The visual is the final frontier of niche. The sector built itself against it almost by default, for want of proper budgets. But in an increasingly crowded market, visual identity will make the difference. Older brands are upgrading packaging, display materials and counters/shops. The better thought-out new ones, like Arquiste and Olfactive Studio, addressed the issue of photography from the outset, the former with still-lives inspired by Flemish painting, the latter by basing its very concept on it. Tellingly, a ghostly face materializes on the picture that goes with Olfactive Studio’s latest, Flashback: just as the mainstream is making a tentative sortie from its advertising default mode with the La Petite Robe Noire campaigns, niche has been edging towards human representation. But how could it possibly compete with luxury brands that can afford the world’s best photographers and most beautiful faces? Any attempt at replicating this type of ad runs the risk of coming off as low-budget.
One solution is to give the fragrance a famous muse, as État Libre d’Orange did with Tilda Swinton for Like This, neatly solving the issue of image in both senses of the term – annexing not only Swinton’s portraits but also her aura and reputation. This type of partnership, not only with performers (a standard for mainstream brands) but also with non-industry creative forces that can also supply ready-made images and imagery, is well on its way to becoming a new niche trope, as the collection inaugurated earlier this year by Frédéric Malle with Dries Van Noten demonstrates.
No one plays that game better than Byredo’s art-school-trained Ben Gorham. Sunday Cologne, initially called Fantastic Man, resulted from a partnership with the eponymous Dutch magazine. M/MINK sprung from a visual brief supplied by the graphic designer duo M/M (Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak). The brand-new 1996 takes the process one step further since its “muses” are the Dutch duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, whose work spans fashion, advertising, portrait and art photography and who, not incidentally, belong to the same creative nebula as M/M (and Björk, for whom they teamed up). If you were going to pick photographers for the campaign of a cutting-edge niche brand, you couldn’t do better than Inez & Vinoodh, whose perfume ad portfolio includes Chloé, Victor & Rolf, Narciso Rodriguez, Donna Karan, Givenchy, Armani, etc.
What’s pretty new here is that through this partnership, 1996 is one of the first niche perfumes to have a face, not in a campaign, granted. But it is on the box: “Kirsten, 1996”, first featured in Inez Van Lamsweerde’s “The Widow” exhibition, which toured 5 galleries in 1997.
Not an ad campaign, then. A little girl’s face. But still a face, shot by the most sought-after artists of fashion-etc. photography – a clever, roundabout way of hoisting Byredo up to the visual level of luxury brands.
The scent started out as a limited edition commissioned by Inez & Vinoodh to give out as a gift. According to the press material, it generated such a buzz that Ben Gorham decided to include it in his collection. Though inspired by “Kirsten 1996”, 1996 does not attempt to translate the model’s baby face and raspberry-stained lips into notes. Rather, it is based on the tastes, travel memories and house of the couple, “full of warm wood and high end design”.
Iris is pretty much perfume shorthand for “high-end”, with connotations of “cutting-edge”. In 1996, it gets the Dior Homme rather than the Infusion d’Iris treatment. The scent has very little of the velvet powder-puff fuzziness of, say, Atelier Cologne’s new Silver Iris, which is similarly based on an iris-amber-patchouli axis – the amber in Silver Iris is dubbed “white”, while 1996’s is “black” and described as “warm and almost viscous”. A spot-on description: the scent does have the chewiness of dark chocolate – an effect achieved by boosting the chocolate-y facet of certain iris extractions with patchouli – stuffed with a booze-laced, sticky filling. The other dark facet of iris, leather – underlined here by a subtle animalic undercurrent –, keeps any hint of sweetness in check: this is a treat for grownups. Which may well explain the rapturous look on young Kirsten’s face. When she’s good, she’s very good, but when she’s bad she’s better.
Illustrations found on the website of the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.