Monday, November 24, 2008

The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Comme des Garçons

People love to decry the death of something they once loved which has, by their estimation, subsequently jumped the shark. Thus, the "end of the novel", the "decline of the movie", and the selling out of this or that beloved band. Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices fame has, according to fans and non-fans alike, sold out at least five times to date. No one reads anymore because books aren't well written. No one watches movies because they suck. Artists can sell out. Filmmakers, politicians--even hoteliers. It's only ever one bad move away.

There's always some defining moment, some compass point by which to pinpoint the exact transition from great to god-awful. On The Brady Bunch, it was a trip to Hawaii. Fonzie literally jumped the shark, via waterskis, on Happy Days. The sellout-resistant band ultimately welcomes sponsorship from Starbucks. Toward the end, Will and Grace started peppering episodes with lazy turns by famous guest stars. The people who determine the exact point at which something jumps shark usually have high standards, a bottom line which becomes the final straw. Their expectations are disappointed and they can't make adjustments any longer. Hard core fans, they have definite ideas about the way things should go with their favorite group, TV show, celebrity, or cereal. Increasingly, perfume aficionados have joined these ranks, a migration which makes sense, given how educated, articulate, and cultured many of perfume's biggest followers are.

L'Artisan, to some, is walking thin ice. It's the whole persistence thing. The prices went up last year, and yet the longevity continues to go down. Some will excuse L'Artisan for as long as humanly possible, hoping that the company will consider its fans and do something to turn this around. Lutens has done its own dance with the shark, producing, for every Iris Silver Mist, a Miel de Bois and a Serge Noire. The commercial houses disappoint so regularly, are so generally inconsistent that their inconsistency becomes the one thing to rely on. Others (niche lines, typically) set the bar so high that even when they fall short and are way above average in effort and accomplishment they can seem more like dismal failures.

Comme des Garçons has practically defined the concept of conceptual perfumery over the last fifteen years or so, but their project began with fashion. The clothing line was started as a women's label in 1969 by designer Rei Kawakubo. It was established as a company in 1973. By 1978, a men's line was added. Over its first several decades, Comme des Garçons (translation: "like the boys") pushed the fashion envelope in almost every conceivable way, distressing, tearing, fraying, and puncturing fabric, dissolving or disassembling structure, fading the palette to a monochromatic black, turning ideas like "pretty" and "glamor" and "silhouette" inside out. Their mission seemed to be a total re-evaluation of the psychological underpinnings of fashion, with an emphasis on, as Kawakubo herself put it, "breaking down the barriers between art and fashion." The 1997 collection, which came to be known as the "lumps and bumps" line, advanced a destabilization of traditional forms of beauty and form. More recently, in 2006, the label presented a collection on the theme of "Persona", mixing feminine and masculine elements to explore how we define ourselves through gendered dress codes and rigorously enforced social attitudes about self-presentation.

The first Comme des Garçons fragrance was released in 1994. It was a woods and spice eau de parfum in a now iconic flattened oblong brown bottle designed by Kawakubo and Marc Atlan. The juice was composed by Marc Buxton, who had just done Dalissime for Salvador Dali and Pasha for Cartier. The original CDG perfume has spawned so many imitators that one easily forgets how truly avante garde it was at the time and, to some extent, still is. The following year, a flanker, called White, was released, adding to the initial formula a strong floral quotient and the fruity influence of pomegranate.

In 1998, CDG released Odeur 53, the first in a series of "anti-perfumes". It was the company's boldest fragrance assertion yet, the first to match the irreverently off-kilter spirit of the clothes. Composed of 53 non-traditional notes (flash of metal, sand dunes, nail polish, and so forth) the "scent" questioned what constitutes a perfume in much the same way the clothes challenged what it is to be a shirt or a dress. Clothes, Kawakubo has always seemed to say, serve not just a cosmetic but a social function. What happens if they are liberated from this responsibility? Who says a skirt has to look like a skirt? How far can you take a skirt before it isn't one at all? Odeur 53 asked similar questions, much to many people's consternation. An abstract floral seeks to replicate known natural entities with unknown or unfamiliar ingredients, often synthetic. Odeur 53 went further, arguably in the opposite direction, creating an abstract banal. Rather than conceal the synthetic aspects of its composition, 53 embraced them, proposing scent as a Brechtian exercise.

