In the folklore of Perfumeland, a handful of scents have achieved such iconic status that they can only be smelled through the filter of accumulated layers of discourse, so that their perception is inevitably skewed. Mitsouko, for instance, is the masterpiece you feel almost guilty about not “getting”. Muscs Koublai Khan is the epitome of all things feral. And Antoine Lie’s Sécrétions Magnifiques for État Libre d’Orange is the benchmark against which everything gag-worthy is gauged.
Why do perfume aficionados who pride themselves on having overcome human-cumin-phobia and gloat at indole overdoses reach for sandpaper if a molecule of Sécrétions Magnifiques brushes their skin? All the notes it contains are notes they contain – many of which they’ve actually swallowed.
True, Sécrétions Magnifiques is disconcerting with its odd metallic and iodic notes, but not quite as literal as what the visual lets on. To be perfectly frank, I don't find it particularly revolting. In fact, its drydown is appealingly sweet and powdery. Could it be that identifying its notes as blood, sperm, maternal milk and so forth, rather than saying “metallic”, “marine” or “creamy” is what triggers such exaggerated reactions even in seasoned perfume lovers? In a recent post, the British blogger Persolaise describes a visit to the London niche perfume shop Les Senteurs in which the wonderful James Craven donned a latex glove to spray a blotter with the scent, as though it literally contained the bodily fluids listed in the notes and therefore presented a medical hazard. You’d think the smell of latex would be more of an olfactory contamination in a perfume shop… Can you blame Persolaise’s friend, who was discovering the fragrance, for being put off? Of course, inducing sacred terror was part of État Libre d’Orange’s marketing agenda from the outset. Mission accomplished.
It’s been five years now since the launch of Sécrétions Magnifiques broke the boundaries between the liquids we squirt on and the ones we squirt out, and the path blazed by Antoine Lie and État Libre d’Orange seems to have been getting a tad crowded of late. The artist Jammie Nicholas did a scent based on his own shit. The designer Marc Atlan put out an extravagantly priced distillation of female orgasmic juices, a concept I find rather heavy-handedly literal, especially since Mr. Atlan stated that he culled a “template” for Bertrand Duchaufour to work on. I’ve had my more sexually experimental years, but the thought of being thrust cold between some unknown woman’s legs doesn’t appeal, and besides, I possess a free, quasi-unlimited source of those magnificent secretions. The new niche brand Blood Concept has been hyping its blood-type-based products: from this distance, I can smell no more than a gimmick. Even Coty is getting in on the act, as the scent it is putting out for Lady Gaga purportedly contains blood and semen notes (Lady Gaga is nothing if not a conceptual magpie: google Jana Sterbak’s “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” to see the Canadian artist’s original of the infamous meat dress, produced in 1987).
So it seemed relevant to speak to the man who got there first: Antoine Lie.
Though the tall guy with a mess of blond corkscrew curls and a leather jacket could conceivably be cast as a cool streetwise cop in an existentialist French détective movie – he does exude the kind of slightly scruffy, just-jumped-out-of-bed sexiness Frenchmen know how to pull off – Antoine Lie actually holds quite a senior position at Givaudan: his card reads “Parfumeur Senior Vice-President”. As such, he spends most of his working hours honing formulas that must “test well” with the consumer panels – amongst his mainstream products, Burberry Brit Gold, Armani Code for Men, Paul Smith London for Men. But it is by experimenting on new accords or composing fragrances to showcase Givaudan’s stellar raw materials – both the naturals they source directly from plantations to ensure quality and sustainability, and the captive molecules developed by their R&D scientists – that he gets to flex his creative muscles.
Unlike some perfumers who draw their inspiration purely from the form of aromatic materials, Lie says he needs to start from a story. And when he gets the chance to tell that story straight, he tends to go for the hardcore stuff: perfumes that engage the wearer in a love/hate relationship, as an antidote to the innocuousness of mainstream releases. Hence his collaboration with two brands which not only give him creative liberty, but want that liberty a little messed up: Comme des Garçons Parfums[i] and État Libre d’Orange[ii].
A few days before my appointment with Lie in Givaudan’s Parisian offices near the Arc de Triomphe, Catholic fundamentalists destroyed two of Andres Serrano’s pieces at the Fondation Lambert in Avignon, one of which was Piss Christ, famously used by the ultra-conservative US senator Jesse Helms back in 1987 to challenge the National Endowment for the Arts program. So I kick off the conversation with a parallel between Piss Christ and Sécrétions Magnifiques, which seems appropriate for a Holy Tuesday, as a way of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…
When he’d heard the news about the vandalism, Lie had indeed drawn his own parallel between Sécrétions Magnifiques, the first scent he worked on for État Libre d’Orange, and Piss Christ, a piece he finds quite compelling because it draws attention to the physical ordeal Jesus underwent on the cross.
“It isn’t that shocking when you have the explanation”, he says. “It’s a bit the same thing with Sécrétions Magnifiques. Étienne de Swardt wanted to make a provocative, unconventional perfume which would break the codes, and that might only please five people in the world… But we didn’t have the same interpretation of the story. He focused everything on intercourse and its finality, orgasm. I didn’t quite agree. I was much more interested in what was happening inside: on the story of the internal fluids that provoke desire. I tried to give a smell to each major fluid in the human body. Whether adrenaline, blood, maternal milk, sweat, saliva or semen…”
Adrenaline, of course, is a personal interpretation but it is this imaginary accord that gives its axis to the others:
“I focused on the saline, mineral aspect, which acts as a conductor body where all the other substances can soak”, Lie explains. “Étienne wanted something much more sperm-like, much more animalic. I was fighting for it to be based on these saline, milky and metallic/blood effects. He ended up saying: “It’s your perfume, do as you like, you’re the artist.”
