lundi 17 novembre 2008

Humiecki & Graef by Christophe Laudamiel: The Day Perfume Turned Dayglo

You know niche fragrances are definitely the happening thing when hip design agencies get in on the game. Humiecki & Graef, who launched the intriguingly conceptual Skarb last year, is the brainchild of Tobias Müksch and Sebastian Fischenich, respectively managing director and creative director of the Bel Epok agency (offices in Zürich and Cologne). Their small German indie label was named after their grandmothers – their “emotion homelands” -- but that’s where the gemütlichkeit stops: their fragrances, straddle the gap between high concept and, well, actually wearable perfumery.

Not quite an uncharted territory since Comme des Garçons staked its claim on it over a decade ago, but one that can definitely bear more exploring. Especially when the perfumer is Christophe Laudamiel, he of the pink slicked-down Mohawk do and the “enfant terrible” of perfumery reputation, whose work spans from the ultra-commercial (Estée Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Clinique, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors) to the ultra-niche (the Thierry Mügler coffret inspired by The Perfume, along with Christoph Hornetz; S-ex and S-Perfume remix for artist Sacré Nobi’s confidential S-Perfume), as well as forays into the art world (Sacré Nobi again, but also collaborations with French self-mutator Orlan).

For the Humiecki & Graef collection, Laudamiel was given an unconventional brief based on emotions: intensity, folly, melancholia, desire and fury. He apparently decided to take the process one step further by deconstructing the traditional scent pyramid into a “star-shaped” development which enables him “to express emotional complexity and clearly distinguish different fragrance notes”.

Ok, so how does a star feel when it’s wedged up your nose?

Prickly, that’s how it feels.

Most of the H &G fragrances tickle. Spray all of them on both arms, and you’ll get a high-pitched aldehyde hiss: a blast of candle wax, hot ironing board and citrus rind. Laudamiel has ripped this classical perfumery ingredient and created the olfactory equivalent of the Farfisa organ in the B52’s 1978 Rock Lobster; a crazed mechanical jumping monkey in a beehive wig solid with hairspray.

Much as Kate Pierson’s keyboard provided the bass-less Rock Lobster with the spoke around which the vocals twirled, Laudamiel’s aldehydes, in a radical departure from their top-note role, act as the fizzy core of the fragrance (welded to a hefty dose of Iso-E Super).

What about the scents themselves? Oh, this is niche, uh-uh, no doubt about it. Niche-niche. These definitely came from Planet Claire, by way of Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang Studios. And despite being inspired by intense emotions, what springs out of them is a sense of playfulness.

Askew actually made me laugh out loud. Don’t ask me why. I’ll tell you anyway. The blurb goes “The demolition of classic men’s fragrance”, the picture on the website shows a naked male beauty wielding a porcelain lamp, and I can only envision it crashing down on Jean-Claude Ellena’s distinguished skull, because this is obviously a deconstruction of JCE’s epoch-making, and widely imitated, Cartier Déclaration. Ellena’s trademark ginger-cardamom-vetiver combo is somehow extruded into fizzy bubbles – Un Jardin après la Mousson also comes to mind. Then the cinnamom-apple embellishments of Ambre Narguilé pop up to say hello, sans amber. Leather wanders in to join the fun. And here comes a bikini whale!

Multiple Rouge, purportedly “a fragrance about extreme folly and fun”, touts “ozonic red berries” and a “frozen orange note” amongst the ingredients. Think fruit bowl gone radioactive with aldehydes, shrill as Kate Pierson’s highest C; Comme des Garçons’ Dry Clean from the Synthetic series splashed with Elsève shampoo. Fun, but a little scary.

Eau Radieuse, “a fragrance about desire”, clearly references the pop science-fiction universe (“takes you to a fantastic world on another planet”) much in the way that Thierry Mugler’s uncanny Cologne did. This is probably what X-Ray Spex envisioned wearing on The Day the World Turned Day-Glo. Mint, mandarin, lemon and rhubarb turn defiantly synthetic in the most deliciously nose-tingling candy way imaginable. March from the Posse calls is “a nasal palate-cleanser” and she’s right. This is fun, and not scary at all.

