(Photo lifted from Gordon Parks.)
Perfumer Pierre Guillaume.
Whether or not you consider perfume art it’s at least a creative project. I’ll be goddamned if I know precisely how perfume works, but as with any creative endeavor it has something to do with creating meaning with the materials and methods at hand. Two canards about how that happens come up often. The first is that perfume mimics nature and the second is that perfume tells stories. Each has a sliver of truth, but confuses the issue. Perfume doesn’t recreate nature, although it plays with environmental references. And it doesn’t tell tales per se, but it does enhance peoples’ capacity to develop their own stories.
Parfumerie Générale Cuir d’Iris has something to say to both points.
As for the nature debate, Cuir d’Iris builds expectation into its name. It’s going to smell like iris—a product of nature—and leather, something we all know. In fact, it plays shrewdly with ‘iris,’ an olfactory target that very few people have ever actually smelled in isolation. So who knows if it smells like iris root, and ultimately who cares? As for leather, it’s an olfactory image—a moving target. Leather smells like a lot of different things, depending on the source of the hide and the materials used to cure it. Cuir d’Iris points cleverly in the direction of leather. That’s all it need to do. Whether the fragrance is rich/complex/engaging/elegant (aside: it is) has nothing at all to do with its likeness to nature.
Storytelling. Now here’s the fun. Cuir d’Iris suggests a fantasy to me. I imagine it’s the perfume of an aspirational, mid-century bourgeois woman. It’s part of the stage dressing of social ambition—hair, make-up, perfume, wardrobe, fur. The fur is pivotal. It doesn’t suggest the necessities of a cold climate. It’s pure symbolic viciousness, the vulgarity of wearing a prize. It’s draping status on the body. It’s a warning.
Insipid, huh? Pure camp. But it gives a clue as to how perfume and narrative interact. The fantasy is mine, but the perfume supports it. Cuir d’Iris has a complexity of construction and a range of dynamic qualities that suggests symbolic violence to me—like the threat of a slap to the face. It’s the lure of something beautiful that just might come back to bite you. Cuir d’Iris keeps an active imbalance from start to finish and on an olfactory level there’s never concession. The potent tannic leather and the forceful cosmetic iris give the scent a playfulness that simultaneously draws me in and keeps me at arms-length. There’s no fixed story in Cuir d’Iris, but there is an implicit set of dynamics that allows me to contemplate this ridiculous daydream.
How the perfume and the fantasy come together is the question. The perfume’s dynamics are olfactory, not literary and not descriptive or documentary. But they are also evocative. And the floral leather genre itself is suggestive of mid-century social ambition. If it existed at the time it might have been worn by the same conventional, well-heeled woman who wore Cabochard, Bandit or Miss Dior—the very perfumes that suggested that flowers + leather = fur. The story in my head stems from a few different threads of meaning. How they converge has to do with both the perfumer and me.
I don’t have one specific test to judge a perfume’s success. I’m willing to be convinced. When I put on a perfume I might have a story in my head, like the above campy fantasy. Or I could be relishing a mood. Or I might simply be enjoying the pleasures of a well-crafted object. Cuir d’Iris doesn’t supply a specific narrative, but it is rich and well constructed. It’s loaded. Connotation is the key to this story and the perfume is jam-packed with implication, overtone, undercurrent.
Cuir d’Iris was released in 2007 and in retrospect it’s one of the best iris perfumes from a decade that produced a spectacular cluster of irises. I recognize that there were market considerations—new iris materials were readily available and iris perfumes were in demand—but Cuir d’Iris works not because it filled the right slot. It succeeded because perfumer Pierre Guillaume was in the position to make a perfume built from precision-made parts and dripping with ideas.