When I told Frédéric Malle I’d finally found my signature scent, he looked like he’d swallowed a toad. The scent was Dominique Ropion’s Superstitious, launched along with the late designer Alber Elbaz. I wasn’t aware at the time – this was in June 2022, when at the press presentation of Uncut Gem --, but Superstitious had been discontinued, which Malle failed to mention. I added brightly that I’d rediscovered the fragrance on the anniversary of Elbaz’s death from Covid. To which Malle answered with a slightly reproachful tone: “C’est gai.” (Translate that as: “Well, you’re no fun, are you.”).
The launch of Uncut Gem was hardly the time or place to strike up a conversation about perfume and death, especially when the subject was a dead perfume made in collaboration with a dead man. But, of course, perfume is about death and ghosts. Like ghosts or magic, it is an effect that persists even in the absence or death of its source, invisible or wispy as smoke. But beyond this, to reprise a term coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida and developed by the cultural critic Mark Fisher, it is about hauntology – defined as the ghostly persistence of cultural elements of the past. So, perfume is haunted, not because smells carry you back, as the oft-repeated refrain goes, to past persons, times, or places (though a haunting is something that happens now; an event that is part of our present, not our past). But because beyond the Proustian cliché, it is run through by the past forms it has taken on. For you, these are the ghostly glimpses of perfumes you’ve experienced in the past. For perfumers, the olfactory forms that haunt them.
The ghosts of Arpège and Rive Gauche
In Dominique Ropion’s case, the aptly-named Superstitious was avowedly a reworking of the floral aldehydic form – he mentioned Arpège; To my nose, perhaps because I wore it as a very young teen, the past fragrance it most evokes is Rive Gauche (coincidentally, Alber Elbaz was an artistic director for both Yves Saint Laurent’s women’s ready-to-wear, then for Lanvin). As the story goes, Elbaz chose a formula that Ropion had been developing on his own over Carlos Benaïm’s proposal; the designer, too, may have been haunted by the grand floral aldehydics of the past, though his aesthetics were anything but retro. The same goes for Superstitious: a de/reconstruction of the fragrance family rather than a homage, it is only “retro” in the sense that it is purely abstract, like its forerunners of the 1920s: the last in the line of those modernist products of the age of mechanical reproduction. The innovative abstract forms of the 20th century spoke of the future; today, that future is lost. Perfumers revisit forms, tweak them, reinvent them.
An aside on harpsichord
The construction of Ropion’s fragrances is always prodigiously intelligent, and Superstitious is no exception. The emotion I feel when I catch a whiff of it is, I suddenly realized one day, intellectual excitement. The thrillingly rational Superstitious engages my mind much in the way a piece for harpsichord by François Couperin, Les Barricades mystérieuses might do. Couperin’s piece is described by the music critic Tom Service as “an ever-changing tapestry of melody and harmony, interacting and overlapping with different rhythmic schemes and melodies. The effect is shimmering, kaleidoscopic and seductive." (The Guardian, January 14, 2010). You could transpose the paragraph to Superstitious.
A grand, futuristic abstraction
The white, iron-steam hiss of aldehydes; the green-black metallic effect of rose oxide (hence the Rive Gauche reminiscence): the opening salvo of Superstitious elicits the same nerve-pinching delight as a piece played on harpsichord. This is green, but not spring. No allusion to nature here. The metallic overture runs along a vertical axis into incense[i], the resin’s mineral facets anchored in vetiver’s bitter earthiness – reprising the green-black tones of the opening. The mineral theme is echoed by the indolic tones of the jasmine that wraps the structure – cool and crisp as the duchess satin Alber Elbaz worked so masterfully for Lanvin and his own brand AZ Factory. Picking up on the jasmine and rose accord’s fruitiness, a slightly unripe peach adds another layer of olfactory texture. In an air-kiss, what you might catch is the patchouli, caused most perfumers who smelled it on me to identify Superstitious as a chypre (or rather, to cry out: “C ‘est quoi ce chypre, c’est génial!” or variations thereof.
Yet another spectre in the crypt…
For all its quivering intelligence, Superstitious was even less of a commercial proposal than Ropion’s equally brilliant Une Fleur de cassie (sales advisors at Frédéric Malle would tell me its sales were abysmal). The olfactory spectre – or spectrum – that haunts it, the aldehydic floral form, is one perfumers have failed to revive since its last grand manifestation, the 1976 First by Van Cleef & Arpels. Despite the genre’s disfavor, Superstitious is one of the few scents I’ve worn that has systematically attracted spontaneous compliments, both from perfumers and my 20-year-old students. Beyond the personal disaster it is for me to lose my signature scent just as I’d found it, and though I understand it didn’t make sense to maintain a product connected to a dead designer whose name is known only to fashion connoisseurs, it is a shame the Estée Lauder group decided to discontinue Superstitious. This is fragrance as a séance: the summoning and shaping of all the elements of the aldehydic floral; the conjuring of what that futuristic aldehydic floral form could smell like now. What is heroic about Dominique Ropion’s approach is its utter lack of nostalgia. Perhaps that is why, despite its references to the past, Superstitious smells so alien. It is futurism, now. Or rather, it was. Now it will live on as yet another spectre in the crypt of our olfactory memory.
[i] Dominique Ropion reexplored the aldehyde-incense axis in the considerably more successful masculine Y by Yves Saint Laurent, grafting it onto a fougère structure.