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.
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.