After Odeur 53 CDG presented ever more ambitious propositions. Comme des Garçons 2 (1999) evoked flowers without employing many. The logo was rendered in the squiggly line of a ballpoint pen, while the scent itself recalled the inky aroma of the childhood classroom and the theoretical outdoors. Like the bottle, a variation on the original flat oblong, the juice shimmered with metallic sheen, reflecting and distorting various associative impressions like a sleek funhouse mirror. 2 took its cues from an object or evocation the same way other perfumes did, but where their departure points were flowers, spices, woods, and fruits, 2 looked to everyday objects and sense perceptions. Odeur 71 followed in these footsteps a year later, extending the experiment of 53.

The years since have been very productive for the company. What started as individual releases became multiple part exercises in conceptual perfumery, starting with the Leaves series: Calamus, Lily, Mint, Shiso, and Tea. All but Tea, Lily, and Calamus have since been discontinued. Series 2: Red (2001) included Carnation, Harrisa, Palisander, Sequoia, and Rose. Perhaps the most popular series, involving incense, followed. Avignon, Jaisalmer, Kyoto, Quarzazate, and Zagorsk are largely gorgeous iterations of the company's unusual sensibility, and predate the rage for incense compositions by several years. The series themselves, taken collectively, have asserted perfume as an endless resource for investigation into everything from color (red, green) to different religious chambers and states of mind from around the globe, tying the latter all together into an aromatic declaration of religious tolerance and spiritual unity, taking transcendence out of the cathedral and into the head space.

The company's increasingly ambitious exercises have produced a wider variety of hits and near misses, and everything in between, prompting some to level accusations of decline. The general consensus seems to be that the shark fin approached shortly after the incense series, though Series 5: Sherbert has as many admirers as critics. Series 6: Synthetics goes some way toward closing that gap. Series 7: Sweet seems almost universally derided. It's too early to tell with Series 8: Energy C, whose Lime, Lemon and Grapefruit seem to have been received lukewarmly at best. It's difficult just yet to situate singular scents like 2007's Play and this year's Monocle Scent 1: Hinoki and 8 88 within the CDG oeuvre. Though they follow in the footsteps of earlier CDG fragrances, they depart from the "Series" Series, sticking out sore-thumb-like. A few of the company's smaller series (mini-series, if you will) have been charged with the blame of bringing the line's heyday of playful and provocative experimentation to a close, if not an imaginatively bankrupt standstill.

Guerillas 1 and 2 are named after CDG stores which sprouted up briefly in unlikely places, challenging the concept of permanence and brand stability in a world inhospitable to such things. Guerilla 1, with its meat notes and vague air of urban refuse, is often regarded as unwearable on the one hand and a tad too conventional on the other, somehow both too arty and too boring to bother with at the same time. The top opens with pear, saffron, and clove, an unforgivable offense, if not outright assault, to some. From there, insult adds to injury: the heart notes include Champaca flower and black pepper. Guerilla 1 is certainly an unusual scent. Inhaling it, the mind tries to connect it to something, filing through a mental rolodex of potential source materials. The effect is a wavering indeterminacy, a sort of way station fragrance, like the pop-up stores the scents are named after. Guerilla 1 was the brainchild of Marie-Aude Couture, whose other best known fragrance might be the previous year's Eau d'Amazonie.