Skarb, was the first fragrance of the series (released last year): “a fragrance about melancholy… inspired by a deep Slavic soul”. Sorry, boys, I’m not gonna cry 96 tears. If this is melancholy, it’s definitely not in the Après L’Ondée/L’Heure Bleue violet-coumarin school of wistfulness. I’m getting (unlisted) juniper bays, rosemary, conifer, and the weird meaty-celeri note of lovage (which comes from “love” as it was believed to be an aphrodisiac), mixed in with (listed) absinth and barley extract. This is the least aldehydic of the bunch and somehow comes off as a strange kind of brew. If that’s what the tears of Slavic men taste like, I think I’ll go and manhandle a Russian.

Geste, “a fragrance about intensity”, goes all Colette in the blurb – “inspired by a mature woman who loves an adolescent”. I’m definitely mature (in age if not spirit) though not to the point of lurking round lycée schoolyards, but of the five, the oddly likeable Geste is the one I could most see myself wearing on a regular basis. Unlike March, I love Miller Harris L’Air de Rien, which she likens it to, though I find it at times to be a little ripe. I’m not getting much human rankness from Geste, which starts off with a blend of candied violets and dark, boozy, almost chocolate-y musk, with a metallic undercurrent that could come both from the violet and from the musk and tastes a little like blood. There’s also a sweet, balsamic undercurrent (Peru balsam, I’d venture), an unlisted leather note and a sort of minty shimmer (methyl salicylate?)… and heliotrope, definitely, always a good match for violet. Geste has got a similar weird-skin-scent vibe to Maurice Roucel’s Dans Tes Bras, without the wet earth note. This is a want. If they throw in an adolescent boy with the bottle, I’ll see what I can do (probably tell him to tidy his room).

All in all, I think the highly original Laudamiel is onto a new aesthetic school in perfumery, that plays on irony, much in the way that some contemporary artists use irony – in French, we would call this “détournement”, hijacking, ie putting a well-known sign/image/work in a different context. Which is quite different from being inspired by a fragrance from the past (L’Eau d’Hiver as a modern reworking of Après l’Ondée) or cutting/pasting an accord (just about any mainstream fragrance). But this is quite another discussion…

Image: From X Ray Spex album Germ-Free Adolescents

19 commentaires:

  1. Wow. Great post; I'm now so excited and interested in smelling these. The idea of punk perfumery appeals to me; it's what I wanted from Etat Libre d'Orange and I think they succeed to a large to degree. But there's always room for more. Plus Christophe Laudamiel is pretty easy on the eyes. Plus you referenced the B-52's at their finest. "Everybody had matching towels!!" In fact, a coffret of these scents with packaging inspired by the X-ray Specs album cover you posted would have my money in three clicks.

  2. Matt, the punk inference is all mine (I think -- only Laudamiel could tell for sure). But hey, I actually got that B52's single when it first came out (now I'm really showing my age) and deduced a whole way of dressing purely from the song. If you're really nice I'll tell you some day what Kate and Cindy said about *that*!
    The H&G frags are very, very different from the État Libre, well worth a try (click on their website, you'll see the bottle graphics).

  3. You noted the playfulness in these, and thanks for additional information about their construction that I didn't know. (And thanks for the link.) I was so prepared to be eye-rollingly underwhelmed by these, given the "mission statement." And they're fun. They're niche in the best way -- in the sense of not being immediately familiar, not smelled-this-15-times-already. Also: niche in the sense of pushing boundaries but without making them deliberately horrifying (like Secretions) which is where I thought these might wind up, given Laudamiel's coffret and the S-ex scents. I didn't run out and buy any of them, but gosh, they were fun to smell.

  4. What a great post! I can't wait to try the scents from Planet Claire. Fizzy new wave party fragrance may just be the best thing ever.

  5. March, I was preparing for some eye-rolling as well, but you're right, these are just the right side of niche (although the Multiple Rouge one may be on the wrong side of a migraine for me). I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the star-shaped development...

  6. Oblitterati, the one that says "new wave party" to me most clearly is Eau Radieuse. Geste would be more for the "after" part of the story. But all just pulse away with energy.

