A Review of Etat Libre d’Orange Noel au Balcon (or, Don’t Believe the Hype, but do Smell the Perfume )

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Etat Libre d’Orange are known stylistically for their cheeky tone and snarky perfumes. As a brand, they poke a stick at contemporary notions of bland luxury. Branding works by tailoring images to implant in the public mind and then builds a series of associations. But branding also takes into account the self-reference of the branded. We perfume consumers should be watchful and consider how a brand presents and refers to itself. ELDO’s motto, “Le parfum est mort. Vive le Parfum!” (Perfume is dead. Long live perfume!) tells you to expect irreverence and insouciance. ELDO’s topics, or so they tell us, are prostitution, intimate bodily fluids, vintage punk, carrion, cross-dressing, yadda, yadda… Depending on your perspective, you might find the brand anarchic or dilettante.

So in honor of Etat Libre’s revolutionary tone, I present my own motto for perfume criticism: “Fuck the PR. Smell the perfume!”

Contrary to the PR, ELDO’s most successful perfumes actually fit comfortably in classical genres of perfume. Jasmin et Cigarette is a gorgeous, husky-voiced woody floral. Rien, a perfectly balanced stark leather. Vraie Blonde, a concise, inventive take on the floral oriental. Fat Electrician and Nombril Immense are clean and beautifully edited takes on the contemporary vetiver and patchouli. Afternoon of a Faun is one of the best nouveaux chypres.

ELDO posit themselves as very current and deliberately out of step with the mainstream, and on promotional level they are. But their dirty little secret is that they are more conventional than they appear. Their neo-punk, agitprop marketing is the smoke and mirrors that covers their traditionalism.

Noel au Balcon (perfumer Antoine Maisondieu, 2007) is a wonderful example. It’s sold as a near-gourmand perfume, a considered offering to a thoughtless genre.  Perhaps this angle might work on a perfume wearer who is young and ahistorical enough to see the contemporary gourmand genre as a part of the classical canon.  I’m old enough to see Noel au Balcon for what it is: a traditional spicy oriental perfume in the grand manner.  Resinous and rich, it’s filled with vanilla, amber,  benzoin, spices.  Read any description of Tabu,  Emeraude or  Shalimar written before the era of the contemporary gourmand and what you’ll find could be a description of Noel au Balcon. 100 years ago ‘gourmand’ could just as easily have been the name for these perfumes.  Instead, marketing keyed into the exoticism and thinly veiled racism of the day and voilà: the oriental perfume.

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So, if you’re an upstart line, and don’t want to be identified as making Shalimar for youngsters, what do you do?  It’s telling that ELDO avoid the obvious choice in the first place: making an identifiably “modern” perfume.   Image-manipulation is shown to be as important to them them as it is to any mainstream perfumer.  Making a wonderful, but quite conventional, in fact old-fashioned perfume, but selling it as ‘the new thing‘ rather than making  a ‘contempo-gourmand’ in the first place exposes the real strategy and reveals the old boys at Etat Libre to be closet conservatives.  They would rather change the marketing than change the perfume.  I’ll repeat, because this is the critical point in seeing through ELDO’s smoke.  It’s more important to make a beautiful perfume, following generations of trial to perfect the genre, than it is to make something new.   Even within ELDO’s own line Noel seems staid. Compared to Like This, a more up-to-date gourmand that erases the line between sweet and savory in perfume, Noel might as well be a 40-year-old bottle of Tabu.

Of course, ELDO would want to hide all this from you!  It defeats the entire premise of, “le parfum est mort.”  The key is then, how do you sell it?  ELDO’s approach here is hardly new either:  Titties.  A clever turn of phrase (a full balcony in French refers to a hefty bosom) and surprisingly unclever image (just titties) are the red herring that keeps you from comparing Noel to Shalimar and helps you to swallow the fairy tale, to drink the kool-aid.

If you believe ELDO’s mission statement and anarchic posturing, then they have inadvertently done what Maison Francis Kurkdjian contrive to do, which is to create a traditional French perfume house from the ground up.  I happen to think that ELDO, for all their niche-y posing, are simply an excellent perfume house.

I’m not saying fuck the brand.  I’m saying fuck the branding. Ignore ELDO’s marketing, but smell their perfume.  It’s wonderful.

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