lundi 10 novembre 2014

Les Exceptions: Thierry Mugler's Retro-Futuristic Classics

How often do I feel like springing for a full bottle? Not often. Yet when I drained the 1.5ml vial of Oriental Express from my sample set of Les Exceptions in less than a day, I started experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Designed by IFF’s Jean-Christophe Hérault, one of the younger perfumers whose work I find the most compelling, and Olivier Polge, before the latter went on to succeed his father at Chanel, Thierry Mugler’s new exclusive collection shifts the couturier’s retro-futuristic aesthetics onto four classic fragrance families – orientals, fougères, chypres and florals, plus musk – by twisting them in several ways.

First, Hérault and Polge resorted to contemporary, high-tech molecular distillations or to analyses unavailable when classics were composed, such as the “Living Flower” (IFF’s headspace capture technology). Then, they pared down the structures to their bearing walls and rebuilt them in Mugler’s signature “big blocks of notes” style: “The formulas are concise, and the olfactory forms are well-drawn because they aren’t drowned in all sorts of notes. There are overdoses that enable us to emphasize lines”, Hérault explained over the phone.

In a third operation, the duo shifted those structures on the olfactory map by replacing certain canonical notes by notes with the same “value” (for instance, pear instead of peach), while maintaining the relationship between the notes so that the form (oriental, chypre, fougères…) would still be recognizable. Lastly, they twisted or balanced them differently to blur gender boundaries: Fougère Furieuse doesn’t smell like it’ll grow chest hair, and Oriental Express swaps the harem girl get-up for a sharp-edged suit. 

Oriental Express
As I’ve said, this is the one that made the strongest impression on me. In it, the founding ingredients of the oriental family – vanilla, benzoin and labdanum – are jolted into a toughness more usually found in uncut patchouli. Oriental Express powers up its engine with a startlingly aromatic green rush of basil. The sweetness of its balsamic base is kept in check by a note intriguingly listed as “carrot wood”. “Don’t go looking for a forest of carrot trees”, jokes Hérault. “This is actually an olfactive concept designating a type of extraction of carrot seed, a molecular distillation which has the characteristic of revealing the woody-iris part of carrot. The note brings a genuinely novel power and verticality that shifts the oriental structure”, he adds.

Supra Floral 
Reviving a floral note that seldom gets a starring role in contemporary compositions, Supra Floral uproots the hyacinth from N°19, plants it in incense and shows it up for the bitch it really is, oozing venomous green sap from the stems of its turgid, curly purple sprays.
What I liked about working on the note was the fact we used modern analyses methods that have taught us a lot about flowers. It’s a tribute to the past with a form of modernity, because these Living Flower analyses have enabled us to be much closer to nature. By being more figurative, you gain modernity”, says Hérault. “This isn’t a vapid, romantic flower: it’s extremely green, animalic (because of the indole) and honeyed. That’s why it was chosen, otherwise it wouldn’t have been Thierry Mugler.

Chypre in the superlative form? On paper, this should have been my favorite of the series. The scent is built around “a patchouli fraction that is a masterpiece of technology”, enthuses Hérault. “It’s the most beautiful quality offered by LMR [Laboratoires Monique Rémy, the naturals branch of IFF]. You avoid the camphoraceous, earthy facets of patchouli: it’s got just as much depth but it’s more luminous, and you avoid what could be a bit dated in patchouli.
Pear stands in for the more traditional lactonic fruit (peach or plum), lending a juicy tartness to the top notes. It “removes the vintage patina of this great monument of classic perfumery”, Oliver Polge states in the press booklet. Unfortunately, on my skin Chyprissime quickly gets overtaken by the aforementioned patchouli – which is indeed much more luminous and transparent than the uncut version, while the pear goes from tart-sweet to slightly metallic. But on a fellow perfume lover in Montreal, the scent was wonderfully redolent of a cigar box, so it might just be one of those not-for-me things…

Over the Musk 
The cuddliest juice of the series and its best-seller last summer at The Bay in Montreal (the collection was pre-launched in Canada), Over the Musk is nearly all, well, musk, including the iris-tinged ambrette which contains vegetal musk molecules: “It’s quite vertical”, Hérault explains. “Whereas if I had to describe the olfactory form of musk, I’d say it’s rather round.” A touch of Cashmeran, a molecule that is technically musk but doesn’t smell overly of it (I can always pick it out because to my nose, oddly, it gives off a whiff of dusty wood), added to vanilla notes, produces balsamic, powdery cosmetic effects veering into milkiness. Though Hérault’s compositions, many of them signed with Olivier Polge, are edgy and contemporary (think Balenciaga Rosabotanica’s deconstructionist rose), there is a tenderness to Over the Musk that I feel is very much part of his style as well.