The perfumer thus got the final cut on his formula, something he says almost never happens in the industry: “With Sécrétions Magnifiques, I put on the shelf a product I considered acomplished.”
Lie only recently became aware, he says, of the flaming his most famous perfume has undergone on the internet, mentioning a Youtube video where someone smells it live, obviously referring to Katie Puckrick Smells who went for a hilarious perfumistic version of MTV's Jackass...
“I even read that someone like me should be locked up in an asylum… People say it’s disgusting, but for me, the mechanics of internal fluids represents beauty in its purest state. Because in fact, that’s what’s true. When you feel an emotion, it’s triggered inside, hormones circulate, blood pulses, you sweat, you get goose bumps… That’s what I wanted to express: that what happens inside smells like that. That’s not disgusting. It seems disgusting to you, but it’s something true: you don’t cheat.”
Though there is a muguet/orange blossom at the core of the scent, Antoine says it’s there for technical reasons rather than as a note: it doesn’t play a role in the story, though it does have the infamous nitrile Luca Turin gushed about as the first new stinker since indole and skatole in his NZZ Folio 08 review.
I mention that there is a gender divide in the perception of Sécrétions Magnifiques: men find it much less disgusting than women. In fact, I’ve seen men with my own eyes who’d come to purchase a new bottle of it at the État Libre d’Orange shop in the Marais.
“Yes, some people are crazy about it. It’s become a best-seller even though Étienne and I thought it would only be an oddity. We managed to pull off something that’s wonderful in perfumery, a “love/hate”. We’re not there to do something consensual, an innocuous scent that pleases lots of people but that’s immediately forgotten.”
Lie’s perfumes for État Libre d’Orange are indeed amongst the most hardcore in the collection, with a penchant for provocative notes, such as the blood accord drawn by the rose thorns in Rossy de Palma’s Eau de Protection or the Animalis base he used in Vierges et Toreros – another one that starts with a distinctive blood effect, though this time, along with the costus note, the blood is on matted, greasy hair -- both co-authored with Antoine Maisondieu. The latter fragrance, Lie says, sprung from a project he and Maisondieu had: to make a tuberose for men.
“How do you break up the femininity of tuberose? We made a very violent accord, essentially animalic, woody, spicy, leathery notes. But if I removed those, you’d practically smell Fracas.”
And Vierges et Toreros, when you think of it, does smell like the Spain-bound offspring of Bandit and Fracas – Lie has always confessed his admiration for their author Germaine Cellier. But though the name conveys its gender-bending accords, it wasn’t what guided the development: Lie wanted to call it “La Bête” (The Beast). Conversely, it was Étienne de Swardt’s perverse idea for a perfume called “Rien” (Nothing) that triggered Lie’s inspiration.
“I found it funny to think that when you’re asked the name of your fragrance, you could answer “I’m wearing Nothing”. From there, I thought that if you were asked the question, it had to be because the stuff was a bomb.’
So Lie focused on power and diffusion, so that anyone wearing it would have to be questioned about their fragrance, thus eliciting the desired response, recalling Ulysses’ wiles in Polyphemus’ cavern: “Who put out your eye, Cyclops?” “It was No Man”… But the materials used to produce this powerful effect were not chosen solely for the intensity and diffusiveness.
“I indulged myself”, Lie explains. “I was tired on all the restrictions on raw materials. You can’t use castoreum, galbanum, oak moss, large quantities of patchouli, or iris because it’s too expensive. So I took all those notes and I tried to rewrite them in a modern way.
“That was the idea behind Rien: first the joke, then a revenge on what’s being imposed to us, the codes of “modern” perfumery, where you have to use tons of galaxolide, tons of iso E, tons of hedione, and then you’re allowed to add a few facets. Whereas with Rien, first of all the formula is very expensive, it’s concentrated at 20%, and it hasn’t got any fillers. Just blocks: iris, vetiver, patchouli, aldehydes…”
I confessed I’d completely missed out on that angle when I impulse-bought (a rare event) and reviewed Rien, perceiving essentially the power of combustible, leathery aromas. In fact,
the scent is a collage of all the bits from classic perfumery that have been rejected by the markets, an act of rebellion against the censorship of regulators and marketers… Which may, after all, explain the impulse-buy: I was getting the point, subliminally.
“The overdosed aldehydes in N°5, the galbanum overdose in Vent Vert, Coty Chypre for the oakmoss, Miss Dior’s patchouli, the iris in N°19… I didn’t use the template of a specific perfume: I took the starring ingredients in a lot of mythical perfumes. In Rien, there’s everything! Everything that made perfumery.”
[i] Wonderwood, Daphne Guinness Daphne, 888, two scents of the Energy C Series and a new, top-secret product we’ll hear about in a few weeks…
[ii] Sécrétions Magnifiques, Je Suis un Homme, Rien, Bendelirious, Divin’Enfant, Tom of Finland; Vierges et Toreros and Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection with Antoine Maisondieu.