mercredi 1 juin 2011

Tilda Swinton Like This by Mathilde Bijaoui for État Libre d'Orange: The Story of a Muse

When we stepped out of the hotel dining room where the jury for the Specialists’ Award given out by the Fragrance Foundation France had been deliberating, one of my fellow jurors, the industry consultant and Osmoz editor Nicolas Olczyk, smirked:
“Do you realize we’ve just given out the award for a niche perfume to a celebrity fragrance?”

Unlike the American Fragrance Foundation which has a specific category for celebrity perfumes, the French have none because there are practically no celebrity perfumes in France. What we have are égéries, the actors and models who front advertising campaigns. The word comes from the name of the Latin nymph Egeria: according to the legend, she secretly advised her lover, king Numa Pompilius, on matters of state religion. In English, it translates as “muse”. But although Jean-Paul Guerlain proclaims that all his feminine scents were inspired by women, there are no muses in the perfume industry, at least none that we know of.  What Loulou de la Falaise was to Yves Saint Laurent, Gala to Salvador Dali, Kiki de Montparnasse to Man Ray, Marlene Dietrich to Josef von Sternberg or Gena Rowlands to John Cassavetes? That’s never been bottled.

There are, however, a handful of products that do hint at a muse-perfumer relationship. They fit into the celebrity fragrance slot, but just barely, because they’re so quirky and original you’ve just got to believe they reflect their namesakes’ decidedly un-photoshopped personalities: Christopher Brosius’s Cumming for Alan Cumming, Miller Harris’s L’Air de Rien for Jane Birkin, Comme des Garçon’s Daphne for Daphne Guinness, État Libre d’Orange’s Eau de Protection for Rossy de Palma…
ELO went on to produce a second celebrity scent with Tom of Finland, but it was their third offering in that line that whipped up the perfect scented storm. For the occasion, the house forewent its provocatively erotic pitches, names and visuals: the scent was called Like This after a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi. With it, perfumery’s bad-boy brand seemed to be coming back into the fold of serious, artistic niche houses, so all was forgiven by perfume lovers who embraced it enthusiastically. The composition itself, a burnished, burning essay in tones of orange, was arrestingly original but as cosy as a weather-worn tweed jacket: beautiful enough to stand judgment on its own, which is how it was evaluated by the jury. But it certainly didn’t hurt that it had a red-hot muse to up its cool factor: Tilda Swinton, Oscar winner, fearless actor, style icon and unearthly beauty…

 “I conceived it for Tilda, first and foremost”, Mathilde Bijaoui told me. “I wanted it to touch her.”
But the term muse gave her pause.
“I don’t know that I’d call her that. To me, a muse is someone you’re in love with…”
A co-author, then? Mathilde nodded.
“Oh yes.”
We were discussing Like This in the sun-drenched offices of Mane on the verdant Ile de la Jatte, once a bucolic playground for the Impressionists, now one of the poshest suburbs of Paris.  Mathilde wasn’t yet thirty when she was singled out by Étienne de Swardt, the owner of État Libre d’Orange, to make proposals for Tilda Swinton’s scent. He trusted her and gave her carte blanche: so did Tilda.

The star’s gender-bending persona would have dovetailed neatly into the house’s iconoclastic stance but she wanted to take another direction. “Scent means place to me: place and state of mind - even state of grace. Certainly state of ease”, she would later write for the press release. “My favourite smells are the smells of home, the experience of the reliable recognisable after the exotic adventure: the regular - natural - turn of the seasons, simplicity and softness after the duck and dive of definition in the wide, wide world.”

Swinton, who had been wearing Penhaligon’s Bluebell for so many years she no longer smelled it, was no perfume aficionada though she quoted the very classic Joy, Calèche and 24 Faubourg as scents she was fond of. More tellingly, she forwarded a list of the smells that most touched her: simple and delicate flowers like sweet peas and honeysuckle, but also lapsang souchong tea, single malt whisky, wood smoke, bonfires and fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, which happened to be her birthday.

From smoke to fire and from fire to the hearth, flames and smoky notes were leitmotifs: a boon for a perfumer working on a carte blanche brief. A first session introducing Tilda to raw materials confirmed this: she was strongly drawn to immortelle, an oddball note with its burnt, foody facets of curry and maple syrup. Perhaps its name rang as a subconscious call from Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s immortal male-to-female hero and one of Swinton’s landmark roles in Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of the novel? She never said.

Immortelle made perfect sense to Mathilde Bijaoui, whose synaesthesia makes her see the smell in orange. So orange – like flames – became another leitmotif. It was the colour of Tilda Swinton’s hair; of a dress her character wore in Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love, which she was shooting at the time. It was even in the name of the brand putting out the fragrance. The idea was so impeccably consistent, but so simple, that Mathilde wondered whether it wasn’t just plain simple-minded, but it worked, and she went on adding layers of orange. Over the course of their conversations, Tilda had brought up the fact that she was a ginger, so ginger went in. Ginger called for pumpkin, and a pumpkin accord came about to soften the blend. It worked well with Tilda’s request for something homey; Mathilde envisioned a kitchen where a pumpkin pie was baking. Then she added carrot and mandarin: more orange, more flavours. Again, this echoed what Tilda was experiencing as an actor at the time: in I am Love, her character was a Milanese trophy wife who fell in love with a young chef: “You have no idea of the match I’m doing between sniffing here and tasting there”, she told Étienne de Swardt. But flavours also connected with Mathilde’s own story: she says she owes her vocation as a perfumer to her father, a keen, imaginative amateur chef who opened up the olfactory world by dragging her from market to market. The scent, it turns out, was a way for both women to express their stories…

Swinton followed the development process closely over a dozen sessions, never missing an appointment and playing the game with utmost seriousness. She appropriated Mathilde’s proposal so fully she once had to call her to get a fresh batch of one of the mods: she’d worn it all. She was also the one to find the name, taken from the title of her favourite poem.  She suggested it to Mathilde and Étienne when they came to pick her up at the train station. “That’s also when she said that the scent made her think of sex in the afternoon, in her own bed…” Mathilde recalls.  Developing Like This, she says, was a happy experience: no hitches, no glitches.
“It’s very different from the way we usually work. She trusted me. She never poked her nose into the formula. I’d rather that than someone who tries to understand everything and understands nothing… It was real perfumery.”

