When he took over the house of Givenchy several years back, and the world at large first started hearing his name, designer Alexander McQueen publicly dismissed the religiously esteemed founder of the company as “irrelevant”, instantly and perhaps permanently establishing his reputation as a prig with attitude and a propensity for shock so showy that few, even now, recognize what an enormous talent he might be.
Son of a taxi driver, McQueen left school at 16 to apprentice with Savile Row tailors Anderson and Sheppard. At 20, he traveled to Milan, where he worked for Romeo Gigli. He received his Masters in Fashion Design from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London; his thesis collection was bought in its entirety by the late Isabella Blow, his equal in extravagant uncanny with a specialization in baffling estrangement. He was one of the youngest designers to be awarded British Designer of the Year, receiving the honor three times between 1996 and 2003.
His clothes, however shocking or unusual, are impeccably conceived and constructed, wonders of geometrical form. McQueen has the talent to back up his attitude, yet the flip side of his arrogance is an apparently sincere desire to be liked. Following all his bluster, humility reads more like an admission of vacuous hype. After the backlash over Givenchy, he tucked his tail between his legs, expressing remorse, publicly teary, wondering why everyone hated him. Then he went about figuring out how to work within the system of a major fashion house with a reputation and an intricately archaic protocol more complex than his instinctive hubris enabled him to understand. This dance of attack and retreat, alternating between hauteur and abject humility, is one McQueen seems destined to perform ad nauseum.
Kingdom, the first fragrance released under the designer's name, marries cumin to rose, tart citrus to sweaty skin. Its reputation arguably suffered sight unseen, thanks to McQueen's own, which preceded it. At the time of its release, much was made of its composition, as if it were as formally innovative as Angel or definitively bold, like Poison. It is neither, but it matches McQueen’s sensibility well, conceptually and structurally, right down to the atomizer. Depending on how one holds it, the sculptural bottle, ruby red glass sheathed in chrome, resembles the prototype for some futuristic heart transplant or a slice of fruit which zests rather than sprays.
Kingdom is ineffable or elusive enough to resist categorization, though several detractors regard it as unfocused rather than complex. It was composed by Jacques Cavallier, the man responsible for many equally unusual, even challenging, scents. As Chandler Burr said, Cavallier is a "prolific perfumer so successful these days that he often seems to generate a quarter of each year's worldwide fragrance product." Often, the compositions Cavallier has created or to which he has contributed have as many detractors as fans. Among these fragrances are Yves Saint Laurent's Nu, Boucheron's Trouble, Rive Gauche Homme, Acqua di Gio Homme, Armani Mania, Jean Paul Gaultier Classique, M7, and Shiseido Vocalize.
Many of Cavallier’s scents, like Kingdom, might arguably be classified as fascinating mass-market scents harboring deeply niche personalities. He himself comes from what might be considered The Perfume Establishment. Cavallier's family has been in Grasse since the 15th century. His father and grandfather were perfumers. He says that this background and natural raw materials are essential to his craft, yet his fragrances often seem otherworldly, anything but traditional. Rose, Agar Wood, Jasmine, and Orange Flower are the most prevalent raw materials in his "olfactive palette". Cavallier remembers running through jasmine fields as a five year-old boy, and dates his beginning as a perfumer to the time his father first introduced him to the smell of the May Rose. His fondest memory from childhood, he has said, was the image of his mother's eyes when he woke up.
Discussing the creation of Elle, another YSL juice on which he collaborated, Cavallier said that the two most important meetings or moments during the creation of a perfume are the first and the last. During the first, an idea is proposed or generated. By the time the last has been reached, that idea must have been translated into a tangible, marketable product. A hallmark of Cavallier's artistry is his insistence on going bolder after that initial discussion, rather than toning things down toward a lowest common denominator. He has made mistakes of judgment this way, exceeding the fluctuating boundaries of wearability, yet almost all of the risks he has taken, like McQueen's clothing, leave indelible impressions, which might be why scents like M7 become cult favorites after their discontinuation, persisting in the collective imagination the way the childhood image of his mother's eyes have for Cavallier.
Though probably closer to an abstract floral, Kingdom passes in and out of rose so distinctly at times that it might as well be considered a soliflor. This is deepest, darkest, twilit rose, shadowed and thorn-ridden. The addition of cumin and mint takes things from interesting to odd. The scent is unlikely to win any converts to cumin, nor is it quite as fantastically strange (or as repulsive) as people sometimes assert. At times it seems downright old-fashioned in its dogged intensity. The rose and jasmine strike recognizable cords, but are sent off kilter by ginger and myrrh. Vanilla gives a faint suggestion of the gourmand, referencing Guerlain's Samsara. The cumin, as in Olivier Cresp's Rochas Femme reformulation, creates the impression of classic French animalics, creating a persistent edge to the construction, sometimes sharp, sometimes blunt. Maybe serrated is a better word. What you notice right out the gate with Kingdom is the citrus: bergamot, orange, mandarin, neroli. These persist throughout the heart to some degree, and along with vanilla in the base and the salty cumin overall make for quite a succulent experience. Succulent to some, anyway; salty to others. A percentage of the buying public is convinced the smell of Kingdom takes its inspiration from the armpit or, worse (apparently), the sexual organs. For some, that's altogether a bad thing.
True to form, when Kingdom sold poorly, McQueen released My Queen, a much more polite and conventionally feminine perfume, whose title might just as fittingly have been Please Like Me.