: Lie wanted to call it “La Bête” (The Beast). Conversely, it was Étienne de Swardt’s perverse idea for a perfume called “Rien” (Nothing) that triggered Lie’s inspiration.

“I found it funny to think that when you’re asked the name of your fragrance, you could answer “I’m wearing Nothing”. From there, I thought that if you were asked the question, it had to be because the stuff was a bomb.’
So Lie focused on power and diffusion, so that anyone wearing it would have to be questioned about their fragrance, thus eliciting the desired response, recalling Ulysses’ wiles in Polyphemus’ cavern:  “Who put out your eye, Cyclops?” “It was No Man”… But the materials used to produce this powerful effect were not chosen solely for the intensity and diffusiveness.
 “I indulged myself”, Lie explains. “I was tired on all the restrictions on raw materials. You can’t use castoreum, galbanum, oak moss, large quantities of patchouli, or iris because it’s too expensive. So I took all those notes and I tried to rewrite them in a modern way.
“That was the idea behind Rien: first the joke, then a revenge on what’s being imposed to us, the codes of “modern” perfumery, where you have to use tons of galaxolide, tons of iso E, tons of hedione, and then you’re allowed to add a few facets. Whereas with Rien, first of all the formula is very expensive, it’s concentrated at 20%, and it hasn’t got any fillers. Just blocks: iris, vetiver, patchouli, aldehydes…”

I confessed I’d completely missed out on that angle when I impulse-bought (a rare event) and reviewed Rien, perceiving essentially the power of combustible, leathery aromas. In fact,
the scent is a collage of all the bits from classic perfumery that have been rejected by the markets, an act of rebellion against the censorship of regulators and marketers… Which may, after all, explain the impulse-buy: I was getting the point, subliminally.
“The overdosed aldehydes in N°5, the galbanum overdose in Vent Vert, Coty Chypre for the oakmoss, Miss Dior’s patchouli, the iris in N°19… I didn’t use the template of a specific perfume: I took the starring ingredients in a lot of mythical perfumes. In Rien, there’s everything! Everything that made perfumery.”

[i] Wonderwood, Daphne Guinness Daphne, 888, two scents of the Energy C Series and a new, top-secret product we’ll hear about in a few weeks…
[ii] Sécrétions Magnifiques, Je Suis un Homme, Rien, Bendelirious, Divin’Enfant, Tom of Finland; Vierges et Toreros and Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection with Antoine Maisondieu.

36 commentaires:

  1. Denyse, it's the Perfume Jackass here, thanking you for mentioning my SM video (or perhaps blaming you for squealing on me to Antoine). He can take a certain perverse pride in the fact that smelling SM for the first time on camera has become a YouTube perfume meme, with at least 15 different videos that I know of.

    You're so right that women are typically the ones yakked out by SM, with men's responses ranging from "what's the big whoop?" to "why, this is simply a delightful spring floral!" I don't trust the menfolk's easy-breeziness: I suspect a certain amount of macho "I can take anything you can dish out" posturing.

    Lots of good pickings in your post: I cracked up at the story of James at Les Senteurs in his rubber gloves! I know you rolled your eyes at that, but it sure adds to the SM mystique. Am now thinking Antoine should consider a "free hazmat suit with purchase" stunt.

    I was fascinated by Antoine's description of the development of Rien, and his deliberately contrary approach. I'd like to know if he used Rien in composing Comme des Garçons Daphne, because every time I wear it, I swear I can smell Rien in the dry down.

  2. Hey Katie! I did *so* not squeal! Antoine is the one who brought it up, not sure yours was the one he saw... I wasn't even aware it had become a meme, which makes it even funnier! But yours was the one I knew.

    Re: the machismo, I'm with you there, but I suspect the "take it like a man" approach is also a characteristic of many perfume lovers of either gender. Skank? Bring it on! Oud? I drink mine straight! But, yeah, more of a guy thing...

    Antoine and I didn't discuss the CdG this time around because I felt they deserved a different post. I haven't properly tested Daphne. It got a huge amoint of flak online I seem to remember, which should be enough to make me curious! But it's likely that it has some common materials or accords with Rien, since they'd be qualities specific to Givaudan. Will point my nose in that direction...

  3. Thank you for a really interesting interview

  4. London: My pleasure! Truly. It's always fascinating to delve into a perfumer's creative process when he/she has had the freedom to pursue original ideas.

  5. I enjoyed the interview very much - thanks, D.

    I'm not a fan of SM. Contrary to my expectations, it smelled not like, erm, the box art, but like I imagine the scene of a sex crime would smell. The blood and metallic aspects were terrifying to me; I felt personally threatened and afraid while smelling it.

    Perhaps I am suggestible. Perhaps I've read too many novels. I don't know, but I was unprepared for the visceral reaction I had to SM.