Is that what gives Like This the ease and suppleness of a bold, sure stroke? The deep connections between the story, between two souls, and their olfactory translation: surely this is what a state of grace must smell like.

Illustration: Tilda Swinton by Glen Luchford for Dazed.

21 commentaires:

  1. Ah.... on here after a long weekend, and what a long, thoughtful, lovely review. You're prompting me to pull out my sample. As you may recall, this is the scent the wonderful Angela snapped up on our Paris trip.

  2. March, I do recall perfectly, and smelled it on her first. Another ginger! I was really curious about the unusual dynamics of creating a bespoke/commercialized fragrance, and very happy that it won the award: it's great for a young perfumer to get such recognition.

  3. D, your keyboard is on fire. Nice write up, I'll have to give this one another try.

    My first sniff of it, I honestly couldn't take it seriously. So much so that I can't tell you a lick of what I remember about it. It honestly smelled too playful for my liking.


  4. Marcus, and play isn't serious? Play is the most serious thing there is!
    There's a lightness to the texture that doesn't correspond to the "saturated notes" codes of niche, so perhaps experiencing it after other samples didn't do it justice. But it's very beautiful.

  5. Well, I have to say, this is what celebrity perfumes can be when there really is an intelligent collaboration between genuinely amazing people! Same for the Rossy de Palma, a gorgeous, dirty rose perfume if there ever was one.

  6. Marla, ELo definitely have a gift for casting genuinely intriguing people -- I have confirmation that Rossy was also very much involved in the development. And apparently, the next such partnership will involve a much more radical, underground figure.

  7. It's on a very exciting theme, so I'm pretty curious... and interestingly, the connection came through Tilda. But I'll say no more. ;-)

  8. Atypical celebrity : atypical fragrance !
    Like Rossy de Palma, Tilda Swinton is a very appropriate choice of celebrity for a niche brand.
    A great idea that had Etat Libre d’Orange, actually.
    It’s the proof that ‘celebrity fragrances’ are not always bland and boring.
    With Tilda Swinton’s scent, it's truly the opposite
    Nicolas Olczyk

  9. Nicolas, thanks for popping in! Couldn't agree more. It'll be interesting to see whether the genre develops in that direction.

  10. I am giggling at the line "at some point in the conversations Tilda brought up the fact that she is a ginger". Maybe it just the English but we do have a thing about Gingers! Seriously now, this was a beautiful article, thank you. To my shame I have yet to sniff "Like This" but am confident I will at least like it as I am a fan of immortelle in all its facets and orange is such a cheerful colour. Nicola

  11. Nicola, maybe some Americans will chime in but to my knowledge "ginger" is pretty specific to the UK -- I think in the US it would be "carrot-top", like "poil de carotte" ("carrot-haired") in French. And yes, there is quite a folklore around gingers... It's kind of serendipitous that it was also a perfume ingredient in this case. Do try it at Les Senteurs!

  12. Thanks very much indeed for the interview. You're absolutely right: Swinton, ELO and 'orange-ness' are a match made in Sufi paradise.

    The only thing I want to know is why someone would keep wearing a perfume they can no longer smell...??!

  13. Persolaise, now I'm wondering whether there's anything on colour in Sufi mysticism... Should ask Dominique Dubrana.
    As for people sticking to a perfume they can't smell, I suppose that springs from what you're asking of a perfume: if it's your identity, the thing your loved ones recognize you by, I suppose it must matter less... I suppose for many people it's also just one more gesture in the grooming ritual. But I'm sure now Ms. Swinton has a totally different relationship to perfume, and I've been led to believe she'd be ginger for an another adventure.

  14. Tilda Swinton wore Bluebell? Eesh! I'm not a fan.


    P.S. Congratulations on completing your book!

  15. Normand, I believe it was her grandmother's perfume, from what Mathilde told me... And, yes, i've just sent my final version of the manuscript. Now it's the copy editor's problem!

  16. I love everything about Tilda Swinton, her intelligence and sophistication as an actress is utterly European. Unfortunately I didn't find the Etat Libre d'Orange fragrance that bears her name exceptional, I would have like something more cerebral, challenging and enigmatic, if I remember right it smells vaguely like orange and amber, I didn't think it was memorable enough.

  17. I completely share your admiration of Ms. Swinton, and from what I've understood she truly feels that Like This is what she wanted: something familiar, the smell of home, rather than something that reflecting the more dramatic aspects of her persona. I think you'd find if you re-experienced it, the scent is more complex than your memory of it, often an issue when we're busy testing many different things or expecting something different. It's quite delicately textured, not spectacular or saturated.

  18. What a fascinating insight. To muse or not to muse!

    I really like the name too, "Like This" it sounds contradictory at first, I wouldn't have paired that phrase/expression to what the thoughts and ideas where behind the fragrance. But it sounds in the end like a cohesive collection of all the things that inspired it. Now, to get my hands on a sample! :)

  19. Liam, if you go on the ELO website there's a video of Ms. Swinton reciting the poem... It all makes sense because she and Mathilde brought it together.

  20. Ohh good tip thanks :) I'll look that one up tonight!