Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's in a Name: More on Etat Libre D'Orange

Whenever my good friend Bard is over, I present him with a selection of fragrances to smell, hoping to hear wildly detailed descriptions. Bard is a writer and always has something interesting to say about even the most ostensibly thoroughly uninteresting subjects, so my hope each time is that he'll describe what I'm smelling in some way which will support my conjured vision of it.

He always disappoints me. Actually, I'm often frustrated, if not inwardly furious. Rather than give me elaborate narratives he offers cryptic, inert, one word summaries. "Play-doh," he says, handing the bottle back to me, or "Astro-turf." Sometimes he gets a little wordier. "I'm reminded of a cat doing a dance on an umbrella," perhaps, or: "This one is hamster cage--with a trace of hamster pee." I'm convinced he does this to annoy me, to short circuit the carefully wrought fantasy life I've built around the perfumes I like and perfume in general, but I'm also willing to concede that he might just see fragrance differently than I do; not as a procession of florals and leathers and orientals and gourmands but as an amorphous stream of wildly diverse associations and abstractions.

I thought of this today because a few more Etat Libre D'Orange perfumes arrived in the mail. In the past, I enjoyed Jasmine et Cigarette and Rien, but I've resisted buying any more of the line's creations until now, and I'm not sure why. I suspect it might be all the bad feeling around them, which influences me more than I realize--though now that I'm aware of this I want to look at them even more intently.

I find the discussion revolving around this line and its aesthetic more than a little perplexing. While enough people appreciate the perfumes, many more don't, or do only grudgingly, scoffing at the advertising schema or the florid copy, closer to old purple prose porn like Lady Chatterly than something describing the pyramid of your average fruity floral. We perfumistas say we're wise to the way fragrance companies talk about their product, able to discern between reality (what it smells like to us) and fantasy (what they say it conjures), and yet Etat Libre D'Orange, which gently mocks this way of selling and looking at perfume, is taken so seriously by some of the most ardent among us that you often wonder what exactly they want: the truth, or a more skillfully worded lie.

I would wager that Etat, like Bard, knows that you can describe fragrance in any number of ways, if you liberate yourself from the comforting straitjacket of perfume convention, and that in doing so you can expand your fantasy life exponentially, liberating it from the ad copy to which it adheres so closely into some terra incognito of pleasure and impulse. Many people take umbrage with the company's bold pronouncements, the whole "revolutionizing perfume" posture assumed by the ad copy, and, holding that up to the silly pop art erotic playfulness of the ad imagery, they (I think) mistakenly assume that Etat must be full of it, a clueless company unwittingly contradicting itself. How can you assert that you're the most radical thing to come along in modern perfumery and expect to be taken seriously when you package your product in ridiculously infantile parodies of sex and gender? Well, exactly. Almost every perfume house known to perfume lovers does exactly that, in a more meticulously evolved way.

People act as though Etat is celebrating the iconography of porn, and to an extent they are, but they're also poking fun at the way perfume is sold to us, showing us, in the process, how even the most jaded among us demand this approach. We demand to be sold sex like we're impressionable children--and so what, anyway. We want our fantasy world supported and indulged, however childish, and perhaps it should be. Perhaps we should embrace that rather than pretend it doesn't exist in the more evolved. What if Etat weren't trying at all to take perfume advertising all the way but to show us that it's already there and we just don't see it, if only because, for the most part, we choose not to? Could we then look at the perfumes for what they are, and maybe acknowledge that when Etat says they want to revolutionize the world of perfume, they mean the way it's perceived more than the way it's sold or composed?

