The ability to break perfume down into notes and ingredients is highly valued among perfume fans. It is understood to indicate a discerning nose and is often used to distinguish the cognoscenti from the overwashed masses. Unfortunately, it is unduly valued and can impede enjoyment and a better understanding of perfume for the wearer. This misconception is one of the side-effects of the secrecy of the perfume industry. What perfume wearers know about the inner workings of perfume composition and production amounts to few odd bits of information and the mythology that a little knowledge tends to foster. One tidbit is that an important, if elementary, skill in composing perfume is identifying and deconstructing scents. We mistakenly assume that the skills needed to make perfume are the same ones needed to appreciate and understand it.
(image Frida Aasen, from Elle Norway 10/13)
A knowledge of frequency, pigments and aromachemicals does not equate to a better or more meaningful experience in appreciating painting, music or perfumery. Perfumery can be read, but calls for critical thinking and self-reflection.The vocabulary of aroma is helpful, but not necessary.
Reading Kiki tells you about the perfume and by extension the perfumer. Kiki reinforces what I suspected on wearing Kern’s Rozy and Onda: Kern is a classicist but not necessarily a traditionalist. All three perfumes demonstrate a measured use of the vocabulary and techniques of quintessential western perfumery. Kiki is an essay on lavender and makes allusions to 19th century icons such as Houbigant Fougère Royale and Guerlain Jicky without being either derivative or strictly traditional. Kern says she used a lavender with a high percentage of coumarin, so the shape of a fougère is implied. The inedible soapiness of a fougère is nowhere to be found, though. Instead, a tease of caramel connotes candy-sweetness with a dry powderiness balancing the confection so that Kiki never lands in the gourmand camp. In fact, Kiki is reminiscent of early “oriental” perfumes. Where Shalimar contrasts a tart, rich bergamot with vanilla, Kiki matches bergamot and musky caramel, a compositional juxtaposition that again leans toward the classical.
The best of early 20th century perfumery was daring and pushed the expectation of what perfumery could accomplish. In this one sense, Kern can be considered traditional. More broadly, though, she uses classical methods to experiment and to explore rather than to follow. Kiki takes the expected, lavender, and gives us something novel and gorgeous.
Unearthing originality while using known forms and techniques is rare and for the less deliberate artist might never happen. Kern’s combination of classicism and unconventionality pays dividends. Her perfumes are unorthodox and exquisite. Her perfumes may not appeal to all, but polarization is a consequence of deliberation and vision in art and I doubt that Kern is looking for her work to be considered broad entertainment. Call it bias or call it alignment of artist and audience, but I both admire and adore Kiki. I’m smitten.