dimanche 29 juin 2008

Coming back to L'État Libre d'Orange

When Étienne de Swardt launched L'État Libre d'Orange in 2006, I admit I didn’t spend more than a couple of hours, one afternoon, smelling them in the shop – it’s not on my usual perfume paths, and most of the fragrances, when smelled on strips, initially gave me the impression that they weren’t complete, as though they were drafts rushed into productions or mods rejected by other houses, rather that proper compositions. I’m not so sure after a second, belated session: I now believe that this is a deliberate aesthetic stance, which perfectly matches de Swardt’s marketing strategy.

With its Magritte-inspired, playfully porn drawings in Pop Art colours (somewhat reminiscent of Tom Wesselman), Éld’O visual identity, created by the graphic duo Ich & Kar, has shocked several commentators, particularly in the USA – even though most of the comments were tolerant and ironic, in the line of “boys will be boys”. The names of the fragrances – “Palace Whore”, “Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow”, “Delicious Closet Queen” or “Carrion” – also caused a flutter for their apparently gratuitous provocativeness. Sex sells, they said. And that’s probably what Étienne de Swardt told himself: that by pushing the advertising discourse of perfumery, which doesn’t say much else than “wear me, you’ll be irresistible” – to its limits, he’d get a lot of free copy.

I’ve always rather liked the slightly kitsch visuals, which reminds me of the work of certain young French artists like my friend Philippe Mayaux: porn-tinged, but candy-pink rather than the Larry Flynt show-the-pink variety. And the names themselves ultimately translate the subtext of perfumery: if a guy wears virile cologne, isn’t he saying “I am a man” (Je suis un homme)? If he chooses a gender-bending blend, isn’t he hinting at the “Delicious Closet Queen”? What about a woman wearing an expensive perfume, can’t she be fantasizing about being a “Palace Whore” (Putain des Palaces)? And aren’t the regressive tendencies of sweet, gourmand scents aiming at our inner “Divine Child” (Divin’Enfant)?

As for the brand’s self-proclaimed “olfactory libertinage”… Marie-Hélène has already stated in her blog The Scented Salamander that the inclusion of certain notes evoking the body otherwise than through animal substances like musk (or its substitutes), for instance the metallic blood accord or the iodine sperm note, pushes back the boundaries of what is considered tolerable in perfumery. In this business, the aim is usually to please at first sniff. Éld’O’s fragrances aren’t outright shocking, though: even the infamous Sécrétions Magnifiques isn’t quite as horrible as it’s been made out to be. The very sweet S.A. confirmed that not only did it sell, but that it had repeat buyers. And when my friend B., who teaches at a fashion school, blind-tested it on some of her students, none were disgusted (and these kids wear Vera Wang Princess). Most of them thought Sécrétions Magnifiques smelled of flowers. Which only goes to show that preconceptions can trump olfaction. If it’s perfume, it’s supposed to smell of flowers. Of course, Sécrétions Magnifiques smells of anything but flowers. But I can easily imagine a die-hard L’Eau d’Issey fan being drawn to its metallic-iodine accord…

The range does have common points that could define a consistent aesthetics. The frequent inclusion of pepper, incense and certain woody bases give them raspy, nose-tingling, slightly aggressive top notes; the dry, almost scorched leather accords which can be found in at least eight fragrances. But also the way in which these are blended in with sweetish, almost mawkish notes: orange blossom, vanilla, violet, honey, as well as “bubblegum”, “pink marshmallow”, “suntan lotion” and “rice powder” accords…

The prevalence of these often foody, rather artificial notes draws the range towards synthetic, often regressive smells – which is, once more, consistent with the childish, candy pink style of the visuals. Granted, most of the notes listed refer to traditional natural perfume notes, but the general effect is nevertheless unnatural. We’re in the Givaudan labs (who employ the two authors of most of the range, Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu) rather than in the fields of Grasse.

This deliberately claimed artifice, this chic perversion, does lean towards the olfactory libertine, inasmuch as the libertine outlook seeks to push backs the limits of what can be enjoyed, but especially, of what can be thought. Including in matters of perfumery.
Image: Sécrétions Magnifiques by Ich & Kar, courtesy of L'État Libre d'Orange.

10 commentaires:

  1. Thank you for a very illuminating post! :) I have since I first read about L' état libre d' orange been intrigued by them, and now after reading this will definite try them out when being one day in Paris later this summer.

  2. I think they're worth exploring. Several of them are very interesting, and not only because of the "ick" factor! The style takes some getting used to, though. But I was oddly drawn to a few: reviews will follow.

  3. I was so excited to smell the perfume of a "world-class call girl" but I was bitterly disappointed. One dab of No 5 parfum used in their cleavage would make anyone feel closer to the glamorous world of escort girls who charge a lot for sex with rich and powerful men than this very unconvincing Putain des Palaces.

    On Secretions Magnifiques there was nothing magnificient for me, I wanted irresistible smells of a dominant protective caring alphamale; raunchy sweaty crotch and armpits, sweet sperm but instead I got blood and sour sperm!


  4. Oh, I'm absolutely convinced that Putain des Palaces wouldn't be approached with a ten-foot pole by the real life, high-class courtesans. It's more of a cartoonish take on the concept, and a wink to Serge Gainsbourg lyrics.
    As for SM... Well, many commentators said it before, I'd rather get alpha male directly on said male!

  5. I was just curious about SM, me too I 'd rather get the real thing than spray it on! LOL
    On the other hand I was excited about it because I wanted to buy this scent for my best friend who 's a very masculine gay man, totally straight-acting/down low type, the kind of guy you 'll never find in a gay bar but who will blow your husbands and boyfriends at the gym! LOL
    He doesn 't wear perfume and the Tom of Finland thing is not really for him, so I told him about SM, he was willing to try it only if it smelled like man 's crotch and sweaty armpits...
    I had him smell Muscs Koublai Khan before and he thought it was too soapy and girly for him.

  6. I'm not sure SM does smell like that, but who knows, it might agree with your friend's chemistry. I mean, clearly some people like it enough to buy it over and over...

  7. I 'm afraid it 's too metallic for him, maybe I could get him a decant...

  8. Well, it's a hard one to pull off, no doubt about that.

  9. I think EL should do a frag called FAG HAG!!! What does everyone think the notes should be?

  10. Cait, that is such a great idea! I need to think about the notes, I'm seeing something along the lines of a big diva scent, über-femme, with booze and make-up and some big white flower... Gardenia?