    I mean - well, look. I'm a mother. I've smelled my share of breast milk, semen, human waste, sweat, spit, vomit, blood and the like. There is a basic humanness to all those things that renders them less disgusting than many people think. I was surprised to smell violence in SM, rather than simply body fluids.

    I feel a little better reading about the intentions of the perfumer; it's always fascinated me that most body fluids share the same salinity level, about 1% - and that this level is similar to the level of salinity in seawater at about the time that human life was developing on the planet, though the average salinity of seawater is close to 4% now.

  6. That was a fascinating post, D. My reaction to SM the first time I smelled it was like muse's - my description was, "it smells like violent death." There really was something about it that worked on my reptile brain instantly. I'm not easily squicked out by "yucky" smells IRL, so I was surprised by the vividness of my response. I'd like to re-visit it and see if I still have that reaction. I think I'll give it another sniff when I'm in NYC next month.

    Are we going to get Part Two with M. Lie?

  7. Muse, it's fascinating that a perfume could elicit such an emotional reaction, and I believe than in creating the possibility for negative emotions SM stretches the boundaries of what perfume can say and therefore brings it closer to contemporary art forms.
    I was happy too to hear Antoine's intentions. It shows a depth of meaning that truly reaches beyond the will to shock.
    That Antoine had no gory agenda and wanted to express the raw truth of emotions does make a difference, I think. I'm glad to have given him the opportunity to speak up!

  8. Amy, part two hasn't been done yet but should be once Antoine's new CdG is ready to be launched. I'd love to explore the dynamics between him and CdG artistic director Christian Astuguevieille.
    Interesting what so say about reptilian brain reaction. I suppose there are smells we're hardwired to react to.

  9. Very informative article on Antoine Lie.
    SM is a code breaking scent that provokes thoughts for redefining lines and barriers.
    Nice to see a good natured Katie and Muse in communications.
    In hindsight now 'Rien" was a great impulse buy at the shop in the marais.
    Keep it flowing Muse and thank you.

  10. Christopher, Katie is indeed good-natured (and gorgeous, talented, funny) - of course the mention of Jackass was not meant to qualify her, but the live SM-smelling stunt!

    And I did appreciate the input of Muse and Style Spy: that wasn't my reaction, but clearly SM can speak at a gut level.

    Did you buy Rien too on an impulse, or are you referring to my own purchase? Antoine said it was pretty much a love/hate too -- when it draws you in, it does so strongly.

  11. Reading your articles is always such a pleasure and such a challenge for one's mind and ideas!
    Thank you, I missed you in April...
    Regarding SM, I smelled it just once, on a paper strip, and it didn't disgust me, at the beginning I found it even very fresh and marine. But in a few seconds the metallic blood note really disturbed me- maybe it had also something to do with the fact that my girlfriend was screaming with horror beside me!
    Anyway, your interviews with perfumers are always illuminating and add value to the smells themselves.

  12. Iodine, thank you. I hope to be able to do more interviews in the future: more work, but added value indeed!
    What you're saying makes me wonder whether there isn't a real gender difference in the perception of SM. Women, blood...
    And sorry about my April eclipse, it's just not feasible to finish my manuscript and focus on what is essentially the same subject and approach on the blog. As from June I should be more prolific...

  13. I never watch Katie Puckrik's videos, I have no interest in watching an american woman from Middle America who goes like: Oh my god! eww! eww! awww!

    I don't like Secretions Magnifiques, the rendition of body fluids smells sour, sulfuric and metallic. Depending on ethnicity, the sweat and semen of most men with olive skin (mediterranean/hispanic) is sweeter and even vanillic, I wish SM would have smelled more like that ;-)

  14. Sorry to ruin your attempt to relate gender to reaction towards SM: I'm a woman, definitely feminine....
    Can't wait for June!!

  15. garde, there are quite a few variations on the theme in real life, but then Antoine Lie says he didn't go for a realistic rendition!

  16. Iodine, and sorry for assuming your gender based on the gender of your companion during the smelling expedition! Mind you, I'm another woman who doesn't necessarily find the smell disgusting, so it's definitely not a clear-cut gender divide.

  17. What a fascinating read. It's refreshing to hear that the perfumer wasn't on some kind of conceptual-let's-be-wacky-for-the-sake-of-it. But rather, it seems he had a genuine idea and wanted to express that.

    Oh and I've just order a sample of it from Les Senteurs so I'm hoping not to distract myself with others' reactions and can't wait to experience this stuff that isn't mine lol

  18. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par un administrateur du blog.

  19. (the above comment was suppressed because it was a duplicate, not for being inappropriate!)

    Liam, I agree, I was very interested to hear what Antoine had to say because his work did spring from a genuine idea rather than just as a marketing ploy, though it may have started out as one. And on that level it does work too... Report back on this post when you've tested!

