(image after 7-Up “UnCanny In Cans” by John Alcorn, 1969)
MEM covers a lot of ground and it covers it quickly. When first sprayed it moves too fast for precise description and feels more like slam poetry than anything olfactory. It’s a ‘Tomato-Jasmine Waxed-Sultry-Jam Malted Milk-Tuned Rubber Gasoline-Flame, Drop-The-Mic-And-Howl’ sort of perfume. It’s a rush.
MEM is Antonio Gardoni’s discourse on lavender and it is packed with lavender. Lavender is never hidden, but you might give a double-take on recognizing it. MEM combines identifiable clues and completely new shapes and never settles for one definition of lavender. It knocks lavender from its comfortable perch in the pantheon of perfume materials and makes it sing for its supper. Working with a material like lavender has two specific risks. The first is that it is one of the most well-known material in fragrance and is consequently predictable. Trying to make it say anything new is difficult. The second is that changing the rules will always threaten a percentage of people. Dismantling an olfactory ‘baseline’ is like pulling out the rug. MEM might very well find a good portion of its audience in a state of distress or disorientation.
MEM is also something new for Gardoni. His previous perfumes for Bogue were an out-and-out interrogation of 20th century perfumery. (*) MEM doesn’t look to the past as these other perfumes did. It does however share their sense of provocation. These perfumes were conceptual and they were daring. Their success was made more meaningful in large part because they risked failure so unwaveringly. MEM’s risk of failure is just as great. The challenge is not just how to make a novel lavender perfume, it’s how to win people over to ‘The New Lavender.’ Anyone remember New Coke?
As an olfactory object, lavender is weighted down by associations. It’s floral, herbal, medicinal, antiseptic. It’s grand-dad’s aftershave, it’s the grocery store wipes, it’s the pastry from the bakery. It’s everywhere. Gardoni confronts lavender’s dual tragic flaw: familiarity and predictability. Rather than try to ‘reinvent’ lavender per se, Gardoni’s trick is to make it unexpected.
A set of almost tropical floral tones steers clear of typical depictions and frees lavender from associations with aromatherapy, cleaning products and the barbershop. The perfume sidesteps the top-heart-base pyramid without settling for a linear model and the progression of the perfume has a deceptively wandering feel. An expressive collection of woods braces the perfume and a pack of animalic notes come and go as if prowling through the perfume. MEM meticulously avoids lavender’s clichés and none of the old chestnuts (leafy greens, sudsy soap, chilly mothballs, shaving cream) find their way into the mix. By peeling away lavender’s expected characteristics and altering its momentum, Gardoni renders it abstract and bends it to his purposes.
At times the perfume seems to create a broad olfactory milieu and has a striding, environmental scale. But even when it’s impressionistic (sap, soil, metal and sunlight—-oh, an afternoon working in a garden) it’s remarkably specific. The accords pass by steadily, giving the feeling of being taken on a guided tour of the objects in an imagined olfactory Cornell Box. A waxed grapefruit. Carmelized tomatoes. Flowers, champagne, cats and brackish water. A bizarre collection of images? Sure, but also elegant and logical.
The success of the perfume hangs on building new chains of association—-constructing a new lavender. I don’t get the impression that Gardoni is making an emotional appeal or trying to woo you. Rather, what he gives the audience is a richness, and more important, a clarity of ideas to play with as they care to. Whether or not the odd olfactory images—- coconut woods, grape-soda white flowers, doggedness, clay-rich soil, rubber citrus bark, dappled markings, orange jam, flat beer, leather-soled shoes—-speak to you or not, they have a precision that lets you string together the pieces to suit your own inclinations. I feel like I’ve been handed an extraordinary coloring-book and some crayons in gorgeous hues that I’ve never seen before. There’s no need to worry too much about creating an image—-the lines are drawn. I’m just having a blast discovering these new colors.
The coloring-book analogy might sound ridiculous, but I’ve found a playful mindset is an effective line of approach to MEM. For all the specificity of the perfume, I’m reminded how scrupulously Gardoni avoided getting caught in a single definition of lavender. Lavender enters this discussion as possibly the most overdetermined note in perfumery and Gardoni’s role was to free it. There is an appealing modesty to the way Gardoni helps you find your own lavender rather than convince you of his.
If I’m going to frame the New Lavender at all, I’ll crib from the neo-hippy 7-Up campaign from the late ‘60s-early ’70s:
MEM, The UnFougère.
- O/E had features of both an Eau de Cologne and a fougère. It showed how ‘masculinity’ is created in traditional perfumes and implicitly poked at the false certainty of gender buried in perfumery.
- Cologne Reloaded asked a single question: Is something that was sealed in a bottle in the middle of the 20th century still the same thing when the bottle is opened in 2013? Cologne Reloaded is a proposition that perfume can be part of an intellectual discussion beyond perfumery.
- MAAI was a bad-ass floral-animalic perfume that challenged the chypre head-on. Gardoni bitch-slapped that sacred cow and got away with it because the perfume was THAT FUCKING GOOD.
(Review based on bottle I purchased. Prior to release, sample provided by Bogue Profumo.)