(images: Peter Hujar self portraits # 3 and #2, 1966.)
Issey Miyake le Feu d’Issey, 1998. Perfumer Jacques Cavallier.
Yohji Yamamoto Yohji Homme, 1999. Perfumer Jean-Michel Duriez.
By 1998 niche perfumery was firmly established though still in a formative phase. l’Artisan Parfumeur and Serge Lutens might have been stretching the definitions of perfume but many niche houses valued more conservative qualities. Though l’Artisan had claimed the name, many niche houses embraced the artisanal tendency of turning away from what was seen as corporate vulgarity and emphasized quality over ingenuity. (I’d argue that Thierry Mugler Angel inspired a retreat from the mainstream perfumes in the same way that The Exorcist fueled a return to Sunday church-going.) This conservative understanding of quality is regressive at its heart, suggesting a return to an idealized past, a rediscovery of traditional methods and sensibilities. Excellence is to be found in orthodoxy and a re-commintment to traditional principles.
The perfumes from this conservative approach can’t all be derided, though. It lead to some exceptional perfume (see Parfum de Nicolai’s first three perfumes: Number One, Odalisque and New York) and successful houses such as Annick Goutal and the revived les Parfums de Rosine. It’s an interesting point that l’Artisan Parfumeur and Serge Lutens came from gay men, respectively Jean-François Laporte and Serge Lutens, who made perfumes that veered away from the gender constraints that the more conservative niche houses continued to cling to. Laporte and Lutens made perfumes that defied the conventional trend toward eunich-like ‘unisex’ perfumes. The mainstream approach to unisex was to scrape away the big gender identifiers such as white florals for ladies and fougères for gentleman, leaving behind unengaging perfumes devoid of dynamic qualities. Laporte and Lutens each had his own style of queering perfumery. Laporte gave us Mure et Musc, l’Eau du Navigateur and Vanilia, perfumes that created their own androgynous sub-genres. Lutens went a little more camp and offered a new femme sensibility to all with la Myrrh, Iris Silver Mist and el Attarine. (Yes, he did also make the butch Muscs Koubläi Khän.)
Issey Miyake’s le Feu d’Issey and Yohji Yamamoto’s Yohji Homme may have been designer perfumes, but they were iconoclastic at their cores. The less daring niche houses of the time such as Goutal, Keiko Mecheri, Parfums DelRae and Jo Malone were more conventional in aesthetic. With these two perfumes Yamamoto and Miyake, along with Comme des Garçons, questioned the perfumery of the 90s as they had fashion in the 1980s. * Informed by a hybrid Japanese-French aesthetic, they tested the definitions of perfumery. As with the Laporte/Lutens model, le Feu and Yohji Homme reflect two very different approaches to banging on the gate of the academy. Le Feu applied principles of abstraction more likely found in contemporary visual art while Yohji Homme subverted a traditional form from within.
le Feu d’Issey is an essay on sandalwood, one of the most well known and revered materials in the perfume canon. le Feu smells more strongly of Mysore sandalwood essential oil than any other perfume I’ve ever smelled yet smells nothing like any other sandalwood perfume. There are countless other fragrances that attempt to smell ‘just like’ sandalwood, but by distorting the frame, le Feu focusses our attention on the picture, allowing sandalwood to stand out vividly. Notes of laundry starch, coconut, toast, pickled lime and stone make the juxtapositions inherent in sandalwood pop. The dusty creaminess and sweet tartness are highlighted by the odd bits that float around it. The perfume feels like a game of of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey but the bold choice of almost absurd notes makes le Feu one of the more ingenious portraits of a material. There is just enough oddity to the perfume to give it a hallucinogenic tone but it would be a mistake to imagine the composition as random or haphazard.
The fougère is a form so saddled with associations built up over the past 125 years that it’s a perpetual target for revolution. Yohji Homme introduced boozy, spicy qualities that hint at the gourmand trends of the 90s. Yohji Homme is a variant on the fougère, not a total renovation, but the changes it makes to the structure of the fougère are fundamental in concept. The aromatic fougère is known for its soapy, inedible qualities that have aligned it with men’s hygiene and grooming. Licorice twists the form smartly. It is a cool spice that pairs seamlessly with the brisk, herbal side of the fougère, but the same note brings it into a close orbit with Lolita Lempicke‘s anisic patchouli and by extension, Angel. That’s a lot of ground to cover and Yohji Homme does it without seeming either derivative or ironic. Yojhi Homme’s manipulation of the fougère genre falls in line with Japanese culture’s complex adoption and manipulation of other iconic western cultural artifacts and trends. It is simultaneously a tribute and sabotage and would not be so effective in both roles were it not so consummately composed. In a long line of fougères that simply rely on the inherent beauty of the lavender/coumarin accord, Yohji Homme interrogates the genre and by changing the perspective, finds novelty in a well-worn form.
Both le Feu and Yohji Homme were discontinued within a few years of their release dates. (In 2012 Yohji Homme was rereleased and is still in production.) Poor market performance was the ostensible culprit but each perfume had a fatal flaw that stalked it. Yohji Homme targeted the aromatic fougère, a genre that had been overtaken by the aquatic fougère. Released nearly a dozen years after Davidoff Cool Water, it still suffered the same fate as the other inventive attempts to reclaim the genre. (See Paco Rabanne Ténéré, Jacomo Anthracite and YSL Jazz.) Luca Turin cited the timidity of the Miyake brand to support and market the oddball le Feu d’Issey and I don’t doubt his analysis, but could it ever have survived the ban on harvesting Mysore sandalwood? After the fact, le Feu is the poster-child for the ‘better dead than reformulated’ movement.
Looking back at these two perfume from the perspective of 2015 prompts the ongoing question, what does one want from a niche perfume? Early niche perfumes focused on the reassertion of traditional values that were lacking in mainstream perfumery. They didn’t so much challenge the underpinnings of the state of perfumery as chide it for letting its standards slip. Only later did creative destruction and questioning the legitimacy of the system gather momentum. le Feu and Yohji Homme might have been designer perfumes but they point to the ideals of niche perfumery of the of the following decade: artistic exploration, the dissection of traditional tropes, redefining beauty. Though discontinued, they point to the creative shortcomings of the predictability of the current luxo-niche perfume market.
* (Comme des Garçons has provided a model for a continuous revolution in perfumery. For an insightful take on CdG’s perfumes read Mad Perfumista’s Anti-Aesthetic: The Scents of Comme des Garçons. )