Ever since I got a preview snootful in August, I’ve been utterly obsessed with the new Arquiste for women, ELLA. Not only did it have the oft-namechecked, seldom-experienced Proustian effect on me, but I believe that, along with its companion EL, it’s the most visceral, exciting work the Carlos Huber/ Rodrigo Flores Roux duo have produced to date. So that despite the Parisian intello character of the notes below, I’m chuffed.
Though it’s customary to compare music and scent, they differ in a major respect: since the late 19th century, music has been recorded. The literal moments in which it was performed are preserved to be experienced, studied, fetishized, or quoted in later pieces. Perfume disappears at it is experienced. Extinct or reformulated scents only live on in memories, and only perfumers can voluntarily “replay” them in their minds – most of us are at the mercy of a random whiff. But like pop music, though to a considerably lesser extent, perfumery has been driven by retromania since the mid-90s: niche perfumery founded itself on it both in its discourse (going back to the roots of the art) and notes (leather, incense, chypres…). And a significant sector of the perfume aficion focuses on classics and/or vintage scents.
Historicist in its storytelling, though not in its actual olfactory structures, Arquiste never came under retromania per se since it didn’t reference moments within anyone’s living memory. Part of what drives retro is the nostalgic charge you get from the artefacts of a given period in pop culture. Arquiste’s new EL and ELLA gave me that charge. Almost a shock, in fact: a punch in the gut, in fact.
Once I’d read the “liner notes” – i.e. the press material --, I understood why. Rodrigo Flores Roux has used the 70s interpretations of chypres and fougères as quotes in both compositions (interestingly, it is precisely in the 1970s that the retro sensibility took off). The idea wasn’t to make note-perfect renditions, but to embed them within a narrative: a day in Acapulco in the glamorous disco era, from beach club to night club to a tryst in the dunes. So that both scents needed to feel lived, sweated and loved in; rubbed together so that some notes would be shared.
In ELLA, Flores Roux manages to hit a sweet spot that conjures all of the chypre forms of the era, from Aromatics Elixir to Azzaro (which was a Prunol-type) by way of the greenies (Givenchy III, Jean-Louis Scherrer I), with a splash of blindingly white, soapy aldehydic florals like Estée Super et Michel Hy’s original Ivoire for Balmain.
Similarly, the perfumer’s tribute to pornstached Boogie Night love gods, though it mainly references the era’s fougères, can also easily raise the ghost of Van Cleef & Arpels pour Homme, a jet-black aromatic leather chypre that my friends and I wore to a man during the post-punk era.
Catching spectres of fragrances past out of the corner of the nostril though never a specific one. The honeyed sweat and booze-splashed haze shrouding both scents mirror the distortions of memory. Every single person I’ve met who actually lived through those days has felt the same shock. This goes beyond retro: it is perfume as hauntology.
 The term, coined by Jacques Derrida, initially referred to the death of Communism. More widely, cultural critics have used it to refer to “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive" (Colin Davis): in this case, the revenants of perfume modernity.
The picture of Janice Dickinson is by Guy Bourdin.