Pharrell Williams Girl, 2014

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(perfumer Antoine Lie, artistic director Christian Astuguevieille)

The design house Comme des Garçons occupies a specific perch in the fashion world. It is known for being off-beat, progressive, trend-setting. Search for “Comme des Garçons” and “avant-garde”— it’ll take days to dig through all the results. The brand has a strong interest in maintaining an unconventional appearance. CdG’s perfumes convey the bona fides of their non-conformity by emphasizing three qualities: iconoclasm (‘anti-perfumes’ such as Odeur 53 and Odeur 71), thingness (recontextualized scents like Dry Clean, Sticky Cake and Concrete) and a signature style of synth-woodiness. The first two speak to the reputation CdG want to preserve, the third identifies the brand and ties it to that reputation. The question is to what extent the brand has the brand reduced avantgardism to a set of signifiers in an attempt to market their artistry?

After the Series collections of 2000-2008 the brand focussed on marketing creative collaboration. Collaborations with Stephen Jones, Monocle, Daphne Guinness, Hussein Chalayan and Gosha Rubchinskiy widen CdG’s style profile and replenish the brand’s street cred. In 2014 CdG joined forces with Pharrell Williams on the perfume Girl. It was a significant ramp-up from figures known strictly to close followers of the fashion industry to the most prominent superstar of the day. CdG phrased Girl as a collaborative project, but let’s call it what it is. Girl is a celebrity perfume.

So what did each of the collaborators stand to gain?

For Pharrell, it’s easy. Affiliation with avant-garde (‘serious’) art gives a high-brow to his pop career. Pharrell has a track record of pop-up style art and design projects and for him, creating a perfume with a groovy fashion brand was no different. It supported the narrative that he is ‘about’ creative idiosyncrasy and avant-garde style. Accumulated incidences of cool give him legitimacy and balance out large scale public projects (think The Voice) with smaller artsy ones. The free advertising that the perfume provided for his album Girl didn’t hurt. If I sound cynical, I’m not. The integration of Pharrell Williams’s musical work and his interest in design and fashion is smart and intriguing. It breaks down the boundaries between marketing and the work being marketed.

CdG’s gains were different. Pharrell didn’t win a new demographic, nor did he need to. CdG on the other hand did gain exposure to a wider market. By making a celebrity fragrance but couching it as an artistic collaboration, CdG sought to immunize themselves against accusations of ordinariness. It gave them a new foothold on the shelves of Sephora without sacrificing the high ground. It was an opportunity to sell out without selling out.

Girls has been promoted as a mainstream version of CdG’s style of spare woods but in truth, the perfume’s sweet synthy woods put it more in line with young men’s club fragrances like Paco Rabanne 1 Million, Victor and Rolf Spicebomb and Tom Ford Noir Extreme. They all share a similar design concept. Tenacious woods, syrupy/powdery sweetness, spice notes and aromatics all shout for your attention. A lavender/violet topnote gives Girl a passing similarity to an aromatic fougère, but the demanding sweet-woody accord drills to the surface quickly and smothers the lavender in syrup. The perfume vibrates on a frequency that that suggests lopsided doses of industrial strength woody aromachemicals and the topnotes in particular are piercing.

As with all of CdG’s joint perfume projects, there is an assumption that the perfume will be a reflection of the artistic collaboration that went into the project. But what if it’s not? In this case the perfume and the story have next to nothing in common. If Girl had shown evidence of the high minded artistic collaboration that CdG and Pharrell would have us believe I might feel less like I’ve been sold a bill of goods. Unfortunately Girl has the expediency of a convenient hook-up and makes Pharrell and Comme des Carçons seem more like friends with benefits rather than serious collaborators.

image Nick Knight for Comme des Garçons

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