(image Christine and the Queens)
Nobody doubts that perfume is both art and business. It’s easy to write off all designer perfume as crap and to assume that artisinal perfumes are necessarily better than the mainstream, but both assumptions oversimplify. Otherwise how do you explain remarkable designer perfumes like le Feu d’Issey, Yohji Homme and Bvlgari Black or bad niche?
Looking closely at the models for conceiving, creating and selling perfumes can be revealing and close inspection finds unexpected precedents for some contemporary trends. The solo perfumer model gets a lot of attention. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Histoires de Parfums (Gérald Ghislain), Sonoma Scent Studios (Laurie Erickson), Parfumerie Générale (Pierre Guillaume) and many others helped to define an era of niche perfumery in the same way that Liz Moores, Antonio Gardoni and Bruno Fazzolari are reshaping it. The scale might be different, but is what they do so different from the early careers of Ernest Daltroff (Caron), François Coty or Paul Rosine (Parfums de Rosine)?
Designer and celebrity perfumes today are produced in a corporate model that isn’t vastly different from the production of any other fashion/’lifestyle’ accessories. They use demographic targeting and chase trends with focus groups. Early 20th century designer perfumes, though , reflect a perfumer/artistic director collaborative model. Edmond Roudnitska and Christian Dior, Ernest Beaux and Coco Chanel, Maurice Blanchet and Jacques Worth. Today the model has been reimagined outside of the fashion industry. Douglas Bender founded Charenton Maceration on the collaborative model. Les Nez is the product of the ongoing partnership of brand originator René Schifferle and Isabelle Doyen. Similarly, Neela Vermeire paired with nose Bertrand Duchaufour to create her eponymous line.
Duchaufour, Marc Buxton, Francis Kurkdjian and Sophia Grojsman all made ubiquitous, mass-produced perfumes as well as seminal niche perfumes. All have been accused of being the ‘hired guns’ of perfumery. Were Jean Carles (Miss Dior, Schiaparelli Shocking, Dana Tabu) Germaine Cellier (Balmain Jolie Madame, Robert Piguet Fracas, Nina Ricci Coeur Joie) or Jean-Claude Ellena (Sisley Eau de Campagne, Van Cleef and Arpels First, Cartier Declaration) any different?
Paris-based Neela Vermeire founded her perfume brand, Neela Vermeire Creations, in 2012 with three perfumes thematically based on historical/political Indian eras: Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling. The initial three perfumes as well as three more that followed were composed by Bertrand Duchaufour. A brand that targets the perfume connoisseur and commissions a celebrity perfumer with a lavish budget might seem like a shoo-in, but it also has a few hurdles to clear:
1) Ambitious scope. Topically covering Indian culture from the Vedic era to the present is a ballsy venture, but the modesty of the brand’s Facebook page is charming and undercuts the risk of overreach. “Mission–work with some talented perfumers and create high-quality fragrances. Description–More information soon.”
2) The orientalist trap. Duchaufour might have traveled to India, but he is firmly rooted in European perfumery, which has a sketchy history of exoticizing the ‘far east.’ He is also the perfumer who created the three perfumes for l’Artisan Parfumeur’s Travel Collection (Timbuktu, Dzongkha, Bois Farine) which I think of as The Tourist Collection. As an Indian ex-pat living in Europe, Vermeire has a hybrid perspective that allows her to juxtapose traditions. Can the passion and eloquence of Vermeiere’s intentions overcome potential risk of a European perfumer composing ‘travel sketches’?
3) Duchaufour’s prolific work. How does Duchaufour’s work for Neela Vermeire Creations distinguish itself from the work he has done for l’Artisan Parfumeur, Acqua di Parma, Comme des Garçons, Eau d’Italie, MDCI and Penhaligon’s? In the same period that he created the perfumes for Neela Vermeire Créations, he composed the entire lines of The Vagabond Prince, Ann Gerard and Aedes de Venustus as well as the six perfumes of the Historiae line based on the cultural history of France. (Does that concept sound familiar?)
As for Bombay Bling, I am of two minds. It is lavish without falling into the expected range of tones that are short-hand for opulence in niche perfumery. The experience of wearing it has more to do with pleasure than consideration, but the experience isn’t shallow in the least. It speaks more to desire than entertainment and though it could be categorized as a fruity-floral, it surpasses the expected performance of the genre with ease. Still, I am somewhat leery of Bombay Bling sharing a range of notes and compositional motifs that Duchaufour has visited previously. It uses the some of the woody/fruity/resinous vocabulary that I recognize from Duchaufour’s earlier perfumes for l’Artisan Parfumeur. Happily, there is a full-fleshed abundance that moves past the radiant sparsity of the earlier work. The evolution is elaborate and cohesive, further separating it from the watched-pot, minimal evolution of Duchaufour’s early millennial work.
Though I have reservations about Bombay Bling, I’m eager to try the rest of the line and will be interested to see where Vermeire’s vision takes her.