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Rei Kawakubo doesn’t like flowers. At least, not in a bottle. Which is why you’d be hard-pressed to find florals in the nearly 60-strong Comme des Garçons Parfums oeuvre, apart from Champaca and Daphne (the latter, tailor-made to Ms. Guinness’s tastes, doesn’t really count).
But an artificial flower? A flower made out of packing tape? “A fragrance that couldn’t exist in a bottle that shouldn’t exist” sounded just about right for the designer who has introduced provocative dyssymetry in fashion and has always courted the beauty of the accident. “Who has the right to decide what should be rejected?” states the press release. Hence the misshapen, blobby bottle, modelled after rejects from glass factories, made out of purposely cheap, bubble-shot glass; a monster that can’t even stand upright, presented in a humble white cardboard box.
Displaying the beauty of the accident, of the ugly bits sticking out, of modern man-made smells, has long been part of Comme des Garçon Parfums’ aesthetic stance, epitomized by Odeur 53, Odeur 71 and the Synthetic series. In fact, the house’s creative director Christian Astuguevieille is prone to asking the perfumers he works with to mess up too-pretty formulas; to strip bare “defects” in raw materials that are usually covered up.
Being the project manager in charge of the Comme account at Givaudan must be a hoot. You’re asked by Astuguevieille to work on stuff like the smell of a squished ping-pong ball, a pebble or a supermarket cashier with her lipstick askew. At any moment, there are between fifteen and twenty ideas under development, from which to draw for new compositions. Perfumers are “cast” according to their interests and affinities with the concepts. In the case of the slightly confusingly named “Comme des Garçons”, the brief landed on Antoine Lie’s desk. After the senior perfumer left Givaudan for new ventures, the composition was worked on by his frequent partner-in-scent Antoine Maisondieu.
The result is truly a hybrid between a flower and an industrial product, cross-bred so that molecules that are actually present in flowers produce synthetic effects. The maturation period of the oil (the time in which the raw materials continue their chemical reactions) was actually reduced to two weeks so that the rough bits would stand out more vividly. Thus, the faintly metallic, almost blood-like facets of aldehydes are left raw-edged in the opening notes, an effect reinforced by geranium and rose oxides (the latter is what gave Calandre and Rive Gauche their odd, diesel-fume modernity).
Similarly, paracresol, already present in many flowers (jasmine, narcissus, lilac…) can be used to produce leathery-rubbery-medicinal effects. Safraléine, also used for leather effects, and styrax, not only a major player in leather accords but also, Octavian Coifan tells me, once used in lilac accords, further enhance the burnt, industrial character of the composition.
The floral note itself is a hybrid of humble French flowers that haven’t been featured much recently in perfumery: lilac, sweet pea, hawthorn. However, they weren’t picked because despite their current triteness, they have as much of “a right to exist” as the misshapen bottle, but for their potential affinities with the smells of tape and glue (the latter conjured by the almond-y facets of lilac, for instance). Still, interestingly, this also makes Comme des Garçons a powerfully diffusive floral scent with rich white floral, anisic and rosy aspects, borne by a blend of powdery musks (including the Givaudan captive Silvanone).
Splicing this ample, almost retro bouquet with a vividly realistic brown tape note drags into radically modern territory.Yet for all its weirdness, the vodka-clear Comme des Garçons is exhilaratingly wearable, if you’re the type who wouldn’t shirk from spraying Yves Rocher’s Pur Délice de Lilas over Bulgari Black, as I’ve been known to do.
This is CdG Parfums doing what they do best, introducing a lick of humour and a hefty dose of subversion into the conventional codes of perfumery.