Fougère Furieuse
How do I hate fougères? Let me count the ways. Most recent examples of the genre reek of the obnoxious, laundry-fresh dihydromyrcenol, a metallic citrus-lavender molecule that’s come to be the olfactory synonym of “I’m afraid I won’t smell like a man”. Thankfully, this particular fougère’s fury is not testosterone-driven. Aromatic notes are toned down. The neroli (actually a pillar of such 70s porn-star moustachioed fougères as Brut) is blown up, along with coumarin and amber – though Hérault says there’s no clary sage in Fougère Furieuse, the combination of both with a lush overdose of Cashmeran yields bitter-almondy tobacco effects. To sum up, this is a twist on fougères I’d bathe in.

The Les Exceptions collection is available on the website of Parfums Thierry Mugler.

8 commentaires:

  1. Loved the enticing descriptions, as well as peeking into the perfumers' intentions... All the fragrances seem worth a sniff. Do you know if they will follow standard distribution channels of Mugler's perfumes?

    1. Not sure about distribution, but as it's an exclusives collection I should imagine they'll only be available in department stores with Mugler counters. It's a pity they don't seem to sell the sample set online -- the bottles are a bit costly for a blind buy!

  2. Hello, Denyse!
    I enjoyed these reviews very much, and want to try the new Muglers. Just a question I'd like to send out for a shoot-from-the-hip answer- do you think "Living Flower" and other new technologies have moved the olfactory art forward? Has it led to new olfactory artforms? If yes, is it happening at Mugler, and where else? If not, why?

    1. Hi Marla, and thanks! Mugler has certainly been a consistenly innovative brand. Remember the coffret that Mugler edited, with fragrances by Christophe Laudamiel and Cristof Hornetz, inspired by different scenes in the Süskind book: many of those (or all, can't recall) used headspace analyses by IFF. Dominique Ropion says they help perfumers understand aspects of natural scents that could not have been detected otherwise. And Frédéric Malle states that the reason why Edmond Roudnitska never completed the magnolia fragrance he was striving for was because he didn't have headspace analyses. Is it a move forward? At any rate, it allows perfumers a better, more granular understanding of scent and therefore, gives them the opportunity of interpreting notes differently.
      As for new olfactory artforms, you'd have to look outside the field of fine fragrance, which is limited by the need to be wearable by at least a few thousand people, and by commercial mode of conception and distribution, however arty it may be.

    2. I confess I see Mitsy as art....I am very glad these technologies are giving perfumers a wider range of expression, and I am glad you are reporting to us with your customary eloquence!

    3. I answered to your question regarding new artforms, and it seems obvious that art can be created using the olfactory medium. And certainly presenting commercial fragrances within the context of an exhibition, such as the one I took part in in Lausanne, can lead them to be perceived on the same terms as the other artworks or design pieces in the show.

      But I'd argue it is the displacement, and the new conditions of reception thus fostered, that place these perfumes in the realm of art, rather than the intentions that led to their composition, at least in the majority of cases. Possibly Rien and Sécrétions Magnifiques, which are backed up with discourse and critical self-awareness by Antoine Lie, come close to having been conceived on the same terms as contemporary art. As for Mitsouko, since Jacques Guerlain never expressed himself publicly (nor in any documents preserved by Guerlain), we'll never know.

  3. I like this article. And yes, using art terminology to describe perfumes, unless the creators actually thought in those terms is a projection.


    1. Thank you George. I think art terminology might be used since we must borrow from other fields to develop a critical discourse on perfume. But it shouldn't be abused by simply superimposing the vocabulary, as though this were a sufficient demonstration.