Guerilla 2, by Nathalie Feisthauer, is considered the more conventional of the duo, though it's hard to see exactly why when in this case the word conventional becomes highly relative. The notes are listed as bergamot, pink pepper, ginger, red pepper, curcama, raspberry, tuberose, vetiver, cedarwood, and musk. The key word is "red". The result is tangy, tart, and somewhat savory too. The vetiver seems just the pinch of salt the affair calls for. Feisthauer has done work for Etat Libre d'Orange, another equally adventurous perfume line which arguably wouldn't exist were it not for the path CDG has forged. Both Guerillas are wearable and, though said to be more feminine than not by some, each mixes feminine and masculine attributes and impressions in ways which fit perfectly into the company's credo. Guerilla 1 has more development and seems slightly more indecipherable. But Guerilla 2 demonstrates more than a little stealth itself; hard to tell what exactly is going on in this fragrance, though it seems to know where it's going.

Of the Synthetics, I prefer Garage, which as a friend pointed out, smells like your grandparents' detached garage, with the Schwinn bike tires and the still-wet innertubes stacked in a corner, the tennis ball hanging from the ceiling to designate the stop point for parking the car, some oil on the concrete floor, some sawdust, old magazines, humidity, and vinyl. It's a wonderful evocation, with persistence like nobody's business, creating sensory memories out of thin air. Even the maligned Sweets Series has its standouts. Nomad Tea is actually one of the more unusual and enigmatic fragrances of the entire line, mixing what smells like birch tar with minty artemesia. Wood Coffee and Sticky Cake are far more compelling than they're given credit for.

Luxe Champaca and Patchouli are standouts, not just in quality but cost. They're expensive, to be sure, but Patchouli, at least, lingers so well that it might make up for it, if you give it the time. These two seem like something of an anomaly for a line which is otherwise fairly affordable and populist. Nevertheless, they open questions about what luxury means and who has access to it and in some ways they seem to indicate an exercise in irony, though it's unclear who the joke is on. One thing seems abundantly clear. Comme des Garçons is alive and well, despite claims otherwise, playing around with form and content and what it means to smell and be smelled. Recently, the company designed a line for the H & M Department Store Chain, complete with signature fragrance. This will inevitably be seen as a compromise of some kind, a watered down version of previous genius. But let's all get real: Comme des Garçons has never pretended to be anything but fake. If a shark fin is in fact circling the company's image, it's attached to a stick which Kawakubo manipulates from under the water.


Olfacta said...

I am woozy with admiration of your analysis.

This story reminds me of the alternative record labels of the 80's and 90's; SubPop, for example. At some point, there's gotta be some money; you can't explore uncharted territory without at least some funding for supplies. And there is always someone who'll be screaming "sellout!" -- usually from mom and dad's basement.

It's just the way of things.

Brian said...

WOOZY! Thanks. It's a great feeling to make someone woozy, I think, especially when you struggle to make sense or your thoughts and feel that you fall way short ultimately.

It's weird, the sell out thing. You're so right about the kids in the basement raising their voices highest. We praise people for experimentation, for taking risks, then draw a line. Commercial risks can be just as exciting as any other, I think. It's all about intent and objective.

Divina said...

Hey you :) I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on Patchouli! Yes, it is as you pointed out expensive, but I do think it is one of the most interesting CdG 'fumes out there. I think it appears deceptively simple, but the way it combines deep notes of patchouli (and maybe coffee?) with something so incredibly salty without employing any of the usual suspects (carrot seed, fennel etc) to create this savory sense, i think it is absolutely admirable!

Brian said...

Luxe Patchouli is my favorite CDG fragrance. The first I smelled was 2. An extravagant friend took me to a play and out to dinner. At both, he pulled out his silver atomizer and submerged us in a cloud of perfume. I thought it smelled heavenly. When I went to buy it I saw Luxe and smelled it and felt I had to have it. One of those things where you think, I must smell like this, everywhere, all the time, forever and ever, and when people think of me I want them to try to recall this scent. But it was so expensive. That's that weird perfume logic, where you can't spend several hundred dollars on the perfume you love the most but will spend thousands on those you love a little and a lot less, and finally, much later, you see the loved one again and say, why did I never just go ahead and get you? Why have I wasted all this time? I need to review Luxe Patchouli because I don't see a lot about it and it seems exceptionally good to me.