  7. I think this my lucky day. I got an intriguing invitation, have been smelling fabulous perfume all day, and now I have had my curiosity thoroughly piqued by your article right before going to see Coixet's Elegy. What do you make of pop art that rebuffs or plays with the listener or wearer? Do you think it's a joke or does it seem to have any genuine emotional content? I am always plagued by that question whether it's Warhol or these zippy new perfumes that I definitely want to try.

  8. Cait, those are pretty heavy questions... I'm not sure I'm looking for genuine emotional content here (or in specific branches of contemporary art), though playfulness clearly has to do with feelings (pleasure, stimulation, fun, the thrill of discovery). My biggest kick is having something of my outlook teased, tweaked or transformed, and the best jokes do that, don't they?

  9. Good point. Must think and of course, smell.

  10. Cait, I kind of try to alternate between the stuff that titillates my brainwaves and the stuff I feel just plain happy to wear... Some perfumes achieve both.

  11. I've come back and read this once each day since you posted. I'm having fun with it, with the fun of the B-52 references threaded along, and with my inability to shake my initial "read" of the illustration: that those people were in a Star Trek type transporter. (You can imagine the stew of high concept and pop reference that swirls around inside those tubes when I imagine them activated, with your prose informing what's going on inside the transporter/scent tube/whatever.)

    A stew which reflects the fact that this is the most tangential, least cohesive response I've ever had the nerve to hit "publish" for. Good thing Cait is here to hold up the thinking end of things. (Waves "hi" to Cait... :-) ...)

    I am forever knocked off my high horse about the tears of Skarb. You've piqued my interest about Geste, though--and this time, it's all about the smell. (As opposed to Skarb, where I had fallen prey to concept.)

  12. Wait, I do have a High Thought: doesn't ironic gesture sometimes simply become sarcasm?

  13. Scentself: the pop references are all mine, not implied by H&G's promotional material.
    The people in the test tubes are the members of the 70s British punk band X-Ray Spex, who produced such hits as "Oh Bondage Up Yours" (what's not to love?).
    About sarcasm... I honestly don't think this is the case here. As I write in the post, the French Situationist notion of "détournement" is untranslatable, but does not denote sarcasm, although I would agree that for the past 20 years or so, irony, in the sense of exposing the subtext of a given cultural/social discourse through displacement, has often devolved into sarcasm as a general, sterile and often infantile stance.
    Again, I don't think this is what is at play here.

  14. I heard something on the radio yesterday: "Sincerity has as much to do with good songwriting as it does with good cooking." It brought me back to this conversation. To counter my initial search for "genuine emotional content" I now quote this gem.

  15. Cait, sometimes boy perfumers just wanna have fun. We can't judge Laudamiel's intentions, just its effects on us (fun too).

  16. CC,
    I knew the pop/punk references were yours...I may have allowed myself to get a little too lost in the delirium of freewheeling associations your creative linkage inspired in me...probably because it created a direct memory to the heady, giddy, ridiculous conversations of a bunch of post-modern grad students tossing around high/low culture connections and using the "rigor" of academic thought to at times simply indulge personal madeleines of association.

    You have indeed caught my thought about irony/sarcasm; thank you for the clarification of detournement.

    I admire, by the way, the way you so frequently capture both the intellectual and emotional--superego & id?--sides of scent. You also present in such a comfortable, open style that is the best of that kind of dialogue...a zone which both stimulates and makes comfortable the expression of ideas.

  17. ScentScelf, thanks for the compliment...

    I know exactly the type of discussion you're referring to, they seem to pop up all around the Western world -- they're quite characteristic of Generations X and Y.

  18. Hi, D -- what fun! I'm catching up on all my blog reading on my way home from France. You make these all sound like so much fun.

    This follows up somewhat on the discussion started on Octavian's blog a few weeks ago about (post)modernism in fragrance, no? In that a postmodern approach so often makes use of irony in its appropriation, deconstruction, and redeployment of "classic" elements.

  19. Jarvis, this is actually an ongoing conversation (via blogs but also directly) between Octavian and myself. He has added a post recently on irony in fragrance, inspired by the H & G which we smelled together. It's an incredibly fertile dialogue, and we're having a lot of fun along the way...