  20. what a wonderful interview, denyse, thank you! i thoroughly enjoyed the insight into monsieur lie's creation! i haven't had the luck to smell SM or any of the ELOs, as they are not available in my country. hopefully, i'll be able to travel to paris someday, or - better yet - to london, to visit les senteurs and attend your course! :)

  21. Melina, either Paris or London are worth the trip! Though Paris is probably a better place for perfume all round... As for the course, I'm looking to see whether it couldn't be offered in Paris. SM wasn't on the program since I hadn't had the chance to delve into it, but will probably be included in the curriculum...

  22. Hey, thanks for the link :-) And I can assure you that the story is absolutely true. No embellishment of facts for the sake of the blog. In fact, I seem to remember that Mr Craven said SM reminds him of "bilge water".

    Thanks also for the wonderful interview. I hadn't realised that Lie is the creator of some of my favourite ELDO scents, namely V&T and Rien. And I must admit that whilst I can't take SM, I have witnessed it working very well on other people and I think it's a startling and brave creation.

  23. Persolaise, I didn't doubt the authenticity of the anecdote for one minute! And I'm glad you confirm that SM is indeed worn and loved by some people, not just some oddity...

  24. A great read, This blog is unique for the creative and intellectual road it follows. Loved Katie Puckrik's trial of SM, don't think I would go within spraying or dabbing distance of it, even after having read Lie's statement of intent.
    I will sample the line now, have not previously been attracted to it at all!

  25. Sunsetsong, I get the feeling that ELO's marketing approach has gone over badly with a lot of people, even open-minded perfume lovers. Perhaps something's lost in translation. It's a pity because they have a lot of original products. And lots are actually pretty much on the wearable side, even the more luridly-named one.

  26. Well Denyse, I received my sample and I have to say I find it beautiful. Absolutely stunning in fact. It's softly citrus, cold and smells transparent (in a good way). I really, really like it :)

  27. Liam, I'm glad you ended up liking it: I would have felt a tad responsible for any olfactory trauma!

  28. Hehe never fear! In fact, quite the opposite, I'm terribly inspired and motivated by it. Very, very moving stuff. Pay day is tomorrow...

  29. Well, the next time I run into Antoine Lie or Etienne de Swardt, I'll tell them they've made another "convert"! It's certainly not a product for every taste, but it's very important for the fragrance industry that such daring compositions exist.

  30. Please do Denyse and thank you for being so nice about it! Would you find me terribly rude if I asked for you to genuinely put in a good word for me? Honestly, I need to learn/be a perfumer...

    And you're right I think if more houses just took a chance on one or two occasions they might even surprise (shock) themselves let alone their consumers.

  31. My dear, you're not rude, but you're overestimating my pull at Givaudan! Which is nil. But it can't hurt to write Mr. Lie. As for ELO, they now work with Mane.

  32. Well I would be eternally grateful for any word that you'd put to Antoine Lie. You can tell him that I am so moved by SM I'm a little lost for words! And, if he ever takes on apprentices... well...

  33. I'll ask him if he does when I see him, but as Givaudan has a school, I should imagine any intern would have gone through it first. But in truth, I have no idea. Many perfumers in the olden days started out working for a lab in Grasse in the summer, handling drums or flowers... Worth enquiring, maybe.

  34. I understand where you're coming from about going through the school first. I have five official days left before I'm sure I've missed my call to interview stage. I'll try and look into the Grasse thing too, a summer job even working the fields/manual labour would be a perfect start :) Thank you, honestly :)

  35. I purchased S M...I was in the market for something that resembles human smell...the skin of youth..I am tired of most scents , I have a shelf fool of Lutens . But I kept being envious of anybody who seemed to have a lovely " natural" smell. I wanted to have a smell not a scent ...I find most designer perfume harsh and masking , overbearing and kind of vulgar. Je veux avoir une oudeur non un parfum . I love Frederic Malle's Geranium pour Homme body milk in summer. Light . Also a huge fan of CDG Odeur 53. But it fades too quickly. Now SM , granted it is unusual when first sprayed...I cannot help sniffing my arm all night. I have always said someone should bottle the smell of your skin as a young man..full of hormones. I mixed SM and Molecule 01...I must be part of those 5 people Monsieur Antoine Lie was aiming to please. I am more than please. I shall go back to the store tomorrow and buy the remainder of their bottles. They are discontinuing retailing it where I live. I have already cleaned my shelf of Lutens..Put all of my perfumes in a box . I might have found my signature smell....

  36. How fascinating. I knew there were SM fans since I saw people buying it, and I find your analysis of the reasons it pleases you very interesting. Happy you found your signature scent! It's not being discontinued though, so I'm sure you'll be able to buy it through internet when your stock runs out.