People complain. The perfumes aren't all THAT. Snap. They aren't so very groundbreaking or unusual. Snap snap (Oh no I didn't!) But of course they are. Compare them to anything at the mall and you see that it's true, that even when they tweak pop formulas just the tiniest bit, they're showing how rigid mainstream and even niche perfumery typically is. That isn't to say that some of these perfumes aren't thrillingly strange. Secretions Magnifiques certainly is. It's mostly to say they needn't go very far to show up contemporary perfumery for what it is: afraid of its own shadow, chicken when it comes to taking even the smallest, subtlest risks. "Subversive"? "Disturbing"? Oh come on, now. Have a sense of humor. What's the difference between Etat using these words to describe Secretions and venerable Guerlain saying, of Insolence, "The irreverent scent of youth, daring, and freedom"? Oh REALLY. Freedom from what, exactly? The difference, perhaps, is one between tongue in cheek and head so far up own ass. I'm pretty sure the one, openly cartoonish, is having a laugh at the other.

Vraie Blonde is a comic vision of succulence and fizz, and at the same time a refined construction which sits interestingly beside fragrances like Mitsouko and Yvresse, chatting up a storm with them. Encens et Bubblegum is what the name says and more, and the unusual combination of words, rather than restricting you to reductive associations, encourages you to make new ones. These are playful, skillfully done, often gorgeous juices--and remarkably consistent in vision. They participate in the history of fragrance even as they assist in ushering us into its future. It's clear to me that nothing whatsoever about Etat Libre D'Orange is crass or obsessed with the bottom line. The pictures of spurting penises and Dali lips blowing nippled bubbles might strike you as obscene. They might strike you as shameless attempts to get your attention or your money. But what Etat is doing has nothing to do with cutting corners or selling short.

It's hard to imagine any other company, even Comme des Garçons, releasing Secretions Magnifiques, though it makes sense that the perfumers behind Etat do so much work for that company. Comme des Garçons, like Etat, is interested in expanding and exploring what it means to enjoy or appreciate perfume. What should--what can--perfume be? How should we talk about it? Does it HAVE to smell like this or that? If so, who says? What's the lingua franca, or can there be one? Maybe it's too personal. Maybe we call it flowers and fruity gourmands because this shorthand, however shy of the truth, is the readiest common barometer. If that's the case, who's pandering to the bottom line? The angrier or more indignant people get about Etat's methodology, the more interested I become in their project and perfumes. It's clear they're touching nerves--and with such wonderful prods.

To me, Secretions Magnifique is conceptual art applied to perfume, and to smell it is to engage with the phenomenon of fragrance in unusual, even exceptional, ways. If Secretions Magnifique falls, to some, or even all, just this side of unwearable, so what? I get tickled and fascinated when people start talking about wearability. Bandit, even now, is considered not so very wearable by some, and it troubles me not the least. Perfume doesn't necessarily have to be about wearability, and in fact, when I smell Mitsouko and my mind starts racing and the synapses start firing, I'm not thinking about how good it will go with my shirt or my suit. Hopefully, I'm beyond the restrictions of such thinking. I'm simply fantasizing, in some dreamy netherworld of mood and sensation. To me, Etat Libre D'Orange speaks to THAT kind of liberation: the enjoyment of perfume for enjoyment's sake.

Put another way, why should Bard change his vocabulary to fit my limited imagination?


Anonymous said...

Well, leave your G-rated self behind and check this out. LOL

Vulvar perfume.

Looks like someone has outdone the Etat!

It's from my friend's blog.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to post my friend's website! It's not a blog actually.

It'll put that above crazy site in some context!

The piece is called "Vulvar Fantasy" and it's very funny.


Brian said...

That is hysterical! Thanks for the links, Trish. My favorite part of the Vulva perfume site is the Gallery. It's such an unconscious pardody of the perfume industry, and makes the Tom Ford ads seem thoroughly childish and naive. What a literalization of the fragrance industry's M.O.

Anonymous said...

Brian, so glad you approve. I've been waiting for an appropriate time to post that somewhere! And also glad to share my friend's writing. She is hilarious. If anyone has time to watch this video link of her reading at Wordstock regarding her adventures in thongs, it's worth it.

Good call on putting Tom Ford to shame!! The vulvar perfume is just so out there, calling it what it is.


CBC said...

What Brian isn't telling you is that the smell I call "Play-Doh" is the odor that perfume fanciers call "Guerlainade." Sad but true.